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Images of Germanness among the Descendants of German Immigrants to the USA

An Oral History and Material Culture Study on the Cultural Memory of Second- and Third-Generation German Americans

This project examines the cultural memory of German Americans and how they negotiate their sense of self against the background of their migration heritage. It explores their families’ narrative about their migration, their perceptions and expressions of what being German means for them, their relationship towards their German and American heritage, their notion of Germany as (imagined) home, and the longing for a German America.

Drawing from theoretical frameworks from cultural history, memory studies, and diaspora studies and using methodologies of oral history and material culture studies, this project uncovers the meaning of stories, rituals, traditions, and artifacts being passed on within families, and the importance of public festivities and official rituals in forming and preserving a hybrid German American identity. While popular representations of German American culture are often one-dimensional and seem to reiterate images of Bavarian folklore, this project draws from the voices of the subjects themselves and reveals a more complex and at times contested collective identity.

The study focuses on second-generation German Americans whose parents or one parent came to the USA between 1945 and 1990. While much has been written about German immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is scant work examining (non-Jewish) German American immigration after World War II. This project thus not only fills a gap in German and American historical scholarship, but – by focusing on the second-generation and their families – is also a memory studies project that aims to contribute to a nuanced depiction of how second- and third-generation German Americans weave themselves into the fabric of a distinct collective identity and helps illustrate the diversity of the German American experience.