- German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era by Alison Clark Efford
“Germans,” wrote Ella Lonn in her important, but dated, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1952), were “patient, philosophical, plodding men … [who] yielded respect to authority and were, therefore, well disciplined, persevering, and inspired by some idealism. They were somewhat slow in response but were stable and solid in battle.”1
Alison Clark Efford’s German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era suffers from no such generalizations in demonstrating how German immigrants’ Old World ideology helped shape American policy in the years immediately before and after the Civil War. Arguing that German Americans played important roles in both creating and dismantling the notion of American “liberal nationalism”—a belief in a unified nation-state guaranteeing individual rights—Efford establishes that these German-speaking immigrant men, many of whom had fled Europe after [End Page 179] the revolutions of 1848, in the years leading up to the Civil War helped define a notion of American citizenship that valued free labor and suffrage, while viewing slavery as “the ultimate travesty of individual rights,” which “fettered national progress” (8, 54).
Skipping straight from antebellum 1860 to Reconstruction 1865, Efford subsequently demonstrates that the cultural and linguistic bonds that connected German immigrants eventually trumped notions of racial equality and universal (male) suffrage in favor of economic opportunity and sectional postwar reconciliation. In other words, instead of maintaining racial equality as part of their liberal nationalist ideology, the German-speaking immigrants in the United States after the Civil War, inspired by Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1870–71, ended up embracing a more exclusive notion of citizenship while espousing “reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites” at the expense of African American rights (171).
Efford bases her argument on extensive archival work, an impressive command of English- and German-language sources, and an even better understanding of her research topic’s secondary literature. Drawing on the notion of a “German-language public sphere” (11), inspired by Jürgen Habermas, Efford seems to agree with Susannah Ural, who argues that immigrant “leaders spoke for their communities.”2 Through this approach, Efford demonstrates how German immigrants constructed an ethnic identity in the United States based on Old World values. Efford uses this dual loyalty, what Jon Gjerde in The Minds of the West (1997) calls “complementary identity,” to show how German immigrants’ ethnic identity led them to work for citizenship rights while subordinating women and eventually abandoning the fight for African American political rights.
Efford enriches her study of primarily male German immigrants with gender and race analysis, adding much to her already well-developed argument, and only a few questions emerge along the way. Most important, perhaps, Efford at times seems to go a little too far in her assertions of exactly how much German immigrant men helped transform American society in the years bracketing the Civil War. Efford writes, “Without German Americans, Republicans would not have seen immigrants as a positive good for the United States,” but she leaves it up to the reader to determine if this outlook was a result of Republicans’ respect for German immigrants, a rational (cynical) choice to maximize vote counts, or something very different (69). Moreover, Efford argues that “German Midwesterners had reshaped the party that brought Lincoln to power” before the Civil War, but the evidence—election results that vary greatly from state to [End Page 180] state—yields only indirect support (84). Efford alludes to the difficulty of knowing the extent of German influence after the war when she writes that the “immigrant Radicalism that [Carl] Schurz and other politicians touted on the campaign trail was not strong enough to pass state referenda, but it contributed to the environment in which congressional Republicans proposed the Fifteenth Amendment” in 1865 (139).
Additionally, much of Efford’s study revolves around the early “radical” German immigrants who fled Europe after the revolutions of 1848 and became leaders in politics...