Donald Trump, at his campaign kickoff last June, famously said that Mexico was purposely sending immigrants to America with “…lots of problems. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”
Trump’s nativist march has continued apace; he even recently flirted with the idea of creating a nationwide database of Muslims.
Yet here’s the supreme irony of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade: He is one of them.
That’s right. Trump is the grandson of Friedrich Drumpf, a German immigrant.
So are more than one-third of all Iowans.
That German heritage makes Trump’s scapegoating of Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees especially ironic, since Iowans’ German forebears were similarly scapegoated for much of Iowa’s history.
Researching my documentary, “Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing True Story of the Templeton Bootleggers,” I discovered that Templeton’s German-American ethnic identity was an essential part of the bootlegging story in western Iowa. It helped explain the socio-ethnic cohesion — especially in the face of the anti-German xenophobia during and after World War I — that created an environment where bootlegging was not only tolerated, but considered a socio-ethnic folkway.
What does that have to do with Donald Trump and immigration?
German immigrants settled Iowa from territorial days. But in the years immediately following the 1848 German Revolution, when the United States had a population of 23 million, 1.5 million Germans immigrated to America, increasing the nation’s population by 6.5 percent. In 1880, there were 261,650 foreign-born immigrants living in Iowa — a full 16 percent of the population. Iowa’s immigrants today are a blip by comparison — just 97,000, or 3.2 percent.
Iowa’s German immigrants had a reputation for hard work. They were also stereotyped and resented for speaking German, drinking too much beer, fighting too much and for their religion.
In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party accused newly arrived Germans of stealing elections by buying the votes of their fellow immigrants with steins of beer — the 19th century version of today’s ballot-security controversies.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) attributed much of the nation’s social ills to immigrants and their peculiar addiction — alcoholism. The WCTU even set up a pavilion on Ellis Island to educate immigrants on the error of their ways before they set foot on the American mainland.
When World War I came, all hell broke loose.
Thousands of Iowans marched against the German Kaiser — including the German-American boys whose families had just emigrated from Germany.
Yet on the home front, another war was being waged — against many of those same German immigrant families. In western Iowa, German-language books were burned; the offices of the German-language newspapers were vandalized; a German-immigrant farmer was dragged around the square by a noose until he agreed to buy war bonds; and a minister was nearly lynched for preaching in German.
Extra-judicial “Citizen Defense Councils” held kangaroo courts to determine if citizens were being sufficiently patriotic — with German-Americans frequently targeted.
Infamously, Iowa Gov. William Harding issued an executive order — the so-called “Babel Proclamation” — forbidding citizens from communicating in any language except English in public or private schools, in public conversations, on trains, over the telephone, at all meetings and in all religious services. (A subsequent Supreme Court case on a similar law, Meyer v. Nebraska, had the effect of invalidating the Proclamation).
Nor did World War I’s conclusion end the anti-German hatred and discrimination in Iowa.
In the 1920s, Iowa’s German immigrants faced discrimination and hate from a group new to the Hawkeye state: the Ku Klux Klan. The 1920s Klan was very active in the Midwest and chose new targets: bootleggers, immigrants and Catholics — three groups they saw, not without reason, as overlapping. The 1920s Klan in Iowa burned crosses to intimidate immigrants, and trafficked in hysterical anti-Catholicism.
Western Iowa’s German-Catholics circled the wagons, organizing new Knights of Columbus chapters — a group founded on outreach to immigrants. They continued to hold their German Saints Day feast but added a new secular character: Uncle Sam.
You may say: Interesting, but Iowa’s German immigrants were different from today’s immigrants. Iowa’s German immigrants weren’t refugees. They weren’t religious fanatics. They learned English — didn’t use drugs — didn’t use closed “social networks.”
Above all, Iowa’s German immigrants of yesteryear didn’t depend on government aid.
Except that some Iowa’s German immigrants were — and some of Iowa’s German immigrants did.
Iowa’s German immigrants were refugees
Some of the first waves of Germans to come to Iowa were, in fact, refugees — fleeing war and political persecution.
In 1848, pro-Democracy revolution swept Europe — not unlike the “Arab Spring” that succeeded in Tunisia, but then plunged Syria into its terrible civil war. In Germany, the revolutionaries’ goals were German unification, democratic government and guarantees of human rights.
Alas, the uprisings failed. Many of the so-called “48ers” fled Europe to escape persecution, with large groups settling in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee — and Davenport, among other Iowa cities and towns. This is why Scott County, to the present day, has such a strong German character.
Iowa’s 48ers didn’t leave their ideology behind in Germany, either. Hans Reimer Clausen, one of Davenport’s leading 48ers, was an outspoken advocate on behalf of other immigrants, demanding that Iowa’s congressional delegation reject proposals in Washington to restrict immigration. The German 48ers were also strongly supportive of abolition, President Lincoln and the Union cause. In fact, 200,000 German immigrants fought for the Union — a full 10 percent of the entire Union Army.
Iowa’s German immigrants were religious fanatics
At least they were perceived to be. Today we certainly don’t think of Catholics, Lutherans and Amish as dangerous religious fanatics. But back in their day, they were. The Iowa KKK of the era distributed pamphlets claiming that the “fish-eating” Catholic Knights of Columbus required their members to take an oath to murder their Protestant neighbors upon orders from Rome.
And then there are Iowa’s religious refugees: the Amish. Back in Germany, they were seen as a threat to “public tranquility” and “the imperatives of morality.” They were persecuted because they refused military service and attendance at official Lutheran schools. In more recent times, Amana has been noted less for theology than economic ideology. One headline from 100 years ago read, “An Iowa Experiment in Communism: A Study of the Amana Community.”
Iowa’s German immigrants didn’t assimilate and speak English
Iowans today often grumble when they hear Spanish radio or TV or when ATMs ask them what language to use.
Consider this: In Iowa, between 1880 and 1920, there were around 60 German-language newspapers. German priests and ministers conducted church services “ein deutsch.” And Iowa’s Germans, like German-Americans through the Midwest and America, had social clubs and schools where German was the lingua franca.
There weren’t any ATMs back then, of course. But among the state’s biggest banks were the Dubuque German Savings Bank, the Davenport German Savings Bank, and the German Bank of Carroll County.
In the end, the greatest force for Iowa’s Germans’ assimilation wasn’t their own innate desire to adopt English — but the profound impact and anti-German impact of the World Wars.
Iowa’s German immigrants did use drugs (sort of)
Well, the Temperance advocates like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Methodist Church said so. They said that Iowa’s German immigrants’ consumption of beer and wine was every bit as dangerous to society’s welfare and public morality as we say drugs are today. That’s why, 100 years ago this year, Iowa passed one of the toughest state Prohibition laws — four years before the national enactment of the 18th Amendment.
Iowa’s German immigrants had a vast social network
Trump’s talk about monitoring mosques and maintaining a database of Muslims often comes up as a corollary to tracking Muslim-Americans’ activities online — their social networks, etc.
Notably, 100 years ago, Iowa’s German immigrants had their own social networks — the Turner Groups, the German-American Association and the Saint Aloysius Lay Group — vibrant social groups that engaged in substantial lobbying campaigns against Prohibition, among other things. You can bet that, with the outbreak of World War I, some would have wanted their membership lists subpoenaed by the NSA.
Iowa’s German immigrants did benefit from government benefits
The biggest pushback I get in drawing a parallel between Iowa’s German immigrants and today’s immigrants is the argument that today’s immigrants get tons of government “freebies,” while Iowa’s immigrants back in the 19th century didn’t.
I’ll leave the accuracy of what today’s immigrants get to the experts.
I do know this: Our German immigrant grandparents (my great-grandfather was one) got plenty of government benefits.
For starters, affordable education at country schoolhouses and Land Grant colleges. Price supports. Rural Electrification. Crop insurance. Conservation Reserve Program. Roads, highways and interstates.
And in the 19th century, they got the biggest government benefit of all — land.
True, only a tiny fraction of Iowans got truly “free land” from the government. Iowa was settled before the Homestead Act of 1862, so only 2.5 percent of Iowa farms were homesteaded.
But much of Iowa land — 33.7 percent — was direct government sale at bargain basement prices. Land was sold at $1.25 per acre, $100 for 80 acres of land. The price was pegged to 1833 prices for much of the 19th century.
Think of buying land today at 1965 prices.
Opa and Oma may not have gotten free land, but they got deep, deep discounts from Uncle Sam. So deep, I doubt it would withstand an IRS audit.
I think today’s immigrants would give anything to buy land at comparably cheap prices. There was an additional way German immigrants did receive Iowa land. It was free of charge, though not at all free of service and sacrifice.
Much of Iowa’s land — nearly 40 percent — was granted to military veterans in exchange for their service. Abraham Lincoln won two parcels of Iowa land this way — one in Tama, one in Crawford County — for his service in the Blackhawk Indian War.
Many German immigrants won their original homesteads this way — a pathway not to citizenship, but to land ownership.
And Opa Trump?
A recent book, “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire,” lays out the fascinating immigrant history — and paradoxes — of the Trump family.
Friedrich Drumpf arrived in the U.S. in 1885 — ironically, three years after passage of America’s first anti-immigrant law, the Chinese Exclusion Act — and promptly Americanized his name to Frederick Trump. Trump came from Kallstadt in northern Bavaria, the same exact region from which many western Iowans emigrated.
Once in America, Trump headed west, settling in Seattle and then the Yukon, where he ran saloons that rented “private rooms” — the sort of activity that sparked deep protest from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
One parallel between grandfather and grandson: They both prefer European brides. Frederick Trump returned to the Old Country to court the “fräulein” next door — Donald Trump’s grandmother.
Opa Trump was incredibly hardworking, laying the foundation for the family dynasty that created the success that is Donald Trump.
It turns out Western Iowa’s German forebears — and Opa Trump — have even more in common with today’s immigrants — and refugees — than appeared at first blush.
After just celebrating Thanksgiving, we should also remember the first Thanksgiving of 1621 — the harvest festival of the first European refugees to America, the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian allies. We should all give thanks for the bounty America has given to all of its immigrants, refugees and their grandchildren.
And, as the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians did at the first Thanksgiving, we should realize there is strength in our diversity, and diverse alliances and friendships. CV
Dan Manatt is a documentary filmmaker and Director of “Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing True Story of the Templeton Bootleggers” (WhiskeyCookers.com), winner of Best Documentary at the Iowa Independent and Wild Rose Film Festivals. His family is originally from Audubon County.