D. NAGEL – The German Forty-Eighters and the press

Le texte qui suit est la présentation de la communication présentée par Daniel NAGEL (Université de Mannheim) au colloque “Presse et exil” (Rome, 23-25 septembre 2013 :


The German Forty-Eighters had a huge impact on the German language press of the United States. It is no exaggeration to divide the history of the German-American into a period before the arrival of the Forty-Eighters and after their arrival. The Forty-Eighters avidly believed in the importance of a free press to promote freedom and equality. In their idealistic viewpoint the truth would ultimately prevail if arguments could be exchanged freely.

After their arrival, the Forty-Eighters soon recognized that while freedom of the press in the United States was unlimited, the political conditions of the United fell short of their expectations. They had expected to find a religiously liberated people and were dismayed when they noticed the large influence of religion on American society, politics and culture. They also feared that slavery, if left unchecked, would corrupt and eventually destroy the American republic.

To counter these developments, the Forty-Eighters emphasized their German ethnicity. They not only declared their willingness to preserve their language and traditions, but also declared that all German- Americans were naturally born freedom fighters whose duty was to engage in the struggle to abolish slavery. By engaging on the side of freedom in American politics, the Forty-Eighters found a political mission that combined their German ethnicity with a devotion to the political ideology of democratic Republicans that in their opinion was destined to liberate people all over the world. The result was the creation of a German-American identity that remained the focus of the political activities of the Forty- Eighters until the early 1870s.

When the established German newspapers failed to endorse this German-American identity, the Forty-Eighters condemned them as degenerated Germans. Their newspapers, they argued, were corrupted by slavery and mere servants of American parties, especially the slavery-friendly Democratic Party. And worst of all, they did not even write proper German. The result was a major conflict that lasted several years and caused lasting bitterness between the Grays (the older immigrants) and the Greens (the Forty-Eighters). In the end, the Forty-Eighters held their ground due to their sheer determination, their numbers and their skills as political agitators. Their place, but the interpretation of “Germanness” became commonnwhile being engaged in American politics never waned. debate on how to stay true to their “Germaness”

Later in the decade, most Forty-Eighters joined the anti-slavery Republican Party and called on all German-Americans to follow. This caused a dramatic change in the political attitudes of German- Americans who had previously almost unanimously supported the Democratic Party. A substantial number of German-Americans became part of the coalition that elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

My paper aims to show how the German language press in the United States became a testing ground for the novel concepts of the Forty-Eighters. It focuses on how the Forty-Eighters created a German- American identity that not only enabled them to engage in American politics, but also transformed the German-American community by using the press to disseminate their ideas into the larger populace.




More than that: 150 years later, German language newspaper and journals remain our primary way of analyzing the dramatic changes among the German-Americans of the antebellum United States. Many of these newspapers, especially the smaller ones, have been lost, others are scattered or incomplete. However a huge number of material remains that has been hardly analyzed at all since it was published more than 150 years ago.




Efford, Alison: German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era, Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 2013.

Honeck; Mischa: We Are The Revolutionists. German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848, Athens: Georgia University Press 2011.

Nagel, Daniel: Von republikanischen Deutschen zu deutsch-amerikanischen Republikaner. Ein Beitrag zum Identitätswandel der deutschen Achtundvierziger in den Vereinigten Staaten (1850-1861), St. Ingbert: Röhrig Universitätsverlag 2012.

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