Thursday, October 14, 2010

Coming to America

The greatness of America, in innovative science and technology, or in expanding democratic freedoms to include more and more people, arises from its roots. What we call "American" ideals are actually European concepts: the dignity of every human life, freedom of expression, offering equal opportunity - such notions were brought to this continent by Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, Danes, Czechs, Swiss, Austrians, and others. How did this flow of people arrive in America, and why? Thomas Sowell, one of the first African-Americans to earn a doctorate from Harvard, writes:

Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the currents of the French Revolution, the conquests of Napoleon, and the Restoration of autocratic rule by the Congress of Vienna after Waterloo all profoundly affected German emigration. About half the overseas German emigrants of the post-Waterloo era went to South America, but from 1830 until World War I, most German overseas emigration was to the United States - as high as 90 percent or more in some years.

This wealth of intellectual creativity - inventors working on everything from telescopes to rockets, from pharmaceuticals to metallurgy - came to America looking for a safe environment in which to work, when their homelands became turbulent, oppressed, or overtaxed:

The rise of liberal and radical opposition to German autocracy led to the abortive Revolution of 1848, after which many fled to escape persecution, or in despair of achieving greater freedom, or simply to find greater social and economic opportunity elsewhere. Nearly a million Germans moved to the United States during the decade of the 1850's.

The timing was crucial - these newcomers would tip the scales in favor of Abraham Lincoln's abolitionist Republican party, and boldly promote the Republican agenda of ending slavery.

The presence of German settlements facilitated the movement of more Germans to the same country, and indeed often to the same region or city. But this depended on the good or bad experiences of earlier emigrants. The South American experience of early German emigrants provided warnings to others in Germany to change their destinations.

Just as harsh conditions dampened the early enthusiasm for moving to South America (who really wants to live in the Amazon rain forest?), the outbreak of the Civil War temporary reduced emigration to the United States for several years.

There were reductions of immigration to the United States associated with the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, and especially World War I. But in between, German immigration to America was massive. During the decade of the 1880's, about a million and a half Germans moved to the United States.

Again, note the timing - from Europe came the impetus, for example, to allow women to vote. Expanding notions of liberty were the heritage of the great philosophers and cultures, brought to America by these millions.

In the twentieth century, there were usually more immigrants to Germany than emigrants from Germany. Even after the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, repatriated Germans exceeded those leaving. Those leaving, however, included some of the leading German intellectuals and scientists - including a German Jew who would later give the United States the decisive military weapon of World War II, Albert Einstein, a pacifist who ushered in the nuclear age.

America benefited by welcoming some of the greatest minds - the spoils, plunder, and loot which the victors took from World War II were not in the form of jewels and gold, but in the form of intellectual leadership.