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Why Presidents' Day is important for the German-American community
Here are a few thoughts on Presidents' Day by Chairman Lars Halter:
When I left work this past Friday I found myself in the elevator of my building with a colleague. When the doors opened on the ground floor, I said: "Have a nice weekend, and a Happy Presidents' Day". He looked at my like I had made a joke. "You are German", he said. "Presidents' Day doesn´t mean anything to you, I guess."
He was very wrong. If you live in this country - as a German, a German-American, or an American - you should care about Presidents Day. I personally do, and I know that my fellow German-Americans do as well. They come together every year to celebrate this holiday - and to debate whose life and legacy it is all about.
Most would think it is all about George Washington, the founding father of our country - and in a way they would be right. Presidents Day was originally established as "Washington's Birthday", and a name-change to include Abraham Lincoln or more of our great leaders has failed in the Senate.
But is it really such a good idea to honor only one man´s life when so many have shaped this country?
To be sure, George Washington holds a very special place in history - he was not only our first President, but also the General who led the young American army to victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. With the help of a certain German immigrant, by the way…, but more about that later.
At his funeral ceremony in 1799, the Governor of Virginia, Henry Lee, said about Washington:
"Of all Americans he was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Indeed, George Washington knew when the time was right for an uprising against the colonial power of the British crown. But as soon as the war was won, he was instrumental in crafting the "Peace Treaty of Paris", then resigned his position as Commander in Chief and retired to the life of a free American citizen.
The legacy of George Washington as President is vast - but others followed and have also left their mark. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy.
On Presidents Day we should reflect on all their lives and pay our respects. For that, we have to analyze how important the work and leadership of any given President is from our own perspective. As German-Americans, we have an interesting point of view on how several US Presidents have impacted our very own history.
George Washington entrusted his Army and the fate of the nation-to-be to a certain Prussian General. His bet paid off, as we all know.
General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben trained Washington´s troops and enabled them to win the war against the seemingly overwhelming enemy. Washington´s last deed as Commander in Chief was to write a letter to his Inspector-General thanking him and praising him for his service.
Almost a century after Washington, President Abraham Lincoln also relied on a German immigrant:
Carl Schurz, one of the famous 48ers, who had fought for Freedom and Democracy in the Revolution in Germany.
He was charged with getting the votes in the German-speaking community. Upon becoming President, Lincoln sent Schurz as Ambassador to Spain, where Schurz dissuaded the Spanish from supporting the South in the Civil War. Schurz - through the influence he had on Lincoln - helped shape America.
He (Schurz) reappeared in 1877 when another President - Rutherford Hayes - called upon the German to serve as Secretary of the Interior. It was the highest political office awarded to a German at that point.
German born immigrants never rose higher. But several Americans of German descent led our country from the late 19th Century on.
Grover Cleveland was the descendant of German Quakers.
Herbert Hoover was the son of a blacksmith who was very proud of his German roots.
And Dwight Eisenhower was able to trace his family´s roots back to 18th Century Saarland.
Of course, a great German-American is not defined by heritage alone. One can be a great German-American with no blood relation at all. Just take John F. Kennedy. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy visited Berlin and gave a historic speech against the communist regimes of Russia and East Germany - culminating in his famous words: "Ich bin ein Berliner."
JFK´s visit was the first step in the German-American dialogue that would ultimately lead to the reunification of Germany.
Another important step was taken in 1987, when Ronald Reagan journeyed to the divided city.
Standing near the Brandenburg Gate and overlooking the concrete barrier that divided the two German countries, he said: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." - That happened just two years later in the first year of the presidency of George H.W. Bush, another great friend of Germany and a reliable partner in German-American relations.
Last month, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. Again, we have a man leading this country who is a great friend of Germany. Last summer he gave a rousing speech at the Siegessäule - his only public appearance in all Europe.
President Obama will return to Berlin in April, making Germany one of the first countries to visit as President.
Germans trust Barack Obama to lead the US into a peaceful future and they are eager to rekindle the decades old partnership between two great nations.
As German-Americans, we are proud to see the German-American friendship flourish again,
and that is just another facet we should look at when celebrating Presidents Day.
Later this year, on September 19, we will enjoy the 52nd German-American Steuben Parade.
Berlin - the city where John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have changed the world and where Barack Obama drew a crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters - will be our official partner.
I am looking forward to greeting you all on Fifth Avenue when we celebrate our German-American culture, the achievements of German immigrants to the US and the ongoing friendship between our countries - as well as the legacy of leaders from George Washington all the way to President Obama.