Love will make America great
I am an American because my ancestors were Prussian and German immigrants seeking freedom from totalitarianism. In this post I wish to express some of what that heritage means to me. If this is too long for you, and you don’t wish to take the time to read it, please do not respond to it. I share a bit of history here, but I am not a historian. Much of what I share here I was not aware of until I researched it. It wasn’t part of my History lessons growing up.
German immigrants like my ancesters were hated and feared by other Americans, especially during both World Wars. During World War I for example, the US government maintained a list of all German born aliens, and used that list to imprison thousands of German Americans. This included, for reasons, 29 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Germans in the US were killed by angry mobs, street names were changed, and detainees were forced to buy war bonds to demonstrate loyalty. People with German names were even barred from joining the Red Cross. During the years that followed the end of the war, the great depression triggered market crashes all over the globe. The German economy suffered greatly due to the economic sanctions imposed by the allies. In 1932 6 million Germans were unemployed in Germany, and that economic suffering lead to the rapid rise of the Nazi party, and Hitler, who promised to restore Germany to it’s once heralded greatness.
German Americans suffered discrimination and getting employment was difficult during the 1940’s, though not nearly as difficult as Japanese Americans had it at the time. This is likely because it was easier to discriminate against a group that obviously looked different than the vast majority white population. There were many respected German Americans in places of influence within American society and politics during WWII. The undercurrent of fear was there regardless, as the US government under provisions of the Alien Enemies Act interned over 11,000 of these supposed sympathizers and their spouses.
“Inaccurate and fearful United States media reports contributed to a public perception of high feeling for the Nazis among German nationals in the Americas.” (Sources)
Of course a much more shameful segment of history occurs here. One we thankfully discuss openly today because we have chosen as a people not to forget. Because perhaps, as we remind ourselves, the realities of the Holocaust could truly happen again without that constant vigilance.
At the time when all Americans knew was that Hitler wanted to conquer the world, and had no idea of the extent of his genocidal tendencies, antisemitism was still a rampant reality in America. It was a very unpopular idea to admit Jewish refugees from Germany, and because of those very restrictive immigration policies thousands of Jews were trapped in Germany and the surrounding countries, including 254 passengers of the St. Louis who were killed in Nazi camps after being turned away by the US upon arrival.
“The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.” (Source)
Today I do not have to fear discrimination because of my German Heritage. I am not told I am a Nazi sympathizer for my german sounding last name. My immigrant ancestor’s first name was Adolf, and my last name was de-Germanized long ago, but I wonder how I would have fared had I had been born 80 years ago in the hight of western Nazi hysteria. Today I am not constantly reminded of my immigrant ancestry. Of course below my freckled white American skin I share heritage with numerous other immigrant families, from Cubans, to Scotsmen, to Sicilians. I am not one thing, I am many histories, and I am my own.
Many notable Americans were descended directly from German immigrants, or were immigrants themselves, including a couple presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover) and a man who will never be president (Donald Trump). I am reminded that I share heritage with some of the best people history has to remember. People like Meryl Streep, John Steinbeck, Albert Einstein, and John D. Rockefeller, as well as some of the worst people, with the cruelest ideas. History is a mixed bag. But the beauty of America is that those who choose to come here truly are here for opportunity, and Liberty. How quickly do we forget that we are all immigrants, and we will always be. We are unique for that fact. We are a melting pot of cultures, because love has brought us together. Love crosses racial, religious, and social boundaries, and makes us a better people.
And here is where history again repeats itself, as we ask who are they of the immigrants banging on our doors for help, we must ask ourselves who are we. Was not the door of immigration the very door by which we became Americans? Was not our refugee status what made us a free people to begin with?
I have heard many narratives woven by our wannabe political leaders, carefully selected words of fear, and terror. In the wake of very real violence, the constant cries for the harassment, suspicion, and deportation of any Muslim person across America has me distressed beyond belief. The dumbfounding and ridiculous claims that “we don’t know who they are”. Political posturing, claiming that we need to make America “America” again… all of this makes my blood run cold. These statements are echoes of a not so distant ugly past. These people in the crossfire are not who we imagine them to be. Not even close. They are who we once were. They are refugees seeking the same freedoms we once did. They are doctors, and lawyers, and engineers from Syria. People who have lost their practices and their livelihoods because of genocide perpetrated by extremists with a radical agenda. They are children with disabilities, and vulnerable women, and young kids that are at risk of being enslaved and abused by militants.
They are those who we fear because we do not think that we know them, but I say that we do. We are buying in to a special myth of American Greatness. We are not great because of our military, our capitalism, or even our precious constitution. Those things have failed us time, and time again. We are great only when we are a people who choose to value, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness over fear and discrimination. We are great when we love.
The war against the Islamic State is a very real thing. But let me tell you, the fear you are being fed by the media, and many policy makers in the US government is not real. It is made up by those who would control your minds, and turn you against the very people we should be helping. It is designed to blame shift, and distract you from the truth. It will lead to more hatred and fear the more we choose to give in to the lies being spun. The lie that we are at war with Islam, and that our Muslim neighbors are terrorist sympathizers. The lie that radicalization is born in a vaccum, and that the Jihadi we see on the news represent every adherent of the Islamic faith.
Let’s not give in. Let’s write a better story, so that our children, and their children, again multi-cultural and free, can look back on history and know the tools that gave us hope today. That they would choose love over fear. And that we will never again as a country condemn a people group to another horrible fate at the hands of those who would exploit, and destroy. Because that is what is happening.
We can keep lying to ourselves, and equivocating minority people groups with Jihadists, or we can wake up to the fact that those fleeing Syria are the target. They are the ones that are being systematically murdered. They are the ones who fear for their lives day and night. And who even as they are fleeing are beginning to feel the hatred and fear of American Nationalists.
If we want America to be great, we have to start with the awareness that we were never that great to begin with. We have been in constant tension between the America that perpetrated institutional genocide upon the Natives that once dwelled across this country, the nation that by and large enslaved African men, women, and children and considered them catagorically sub human for so many long years… and the America that could be. The America that treats all people with equality and dignity under the law, and welcomes the immigrant with these words:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This is how we make America great. By remembering how we got here to begin with, and how easy it is to lose sight of the distant teeming shores we left so long ago.
Authors Note: This article was originally published on Facebook TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2015