Friday, August 24, 2012

Why do you always talk about being German?

Dear Rev. Know it all,

Why do you always talk about being German? Sometimes you actually sound proud of your cousins who fought on the Nazi side in the second world war. I find it rather irritating.

Sue Perraes

Dear Sue,

First of all I am not German. I am American. In fact, when my people left Germany there was no Germany. They came from Hesse, a small German speaking principality that was absorbed by Prussia, the north easternmost German state. I am not proud of being German. I am American. I don’t know that I can use the word proud of either German or American. I have always been very grateful that I was born in this great country, but what have I done to be proud of regarding nationality or ethnic origin? These things are just the circumstances in which I was born. Perhaps, had I been a soldier or an elected official I could talk of pride, but I am neither.  I just happen to have had the great good fortune to be born in a country so rich and free, a country with an amazing heritage, vast natural resources and a Constitution and Bill of Rights that seem at times, to have been inspired.  I have always been grateful for my citizenship and loyal to the nation. But....

My ethnic heritage givers me cause  to worry about the future of the land of my birth. My ancestors fled the home that they loved because they saw the storm of militarism rising on the horizon. They had a new government, a Prussian government that suspected Catholics of disloyalty to the new German Empire. The religious freedoms of German Catholics were in danger. My family came here for economic opportunity, and the opportunity to follow their consciences regarding religious observance. Slavery had been abolished. It was the American century. The West had been opened up.......  What had kept it closed?

According to “The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America” by James Wilson, in 1491, there were as many native Americans, as there were Europeans, perhaps 70 million. A century later, there were less than half the number of native Americans. Perhaps a tenth of that number. The American population was almost annihilated by unseen immigrants: Europeans viruses and bacteria.  In Latin America, the Indians, as the Spanish called the indigenous people of this hemisphere, tended to survive, though much reduced in numbers. The majority of them converted to Catholicism and as such they had the rights of citizens, at least on paper. The situation was often terrible, but Latin America was, for the most part, not methodically ethnically cleansed of its original inhabitants. That was not the case in English speaking North America. 

Plymouth Colony was established in 1620 and in 50 years, during “King Phillip’s War” the indigenous people who had survived exposure to European diseases were expelled from their homelands and New England was opened to English settlement. The story doesn’t quite end there. The French and Indian War, 1754- 1763 expanded the area of English colonization into the lands inhabited by the Indians west of the Appalachians. The American Revolution further expanded the area available to European settlers and touched off a series of events that led to the French Revolution. The case can be made that the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon so destabilized Europe in the 19th century, that the holocausts of the 20th were inevitable. 

It is curious to think that the match that lit the fuse of the era of World Wars may had actually been lit by George Washington. Washington and some of his militia ambushed the French ambassador Joseph Coulon de Jumonville just south of present day Pittsburgh. In 1753, Washington had been assigned by the English governor of Virginia to protect a land company that was building Pittsburgh. The French considered this their territory, though they pretty much shared it with the Indians. The killing of Jumonville was quite possibly the spark that ignited the French and Indian war.

The French and Indian War, and the American Revolution were all part of the drive to colonize America east of the Mississippi. Britain and France both restricted the access of European colonists to the lands west of the Appalachian mountains. English colonists demanded access to colonization of these lands. This was a major component of the American Revolution and it is rarely mentioned in the history books. After the revolution, the drive for empire continued. In 1811 (later President) William Henry Harrison ended an attempt at Prophet’s Town by the native Americans to unite and defend what was left to them. The battle of Tippecanoe insured that the old northwest, Michigan, Illinois Indiana and Wisconsin would be safe for European colonization. That’s when my people started coming here. 

I remember an old family story that some of the first of our relatives who left Hesse and settled in Michigan employed an old Indian to work on their farm sometime in the 1850's.  It struck me as unspeakably sad to think that the old man had to work on a farm inhabited by these foreigners, land that was formerly his.  Ever heard of the Trail of Tears? The Indian Removal Act was a law passed by the US congress in 1830. It authorized President Andrew Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren to remove Indians from the southern United States to territory west of the Mississippi River. The Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole were  driven out of their homelands, rounded up into concentration camps and forced to walk hundreds of miles in the dead of winter to some foreign land west of the Mississippi, land that belonged to other native peoples. Untold thousands died.

Our Manifest Destiny was to conquer the continent from sea to shining sea, and beyond. The slave-holding South wanted to make Latin America part of “an empire for slavery.” In1848, after the United States conquered almost half of Mexico (the area that is now California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Utah)  President  Polk wanted to buy Cuba from Spain and make it a slave-holding state.  U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi agreed “Cuba must be ours,” he said, to “increase the number of slave-holding constituencies.” Spain refused to sell Cuba, so Senator, Albert Brown, also from Mississippi started attaching plans to conquer most of the rest of Mexico “I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican states; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.” Though the U.S was unable to conquer Mexico completely, we managed to take Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines from Spain. We Americans joyfully jumped into the pool of empire and we were good swimmers. The drive for Empire not just Nazis and Marxists. It created us.

Why am I going in and on about history in a letter that should be religious? First of all, because religion and history are inseparable. Second, because it is true that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans (3:23) We Americans are just as capable of horrible injustice as all other people and sometimes I think we are better at ignoring our own weaknesses.  Have you ever heard of the murder of the Germans after the Second World War? Thousands of German soldiers died in American concentration camps after World War II. The allies in the West kept captured soldiers in tents during the winter after the war and fed them with substandard rations. My cousin Richard was in one such America camp in Holland. Thousands died of exposure. The death in the camps of our Soviet allies after the war cannot even be estimated. 

My point is this: we are all human. Humans are capable of great good, of great heroism and also of great brutality and great dishonesty. I fear for the nation. We are as capable of great evil as we are of great good. Someone once said that no nation survives the death of its gods. As a Christian, I would rather say that no nation can despise God and live. Our unfettered attempts to reject natural law by redefining the family, our unrestricted slaughter of children in the womb, our demand that the churches violate their deepest moral convictions by providing the means of murder to those who want to end the lives of their unborn children, these things make me wonder if this great American experiment is at its end. 

The greatest ethnic component of the population of the United States is ethnically German. Fifty million Americans claim German heritage. This nation is in large measure a Germanic nation. German speaking people emigrated here from lands that denied them freedom. My question is this “When this country loses its soul, where will it flee?”  My ancestors watched the dissolution of their society and came here. Must we do it all over again? 

I talk and write about these things not because they are good, but because they are normal and real. The people I love back in the old country are among the dearest and finest people I know and yet they participated in one of the greatest evils known to history. Do you think we in the US are immune?  Evil is very work-a-day. It is easy to get used to evil and to tolerate it and to benefit by it. If we threw off the restraints of religion, who knows what evil we will be capable of?  Hitler and Stalin stopped the voice of the preachers in Europe and untold millions died horribly. Will we stop the voice of religion here also? It is my ethnic heritage that causes me to fear for this great land that I love. Heaven help me if I forget the evil of which I am capable!

Rev. Know-it-all


  1. A timely reminder, Father, that we are far from the “city upon a hill” envisioned by John Winthrop - much less the City of God of St. Augustine.

    I, too, came to this country seeking opportunity - though not in flight from religious persecution (Ireland was still recognizably Catholic in the late 1960s...). Though Irish born I became a naturalized American citizen as soon as that was legally possible. When I became a citizen it was required that I renounce Irish citizenship. I did not have a problem with that. This was to be my home and there would be no going back. While ‘dual-citizenship’ is now possible, I have not availed of it. I am an American - albeit with the remains of an Irish accent!

    That said, much has changed here in the past 40+ years. I hardly recognize the “land of the free and the home of the brave” that fired my enthusiasm in coming here, with what America has become today. But even more so I find it hard to recognize the Ireland of my youth in what I see of the Ireland of today.

    I fear for both countries.

  2. If God had wanted people to be all alike, He would have created a very boring world. Thank God for his delightful love of variety.