Exploring the German influence on American culture

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Lynne Breen of Lansing had little intention of writing a book when she first sat down in 2014 with 89-year-old Grand Ledge resident Ernst Floeter, who first came to the United States as a prisoner of war. Like most prisoners of war, Floeter was sent back to Germany, but his love of America brought him and his spouse back to the U.S.

Ernst became a fixture in Grand Ledge, portraying Uncle Sam in the Fourth of July parade and serving as the chairman of the town’s bicentennial celebration of the U.S. He also became well known for his photography business.

Lynne and Floeter ended up cowriting his memoir, “I’ll See You Again, Lady Liberty.”

“We met for about five months at the Logjam restaurant in Grand Ledge, where I took notes. The next week I would give him a chapter to work on,” Breen said.

When the book was released, Breen said, “There were people lined up out the back door of the Logjam.”

Floeter died in 2015, only a short while after the book was published. He had inspired Breen to keep writing about something that was near and dear to his heart — the goodness and ingenuity of Germans and the great influence they played in American culture.

During his later years, Floeter would lecture at schools and community groups about the “goodness” of German Americans. Breen has taken up that mantle with the new, 237-page book, “How German Ingenuity Inspired America: More Fun, More Beauty and More Freedom,” which was recently published by the German American Heritage Foundation of the USA.

The beautifully illustrated, flawlessly documented coffee table book details from A-Z (Astaire to Ziegfeld) the impact German creativity has had on the U.S., since German immigrants began making their way here seeking a better life. Breen’s book documents that influence with passages on beer, sausages, music, science, arts, religion and architecture among others.

The book is a pleasure to leaf through, and it’s an even bigger pleasure to learn just how deep the German influence is across the country. Also included is an obligatory piece on Frankenmuth.

Assisted by friends, who would send her articles about the German influence, Breen also did something surprisingly simple to uncover its breadth.

“My husband has a large collection of nonfiction books and I would look for the letter ‘G’ for Germans in the index,” she said.

Some of the entries are obvious like Albert Einstein, beer and Beethoven, but it would be a good wager that most of us couldn’t name the device invented by a German that had a major influence on rock ‘n’ roll. The Wurlitzer jukebox was created by Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer in the 1850s as an offshoot of his previous venture, creating band organs for carousels, which were introduced in the U.S. by another German, Gustav A. Dentzel. And then there’s The Mommas and Poppas and the Hohner Harmonica, which both have German roots.

Breen, who is only part German, had never visited Germany. In short order, she has become a font of information on German influence in America. She even threw back some Jägermeister in the name of research.

“People were egging me on to down it,” she said

Some 20 entries in the book speak specifically to the German influence in Michigan, including the Fisher Building in Detroit, designed by Albert Kahn, the Niles train station, designed by Frederick Spier and William Rohns, and the original Stroh’s Brewery building, designed by Detroiter Heinz Prechter, among others.

Breen also said she came across a German influence during her research that will be the topic of her next book.

“While researching, I came across Germans’ role in the Underground Railroad, the election of Lincoln and ending slavery,” she said.

In the book, she quotes abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “A German has only to be a German to be utterly opposed to slavery.” She also writes about Franz Daniel Pastorius, who led the first formal protest against slavery in the colonies.

You don’t have to be of German descent to embrace their impact on our culture. Think about the Hummel on your shelf, the Steiff bear in your child’s bed or those wonderful Cracker Jacks, all created by Germans.

German food also has grown to be a staple in our epicurean lives and includes schnitzel, sauerkraut, and the barbecue favorite bratwurst. And with Easter this weekend, give credit to the Germans for giving us not only Santa Claus, but colored eggs and the chocolate Easter Bunny.

Breen has her own favorite German influence in her life. “Growing up our family listened to music standards. I had no idea Tin Pan Alley has a German connection,” Breen said. “So many of the songs were by German Americans.”

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