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You’ve probably never heard of Herman the German and likely never stopped to greet him in New Ulm, Minnesota. Then again, you could have driven through town and not seen him at all. You’ve got to go south and up into the wooded hills.
But once you’re there, he’s a can’t-miss. Herman the German stands 32-feet tall–you heard that right. What’s more, his statue stands 102 feet above town–way up there. He’s huge.
And he has a real name–it’s Arminius the Cheruscan, enough of a mouthful to prompt Martin Luther–yes, the Martin Luther– to create a nickname, so ever since the Reformation he’s been Hermann Deutsch or Herman the German.
New Ulm’s Herman brandishes a gigantic sword and faces east towards the Romans, I guess. He’s a freedom fighter who thwarted not one, not two, but three Roman garrisons with a few ragtag rebs to gain German liberation from Roman tyranny more than two thousand years ago. You heard that right–2000 years. Herman’s heroics happened in the year we might call 9. Not 1009 or 309, but 9. New Ulm’s Herman the German makes George Washington a johnny-come-lately. Get this–he lived almost 2000 years before there was a New Ulm. His great-great-grandchildren wouldn’t have believed a huge continent called North America existed. The guy goes way back.
That huge statue came to mind when a news story broke just last week about the Pieper twins, a couple of World War II radio operators, just 19 years old, from Nebraska. They were killed–both of them–when their ship hit a mine in the English Channel, thirteen days after D-Day, 1944. One of the twins, Louie, was buried in the military cemetery just off the Omaha beach, but Henry’s remains were never found.
Not, at least, until a history project by a high school kid named Vanessa Taylor prompted government officials to speculate about the remains of six American sailors whose remains were retrieved from the LST-523, the ship on which both twins served. A French salvage team found the wreck already in 1961 and located the remains of six seaman, one of them in the radio room, where Henry Pieper served.
Had to be Henry. Had to be.
So today, thanks to a Nebraska high school girl, the Pieper twins’ remains lay side-by-side at Normandy, where they and so many more were killed.
So, what do the Pieper twins have to do with Herman the German? Stay with me now. Louis and Henry Pieper, children of German immigrants, were on their way across the English Channel in support of an Allied army sworn to destroy guess who?–Germany, the Third Reich and their mustachioed maniac fuhrer. The Piepers were German-Americans who may well have had to learn a new language at school, because Ma and Pa spoke only Deutsche.
You can’t help wonder what it must have been like for millions of Americans of stout German descent to send their children off to a war against “the Huns,” two of their children, in fact. Two world wars. Hundreds of thousands did it, lots of mutters and vaters from all over the continent.
If you think there’s something weird about New Ulm, Minnesota, erecting a gargantuan monument dedicated to a German tribal hero dead by the year 50, a man who never even heard of the US of A or North America for that matter, well, so do I. But then, there’s something weird about democracy. Very weird.
You may have heard this one. After the first constitutional congress, a Mrs. Powell button-holed Ben Franklin. “Well, Doctor,” she said, “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s answer bears repeating, “A republic,” he said, “if you can keep it”–bears repeating time and time again.
A republic can make even Herman the German into an American hero, strange as that may seem. Only a democracy can make a foreigner one of us.
Seems to me that’s worth remembering on the Fourth of July.