German revolutionary Carl Schurz was an all-American hero. A teacher who climbed the barricades during the failed uprising against an autocratic Prussian state in 1848, he exported his democratic fervour to America four years later: Schutz fought for the unionist cause in the civil war, served as US secretary of the interior and introduced to his adopted homeland the concept of the kindergarten.
Yet most Americans, and even more Germans, would struggle to put a face to the name of the man whose memorial in Wisconsin identifies him as America’s “greatest German American”. The UK and the US may quarrel over of the precise location of Winston Churchill’s bust inside the White House, but at least they know who they are talking about.
If the German foreign policy circles are to be believed, all that could change if the UK leaves the European Union. Since Barack Obama’s visit to Europe last weekend, Germany’s media has been alive with speculation that the country could take over the UK’s role in a “special relationship” with the US after Brexit.
After the US president on Saturday warned Eurosceptics in the UK that Britain could find itself at the “back of the queue” if they had their way, he heaped praiseon Angela Merkel on Sunday, describing their tie as “as important a relationship as I’ve had during the course of my presidency”.
“Over the last three to four years, Germany’s importance for America has grown enormously,” Marc Overhaus of German thinktank SWP told Der Spiegel. While Britain’s strategic importance for the US had fallen with its defence spending, Germany was considered “the only state in Europe capable of decisive action”, he said.
If the UK was to leave the EU, “the Americans would increasingly rely on Berlin and Paris”, said Christian Democrat MEP Elmar Brok. “Britain would then only be a strategically insignificant island in the Atlantic.”
The notion that the US would invest all its diplomatic energy into one bilateral relationship rather than spreading its bets across the continent is questionable.
“America breaking off relations with Britain is just not on the cards when you look at military matters and the intelligence sharing that is going on between the two countries,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama security official and senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund.
On attitudes to data protection, the two states remain miles apart and scepticism towards the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is growing on both sides of the Atlantic.
“But in terms of geopolitics, if the UK continues to go down its existential path and move away from Europe, the US president will be more likely to pick up the phone to call to the German chancellor than the British prime minister,” Chollet told the Guardian. “On Russia, it’s already happening.”
Efforts to rediscover America and Germany’s joint history, with a particular emphasis on the role of German emigres in US nation-building, are already happening, too.
In Berlin, there are plans for a memorial to Schurz and the other “Forty-Eighters” – German revolutionaries who fought against slavery during the US civil war. Erardo Cristoforo Rautenberg, the chief public prosecutor of Brandenburg state who is driving the initiative, has suggested placing a statue on the site the reconstructed Berlin city palace, as a counterpoint to the neoprussian revival.
Germany’s foreign minister last week announced his support for the memorial “In many people’s memory, it was the Americans, supported by the British and the French, who brought democracy to Germany in 1945,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Der Spiegel.
“But many had experienced parliamentary democracy before 1933, fought for by the actors of 1848. That is why a memorial to the so-called Forty-Eighters are a great opportunity to evoke the memory of mutual influences during the foundation of stable democracies on both sides of the ocean.”
Historians and publishers too are rediscovering America’s German heritage. When US journalist and author Erica Wagner started researching a biography of Washington Roebling, a civil engineer best known for his work on the Brooklyn Bridge, she was startled by the fact that the man behind one of America’s most famous landmarks did not speak English until he was 10, He grew up in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, a German immigrant town founded by his father, John who initially designed the bridge. Her book, The Chief Engineer, published by Bloomsbury next summer, tells the story of what she calls “a monument to German-American engineering”.
It is a story that may resonate more than British transatlanticists assume. German Americans make up the largest ethnic group in the US, if you divide Hispanics into Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans etc. In the 2013 American Community Survey, 46 million Americans claimed German ancestry: more than the number who traced their roots to Ireland (33 million) or England (25 million).