Peculiarities of the West: German-American Communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, 1880-1960

September 21, 2014
Panel at 38th Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Kansas City
Panelists: Kathleen Conzen (Moderator, University of Chicago), Bill Issel (Commentator, San Francisco State University and Mills College), Leonard Schmieding (Georgetown Univ./GHI), and Uwe Spiekermann (GHI)

Event Report

Although widely used, the term "German-American" conceals the fact that German immigrants to the U.S. were and are a quite heterogeneous group; and it is not really clear whether the term can be used as a distinguishable analytical category or whether it is simply a myth. Consequently, Leonard Schmieding (German Historical Institute / Georgetown University) and GHI's deputy director Uwe Spiekermann (German Historical Institute) organized a panel on "Peculiarities of the West: German-American Communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, 1880-1960" at the 38th Annual Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 21, 2104. The three panelists explored how immigrants from Germany navigated San Francisco's and Los Angeles' economy, society, and culture between 1880 and 1950. All contributions shared a common theme showing how the German immigrant experience differed from the well-known history of Germans on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

In his talk "Acceptance in the West? Cooperation and Dissociation among Gentile and Jewish German-American Businessmen in San Francisco, 1880-1910," Uwe Spiekermann analyzed the interaction of German-Protestant and German-Jewish businessmen. Using the Protestant Spreckels family on the one side and prominent German-American Jews, such as Louis Gerstle, Louis and Leon Sloss, Levi Strauss, and Isaias Hellman, on the other side as examples, it became evident that these families crossed the strong divide in their business, their social, and their private lives-in clear contrast to the strict social segregation of German-Jewish families in the East, namely in New York. Spiekermann found the peculiarities of the West striking; but he warned that these case studies only have a limited scope. The obvious differences between gentile and non-gentile immigrants from Germany make the umbrella-term "German-American" one-sided and misguiding. It creates an entity of "Germans," which never existed in the U.S. Similarly, the corresponding notion of an entity of "Americans" is questionable.

Leonard Schmieding, in a lecture on "German Cuisine with a California Flavor: German-American Restaurants in San Francisco, 1906-1920," focused on the construction of a new kind of Germanness in the American West. He used restaurant guides, menus, newspapers, and oral history interviews to discuss how the Heidelberg Inn, the Bismarck Café, and the Hof Brau accommodated the tastes of their various audiences. In their gastronomic business strategies, they appealed to patrons through their constructed authenticity: Not only with the dishes they served and the languages in which they advertised them, but also in the manner in which they prepared and served the food, decorated the respective restaurant's interior, and offered musical entertainment, creating what came to be perceived as authentic German restaurants. These spaces thus functioned as zones of transcultural exchange, in which different historical actors invented, communicated, and performed "Germanness" according to the Californian, respectively San Franciscan, construal.

Widening the analysis to include Los Angeles, Nichole Neumann (University of Minnesota) spoke on "Printed Identities in Californian German-American Newspapers." Her detailed analysis of the German-language weekly papers, the California freie Presse and California Staats-Zeitung, showed clear distinctions between these two communities. Yet, both periodicals displayed a tendency to assume a homogenous ethnic audience within their diverse readership. This, however, did not represent the whole German immigrant community. Neumann's analysis of the public presentation of the La Tosca Filmbühne, a Los Angeles movie theater, which presented German-language films from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, showed that exiles were not really addressed or included. The concept of an ideal Germany transcended the legacy of National Socialism and the controversies of democratic West Germany and propagated identities quite in contrast to those of the two German states' citizens.

Kathleen Conzen (University of Chicago), who chaired the panel, read Bill Issel's (San Francisco State University and Mills College) comment. The well-known California history expert emphasized that the western state was not only different from the rest of the country but also could be considered more unadulterated version of it. The West established an "American" social identity rather different from the rest of the country and closer to the ideal of the United States as new immigrant nation, one that creates something unique in merging and utilizing the skills and legacies of the various immigrant groups. Issel gave some helpful hints to improve all the three papers and thanked the speakers for their profound contributions on the peculiarities of the west.

Uwe Spiekermann