Volume 4, Introduction

The Age of the World Wars, 1918-1945 Hiding in Plain Sight: German Immigrant Entrepreneurship and the Shaping of Mainstream America

They left everything behind. All their belongings. Everything left behind. A lot of it. You can not just pack it and go. It’s not the same and you go by choice or a visit and you like to stay. But those people—force. I remember one lady say: ‘Ugh, everything sunny.’ They even miss the winter, the cold, the snow. They say: ‘It’s always summer here, you know.’ It came as a complete, complete change. (Interview with Lupita Kohner, wife of Paul Kohner, Hollywood talent agent)[1]

Don’t you guys know you are in Hollywood? Speak German! (Otto Preminger addressing a group of Hungarian émigrés)[2]

A recent documentary,Cinema’s Exiles, reminded people that the great romantic classic of the American studio system of the mid-twentieth century,Casablanca (1943), had just one American star in it: Humphrey Bogart. Another 1943 film, Hangman Also Die!, written by Bertolt Brecht, scored by Hanns Eisler, and directed by Fritz Lang, all Germans, became one of the classic American film noirs, a genre that translated more fatalistic Weimar Expressionist cinema into the more optimistic Hollywood fare as if chasing European shadows back into sunny southern California.

These two films exemplify this extraordinarily fruitful mid-twentieth century exchange of talent and tradition through the immigration and assimilation of German (and other central European immigrant) talent into America that transformed its movie industry, its intellectual life, its science, and its business. In film, Friedrich Murnau, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, or Billy Wilder became famous as American directors, although many like Wilder never really lost their accent or their European sensibilities. In terms of cultural and intellectual life, the works of Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis) or Max Weber (sociology) seeped into American intellectual life through the Frankfurt School in New York at Columbia University through such figures as Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, or Herbert Marcuse. Los Angeles attracted so many émigré intellectuals and artists such as Lion Feuchtwanger, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Rudolph Schindler, or Arnold Schoenberg that it became known as “Weimar on the Pacific.”[3] German Jewish academics established the New School of Social Research, then called the University in Exile, a new graduate program in New York City. In science, Nobel laureates such as Otto Meyerhof (glycolysis, the link between the consumption of oxygen and metabolism of lactic acid) and Otto Stern (the wave nature of atoms, the molecular ray method, and the discovery of the magnetic moment of the proton), Carl Neuberg (founder of biochemistry), and, of course, Albert Einstein, revitalized American science. One study estimated that the arrival of a Jewish émigré increased U.S. patent activity by a minimum of 25% after 1933. A key group of German and central European Jewish refugees built the atomic bomb. Figures such as Hans Bethe (Nobel prize for his theory of stellar nucleosynthesis) along with a great many other central European refugee scientists such as Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd, Eugene Wigner, or John von Neumann (the latter four all Hungarian) helped America win the Second World War.[4] The most famous immigrant scientist of all was perhaps Wernher von Braun, the designer of the German V-2 rocket and the American Saturn V rocket booster that placed the first men on the moon. Unlike other scientists, von Braun immigrated to the U.S. just months after the war on a special U.S. government program to recruit German scientists.

Yet the study of German immigrants’ (voluntary) or German émigrés’/exiles’ (more or less forced) contributions to American business in the twentieth century is much less developed, although luminaries, many of whom can be found in this volume, hide in plain sight. Carl Laemmle cast some weird spooky shadows from his Southern California Universal Studios such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) or Black Cat (1934). Marcus Loew brought vaudeville and theatre to the whole country with his ubiquitous theatre chains. Albert Lasker helped create all-American advertising and brands such as Sunkist oranges, Palmolive soap, Kotex sanitary pads, and Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” cigarettes.[5] Henry Kaiser built the famous Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California that churned out Liberty Ships. Wilhelm Eduard Böing later founded the Boeing Airplane Company, which produced the greatest American symbols of World War II with his B-17 and B-29 bombers. Samuel Lionel Rothapfel became famous as “Roxy,” opening the Roxy Theatre and the Radio City Music Hall with its well-known Roxyettes (later Rockettes) in New York City. Deliberately hiding his German origins after the outbreak of World War I, Otto Schnering founded the Curtiss Candy Company that gave Americans Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars. The émigré Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed some of the classic skyscrapers for postwar American cities such as the Pan Am Building, now MetLife (Gropius), or the Seagram building in New York City or 330 North Wabash, formerly the IBM Building (van der Rohe). Finally, there is nothing more American than drinking a can of Coors, Busch, or Budweiser; yet both the Coors and Busch families struggled to find ways to survive during Prohibition, which devastated the brewing industry dominated by German-Americans.

The outbreak of World War I in June 1914 began three decades of ambivalence, hysteria, confusion, conflict, trauma, and ultimately shame and revulsion between the nations of Germany and the United States, within the German-American community at home, and within individual German-Americans themselves—intimate conflicts among the “hyphenated,” so to speak—which ultimately led to the great erasure of German identity in America. One has to imagine how the single largest immigrant ethnic group in America with its distinct traditions, ca. 9% of the 92 million population of the U.S. in 1910, increasingly held its collective head down.

World War I began the “thorough submergence” (Kathleen Conzen) of German-American identity.[6] The invasion of neutral Belgium by the German army and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by German U-boots (submarines) that killed 128 American civilians was one turning point. Theodore Roosevelt famously declared in 1915 that there was “no place here for the hyphenated American” with dual allegiances.[7] The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 combined with the March 1917 publication bombshell of the intercepted Zimmermann telegram, which offered Mexico the lost territory of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if it made war together with Germany, helped launch America into the war. Fears of German espionage led to the creation of alien (non-naturalized) lists with nearly half a million names of suspicious people, of which nearly 4,000 were arrested.[8] Many streets were renamed; many German-Americans naturalized their names to make them less German-sounding. Hundreds of German newspapers (537 in 1914) existed before World War I, catering to local German immigrants in every major city and many smaller towns across the U.S., but many shut down (there were 278 in 1920, 172 in 1930, and just 60 by 1950).[9] Churches stopped offering services in German. Harassment frequently occurred if German-Americans spoke German in public. German language instruction was banned in many states. English-first movements gained the upper hand. Sauerkraut was even renamed “liberty cabbage.” German-born Carl Laemmle produced or launched two propaganda films, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918) that demonized Germans—all too effectively.[10] Tarring and feathering, flogging, even some high profile lynchings occurred.

Prohibition (1919) extended the antipathy against “Kaiser brews,” making Prohibition both patriotic and devastating to German-Americanism. Entire centers of German-American social activity such as the famous Schlitz palm (beer) garden, one of the centers of Milwaukee social life, had to shut their doors.[11] Breweries, one of the core businesses dominated by German-Americans, were nearly destroyed. Of about 1,500 breweries operated across the United States in 1910, only half managed to reopen. Schlitz, Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Coors survived by producing “near beer” with 0.5% alcohol.[12] While direct repression of German-American activities subsided, the German-American community was never the same.

For those who maintained contact with relatives back in Germany, the future too appeared dire after World War I. The Kaiser abdicated his throne and a democratic Republic was declared. It immediately had to fend off right-wing and left-wing revolts that led to near civil war in the Ruhr region. The economic situation remained horrible, with famine conditions reigning in many cities. Weakened people often lost 20-50 pounds and fell victim to tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influenza. The wartime blockade continued until the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919 so there were serious shortages of food, coal, and wood.[13] The first generation German-American Herbert Hoover even used the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee to provide relief to Germans (and other European countries). Political and economic instability helped lead to the destruction of the German currency in the great hyperinflation of 1922/23 that further undermined the legitimacy of the young Weimar Republic. At the end of 1923 martial law was declared after another right-wing putsch brought Adolf Hitler to the national stage. Although the period between 1924 and 1929 was a period of relative normalization, helped by American financial intervention on the politically divisive reparations issue, the Great Depression again threw German politics into turmoil that eventually brought Hitler to power on January 30, 1933.

After dropping to a historic low of just fifty-two people in 1919, German immigration to the United States accelerated considerably in the 1920s, mostly driven by economic and political turmoil at home. About 426,000 Germans emigrated between 1919-1932, most of whom (361,000) arrived between 1923-1929 during the period of relative stability. This was a wave of German immigration the United States had not seen since the 1890s. While the center of gravity remained in the traditional Middle Atlantic and East North-Central regions, Germans increasingly settled in the Pacific region.[14] This 1920s wave of immigration signified a level of dissatisfaction at home in Germany even during the period of relative quiescence and remains an understudied phase of immigration in the U.S.

The Depression, however, made the U.S. much less welcoming, but the Nazi accession to power in 1933 forever altered German lives, particularly for Jewish citizens. The Nazis immediately began to single out socialists and communists for arrest and harassment; if they were politically engaged Jews they were punished even more severely with no recourse to legal protections. The Nazis organized their first national boycott against Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933; some Jews were murdered and many more harassed. Laws passed in April 1933, particularly the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” excluded “non-Aryans” from the civil service. By June 1933, doctors’ associations expelled Jews from practicing. Perceptively, the CEO of the Deutsche Bank, Georg Solmssen, himself a converted Jew who was baptized at birth, noted: “I fear that we are only at the beginning of a conscious and planned development which is aimed at the indiscriminate economic and moral destruction of all members of the Jewish race living in Germany.”[15] Solmssen also blamed the passivity and lack of solidarity of his own colleagues. Some 38,000 mostly politically active Jews immediately left the country in 1933, but most stayed near family, friends, and livelihoods hoping that the discrimination would soon pass. As historian Marion Kaplan described it, the Nazis attempted to lead Jews—an integral part of German society amounting to some 523,000 Jews or 1% of the German population in January 1933—towards “social death.” Nazi indoctrination and propaganda increasingly turned Jews into pariahs and a constant stream of low-level harassment and humiliation was directed at everyday Jewish life, reducing Jewish profiles in public life particularly in smaller towns. The Nuremberg Race Laws decreed in September 1935 attempted to define Jews by blood, many of whom were half or one-quarter Jews, baptized Christian, or in “mixed marriages,” but essentially criminalized sexual relations between Jews and so-called “Aryans.” “Race defilement” became a new crime.[16]

Despite this ratcheting pressure, Jewish emigration from Germany actually moderated: 23,000 in 1934; 21,000 in 1935; 25,000 in 1936, and 23,000 in 1937. However, most did not find their way to the United States as total German (Jewish and non-Jewish) immigration to America fell to just 1,919 people in 1933, 4,392 in 1934, 5,201 in 1935, 6,346 in 1936, and 10,895 in 1937.[17] Some Jews even attempted to return after difficulties abroad, but were turned back by the Nazis who threatened them with concentration camps. Indeed, until October 1941 official German policy desired to have Jews emigrate, but the barriers were high. During the Great Depression, few countries wanted additional immigrants. Starting a new life in a new part of the world was difficult. Immigration restrictions were byzantine. The United States set up stricter immigration laws with quotas by country in the early 1920s that inadvertently restricted immigration from central European areas. Finally, the costs of leaving were high as a Reich Flight Tax taxed émigrés’ property heavily, which the Nazis took advantage of to strip émigré Jews of their property and fund state expenditures. Money transfers and capital controls further made emigration difficult as many émigrés would lose most of their wealth by leaving the country. Finally, officials on both sides of the border demanded bribes for visas or money transfers. The film, Casablanca, had a basis in truth.

The turning point for German-Jewish emigration was the pogrom of November 9/10, 1938, the so-called Reich Crystal Night that stood for the shattered glass of Jewish synagogues, shops, and homes all over Germany. About one hundred Jews were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. There were hundreds of million Marks in damage, the government collected the insurance premiums, and Jews even had to pay a fine of one billion Marks for their alleged role in the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris. It was also clear that Jews could count on little support from their neighbors and friends. After the November pogrom, “essentially everyone tried to find a possibility of emigrating.”[18] Of the 105,000 Germans (mostly but not exclusively Jewish) who managed to immigrate into the U.S. between 1933 and 1941, almost three-quarters (72,000) arrived between 1938 and 1941; the U.S. accepted 17,199 German immigrants in 1938, 33,515 in 1939, 21,540 in 1940, which dropped dramatically to 4,028 in 1941. About 36,000 Jews alone had left Germany in 1938, but this number jumped to 76,000 in 1939. After the German takeover of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia made it clear that Nazi race law would apply there as well, so that by 1939 about 309,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews applied for 27,000 available visas to the United States.[19] A major refugee crisis ensued, yet few countries were willing to welcome the refugees with open arms. Prior to the war about 282,000 Jews total left Germany and roughly 117,000 left Austria, whereby the United States accepted about 95,000 with most of the others emigrating to Palestine, Great Britain, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and even Shanghai, China. Thus, in the end, about 60% of German Jews managed to emigrate in some manner by war’s beginning; by October 1941 when the Nazis forbid Jews to emigrate around 164,000 still remained in Germany, most of whom were subsequently murdered or died of overwork and starvation in the concentration camps.

How did Americans react to these events in Germany? Prior to the U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, reactions were surprisingly incoherent and diverse depending on political and ethnic affiliations at home. First, Americans tended to remain decidedly isolationist, but increasingly came to believe that Nazi agents were operating in the U.S. and that “Hitlerism” meant a blueprint for war. Second, the image of Hitler that is associated with the Holocaust and slave labor is a retrospective image and justification for war, so many Americans had difficulty discerning just what the nature of the Third Reich and Hitlerism was, let alone what the meaning of Nazi anti-Semitism signified. Many Jews and African-Americans immediately recognized the centrality of race in the persecution of the Jews and sought to educate American citizens. As early as March 1933, the American Jewish Congress called for a protest movement and economic boycott of German products. However, a not inconsiderable percentage (48%) of Americans in one survey found German Jews “partly” to blame for their plight, while 31% thought they were not at all to blame. Other Americans discerned “good Germans” from “Nazi gangsters” who had taken control over the country. Still others saw Germany’s economic revitalization as a model. Businesses with foreign assets abroad such as General Motors or Ford still felt they had to do business with Germans; antagonizing Nazi politicians might lead to counterproductive consequences. The Crystal Night pogrom proved a diplomatic turning point as the U.S. recalled its ambassador. Suspicion of Hitler’s dictatorship, Nazi political repression at home, and fear of Hitler’s “master plan” for world domination turned Americans against him and the Nazis without necessarily leading to a clear case for American intervention; “America First” isolationalism remained an influential movement.[20] After Pearl Harbor, unlike the ambivalence in World War I, German-Americans and certainly the new anti-Nazi German émigrés dedicated themselves to defeating Hitler. The United States recruited many immigrant intellectuals into serving in military intelligence services; some refugees fought in the U.S. armed forces. Probably the most famous figure of all, Marlene Dietrich, became an American citizen in 1937, sold war bonds, and entertained American troops in the USO shows. Once the extent of Hitler’s crimes and extermination camps against Jews became public knowledge, it became very difficult to identify oneself as German.

Yet especially those one hundred thousand émigrés, exiles, and refugees to the United States from the 1930s transformed the U.S. in a disproportionate manner as they represented some of the most accomplished, most talented people in Germany. It is not just a question of such figures assimilating to the American “way of life,” but actively transforming the American “way of life” so that German-American-Jewish (more broadly central European) heritages became silently embedded in it in new ways that made postwar America “America,” while simultaneously erasing the identity of these new impulses. Some of the major achievements of “American” civilization of the mid-twentieth century are transatlantic, not national, in origin. These biographical portraits are some of their stories that highlight a fundamental hybridization of American society.


[1] Film Documentary, Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood (2009).

[2] Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), xi.

[3] Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). See the “German and Jewish Intellectual Émigré Collection” of the University of Albany, organized by John M. Spalek, University Libraries’ M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives (accessed October 20, 2011). Ehrhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[4] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (New York: Knopf, 1992), 495. Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 [1986]). Petra Moser, Alessandra Voena, and Fabian Waldinger, “How much did German-Jewish Émigrés Benefit U.S. Invention?” Working paper (accessed November 15, 2011).

[5] Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz, The Man who Sold America: The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010).

[6] Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Patterns of German-American History,” in Germans in America: Retrospect and Prospect: Tricentennial Lectures Delivered at the German Society of Pennsylvania in 1983, ed. Randall M. Miller (Philadelphia: German Society of Pennsylvania, 1984), 14-36. Don H. Tolzmann, German-Americans in the World Wars, Vol. 1-5 (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1995).

[7] “Roosevelt Bars the Hyphenated,” New York Times, October 13, 1915.

[8] Mitchell Yockelson, “The War Department: Keeper of Our Nation’s Enemy Aliens During World War I,” Paper presented to the Society for Military History Annual Meeting, April 1998 (accessed November 15, 2011).

[9] Theodore Huebener, The Germans in America (Philadelphia: Chilton Co., 1962), 154, 158.

[10] Russell A. Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). The film, Sinking of the Lusitania, is available in the public domain at http://www.archive.org/details/Sinking_of_the_Lusitania (accessed November 15, 2011). Renowned Pictures produced The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, but Laemmle’s Universal Studios promoted it in theaters.

[11]Schlitz Garden Enters History,” Milwaukee Journal, March 6, 1921 (accessed November 15, 2011).

[12] Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Prohibition (The Prohibition Film Project, Inc, 2011). Martin H. Stack, “A Concise History of America’s Brewing Industry” (accessed November 15, 2011). Various corporate websites.

[13] Richard Bessel, Germany After The First World War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 31-48, 109-123.

[14] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1. Washington, D.C., 1975, Series C 89-101. Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Germans,” Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge, MA, 1980), 405-425, esp. tables 1-3.

[15] David A. Moss, “The Deutsche Bank,” in Creating Modern Capitalism, ed. Thomas K. McCraw (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 250.

[16] Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), figures from pp. 72-73.

[17] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.

[18] Quoted in Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair, 129.

[19] Jewish figures from “German Jewish Refugees 1933-1939,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (accessed January 5, 2012). Total figures from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.

[20] Michaela Hoenicke Moore, Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Volume 4, Introduction
  • Author
  • Keywords Volume 4, Introduction, World War I, World War II, German Immigration, Jeff Fear, Great Depression, Prohibition,
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 18, 2018