Milwaukee’s German Athens

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the city of Milwaukee was the epitome of German culture.  As a liberal fever swept throughout Europe, the city of Milwaukee attracted a significant number of political refugees from German speaking lands in the late 1840s and early 1850s.[1]  Members of this specific group of immigrants, known as the Forty-Eighters, significantly contributed to fine arts, social life, and education in Milwaukee, which led contemporaries to refer to the city as the “German Athens.”

The Forty-Eighters “at once proceeded to enliven the society in Milwaukee with artistic enterprises.”[2]  Forty-Eighter Hans Balatka, director of the Milwaukee Musikverein[3] is generally given credit for the rapid development of Milwaukee’s music scene.[4]  When Balatka left the society in late 1860, the Musikverein had become a community institution, and a symbol of the German culture for which the city had become renowned.[5]

Milwaukee’s German theater was also a significant cultural institution, and was provided a stage by German philanthropist and beer baron Frederick Pabst.  In 1890 Pabst purchased the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House and renamed it the Stadt Theater[6].  When a fire destroyed the theater three years later, it was rebuilt as the Pabst Theater.  The establishment of a German theater was widely popular and the Pabst became the showcase of the “German Athens,” hosting plays, operas, and concerts.[7]  Frederick Pabst not only supported fine arts, but also contributed to the establishment of beer gardens.  These beer gardens provided a social center for the entire family that was missing due to Milwaukee’s lack of public parks.[8]

Forty-Eighters Eduard Schultz and Fritz Anneke began gymnastics instruction in Milwaukee in 1850 and founded the first Turnverein.[9]  The Turnverein was an important part of Milwaukee’s recreational life.[10]  Turnverein and German associational groups not only voiced concerns for social reform, but also for education.  Forty-Eighter Peter Engelmann founded the German-English Academy in Milwaukee in 1851, and Mathilde Anneke, wife of Fritz Anneke, also opened a school for girls.[11]

In no other major American city did one particular ethnic group achieve the degree of hegemony that Germans did in Milwaukee.[12]  Milwaukee gained its reputation as the most German of American cities from the character of community the German immigrants generated there.[13]  The contributions by the Forty-Eighters to fine arts, social life, and education created a remarkable moment in Milwaukee’s history, when the city was known as the “German Athens.”

-PN


[1] Kathleen Neils Conzen. Immigrant Milwaukee 1836-1860. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1976), 19.

[2] Schurz, Carl. “Milwaukee and Watertown as Seen by Schurz in 1854.” Milwaukee Journal, October 21, 1941. Wisconsin State Historical Society. www.wisconsinhistory.org. (accessed April 1, 2013), 2.

[3] Milwaukee Musical Society.

[4] Hildegard Binder Johnson. “Adjustment to the United States.” In The Forty-Eighters, edited by A.E. Zucker. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950), 59.

[5] Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 175.

[6] City Theater.

[7] Timothy Bawden. “A Geographical Perspective on Nineteenth-Century German Immigration to Wisconsin.” In Wisconsin German Land and Life, edited by Heike Bungert, Cora Lee Kluge, and Robert C. Ostergren (Madison: Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006) 84.

[8] Bawden. “A Geographical Perspective.” In Wisconsin German Land and Life, 84.

[9] Gymnastics group.

[10] Johnson. “Adjustment to the United States.” In The Forty-Eighters, 55.

[11] Johnson. “Adjustment to the United States.” In The Forty-Eighters, 57-58.

[12] Bawden. “A Geographical Perspective.” In Wisconsin German Land and Life, 84.

[13] Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 2.

Works Cited

Bungert, Heike, Cora Lee Kluge and Robert C. Ostergren, eds. Wisconsin German Land and

Life. Madison: Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, 2006.

Conzen, Kathleen Neils. Immigrant Milwaukee 1836-1860, Accommodation and Community in a

Frontier City. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1976.

 

Schurz, Carl. “Milwaukee and Watertown as Seen by Schurz in 1854.” Milwaukee Journal,

October 21, 1941. Wisconsin State Historical Society. www.wisconsinhistory.org. (accessed April 1, 2013).

Zucker, A.E., ed. The Forty-Eighters, Political Refugees of the German Revolution of 1848. New  York: Columbia University Press, 1950.