Missoula celebrates German heritage and sister city exchange

Montana has come a long way since 1918, when the state banned German language instruction, burned German textbooks, restricted gun ownership for Germans, and passed a sedition law that became a model for federal sedition law.

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 the 26e Missoula German Day.

“As Missoula increasingly becomes an international city, with refugees and businesses, it’s time to act like 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 are associated with 140 countries around the world through Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization born out of the United States’ National League of Cities’ citizen diplomacy initiative. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 “to create and strengthen partnerships among 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 start a peace program,” Bensen said.

Retired University of Montana professor and dean Gerald Fetz helped launch the sister city partnership between Neckargemund and Missoula after a Fulbright-sponsored faculty exchange with Professor Erich Pohl of Heidelberg, Germany, in only 6 miles downriver from Neckargemund.

After a German delegation visited Missoula and the Mendelssohn Club Choir of Missoula traveled to Germany – accompanied by then-Mayor of Missoula Dan Kemmis – an official “pledge of friendship” from the sister 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 discover 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 where it merges with the Elsenz River. (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 much warmer here,” added Phil, another exchange student. The two said they think Montana is “beautiful.”

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 exhibits and extensive visits to and from both cities.

And every year since 1993, the Missoula Sister-City Committee of Neckargemund has held a Germanfest to celebrate all things German.

On Sundays, bratwurst and sauerkraut were available, of course, as was plenty of beer for those of legal drinking age. The German bakery in Stevensville sold pretzels, keine bisse and kase stangen.

For many, the festivities began on Saturday at the related Oktoberfest at the Bayern Brewery.

“There were 300 to 400 people there,” Bayern marketing and events coordinator Shawna Chandler said. “There was a giant line from the Congo. Our master brewer Thorsten even joined us, dressed in his lederhosen. It got a little crazy. »

Frank Clinch traveled from Great Falls for the Fest. “I grew up in a fairly ethnic family and always enjoyed that side of Montana,” he said. “A diversity of people brings different kinds of culture to the mix, and I love sharing that with people.”

“I have German heritage,” says Joe Rangitsch, of Helena. “So I came to explore that 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. Another 7.5 million arrived between 1820 and 1870, lured to the United States in hopes of finding religious freedom, economic opportunity, and land.

Today, about 27% of Montana 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. Although they didn’t invent beer, they helped perfect it by introducing hops to the process and developing larger kettles, improving quality and quantity.

But they weren’t always treated so well.

“Montana led the nation in the crackdown on German immigrants,” according to a report by the Montana Historical Society. When the United States entered World War I, fear of “communists” was widespread. The Germans, considered “unpatriotic”, were seen as a serious threat. Some farmers in Montana expressed concern that the Germans were taking over their properties.

Montana historian K. Ross Toole once wrote, “No state in the union has engaged in the same orgy of book burning, inquisition of suspected traitors, and general hysteria as the Montana.”

It was a hard-to-imagine past at Caras Park on Sunday, as people raised their mugs and shouted “Prost!” to their collective German heritage.