Vol 32 (2012): Special Issue: Making Educational Oral Histories in the 21st Century

“It Always Kinda’ Frightened Them That They’d Be Sent Back”: German American Origin Stories from Southwestern Illinois


This article considers oral history from elderly second and third generation German Americans from the Midwestern United States whose families experienced intensive government-sponsored Americanization and language restriction during the first half of the twentieth century. These periods of anti-German sentiment abruptly ended German language practices in schools, churches and communities and complicated the process of identifying as German ethnics. This article examines a subset of collected testimonies, “Origin Stories”, which broadly concern a family’s migration from Germany to the United States and the early experiences of settlement and adaptation. In this testimony, narrators remember what it was like to be an “outsider” or to be singled out because of their ethnicity and German language use during both World Wars. Despite these testimonies, many of the youngest generations in these communities know little about the experiences of anti-German sentiment faced by their grandparents and great grandparents. As an educational researcher interested in historical immigration, I use methods of oral history to examine how members of these German American communities make sense of this important social history and the particular ways they communicate these interpretations across generations.