The German diaspora, like many European populations, is difficult to quantify and is best divided into two separate groups. Countries with large populations of German descent and large countries with German populations. Following years of steady immigration, countries such as the United States (46 million), Brazil (12 million), Argentina (3.5 million), Canada (3.3 million) and Chile (500,000) all boast substantial populations with German heritage. However these communities are largely assimilated into their respective countries’ cultures, with little retention of their Germanic origins beyond biology. Countries with substantial German populations are generally European nations in close proximity, most notably France (437,000), Russia (394,000), the Netherlands (369,000), Italy (310,000), Austria (187,000), Spain (153,000) and Poland (148,000). The German diaspora is widespread and easiest to understand when breaking it down into these two groups.
The German diaspora in the Americas is generally highly assimilated. This is most notable in the United States, where German Americans are the country’s largest ethnic population. Few populations have left as important a cultural impact upon the United States as its immense German historical population. Despite German states never having any colonial presence in the Americas, large numbers of the population settled in the modern-day United States from the end of the 17th Century onwards. The population initially settled on the East Coast in New York, Virginia and particularly Pennsylvania, which maintains the country’s largest German population in modern times. Germantown, Pennsylvania, one of the original German settlements, is a place of immense historical significance as the birthplace of the American antislavery movement. The 19th Century saw a considerable surge in German immigration, with over 8 million Germans settling in the United States over the course of the century and expanding beyond in its initial base in the East Coast. The population, in modern times, is distributed widely throughout the country with a ‘German belt’ straddling the nation from Pennsylvania to Oregon. By population, Pennsylvania (4.5 million), California (6.5 million), Illinois (2.7 million), Texas (2.5 million), Wisconsin (2.4 million), Michigan (2.2 million) and New York (2.2 million) are the largest German communities. By concentration, North Dakota (47%), South Dakota (45%), Wisconsin (44%), Nebraska (43%) and Minnesota (38%) are the largest.
Beyond population, the German diaspora’s cultural impact is of huge significance. This is most notable in American culinary icons the hamburger and the hot dog, both of which are of German origin. Despite major integration making contemporary traces of German culture relatively inscrutable, the German impact on the United States is evident throughout the country.
Elsewhere in the Americas, the German diaspora’s impact is clear. Argentina’s German heritage is particularly notable. 8% of the country’s population claims German ancestry. The vast majority hail from the region surrounding the River Volga while Swiss Germans also form a large minority. In more recent history, the country was a major destination for Nazi war criminals, with nearly a thousand settling in the country. Most notable of these was Adolf Eichmann, a prominent member of Hitler’s inner circle. As with the United States, the population is generally well-assimilated although there are over 500,000 German speakers in the country. Brazil also boasts a large German population, the majority of which is based in Southern Brazil. Specific figures are difficult to quantify although some sources estimate that over 7% of the country’s population is of German descent. Around 3 million residents are German speakers.
More recent German immigration tends to skew towards closer countries in Europe. Germany bears a number of cultural similarities with neighbouring countries Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, wherein the language is largely spoken. Throughout the rest of Europe, there are substantial German populations. France has the largest population due to the close proximity. Poland also has a large German community with the historically transient border between the two countries accounting for the large population. The establishment of the European Union and the subsequent facilitation of free movement of people has seen the German population expand throughout the continent.
The German diaspora, despite its immense size, is rarely talked about. This is mainly due to its widespread assimilation across its various hubs. Despite this, its impact throughout these countries is undeniable and essential to each country’s cultural identity.
main image: Parking metre checker stands by his police vehicle which is imprinted with the German word for police (Polizei). It is part of the town’s highlighting its German ethnic origins. New Ulm, Minnesota, July 1974. © Flip Schulke, 1930-2008, Photographer (NARA record: 2435383) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.