The University of Iowa

In the news: immigration then and now: from German Iowans to today's refugees

March 7th, 2017
Glenn Ehrstine

Glenn Ehrstine

Glenn Ehrstine, Guest Opinion, Iowa City Press Citizen

Next month will mark the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917. As U.S. troops joined the forces of Great Britain, France, and other allies against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, patriotic Americans across the country sought to do their part for the war at home. Those efforts included buying Liberty Bonds, planting Victory Gardens, and, for many in Iowa and elsewhere, keeping a close eye on the suspected enemy loyalists in their midst: the millions of German Americans who had immigrated to the U.S. in the decades prior to the war. In today’s environment of anti-immigrant sentiment, many Iowan families still preserve stories of the ostracism and scapegoating suffered by grandparents and great-grandparents a century ago.

From 1850 through the 1980s, German immigrants comprised the largest ethnic group in Iowa. German settlement in the state peaked around 1890: Nearly 7 percent of the state’s approximately 2 million residents at the time had been born in Germany — 40 percent of all foreign-born residents. When one factors in second-generation German-Iowans, a likely 10-15 percent of the state’s population spoke German as their first or second language around 1900. For decades prior to WWI, when Iowans thought of “foreigners” or “immigrants,” they thought first of their German-speaking neighbors, who retained ties to their ancestral home through language and kinship.