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February 02, 2008  |  The Germans are coming! The Germans are coming!  |  5802 hit(s)

Reading history has many rewards. One is learning things that you either didn't know, or as often happens to me, that you thought you knew but ain't necessarily so. Another reward is that history writers can be an unexpectedly entertaining lot. For example, consider this informative passage from Inventing a Nation by Gore Vidal:
A month before Second Continental Congress assembled [in May 1775], British troops fired, at Lexington in Massachusetts, on some American armed "minute men." Although eight Americans were killed, the British discovered to their no doubt horror, that American farmers and backwoodsmen did not fight fair. Instead of wearing bright red uniforms, visible for miles around, they tended to hide behind trees, bushes, and rocks, and, if nothing else, America was extraordinarily rich in these rustic objects. Where British soldiers strutted into battle in well-drilled ranks, the Americans slouched from bush to protecting wall and then, invisibly, fired at will. They were like ... well, no other word for it, indians.
Dang. This put in motion some events that ultimately had a profound effect on American history, altho not in the way that was initially intended.
This sickening discovery was swiftly relayed back to London. King George III, who had made the monumental mistake of learning English, was very much the head of the war party, and so, more in anger than in sorrow, he dropped the mask of Mr. Nice Guy.[1] He would now use his indians, some thirty thousand German soldiers, mostly from Hesse, a Rhineland province bordering his family's Hanoverian place of origin. The Hessians turned out to be more generally effective than the American or, indeed, the British troops.
There's a whole story on why Germany was such a rich source of mercenaries, which we won't get into here. (This is alluded to in the opera The Marriage of Figaro, believe it or not.) And let us not pass up the opportunity to point out that the so-called House of Windsor (now) was originally the Hanoverians, and had -- as noted -- only in the generation of George III gotten around to learning the language of their subjects. Now an interesting twist.
They [the Hessians] were also considered uncommonly attractive by American girls, who found the homegrown lads a bit on the scrawny, sallow side, later to be caricatured as "Uncle Sam." By the end of the Revolution, a great many Hessians had married American girls and settled down as contented farmers in the German sections of Pennsylvania and Delaware, their lubricious descendants to this day magically peopling the novels of Mr. John Updike.
Ooh, isn't that a nice little jab at the end?

And what of all this? Well, if you had the same education that I did (and as I've noted before), you generally think of the US as essentially an English colony, and Americans as mostly British descendants, with a smattering of immigrants to come along later and do all the dirty work until they could move to the suburbs. Not so. According to 2000 census data (and before that), the largest "ancestry group" in the US -- 17% -- is German. Not all of those Germans (of which I am one, in fact, on one side) derive from those good-looking Hessians -- there was a huge influx during the unrest of the so-called Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But the next time you partake of such "American" culinary institutions as wieners, frankfurters, bratwurst, hamburgers, and potato salad, or of course "lite" beer, think about where those all came from. and maybe have a little re-think on what you know about American history.


[1] Ironically intended, I assume. At no point in the history around the American rebellion was George III ever "Mr Nice Guy."