Why did Americans try so hard to hide their German heritage?

German heritage ?

It’s still Spring Break for the Rochereul-Portier’s family. Time to share an interesting article concerning Donald Trump’s German roots. This article from The Economist originally appeared in the print issue of February 13, 2016

“How the German heritage he has hidden shaped Donald Trump”.

MANY ingredients went into making Donald Trump. An under-appreciated one is the distinctively German, or rather Kallstadtian, tinge to his family history. Mr Trump is descended from German immigrants who arrived in America penniless and succeeded quickly through hard work, a free relationship with the truth, opportunism, shrewd business tactics and a great sense of family loyalty. Fred Trump, Donald’s father, who was a strict taskmaster with all his five children, told his three sons to be “killers”.

Fred Trump’s father, Friedrich Trump, came to America in 1885 as a 16-year-old from Kallstadt, a village in Rhineland-Palatinate, a region known for wine and stuffed pig’s stomach. After working for a few years as a barber in New York, he headed west and opened a restaurant in a mining town in Washington state where workmen were treated to hearty food, liquor and assignations with women in the back rooms of the establishment. Having amassed a nest-egg, Friedrich returned to Kallstadt to marry Elisabeth Christ, the girl next door, whom he took with him to America. Elisabeth was homesick, so they soon went back to Germany. Yet the authorities refused to let them repatriate because they said Friedrich, who was an American citizen by then, had dodged his military service. The young Trumps were thus forced to emigrate to America. In 1905 their first son, Fred, was born in New York.

When Fred Trump was 11 America entered the first world war and a period of intense anti-German sentiment followed, abating in the interwar years and then flaring up again during the second world war. German books were burnt, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and frankfurters became “hot dogs”. Friedrich died of Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of only 49 and left Fred and his mother a tidy sum of money, which they used to set up a company, E. Trump & Son, and invested in property. After graduation from high school in 1923, Fred started to work full-time in construction. He realised quickly that his German origins could be a hindrance, so he pretended that his parents were Swedish, though his mother spoke English with a thick German accent and baked Apfeltorte for family reunions.

Donald was Fred Trump’s favourite child, and followed him into the building business. “Fred taught Donald a lot and he was a very good student,” says Gwenda Blair, the author of a book on three generations of Trumps. Part of Donald Trump’s success in the casino and property business was down to his early understanding of the power of branding. “Trump” lends itself to big lettering on buildings because it suggests luck and success. Like his father, though, he thought his German origins might not endear him to possible backers. He stuck to Fred’s tale and wrote in his autobiography, “Trump: The Art of the Deal”, that his father was of Swedish descent. Challenged on this point in an interview with Vanity Fair in 1990, he replied: “My father was not German; my father’s parents were German…Swedish, and really sort of all over Europe.”

The Trumps were typical of German-Americans, the country’s biggest single ethnic group, in trying so hard to assimilate and obscuring their origins. Yet Donald Trump has occasionally changed his story. Simone Wendel, a filmmaker from Kallstadt, visited him at Trump Tower a few years ago for her documentary “Kings of Kallstadt”, a portrait of this village of 1,200 inhabitants, which also produced the Heinz family, founders of the Ketchup empire. He was rather reserved at first during the meeting, says Ms Wedel, but he warmed to the topic when she showed him photographs of his grandparents and of his grandfather’s modest house. “I love Kallstadt,” says Mr Trump in her documentary. “Ich bin ein Kallstädter.”

The braggadocious Mr Trump has probably more Kallstadt in him than he knows. The people of Kallstadt are affectionately known as Brulljesmacher, meaning braggart in the regional dialect. Were he to become president, Mr Trump would not be the first occupant of the White House of German descent. Dwight Eisenhower’s family was originally called Eisenhauer and hailed from Karlsbrunn, close to the German-French border. Herbert Hoover’s ancestors were called Huber and came from Baden in southern Germany. They both made little of their origins—but they did not go so far as to invent new ones.

Foto credit by Gage Skidmore

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