My mother’s family thought they were German. I say “thought” because my DNA indicates that they were not very German at all. Roughly ¾ of my DNA ancestry is Polish and I am more Scandinavian than German, according to the DNA. Since only half my ancestry could have come from my father, my mother’s DNA has a lot of ‘splaining to do. (If it was my father’s DNA difference, it might cause more of a scandal, ex-post-facto) Of course, DNA is not closely related to real nationality. My great grandparents on my mother’s side came from Germany, spoke German, drank beer like Germans and ate sausages like Germans, so that is my heritage on that side.
America is a very much a German influenced place. Germans around 1900 were like Hispanics today, only a greater percentage of the population. When Teddy Roosevelt complained about “hyphenated Americans,” he was talking about Germans. The 2000 census counted 58 million German Americans. Hispanics are assimilating like Germans did, BTW. States and local governments made rules against the use of the German language and native Americans feared Germans would take over the country. German immigrants and their children were majorities in many places (see the map). America absorbed all of that, and in the process lots of German things were modified to become American – apple pie, kindergarten, hamburgers, hot dogs, research universities, beer gardens …
How many Poles…?
My father’s family thought they were Polish, and the DNA confirms a lot of that. My grandfather was born in the Russian Empire and people ignorant of history might think he was Russian, but the empire thing explains his “true” nationality, just as a Indian living in the British Empire was not English. Similarly, my grandmother’s family was from Galicia in the Austrian Empire. She was not Austrian. They were Polish speakers and Polish ethnics living respectively in two of the three countries that held Poland in a colonial relationship in the 123 years from 1795 when Poland ceased to exist until 1918 when Poland was reborn.
Ethnicity is bunk
Ethnicity is complicated and ephemeral. We think about it reaching way into the past, but this is inaccurate. Whatever you think your ancestors were, you are wrong. Cultures have echoes but they must be recreated with each generation. There is an illusion of continuity. It really does not matter what you were, or thought you were. The past is a foreign country for ALL of us and it all is the common heritage of humanity It would be hard to find a contemporary American more different from me today than my great grandfather would have been.
That is why I am not proud of my ethnicity. I didn’t do anything to build it and it affects me only in kind of a sentimental way.
My own culture was cobbled together from disparate strands.
The Upper Midwest was like Mitteleuropa
I think basically that I am “ethnically” Wisconsin, but not Wisconsin of today, the one I grew up with. It was an amalgam of immigrants and old Yankees. We talked a lot about dairy in Wisconsin. That came from immigrants from Central Europe and Scandinavia, but also from immigrants from New England and New York state. They gave us our cheddar, but we invented Colby, which is better. Wisconsin had superb sausages. Our beer sucked when I was young, but that we before the craft brewing renaissance. I learned to love the rolling hills of the glaciated land, all the little lakes and the big one, Lake Michigan. And I learned to love the Green Bay Packers. These things are still “home.” Should I be proud of this? It is part of me, but that is what it is. This ethnicity is much stronger than anything my genetic ancestors were in centuries past.
Greeks and Latins
A part of my heritage that I am somewhat proud about is my classical education. This is a completely artificial addition to my “culture,” which is precisely why I can take some pride in it. If I could trace my ancestry back to AD 1, my ancestors would be those barbarians that the civilized folks fought, feared, conquered and enslaved. But the civilized folks wrote literature and developed philosophy and I claim them as my forebearers as my common heritage of humanity.
America swallows ethnicity
The biggest part of my heritage is American, just American. None of my ancestors were here for the first part of the American experiment. I suppose I can claim kinship with Kosciusko, Pulaski and Von Steuben, who helped America win its independence, but that is a reach. But I absorbed the experience of the Founding Fathers, the westward expansion, the Civil War and the industrial expansion. My folks got here in time to work in the factories that gave us modern America and fight in the World Wars that kept us free. My German family members fought with equal enthusiasm against their erstwhile German relatives.
The great thing about being American is that we can forget or recall our ethnicity at our option. I like lots of the thing Germans and Poles contributed to America, but most of the things I like are from some other sources. I like bratwurst, but generally prefer pizza and I know both those things are American.
I love cultural appropriation
In fact, most things I like are mixed and matched. Americans pick what they like best from around the world. You don’t have to be from a place or of a people to take what you think best. All good cultures are glad to share and all great cultures are promiscuous “borrowers.”
So, am I proud of my ethnic heritage? I am proud to be an American and grateful that my ancestors made the choice to come and join America.
My Polish cousin
I met one of my cousins when I was in Poland. His name was Henrick Matel. His father was my grandfather’s brother. His father went to France to dig coal, while my grandfather came to America, where he worked in a junkyard. Neither had an auspicious start. I think Henrick kinda looked like me, but lots of people in Poland look like me. All that DNA gives you a distinctive look. Our families had diverged only one generation ago in his case, and two in mine, yet we were not similar besides in having blue eyes and not much hair. He was maybe twenty years older than I was, i.e. he was a little younger than I am now. But he was old and infirm. Living in communist Poland did that to people. And I was American. He commented that I was so upbeat and optimistic, that I smiled easily. He said, a bit ruefully, that I had a lot more to be happy about, and he was right. My grandfather chose to be American. He never was materially successful in his new country. He worked all his life in crappy jobs, but he was a free man.
A heritage of freedom
Freedom is my ethnic heritage because I am American. I am proud of my country. I am not proud of my ethnicity that I did nothing to earn, but I am profoundly grateful that grandpa made the right move.
My first picture is my mix of heritage. Espen Matel bought me the German style hat and the Christmas tree is a German tradition. We got the creche in Poland. On the other hand, I have my cowboy style belt buckle and in the background are posters from Chicago and from our American National Parks. The map shows how widespread Germans were/are. They are the light blue.