I have been reading Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-Eighters in America, by Carl Wittke. I was interested in the topic because my ggg–grandfather, Stephan Bösch arrived in New York harbor in 1853. He and his family arrived at a time when many Germans left Europe in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848. Many of those who had opposed the established European rulers fled their homeland to find safety in the United States. In Germany much of the unrest centered in Baden and Wuerttemberg, where my ancestor and his family had lived. However, I don’t know whether the family left Baden because of their involvement on the losing side of the Revolution or for more mundane considerations.
As I read Wittke’s book, which was published in 1952, I began to wonder how strongly his view of Forty-eighters was influenced by the times in which he wrote. The fact that he was writing his book only a few years after WWII had ended may have caused him to assess those German immigrants with a less than positive eye. I found myself questioning some of his assessments of those nineteenth century German immigrants and their influence on their adopted homeland. Did the new immigrants really find themselves struggling and frequently failing to adjust to a new language and culture, when they landed in New York? Consider that in the 1850s, Manhattan was home to Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), which was the third largest German speaking city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna. It had German language theaters, German language newspapers, and a host of German speaking businesses to make the newcomers feel at home.
I also wondered whether the picture Wittke drew of the Forty-eighters as dominated by radicals of a communist or socialist bent was a balanced assessment. Perhaps the beginnings of the cold war and the concerns at the time he wrote about communist sympathizers in our midst caused him to place a greater emphasis on the radical element among those Germans who came here after the Revolution of 1848-9.
Wittke’s book is one I would recommend to those interested in that particular influx of Germans. It has a lot to say about those nineteenth century German immigrants. Just consider when the book was written.