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  • Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German American Identity
  • Joseph A. Amato
Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German American Identity. By Russel A. Kazal ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. vii plus 383 with maps, tables, and index.).

Ethnic identity is both a historical and a local affair. Becoming old Stock helps us understand these and other important coordinates of ethnicity. It is a very smart [End Page 526] book about German-Americans, arguably the nation's largest ethnic group. Bristling with insights into the formation, suppression, divisions, and disappearance of German identity in Philadelphia, it provides a methodology and a comparison for studying other twentieth century urban centers with large German populations and other ethnic groups. Though in places belabored and repetitious, Becoming Old Stock is keenly thought and imaginatively researched, joining quantitative methods, written and oral sources, and the best secondary literature.

Kazal's work affirms what should be, but what is not obvious to every student of ethnicity: Ethnicities have histories. They are not fixed, static, and enduring, but rather change—mutate, alter, metamorphose, and disappear—over time. Whiteness and blackness, mutable and diverse terms, have, as do all their "colored cousins," histories and can be understood as inventions. In any case, ethnic identity, whatever its forms, does not have its roots in unchanging race or immutable tradition, and is inseparable from change and its historical and literary invention. Kazal authoritatively shows ethnicity is not only shaped by society and nation at large, but is a result of specific settings, or what Kathleeen Conzen has nicely formulated as the "pluralisms of place."

Kazal begins his book with Philadelphia in 1900, when the city's German population formed part of the third largest group in the nation. Nevertheless its number and concentration of German immigrants lagged far behind those of German populations in New York, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities. Kazal pays special attention to Philadelpia's diverse German neighborhoods, which are characterized by different ethnic densities, religious, class and generational concentrations, and group interactions. He points out profound differences between German Protestants, who were quicker to abandon the language and faster to assimilate, and German Catholics, who built more schools, intermarried more frequently with fellow Catholics, and were more closely tied to labor and then working class associations.

The spine of Kazal's narrative falls in the period from 1900 to 1930. At the outset he judiciously reminds us that German identity was repeatedly broken on the rock of religious, class, and political division since German immigration in the 1830s until the end of the Second World War and subsequent revelations about the Holocaust. Recognizing the national suppression of German identity during the two world wars, Kazal's volume shows that abandonment of Germanness and German assimilation to a national identity belonged to two other periods. At the end of the nineteenth century, Germans accepted the invitation to become "old stock Americans" on the basis of belonging to one of the two northern white races of Europe (British and Teutonic) to differentiate themselves from the waves of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Starting in the interwar years and accelerating in post World War Two period, Germans took up an identity as "white ethnics." This expressed their solidarity with fellow Italians, Irish and others and to state their opposition to the growing presence of Blacks in their neighborhoods.

By the measure of language and institutional participation (Vereinwesen), Ka- zal argues, Germans were well on the road to assimilation in the decades immediately prior to the First World War, even though German neighborhoods maintained German associations and practiced, to use another felicitous formulation [End Page 527] by Kathleeen Conzen, "a kind of biculturalism in spite of structural assimilation." Class cooperation at work and in unions, interactions in church and neighborhoods, and leisure activities in neighborhood and town at large accelerated assimilation. New goods, fresh opportunities, and other lures of emerging mass, consumer culture, along with the integrative elements of democratic politics, also played important roles in turning Germans into Americans. Declining readership of German papers and shrinking participation, especially by males, in German educational and social groups measured a "decisive fall...


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