(c) dpa - Report Enlarge image (© dpa - Report) The German-American story spans several centuries, from the early, large-scale immigration of Germans to the fledgling United States until the solid transatlantic partnership between both countries today.

"Baptismal Certificate" of America © Rolf Haid dpa/lsw,  dpa - Bildfunk

A New Name for a New World

In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a cartographer inspired by the travel diaries of the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, was the first to use "America" as the name to designate the New World. Vespucci had conducted four voyages that led him to discover South America, and Waldseemüller, born about 1470 in Radolfzell on Lake Constance, initially only used the name for that part of the new continent which lies to the southern hemisphere. Soon thereafter, however, through popular usage the name "America" was extended to the entire New World.

Jamestown settlement ship replica

First Germans at Jamestown

In 1608, the first Germans known to set foot on American soil arrived at Jamestown, Virginia (est. 1607), the first permanent English settlement in the future United States. Among them were skilled craftsmen who worked as glassblowers. A subsequent group of Germans arrived in 1620.

© picture-alliance/dpa

Dawn of German-American Relations

German-American relations actually began in 1683, when Francis (Franz) Pastorius, a lawyer and theologian, made arrangements for 13 Mennonite and Quaker families from Crefeld, Germany, to sail to America on the Concord. After their arrival at the proprietary colony of William Penn, an English Quaker, they founded the "Germantown" settlement just north of Philadelphia. As a highly motivated religious community they maintained close contacts with their native land, and thus they contributed to attracting many other Germans to Pennsylvania.

A statue of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794) in Magdeburg, Germany.

American Revolution

Among the renowned German-Americans who played key roles in the Revolutionary War were Nikolas Herkimer, Johann de Kalb, Peter Muehlenberg, and Molly Pitcher. But undoubtedly the most prominent of them was a former Prussian military officer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794), who served as inspector general and major general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.

When Baron von Steuben arrived at General George Washington's winter quarters at Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, he found a hungry and demoralized force. Upon Washington's request to transform them into an effective army, he soon succeeded in doing just that by establishing a uniform drill code, the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of Troops of the United States. He also wrote a memoranda that conceived a national department of defense. In addition, he conceived a plan for a military academy, which led to the establishment of the US Military Academy at West Point in 1802.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce

In the American War of Independence, Prussia - ruled by King Frederick II (1712-1786), also known as Frederick the Great and called "the Old Fritz" - maintained a posture of benevolent neutrality. A Treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed between the United States and Prussia on July 9, 1785.

Historians have interpreted this treaty as a kind of postscript to the Declaration of Independence. The treaty was concluded even before the Continental Congress passed the Constitution of the United States. The significance of this document in character is quite different from other 18th-century documents, which were concluded by secret diplomacy. It is based on the principles of open seas and equal status of the concluding parties, and as such it is a document of fairness and a true humanistic spirit.

Statue of Liberty in New York

Emigration and Exile

In 1775, about 225,000 Germans lived in the British colonies of North America. Most of them had settled in Pennsylvania, where about one-third of the population was of German descent. From 1815 to 1914, about 5.5 million Germans left their homes for the New World. They included the "forty-eighters" who left Germany after the failed revolution of 1848-49.

In the 1930s, some 278,000 German Jews left Nazi Germany, and about 132,000 of them made it safely to the United States. Many of them were in turn among the artists and intellectuals who also came to America to escape persecution. These exiles from the German-speaking world included film and theater folk from Berlin and Vienna. The dark days they had experienced in Europe influenced the rise of the popular Film Noir genre in Hollywood.

After the Second World War, German immigration to America reached its last zenith when about 90,000 people came to the United States from Germany in 1952. From 1950 to 1970, a total of 750,000 Germans moved to the United States.

View of Chicago's Skyline at Sunset

Welcome to 'German-America'

German-speaking immigrants to the United States settled mostly in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri. Initially, urban areas with a high proportion of German-descended inhabitants were New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, then Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and especially Milwaukee, where around 1850 about 69 percent of the population was of German descent, making it the most "German" city in America. In the 19th century, the German-speaking community in America had the most important "ethnic" press in the United States. But none of that is left now. Despite (or perhaps because of) their large numbers, German-Americans simply melted into the great American melting pot.

The Volkswagen Beetle was an icon of West German reconstruction. The millionth VW Beetle included chrome parts edged with glass beads (2008).

Wartime Rift and Economic Miracle

When the Nazis came to power in early 1933, they immediately began a brutal dictatorship. This led to a clear break in German-American relations, made visible when the German ambassador in Washington, Friedrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron, voluntarily resigned from his post. After the Second World War ended in 1945, the US-backed Marshall Plan aided in the postwar German reconstruction that spawned the "Wirtschaftswunder" (Economic Miracle) of the 1950's and '60s.

Berlin Airlift

In 1948 and 1949 the former Soviet Union mounted a blockade of Berlin. The United States and her Allies responded via the Berlin Airlift, an unprecedented heroic humanitarian action that saved more than 2 million men, women and children in Berlin. Many US citizens also helped sustain hungry and displaced people all across Germany by sending care packages to postwar Europe.

NATO Logo, (c) picture-alliance/dpa-Fotoreport

NATO Alliance

On April 4, 1949, 12 states from Europe and North America signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, DC. Today, this defense alliance has more than 20 member states. Germany joined the organization in 1955.

Light Bulb and EU flag, (c) picture-alliance/ZB/dpa-Report

European Union

In 1957, the Federal Republic of Germany was one of the six founding nations of what is now known as the European Union, along with France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Brussels-based EU has since grown to include 27 member states - and counting. Germany has always been committed to the European project and strong political and economic relations between the EU and the United States.

Flags of the United States and Germany

German-American Day

In 1987, an official German-American Day - observed annually on October 6 - was established by a Congressional resolution and presidential proclamation by Ronald Reagan.

The Brandenburg Gate at the heart of the city behind the Berlin Wall. © picture-alliance/dpa

US Support for German Unity

The Cold War came to an end following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German unification in 1990, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. On October 3, 1990 German unity was achieved. The Two Plus Four Agreement (Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany) was negotiated between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (the titular "Two") and the Four Powers which had occupied postwar Germany: France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Chancellor Merkel and President Obama 2009

German-American Relations Today

Today, Germany and the United States enjoy a robust transalantic relationship. Some political observers have even suggested that it is a "special partnership," as underscored for instance by the many Americans in Berlin. Germany and the United States thrive on mutual exchanges and a joint base of common values. From the German point of view, the United States is indispensable for the security of Europe. And the people of democratic Germany know how much their country owes to America and the American people.

Primary Source

Some of this material and many of the key facts presented here were culled from "Evolution of a Friendship - Selected Documents on German-American Relations," a booklet produced and published in 2002 in relation to a specific historic exhibition on the German-American partnership by the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt (Military History Research Institute) in Potsdam, Germany, with support from the German Information Center USA (GIC) at the German Embassy in Washington, DC.


Think Transatlantic

Evolution of a Friendship

A Bavarian-style couple were all smiles at the German-American Steuben Parade of New York in September 2009.

Germans and Americans share a common past and a common purpose dating back to 1608, when the first Germans arrived at the English settlement of Jamestown.