Montana has come a long way since 1918, when the state banned the teaching of the German language, burned German textbooks, restricted the possession of guns to Germans, and passed a sedition law that became a model for the federal law on sedition.
Today 16 German exchange students attend Hellgate High School in one of Missoula’s two ‘sister cities’, Neckargemund, Germany. (Palmerston North, New Zealand, is the other.)
On Sunday, hundreds of local residents gathered in Caras Park to welcome exchange students and celebrate German-American heritage and culture at 26e Missoula Germanfest.
“As Missoula increasingly becomes an international city, with refugees and businesses, it’s time to act as an international city,” said Tom Bensen, executive director of Arts Missoula, which sponsors and organizes the annual event. “The sister cities program is a form of cultural diplomacy, to promote peace and understanding. “
More than 2,000 cities, states and counties in the United States partner with 140 countries around the world as part of Sister Cities International, a non-profit organization born out of the citizen diplomacy initiative “National League of Cities “of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956” to create and strengthen partnerships between communities in other countries “and” to establish global cooperation at the municipal level, promote cultural understanding and stimulate economic development “.
“I think it’s significant that it took a man of war (Eisenhower) to launch a peace program,” Bensen said.
Retired University of Montana Professor and Dean Gerald Fetz helped launch the Neckargemund-Missoula Twin Cities Partnership after a Fulbright-sponsored faculty exchange with Professor Erich Pohl of Heidelberg, Germany, in only 10 km downstream from Neckargemund.
After the visit of a German delegation to Missoula and the visit of the Mendelssohn Club Choir of Missoula in Germany – accompanied by the then mayor, Dan Kemmis – an official “friendship commitment” of the twin city was signed by Kemmis and Neckargemund Burgermeister Oskar Shuster in 1993.
“We have German students here this year, and next year some of our students will go there,” Fetz said. “It’s a great opportunity to get to know another part of the world. We have a lot in common. “
Neckargemund, too, has a river running through it; the Neckar, a tributary of the Rhine, near its confluence with the river Elsenz. (The word Neckargemund translates to “confluence of the Neckar.”)
“We don’t have your mountains, but we have a river,” said Felix, one of the high school students from Neckargemund. “It’s a lot warmer in here,” added Phil, another exchange student. Both said they thought Montana was “beautiful”.
The faculty and student exchanges now involve two universities and three public high schools in Missoula and their German counterparts, as well as exchanges of art and photo exhibitions and numerous tours to and from the two cities.
And every year since 1993, the Missoula Sister Cities Committee for Neckargemund has organized a German party to celebrate all that is German.
On Sundays, bratwurst and sauerkraut were available, of course, as was plenty of beer for those of legal drinking age. The Stevensville German Bakery sold pretzels, keine bisse and kase stangen.
For many, the festivities started on Saturday at the Oktoberfest at Bayern Brewery.
“There were 300 to 400 people there,” said Shawna Chandler, Bayern’s marketing and events coordinator. “There was a giant line from the Congo. Our master brewer Thorsten even joined us, wearing his lederhosen. It got a little crazy.
Frank Clinch traveled from Great Falls for the festival. “I grew up in a pretty ethnic family and have always enjoyed this aspect of Montana,” he said. “A diversity of people brings different kinds of culture to the mix, and I like to share that with people.”
“I have German origins,” says Joe Rangitsch of Helena. “So I came to explore this a bit. “
According to the US Census Bureau, German Americans are the largest self-reported ethnic group in the United States, at approximately 44 million. The first significant group arrived in the United States in the 1670s. An estimated 8 million Germans arrived in the 19e century. 7.5 million more arrived between 1820 and 1870, drawn to the United States in hopes of finding religious freedom, economic opportunity, and land.
Today, about 27% of Montana’s residents are of German descent, the seventh highest percentage in the country. (Neighboring North Dakota is No. 1, at nearly 44%.)
They opened the first kindergartens in America and introduced Christmas trees. They brought us hot dogs and burgers. While they didn’t invent beer, they helped perfect it by introducing hops into the process and developing larger kettles, improving both quality and quantity.
But they weren’t always treated so well.
“Montana has led the nation in cracking down on German immigrants,” according to a report from the Montana Historical Society. When the United States entered World War I, fear of “communists” was widespread. The Germans, seen as “unpatriotic”, were seen as a serious threat. Some Montana farmers have expressed concern that the Germans are taking control of their properties.
Montana historian K. Ross Toole once wrote: “No state in the Union has embarked on the same orgy of book burning, inquisition of suspected traitors, and general hysteria as Montana.
It was a difficult past to imagine at Caras Park on Sunday, as people raised their mugs and shouted “Prost!” To their collective German heritage.