“German Iowa and the Global Midwest” examines lasting influence of immigrants in Iowa

CATEGORIES: News, Research, Students

A large percentage of Iowans can claim German heritage, but not many know the significance of that heritage, or how it helped shape our state.

Jeremy Best, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University, wants to change that.

“History helps connect people,” he said. “Given the contemporary debates about the nature and future of immigration and immigrants in America, enlightening people to their own immigrant past might promote some understanding.”

To help Iowans across the state learn more about Iowa’s German immigrants, Best, along with Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, professor of history, Lawrence McDonnell, assistant professor of history, and colleagues from the University of Iowa, has helped organize a stopover in Ames by a traveling exhibit with accompanying lectures, talks and other events to examine the lasting influence German Iowans had on our history. “German Iowa and the Global Midwest” will open with a reception at the Ames Public Library on Wednesday, March 15 at 5:30 p.m. and will be on display through April 3. Six events accompany the exhibit (see below).

The exhibit and accompanying events draw on research by U of I and ISU faculty and students to re-examine current issues such as bilingualism and multiculturalism through a historical lens.

“Iowa has always been a state of immigrants, and it has always been a state that has dealt with immigrants in an odd way,” Best said, citing a period of time after World War I when Iowa Gov. William L. Harding forbade the use of foreign languages as a result of mistrust between America and Germany. “In the current political climate where there are more questions of, ‘who is an American,’ understanding the experiences of German Americans in Iowa and across the country a century ago can inform us about the complexities of these issues and what the benefits and consequences can be from the decisions that are made.”

German immigrants are the second largest immigrant group to settle in Iowa, second only to people from the British Isles. Immigrants from Germany began settling in every Iowa county in the 1840s, making them the largest-spread immigrant group in the state. They influenced politics, were economically and financially secure, and brought traditions, such as gymnastics and beer, to the state.

At the start of World War I, many non-German Iowans took advantage of the mistrust directed toward German-Americans. They burned German books in public, harassed and harmed German immigrants, and eventually shuttered several German-owned businesses and coerced some German-named towns into changing their names.

“After World War I, much of America took on a generally anti-immigrant sentiment,” Best said. “At one time in a privileged position, German-Americans were now stepping out of their German heritage and stepping into their ‘American-ness.’ I think this reflects why German history and heritage isn’t so readily known today: because our ancestors were forced to forget the past to move ahead.”

“German Iowa and the Global Midwest” was started by a group of history professors at the University of Iowa. Inspired to turn their work into a traveling exhibition, Best was asked to join the team and has since collaborated with the Ames Public Library and Ames History Center to organize events in Ames and Central Iowa with the goal of raising awareness and sparking conversation.

“I think some people will say, ‘Yeah, see: everyone’s been oppressed,’” he said. “But these events should shed a light on a topic that will help those thoughts go deeper. History delivers this when we do it right. It delivers empathy. When we can see there are people in the past who went through the same things we go through today, it brings us together and helps create an understanding.”

View all events on the LAS Event Calendar.

German Iowa and the Global Midwest

Discover why German immigrants flocked to our state and the influence they’ve had on our history through a traveling exhibit and series of special events.

TRAVELING EXHIBIT: March 15 – April 3

Wednesday, March 15
5:30 p.m.
Ames Public Library Gallery

Drawing on research by University of Iowa faculty and students, this traveling exhibit examines the lasting influence of German culture in Iowa. Discover why German immigrants flocked to our state and the influence they’ve had on our history. Re-examine current issues such as pro- and anti-immigration sentiment, bilingualism, and multiculturalism through a historical lens as you experience the triumphs and tragedies of the German people who chose to call our state home.

FROM GERMANS TO AMERICANS: Ethnicity, Class, and the Experience of Battle in the Civil War
A Knowledge on Tap Presentation
Wednesday, March 22
7 p.m.
Torrent Brewing Company

Presented by Dr. Lawrence McDonnell, Iowa State University Department of History
Dr. McDonnell considers how military service and the experience of battle during the Civil War made Germans into Americans but also made them into a politically radicalized working class.

Monday, March 27
7 p.m.
Ames Public Library Auditorium

Presented by Dr. Jeremy Best, Iowa State University Department of History
In every county of Iowa, family trees have their roots in ancestors who emigrated from Germany. Hear how the historical events around World War I largely erased German-American identity from the state.

Wednesday, March 29
1-4 p.m.
Ames Public Library Auditorium

Presented by Scharlott Goettsch Blevins
We will spend the first part of this event learning how to find information in the U.S. on Germans. After a short coffee break, we’ll move on to finding information located overseas.

Saturday, April 1
2-4 p.m.
Ames Public Library Auditorium

Featuring music by Second Chair Brass and presentations by Dr. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Iowa State University Department of History, and Margaret Junkan,owner of Cook’s Emporium

WAITING WITH PACKED SUITCASES: European Jewish Refugees, 1938-1957
Tuesday, April 18
7 p.m.
Ames Public Library Auditorium Presented by Dr. Kierra Crago-Schneider, United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum

This program is made possible by the Campus Outreach Lecture Program of the United States Holocaust Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, supported by Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller.

Monday, April 24
7 p.m. Ames Public Library Auditorium

Learn how to become a citizen historian by researching Iowa newspaper coverage of events during the holocaust. Then contribute your findings to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded Project.