Buffalo and its German Community: Pages 45 - 50

Part II, Chapter 1

The Significance of the German Community to Buffalo's Prosperity

Whenever one talks about today's Buffalo, one acknowledges the mark of the German community. A hefty percentage of the citizenry is either German or of German descent. According to the last Federal Census 38 percent of the people of Buffalo were German. If one examines the factories or wanders through the business district one will see an uncommonly large number of German names. Herein lies proof that Germans have helped to build this city. German industriousness and the German spirit of enterprise have to a great extent made Buffalo what it is today.

One will also encounter at any particular time bourgeois and provincial attitudes. Boasting, envy and complaining are also widespread. Once again the German community has contributed its share. We Germans, with our many good qualities, have a hereditary defect which may be grounded in our history. This may resolve itself with the building of that giant construct, the German Empire. Our character flaw is envious provincialism - figuratively speaking - which is recognizable in the little things we do. These fights with the inner man have shamed the Germans many times before whenever they were not in control of their nature

Sometimes the German community has shown our city that it can pull itself together at critical moments to perform great deeds. Germans were the first to send their sons to save the Union during the Civil War. They were united and truly enthusiastic. They were united when necessary to defend against domestic and foreign oppression. They were united when it came time to celebrate the German Days - the peace festivals after the infamous French wars, the Humboldt festival, etc. Today they are united in their language, their customs, and their need not to feel robbed of their culture in order to be good American citizens. They wish to maintain their cultural identity. Germans here and elsewhere have separated themselves into thousands of groups and clubs. No damage is done. They don't belong to any one political group or party. That's good. They don't bind themselves under the political whip of the rank and file. Instead they retain their independence, in the finest sense of the word. They have participated in the political wars of these last years and their influence on the course of affairs in our city is as significant today as it has been for the past 50 to 60 years.

The German immigrant element is essentially different from that of other nationalities.

This too has historical grounding. German emigration began just one generation after the Thirty Years War, which annihilated the German's place in the world, destroying the middle class and with it the power and energy of the nation. The previously enterprising and energetic free citizenry was sapped of its strength and corrupted. In its place came a fearful bourgeoise, resigned to its fate. The alienation of the nation from its true existence climaxed - the oppressed middle class and farmers recovered slowly and unsteadily from this heavy blow. Only at the end of the century did they begin to raise themselves up from the spiritual and mental decline to construct a new ideal. It wasn't that they wished to revolt against their oppressors or bring the senseless comedy to a bloody end with their fists. They were too weak and downcast for that. On the other hand they were feeling the increasingly strong despotism of France on their principalities.

No, the oppression and their homeland misery could only be relieved through flight. Disenfranchised, not trusting in his own ability, following a strange impulse and awed by the unfamiliar as though it were something sublime, the German did the only thing he could. He left his fatherland without hesitation and without regret. Thus emigrants became ever greater in number, wandering to the north and south, especially to America. It grew with the course of time to the point that even the most stingent government restriction could do little to prevent this understandable evil. An extremely destitute Germany gave up a goodly portion of its productive ability and capital to foreign lands and took on French customs and bad habits, luxury and adventure. Accordingly the the records of individual regions several factors came together to cause emigration. It could have been political or religious oppression, resulting in wars or persecution for the sake of a belief system, or social evils such as famine, high-prices, pestilence, overpopulation, inability to earn a living. Finally the unqualified need to improve ones life may have contributed to the numbers who emigrated along with the example of previous emigres who had prospered. Our historians often posit the natural wanderlust of the Germanic tribes as a main reason for the emigration. In this case is it a voluntary undertaking rather than a matter of environment. But there remains the question would a man, who is happy at home, so easily take up his walking stick? Seldom does the exception establish the rule. The first German immigrants landed in Pennsylvania, having fled their homeland because of religious intolerance. The next, who settled in New York, came because of famine and oppression under the French.

Buffalo received few of this wave of immigration. The first flood of German immigration came in 1828. These were farmers who settled on the Buffalo Plains, the east section of today's 25th Ward. Following the French Revolution of February 1830 another large stream of immigrants came to America, seeking new homes, a new fatherland, and new occupational activities. The French Revolution heightened awareness in southern Germany and America owes gratitude to this worthy and growing social awareness. Under the direction of the German princes and their lackies, Metternich's forces suppressed every uprising, creating a demagogism and paranoia against freedom which Germany had seldom seen before. It is a disgrace in the annals of German history. Freedom of movement and freedom of thought were persecuted and suppressed with dreadful force. The reaction against the rights and freedoms of the people was so extreme that many conservative citizens could no longer tolerate it.

It forced them to turn their backs on their fatherland and seek a new and free homeland in America. Thus the influx of German immigrants, which increased year after year and climaxed in 1848 and 1849. This period had a profound influence on the destiny of Germans in America and ultimately on the political and social lives and activities of the New World.

Buffalo took in a large number of settlers during this wave of immigration. The number increased from week to week as late comers arrived. They settled with their kith and kin, with their strong hands and their sound limbs, with their gold and their goods, with their hopes and their courage. They ignored the despondency of the little people and changed for themselves the physiognomy of the city and the outlying areas. Such immigrants, with their gold and silver, were welcome guests. The forests were thinned out. There were traces of human activity everywhere. Streets and roads were created, new houses were built. Gardens, flowerbeds and vineyards came into being. Streets were cleared and began to spring with life. Trade and commerce grew out of the winter's sleep. Workplaces employed hands, despondency yielded to courage, and the city began to work towards here later greatness. The craftsman trades, which found their golden shore here, rested tightly in the hands of the Germans, who were industrious, unassuming and frugal with materials they procured for themselves.

They were content to have a home, to sleep and eat under their own roofs in a free land where they were their own masters. The German community has flourished ever since. The pursuit of trade and business, not crippled by monopolies and trusts, was profitable. The fortunate owners of boardinghouses and taverns, both noble old professions, provided drink for the thirsty and food for the hungry. They secured fortunate times for themselves while giving humanitarian service to others. The art of hospitality and fellowship undeniably remains part of the German character to this day.

Thus the Germans prepared comfortable lifestyles for themselves. Even in their working environments contentment prevailed. Earnings may have been small, with up to three-quarters of it going to shopkeepers but work was steady. Despite the lack of cash life was rarely a struggle. There was no hunger which could not be satisfied and no grovelling for one's daily bread.

Buffalo prospered under these conditions. The number of places to work increased. The residences and gardens flourished. The borders expanded. In the course of a decade until 1840 the population doubled. In the next decade the number increased to 42,000 and thanks to the wave of immigration from 1850 to 1860 the population total reached 81,126.

The German community belonged in Buffalo. Today it is still the case. It lies in the German character to refrain from joining the groups of speculators, or rashly conduct business, or act simply to get ahead. The unfortunate pursuit of hasty gains means risking more than one may have to lose, pitting security against uncertainty. The German community sought its economic prosperity through hard work and frugality, not through gambling or speculation. In the field of politics the Germans were recognized for their involvement. It's even more so the case today. Thus we see that the Germans were factors in the building and prosperity of our city. Only a poor German or a bias-driven American would maintain that this is not so.

The image of American life was essentially altered with the introduction of the great decade spanning 1850-1860. A new period of culture emerged. Pro-slavery propaganda reached its climax and was more aggressive than ever. The public outrage, produced by so many decades of institutionalized slavery, began to become organized as people recognized where their duty fell. The anti-slavery movement gained astounding momentum. Patriotic men of firm belief placed themselves at the forefront. Enthusiastic comrades-in-arms followed them. A freshly agitated vigor took hold of the progressive Press. One could sense the immanent collapse as the two old political parties were held at bay by the power and threat of cession made by the slave owners. The freedom fighters of 1848 sailed over the ocean in their great numbers just at the right time. They were scarcely acclimated but they didn't waste a minute answering the call of their new fatherland, in the service of freedom under the flag of the anti-slavery colonies. Intellectual weapons carried on the battle for ten more years and with the decisive victory purchased on blood-soaked battle fields, slavery was defeated. The enormous cultural service, which the 1848 wave of immigrants performed for their new adopted land, is historically recognized and need not be elaborated upon.

Caption under picture reads Main Street

One may say with confidence that without this element slavery may have continued as a constitutionally protected institution for many more decades.

As the French Revolution of 1830 instigated strong migration to America, so it was with the French Revolution of February 1848 and the oppression which led to the German uprising and subsequent emigration to America. It was to the great benefit of America and to the detriment of the old fatherland. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of freedom-loving and aspiring men were driven into exile. In every state of the union sanctuary was given. Even Buffalo received this bounty to its advantage. In the bosom of the city hundreds of new immigrants settled, having naturally broken their ties with the past, which they now scarcely remember, and began a new life. Their ideal and their firm conviction led to their salvation in America.

And from here on, since its humble beginnings, the German language and the excellence of German spirituality and courage have been utilized and maintained.

Caption under picture reads Ellicott Square

People sought a place to pursue their higher culture. Yes, there were glee clubs and sports societies established for that purpose, but there was also opposition to slavery, battle against provincialistic tendencies, confrontation to political servitude and corruption, and exception taken to every form of intolerance.

At the close of the decade Buffalo had again taken significant steps forward despite war and conflict. The German community, numbering about 25,000 souls in 1860, progressed strongly in their economic advancement, securing a comfortable existence for themselves. They worked their way up in the businesses and industries of the time and within about 10 years had managed to secure for themselves comfortable positions as managers and owners of profitable businesses.

Then came the war which demanded so many bloody offerings. The German brotherhood assembled itself under the starry banner with enthusiasm to defend their new fatherland. This is written on the pages of history. They put their cultural stamp on the bloody battlefield through their heroic deeds in order to secure peace.

The great events of 1870-1871 brought new hoards of immigrants. Since then the number of German immigrants has scarcely diminished. When a history is written about Buffalo's building and development, the German community need not be ashamed of the part it has played and continues to play today.

You'd be hard-pressed trying to find a portion of the city which hasn't been touched by German industriousness. Where is there a house or a mansion which hasn't benefited from German sweat? Where isn't there a workplace or a factory which isn't tied to German skill or an art or educational facility which isn't influenced by German diligence. Is it not the German community which has shed light on the unconscious striving for heart-felt contentment, brought spirituality to cheerless existence, and given warmth and joy to striving? Is it not through the introduction of music festivals, banquets and wholesome family entertainment that we have contributed a worthy bit of culture?

The German who knows that being truly German is not disparate from being truly American, will recognize his obligation to retain the heritage of his past as a legacy from his ancestors. As the generation following the German pioneers, the young German must work to assure that the future will preserve intellectual freedom, noble customs and public welfare. Each generation must take part in this cultural work, as our ancestors have done, so that neither the German community, nor the future, have reason for anxiety.

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Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks
Revised June 19, 2005