History of Germany before the Great Wave of Immigration to America
Written by Joseph Degenfelder, Ohio

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The following is an excerpt from a summation in 1997 to provide the background of European history, which with its frequent warrings and rule of monarchies explain why the common man would take a risk on America. As late as 1790, 60% of the population of the United States, including black slaves, were English or Scottish descendants. The great wave of German immigration began in the 1830s and extended to great grandfather John Degenfelder before 1860 (naturalized in 1864).

Napoleon Bonaparte was the Man of Destiny to many Frenchmen, the most brilliant ruler in their country's long history. To most other Europeans, Napoleon was the warring Man on Horseback. He was the enemy of national independence; the foreigner who imposed French control and French reforms. As French conquests accumulated, and as nominally free countries became French puppets, Europe grew to hate the insatiable imperialism of Napoleon. Napoleonic France succeeded in building a vast empire, but only at the cost of arousing the implacable enmity of the other European nations.

By 1800 the second coalition against France had disintegrated. The third coalition combined all of the other powers against France. In 1805-1807, Napoleon routed Austria, Prussia, and Russia at large battles at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstadt, and Friedland. Under this latter-day Caesar almost all Europe could be divided into three parts. First came the French Empire, including France proper and the territories annexed since 1789. Second were the satellites, ruled in many cases by the relatives of Napoleon. Third came Austria, Prussia, and Russia, forced by defeat to become the allies of France.

In this period, Austria was considered the "first Germany", and Prussia was the "second Germany". In 1803 the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss ("chief decree of the imperial deputation") abolished more than a hundred of the Germanic city-states and small ecclesiastical principalities. The chief beneficiaries of this readjustment were the south German states of Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Baden, which Napoleon intended to form into a "third Germany", dominated by France. In central Europe, Napoleon decreed a further reduction in the number of German States. In 1806 he finished the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, limiting the reigning Hapsburg to emperor of Austria. To replace the vanished empire, Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, which included almost every German state except Austria and Prussia.

In 1848 liberalism and nationalism won initial victories and then collapsed in the face of internal dissension and Austrian resistance. Drastic reform of the German Confederation began in May 1848, when a constitutional convention held its first session at Frankfurt, the capital of the Confederation. Its 830 members, popularly elected through out Germany, represented the flower of the German intelligentsia - 18 doctors, 33 clergymen, 49 university professors, 57 schoolteachers, 223 lawyers and judges. While some 140 deputies were businessman, there was only one dirt farmer, and not a single laboring man. The Frankfurt Assembly lacked a broad popular base, and many of its members lacked political experience.

The Frankfurt constitution died aborning. The Assembly elected the King of Prussia to be its emperor, but Frederick William IV, alarmed by Austrian opposition, ignored his promises of March 1848 and rejected the offer. German liberalism had suffered a major defeat. After the initial shock of the revolutions, the professional and business classes began to fear the radicalism of the workers and artisans. The German princes soon either revoked or abridged the constitutions that they had granted in 1848.

Germany emerged as a great continental power only after 1850, although millions of Germans had lived in Europe for a millennium. The Kingdom of Prussia had driven German unification. Characteristic Prussian attitudes had overcome other German ways of looking at society and had imposed themselves on non-Prussians. The Prussian triumph was complete by 1871, and their militarism, authoritarianism and social/cultural tone prevailed at the start of the 20th century, and soon the Great War (now called World War I).

The first major question facing the statesmen of central Europe after the revolutions of 1848 was whether Prussia or Austria would dominate the German Confederation. Germany was a creation of the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna of 1814, and after being split by the upheaval in 1848, needed to be rebuilt. The "Big German" solution called for federation with Austria; the "Little German" solution called for separation from Austria, or even from South Germany. The "Little German" program meant Prussian domination of the non-Austrian states, and therefore became the goal of Chancellor Otto Von Bismark.

The period after 1848 opened with a defeat for a Prussian "Little German" solution. King Frederick William IV, who had refused to accept the imperial crown "from the gutter" when it was offered by the Frankfurt Assembly, still cherished the hope that the German princes might offer it to him. He formed the Erfurt Union of Princes to pool military resources, with the underlying aim being Prussian political dominance. The Austrians managed to bring Russian pressure to bear on Prussia. The Russian Czar opposed the unification of the Germans, no matter under whose auspices. In November 1850, the Prussians renounced the Erfurt Union and agreed to the revival of the Confederation.

Both the constitutional and economic foundation of future Prussian development were laid during the 1850's. The Prussian Constitution of 1850, which lasted to the end of World War I, provided for a bicameral legislature: a hereditary upper house including the nobles and royal appointees, and an elected lower house. But the method of electing this lower house made it certain that the popular will would be frustrated. Electors were divided into three classes, according to the amount of taxes they paid. The 4% of the electorate who paid high taxes selected one-third of the representatives. The 14% of middle taxpayers selected another third, and the remaining 82% of low taxpayers selected the last third. The preponderant power of the wealth is clear, a residue of the Junkers landowners who supported Prussia's rise to power.

Even so, the lower house had very little to do beyond the budget. Policy questions were decided in the upper house, or still more often by the King and his personal circle of military and political advisors. The King appointed his ministers, could veto any bill he disapproved, and had a fixed sum of money at his disposal for expenses. He had a special "military cabinet" for army affairs that reported neither to the ministers nor to the legislature. Practically, the King and the Junkers ran Prussia. The absolute monarchy that characterized 18th century France did not survive its 1789 revolution, while the new power Germany ignored the system of democratic government across the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, after Napoleon's exile in 1815, and after the failed revolutions of 1848, Germans from areas formerly governed by local princes emigrated to America. They went to eastern cities were the industrial revolution was taking place. Many kept in contact with their European families, through World War I and the Depressions. World War II broke most of these ties, and subsequent American prosperity further dimmed immigrant memories of families in the new world for the old.

Alsace-Lorraine is the area bounded by the Rhine River on the west, by the general line of the Moselle valley on the south running northwest, the Saar River on the north running from Luxembourg through Saarbrucken, and then a line east the Kalrsruhe on the Rhine. After the Thirty Years War and 700 years of German domination, Alsace was ceded to France by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Lorraine became part of France in 1766. The French Revolution gave way to the rise of Napoleon, enabling France to claim all German territory west of the Elbe River. Napoleonic imperialism aroused a nationalistic reaction among the traditionally disunited Germans. Some of the excesses of feudalism ended with the Edict of October 1807 by Baron Stein of the Rhineland, but all authority still rested with the King and army. The north Lorraine area was ceded to Prussia by the Treaty of Paris after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815. After winning the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Germany annexed all of Alsace and the other half of Lorraine.

In the second quarter of the 19th century, there was widespread emigration from the southern and western parts of Germany to the United States. Among the reasons for leaving were overproduction, overpopulation, and unavailability of land. It was also a time of prosperity in the U.S. Some of the Berus families settled in North Collins, south of a German concentration in Buffalo, which founded St Louis Church in 1833. Among these families were Nenno, Bodewein (Boardway), Lallemand (Lawman), Bouille (Ballard), Vinter (Winter), Schmitt (Smith), Gier, Demmerle and others. The German Catholic immigrants who settled in Langford, part of the town of North Collins, named their church in 1851 at St. Martin's, probably after St. Martin's in Berus.

My earliest immigrant ancestor to America was John Nenno, one of the founders of Langford, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1833. To descendents born in the first half of the 20th century he was known as "the carpenter from Lorraine". The Nenno family was from the village of Berus in Saarland, Germany. Berus is located directly on the French border, a few miles southwest of the city of Saarlouis. Berus was part of the one of the smaller German states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire until seized by Louis XIV of France in 1680.

Just three years later Jacob Johengen Sr and family arrived on the ship Austerlitz of New Orleans, departed port of Havre de Grace for New York under master Samuel R.T. Adams, arriving August 8, 1936.

Patriarch John Degenfelder arrived in New York, NY estimated before 1860; he was naturalized in 1864. With the aid of Theresa Degenfelder Denea, I acquired his wooden trunk with this inscription:

Passenger Gut
Johannes Degenfelder
aus Unterwiilfling
via Bremen, n New York

Joseph R. Degenfelder
October 1997

Edited on March 25, 2007 by Joseph R. Degenfelder
cc: Tom McFarland, Paul Doherty, Ida J. Wells