Why 'Little Germany' disappeared from NYC and other little-known events of German-US history

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

A German Helen in Hollywood: Diane Kruger

Her real name is Diane Heidkrüger and she was born in Germany in 1976. The film "Troy" with Orlando Bloom made her famous in 2004. She became a US citizen in 2013. Other influential Germans in the US film industry today include "Troy" director Wolfgang Petersen, and Roland Emmerich, who shot "Independence Day," the ultimate in patriotic blockbusters.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Organized the army in the Colonies: Prussian General von Steuben

It was also thanks to the former Prussian officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben that the militarily inexperienced Colonist army was able to defeat the world power Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. With discipline, drill and order he made a powerful troop out of the guerrillas. He described his training methods in a book which became a standard military work.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Painted the most famous picture in the US: Emanuel Leutze

The painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is located at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It depicts a decisive moment in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), when the Colonists under General Washington, who had so far been unsuccessful, launched a counterattack on the British. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), who emigrated to the US from Germany as a child.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

A model for Dagobert Duck: America's first millionaire, John Jacob Astor

His descendants founded the world-famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but this was still unfathomable to the butcher's son Johann Jakob Astor from Walldorf near Heidelberg when he moved to the US in 1784. He became America's first multimillionaire through fur trading and real estate sales — and was the inspiration for literary legends Ebenezer Scrooge and Dagobert Duck.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Advocate of women's rights: Mathilde Franziska Anneke

With her husband Fritz, Mathilde Franziska Anneke fled Westphalia to Milwaukee, Wisconsin after the democratic revolution in the German states failed in 1848. She worked as a journalist, published a women's magazine and fought for women's suffrage and equal educational opportunities — and thus became one of the leading US feminists.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Created the cult fashion item: Levi Strauss

Löb Strauss, a young Jew from Buttenheim near Bamberg, emigrated to the USA in 1847 at the age of 18 with his mother and sisters. The Gold Rush drew him west, where he wanted to sell tent tarpaulins to gold prospectors — and saw that they needed robust trousers. Thus were "jeans" born — making Levi Strauss, as he was then called, and his business partner, Jacob Davis, rich.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Hollywood pioneer from the start: Carl Laemmle

Born in 1867 as the son of a Jewish cattle dealer in Laupheim, Germany, Karl Lämmle emigrated to the US at the age of 17. For 20 years he survived by doing odd jobs. In 1906 he visited a small movie theater — and it sparked an idea. He opened his own cinema, started a successful film distribution company and founded Universal Studios in 1915 — one of Hollywood's first big dream factories.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

From Berlin to Hollywood: Marlene Dietrich protested the Nazis by singing

The 1930 movie "Der blaue Engel" (The Blue Angel) made Marlene Dietrich a world star, catapulting her to Hollywood with director Wilhelm von Sternburg, where she ended up staying. When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, she supported Jews who had fled and other exiled Germans. She also sang "Lili Marleen" to cheer up US troops — probably the most famous song of the Second World War.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Expelled by the Nazis: philosopher Hannah Arendt

Arrested and expatriated by the Nazis, Hannah Arendt fled to New York in 1941. The 35-year-old journalist and philosopher quickly learned English and became an American citizen in 1951. As a writer, she reported on the Eichmann trial and coined the much-discussed term "banality of evil." One of her goals in life was to explain how the Holocaust could occur.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

First Nazi engineer, then space travel idol: Wernher von Braun

Engineer Wernher von Braun constructed the V-2 rocket, which was built by forced laborers for the Nazis. After World War II, Americans had him come to the US. He was among over 1,000 German scientists who were never held accountable for their work for the Nazi regime. As the father of rocket technology, Wernher von Braun became a space travel idol in the US when NASA astronauts landed on the moon.

From Wilhelm von Steuben to Diane Kruger: Germans who've influenced the US

Persecuted as a Jew in Germany: Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Born in Fürth, Franconia in 1923 as Heinz Alfred Kissinger, he emigrated to New York in 1938. During the Second World War he returned to Germany as a soldier — then as an American. After studying and teaching at Harvard, he advised politicians. The highlight of his career: Under President Nixon, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was US Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

Some 45 million Americans have German roots, but not much can be seen beyond the Brauhaus and Oktoberfest. Why? For German-American Day, we tracked down what led Germans to land in the US — and how they left their mark.

October 6 is German-American Day and is intended to recall how German immigrants have contributed to culture and life in the US. Some decisive episodes of common history have been nearly forgotten. Here are a few.

1904 — The end of a community: The tragic journey of the General Slocum

Whether it's Little Italy or Chinatown, the roots of the inhabitants of these lively New York neighborhoods are still evident today.

Those areas actually used to be a hub of German life, with German street signs, beer gardens and pubs, yet virtually nothing can be seen of that today, other than perhaps the trendy Loreley pub and restaurant.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, however, "Little Germany" was the name given to the district on the Lower East Side that was home to around 50,000 people, most of them with German roots.

The General Slocum sank in 1904 New York's East River, with over 1,000 people (mainly women and children) dying in the incident

The more than 1,300 passengers who boarded the paddle wheel steamer General Slocum on June 15, 1904 were also from Little Germany.

That was a Wednesday, a working day, so it was mainly women and children of the Protestant congregation who sailed off on the East River, heading to Long Island for a picnic.

But the cheerful trip turned into a tragedy. The ship caught fire, and panic broke out. The lifeboats could not be detached; the life jackets were worthless.

When the General Slocum finally ran aground, it was in flames. By then, countless corpses were floating around in the river, with 1,021 people ultimately dying in the event.

To this day, it is the biggest civilian shipwreck in the history of the US.

Nearly every inhabitant of Little Germany lost relatives in the catastrophe. Most of the families ended up leaving the city district as it reminded them too much of the disaster. By 1910, only a few German families had remained.

Lower East Side in New York: "Little Germany" became Chinatown

Italians and Chinese took over the streets. Little Germany had disappeared — like so many German vestiges in the US.

But a look back to history can help us rediscover them...  

1683 — Escape to the West: The 'Original 13' wanted freedom of religion

For over two months, the three-masted Concord had sailed across the stormy Atlantic before arriving at the port of Philadelphia on October 6, 1683. On board were 13 German families, Mennonites from near Krefeld.

They came to the "New World" attracted by the proposal of colony founder William Penn. The English Quaker had made land available to religious refugees for colonization. 

Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania as a colony for religious refugees

After all, in the German principalities and kingdoms of the 17th century, only the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches were permitted. Other religious communities were persecuted.

In Penn's colony, the "Original 13," as the German families were called, ended up founding "Deitschesteddel": the first German settlement in the US.

A hundred years later, 200,000 people were living in Pennsylvania, a third of them with German roots. Their antiquated-sounding "Pennsylvania Dutch" — a reference to the term Deutsch, or the dialect they used, Deitsch — is still spoken in some communities today, such as among the Amish.

The Amish in Pennsylvania still speak "Pennsylvania Dutch" today

The former "Deitschesteddel" is now called "Germantown" and is part of Philadelphia.

The influence of Germans was also marked in other parts of the Midwest, such as in the states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin: Most of the Americans with German ancestry live in this region, and many major breweries were founded by Germans.

Commemorating the arrival of the first German settler group back in 1683, German-American Day is now celebrated every year on October 6.

Independence and the Civil War: German military organized American troops

It was due to a Prussian that the American colonialists were able to win the Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783) against the British colonial power: Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was his name. Born in 1730, the offspring of a soldier family had served under Prussian King Frederick the Great before meeting Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Franklin recommended Steuben to the commanding general of the overseas colonialists, George Washington.

In 1778, Steuben arrived at the winter camp of the Continental Army. His task: to form an army out of the irregular forces, who consisted of farmers, merchants and politicians, that could stand up to the British professional soldiers.

With typical Prussian discipline and drill, Steuben organized the training of the soldiers so thoroughly that they defeated the British.

German soldiers also fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War

Since 1957, the annual Steuben Parade in New York has commemorated one of the most important German-Americans of the founding period.

Members of the German military also fought in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Among them was Franz Sigel, originally from the Heidelberg region. The German lieutenant made it to the rank of major general and was one of the highest-ranking commanders of the North's army.

The then popular civil war song "I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel," with its German-English smattering of lyrics, recalls him and the around half a million German soldiers or those of German descent who took part on both sides of the war between the North and South.

1848  Women's rights activist Mathilde Franziska Anneke and the 'Forty-Eighters'

Franz Sigel had also been one of those in Europe who had rebelled against the princes and kings in 1848. After the failure of the revolution, he fled to the US.

Fritz Anneke from Westphalia (who later fought for the Northern states during the Civil War) and his wife Mathilde Franziska Anneke did the same.

Mathilde Franziska Anneke was one of the leading women's right activists in the US

She had already been working as a journalist in Europe, among others, for a newspaper for which poet Heinrich Heine had also written.

In the US, she was then allowed to do what had been forbidden in the German states: She gave lectures on educational opportunities, gender equality and spoke out against slavery.

In 1852, she founded the German-language Frauen-Zeitung (Women's Newspaper). In 1869, she became the first vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association — and thus one of the most important activists of the American women's movement.

Other "Forty-Eighters," as the people who emigrated from Europe after participating in the 1848 revolutions became known, also pursued careers in the US: Revolutionary Friedrich Hecker got involved with the newly founded Republican Party and Carl Schurz became interior minister and adviser to US President Abraham Lincoln.

But all in all, the former German revolutionaries numbered few among the emigrants. Most of those who emigrated fled from hunger and poverty to the West. And the numbers grew: By the middle of the 19th century, one million Germans had arrived in the US. Only towards the end of the century did the numbers decline.

1917 — Sauerkraut becomes 'liberty cabbage'

World War I began in 1914. When the US entered the war in 1917, the relationship to German-Americans in the US also changed. German-Americans Americanized their names, while authorities called for a boycott of German goods.

German terms disappeared from linguistic usage. Even the popular "Sauerkraut" was renamed into "liberty cabbage."

In the state of Illinois, a mob ambushed German-American Robert Prager, forcing him to hoist the American flag and sing the national anthem. He was ultimately hanged.

Funny name for German Sauerkraut: "liberty cabbage," shown here with juniper berries and parsley

Even between the world wars, much of what was typically German had disappeared from everyday American life.

And the people who fled to the US after the National Socialists seized power in Germany in 1933 wanted nothing more to do with the country that persecuted Jews and other unpopular minorities and murdered millions of people.

Many quickly became Americans — like Henry Kissinger, the later US Secretary of State, who fled Germany with his Jewish family in 1938 as a teenager. He assumed American citizenship in 1943 and fought as a GI against his country of birth.

US President Richard Nixon (l) with Henry Kissinger in 1973

Unlike the Italians or Chinese who immigrated later, the traces of Germans are markedly more hidden — and yet so closely interwoven with American culture that the two can hardly be separated.

Interestingly, the US even owes its title to a German: Cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. Waldseemüller gave the newly discovered country in the West a name on his world map of 1507: "America," after navigator Amerigo Vespucci. He, however, was not German, but Italian.