Migration and Citizenship. Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington; Transatlantic History Student Organization. Co-sponsored by the department of History, Phi Alpha Theta, Barksdale Lecture Series, Dean of Liberal Arts, and the Student Governance Office., 19.10.2006.
Reviewed by Thomas Adam
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (November, 2006)
Migration and Citizenship
The seventh annual graduate student history symposium brought together six graduate students from various American and Austrian universities and two featured speakers from Canada and the United States to discuss their research on migration and citizenship from the colonial era to the post-World War II period. The symposium was divided into two panels. Each panel concluded with a featured lecture by two distinguished historians in the field of migration. The first panel examined the issues of migration and integration in the United States from the Colonial period to the Civil War. In his paper, “Citizenship and Ethnicity in Early Louisiana,” Michael Beauchamp argued that while Americans were dominant in shaping politics in New Orleans, the real contours of political development emerged in the countryside. This development was dependent on the interactions of French and Anglo-Americans and “on the demographics and economic bases of individual parish political communities.” Defining American citizenship was a continuous and dynamic process; and despite differences in race, ethnicity, and economics, the sense of citizenship gradually evolved through political and economic cooperation among the various immigrant groups in their parish communities. Paul Rutschmann in his paper, “Culture and Mentality of German Regiments during the Civil War,” argued that the concept of identity for soldiers of German background was dual in nature. This duality was expressed through preservation of the German language and culture and through reference to the original goals of the American Revolution that had guided the German revolutions of 1848. Based on an examination of letters and memoirs, Rutschmann used the example of those soldiers to suggest that the Union army was not a mirror of a unified nation; rather it reflected a fractured and multicultural society. The German soldiers were representative of various nationalities who participated in the war and believed in a cause whose ideals were embedded in notions of national unity and cultural integration. Derek Dean argued in his paper, “Jewish Immigration and Assimilation in Savannah, Georgia during the Colonial Period,” that both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, who settled in Oglethorpe’s chartered colony, formed the idea of citizenship on “the foundation of equality and freedom of worship,” instead of on demands for full integration in the dominant Protestant society. Despite their encounters with anti-Semitism, these Jewish colonists developed a sense of citizenship through their identification with the revolutionary ideals of liberty; and as good patriots they demonstrated citizenship as soldiers fighting for the common cause in liberating the colonies from British control. Labeled by Georgia’s governor as “Whiggish Jews,” or “extremists,” these Jewish patriots sought “citizenship and a semblance of equality through perseverance, assimilation, loyalty, and independence.” Dean situated the particularity of this colonial concept of Jewish-American citizenship within the broader framework of the more general historiographical perspective in which America is portrayed as a nation colonized “on the foundations of ecclesiastical citizenship.” Walter Kamphoefner, focusing on the German migration to Texas throughout the nineteenth century, discussed the position of German immigrants between the opposite poles of reluctant Americanzers and poster-child minority. From the viewpoint of a social historian, who has dedicated his life to the investigation of the social structure of German migrants, Kamphoefner analyzed the German minority with regards to its professional structure, settlement patterns, German schools and education, and the German attitudes towards the American Civil War. Using various examples of Texas-German breweries, schools, language, and architecture, Kamphoefner described a continuity of German culture and heritage throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The second panel focused on the relation between citizenship and identity. Simon Loidl examined in his paper, “Austrian Communists in the United States, 1938-1945,” a group of Social Democratic and Communist Austrian immigrants who lived on the margins of American society, and who politically worked ineffectually in isolation and secrecy. The ambivalence of U.S. officials toward the Austrian political émigrés from 1938 to 1955 illustrates the complex relationship between identity and citizenship. During the war, U.S. authorities ignored the illegal status of Communist immigrants since they could provide information regarding Nazi activities in Europe. But as anti-Communist rhetoric gained momentum after the war, possibilities of integration into American society, or the wish to gain American citizenship, diminished significantly for these Austrians as the House Committee of Un-American Activities tagged them as outsiders and Communists. As a result, these former anti-Nazi allies discovered that their notions of identity and citizenship were nothing more than amorphous concepts. They found themselves trapped in a no-man’s-land where they could neither return to the past as Austrians nor look to the future as Americans. Sara Fanning argued in her paper, “The Land of Promise,” that Haiti of the mid 1820s was more than just an emigrant destination for free Northern blacks, who were attracted to an independent nation that “espoused republican values of citizenship, equality and liberty; sought respect on the world stage; celebrated the blackness of its citizens; and publicly avowed black racial pride,” but it also represented the “quintessence of black nationalism.” What began as migration to a world full of promise ended in remigration; thus, Haiti began as a land of promise and ended as a land of disillusionment. Not only were these northern black emigrants confronted with heavy taxation and abrogation of voting rights, but they were also confronted with a culturally different world in which they were estranged by the “preponderance of African rituals and beliefs.” The strangeness of Haitian culture ultimately proved far more disconcerting than the known racial discrimination previously suffered in North America. By returning to the United States, these free northern blacks demonstrated that citizenship is linked with having to persevere in a country whose hardships and culture are known rather than having to assimilate in a country whose hardships and culture are bewildering and unknown. David Zwart’s paper, “Hearing from Home: Dutch Americans and the Netherlands Information Bureau (NIB): 1940-1950,” was a comparative study that examines the changes in ethnic identity of Dutch-Americans in Holland, Michigan as the homeland sought to communicate a message of Dutch modernity to Americans during World War II to prove itself as a reliable partner against European Fascism. The NIB presented an image of the Netherlands “as a modern country with a worldwide empire.” This image conflicted with the conservative minded emigrant community’s image which, with its tulip festivals and dancing girls in wooden shoes, “memorialized the homeland as a quaint, pastoral, country.” The emigrant community’s reception of the NIB message was a mixture of appropriation and rejection. This mixed reception serves Zwart’s purposes well in demonstrating that ethnic identity in a new homeland was as much dependent on self-perception as it was dependent on “world events and efforts of the homeland to communicate with their migrants abroad.” Alexander Freund concluded the panel with his discussion of the German Diaspora and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) among German migrants to Canada in the post World War II period. Freund suggested that Germans who chose to live in Canada could not escape confrontation with the past since they had to face, on a daily basis, members of ethnic and religious groups that had been persecuted by Nazi Germany. In contrast to Germany, which remained a closed and mono-ethnic society in which Germans rarely encountered people of other backgrounds, Vergangenheitsbewältigung actually worked in North America.
The discussion at the workshop focused on the relationship between identity and citizenship in a multicultural society and paved the way for further discussions on the broader issues of integration, assimilation, and acculturation in a nation that prides itself as a nation of immigrants. It became clear throughout the presentations that the concept of citizenship is intricately bound with aspirations of belonging to a new society and the desire of maintaining former cultural traditions. One topic, which is one of patriotism and its relationship to obtaining citizenship, could have received more attention. As these papers remind us, various immigrant groups have readily taken up the banner for America’s war time goals, from the revolutionary era to World War II, and have thus seen participation in uniform as a means to demonstrate worthiness of securing citizenship. The Jews of colonial Georgia, the Germans of the Northern states, the Dutch of Michigan, and the Austrian Communists of the late 1930s, sought citizenship through picking up arms or providing information for America’s cause. In this sense, the active means by which immigrants attempt to gain admittance into a new society reflect the broader purpose of this symposium in drawing attention to current debates over definitions of citizenship and illegal immigration. The U.S. military has served, and still serves, as one of the most ostensible testing grounds for immigrants to seek acceptance as citizens. Today, many Hispanic and Asian residents of the United States seek to obtain citizenship by serving in America’s war against terrorism. The idea here, one which immigrants have repeatedly grasped, is that the military provides the speediest path to Americanization.
The role of language was noticeably absent from the discussions. And this is surprising since the use of language is often seen as one of the most distinguishing cultural factors by which specific groups of people identifies themselves. The Germans in Texas, or the Germans in the Union forces, could insist on preserving their cultural identity through speaking the language of home; yet they could also speak English with one another to show that they too were American. Definitions of citizenship defy precise formulation for the basic reason that citizenship resides in the consciousness of an immigrant, relying less on government stipulated standards and rules, and entails the long process of transition from an older set of cultural traditions to those of an adopted homeland. It can scarcely be determined at what point in time an immigrant becomes a full fledged American since we can hardly determine the factors that contribute solely and uniquely to an identity of an American. Immigrants will continually struggle with questions of identity and will have to establish their sense of citizenship in their own terms.
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