German political emigrants left an enormous legacy. People of German descent came to make up by far the biggest ethnic group within the population of the United States. For the first generations, they maintained a strong German identity, particularly in education and culture, including German-language newspapers and social organisations. From the First World War, however, assimilation into American society went much further.
During and after the First World War, there was a considerable backlash against ‘disloyal’ German-Americans. 50 000 of them were imprisoned during the war and from 1918 there was a lot of pressure to move away from the German language. The so-called Babel Proclamation, issued in Iowa in 1918 and demanding acceptance of the English language was typical of this. (Many people of German descent changed the spelling of their names at this time). In the 1930s, many anti-Nazi exiles came to the United States and this accelerated the trend for German-Americans to be seen as patriotic. These exiles had a lot of influence in culture, journalism and politics. On the other hand, a large number of German-Americans remained strongly isolationist and tried hard to keep the United States ‘out of Britain’s war’.
After 1945, many German-American influences went back into Germany. The United States played a major role in shaping post-war democracy in West Germany, part of the two-way relationship between Germans and America that had existed since the time of Theodor Hilgard.
A brief selection of famous Americans of German descent includes: the millionaire fur trader John Jacob Astor, the baseball legend Babe Ruth, the film star Clark Gable, General Dwight Eisenhower, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Elvis Presley, film actresses, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, and the film star who became Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.