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In 1777 Frederick the Great sent one of his Prussian officers, General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, to the newly formed United States to assist the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. Some months later General von Steuben was working directly alongside General George Washington in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania training the troops. His assistance is credited in part to the victory of the colonist over the British. On December 23, 1783, former General George Washington who had since become President wrote to von Steuben:
My Dear Baron:Although I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office, yet I wish to make use of this last moment of my public life to signify in the strongest terms my entire approbation of your conduct, and to express my sense of the obligations the public is under to you for your faithful and meritorious service.I beg that you will be convinced, my dear Sir, that I should rejoice if it could ever be in my power to serve you more essentially than by expressions of regard and affection. But in the meantime I am persuaded you will not be displeased with this farewell token of my sincere friendship and esteem for you.This is the last letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my country. The hour of my resignation is fixed at twelve this day, after which I shall become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, where I shall be glad to embrace you, and testify the great esteem and consideration, with which I am, my dear Baron, your most obedient and affectionate servant.
Von Steuben retired to New York and died in 1794.
In the 1950’s various German-American clubs in my neighborhood of Ridgewood, NY and surrounding communities in Queens and Brooklyn organized a parade to celebrate both their love for America and their immigrant cultural heritage. As one might imagine, following World War II this was a challenging time for the German American community. Although a people deeply ingrained in the fabric of the United States and its history and wider culture, and making up the largest ancestry group of all US citizens, still tension, understandable sensitivities, and resistance to any immoderate expression of cultural patriotism prevailed. Those considerations notwithstanding, a parade was organized, its timing being about the middle of September, General von Steuben was chosen to have the celebration named in his honour as his birthday happened on September 17th.
The Steuben Day Parade as it is now called has evolved and relocated to Manhattan’s Fifth Ave. (where many New York City parades take place). The day usually begins with the German Mass held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By late morning the parade begins incorporating not only marchers, dance troops, social and religious organizations, schools, clubs, and civic groups from across the New York tri-state German-American community but also from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Canada. Various parade grand marshals and honourees have included Henry Kissinger and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl. (One of the first parades I attended, the diminutive in size but enormous in personality, Dr. Ruth Westheimer served as the Grand Marshall.) The parade ends in a large Oktoberfest celebration in Central Park.
Admittedly, until about five years ago I did not know much of General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Although I was born and raised just under 90 miles north of the city of Steubenville, Ohio—whose name comes from Fort Steuben, whose name came from General von Steuben—I was unaware. I had also heard of Steuben Glass—which comes from Corning, New York which is located in Steuben County, named in honour of von Steuben—but still, never sought to discover more about it or the roots of its name. Now I have.
Still, the truth about the parade and the entire day is that it’s less about Steuben but more so allows for the celebration of the German-American community, their history, and culture.
And why am I thinking and sharing about all this today? Because I’m really aware of the tension that comes with celebrating culture. For the German-American community, the weight of two world wars present. Patriotism and nationalism is tricky. This is not a statement of what is right or moral or fair. It is simply the reality of what is. And serving as a pastor in the German-American community with the celebration of Steuben Day each year, with “my people” (parishioners) on the floats and marching along Fifth Avenue and filling the stands, I find the tension palpable. And important. Although I don’t always know what to do with it.
I’ve never felt that with tulip time. But perhaps if I were Indonesian or Guyanese, I would.
Which is the other thing about sharing this today. My calendar has Columbus Day on it and for many, like Steuben Day is for German-Americans, Columbus Day will be similar for some Italian-Americans. There is a parade this afternoon on Fifth Avenue. There was a special Columbus Day mass this morning at St. Patrick’s. There will be a lot of flag waving, Italian and US, special costumes, music, and food. I’m aware that many of my neighbors and friends are waving their colors today and commemorating the occasion. But while there is not the same issues historically with the war, there will still be tension.
For many Native American/Indigenous/First Nations people, Columbus Day is not a day to celebrate. And I feel that tension, I feel that weight today.
None of this is a sermon. There is no moral of the story. Maybe it’s simply how we carry the weight.