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German-Americans march into the Future

By Lars Halter

KonfettiSteuben Parade in New York

They have done it before… for fifty years, every September, thousands of German-Americans have marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City to celebrate their Annual Steuben Parade. Still, this time it’s different: the event, with all its history and tradition, appears younger, fresher, and has found its way into the future.

A change in leadership three years ago has brought several young German-Americans into place, and they have defined three challenges for the Steuben Parade: to keep the traditions of millions of German immigrants alive, to celebrate the historic achievements of many German-Americans, and to represent Germany to the US public.

For the first five decades the Parade had mostly focused on the former. Bavarian Dirndl and Lederhosen, Black Forest hats and Pomeranian Trachts made for a colorful Parade that kept memories alive for participants and entertained bystanders.

Baron von Steuben meets George Washington

The Parade also remembered some historic German-Americans: For many years, one float has featured a miniature of the Brooklyn Bridge, built by John Roebling from Mühlhausen in the German State of Thuringia. Another float pictured the first meeting between General von Steuben and George Washington. Other great German-Americans, of course, only appeared in name – if at all. Carl Schurz and Franz Daniel Pastorius stand for local chapters of the Steuben Society. Others, like Henry Steinway, Levi Strauss, John Astor or Thomas Nast were simply forgotten. To remember all important German-Americans is, of course, a huge task. But it is one of the Steuben Parade’s main goals, and it slowly happens. The program of the 2008 German-American Friendship Month, which is around the time of the Parade in September, brings up Roebling and Steinway but also the likes of Isidor Strauss of Macy’s-fame, Leonard Bernstein, „Babe“ Ruth and many more.

Reception with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

BloombergReception with Mayor Bloomberg

But most importantly, more focus is put on present times and on an appropriate representation of Germany towards an American audience. Contemporary music and movies have found a place in the program, a Jazz pianist from Munich plays at the Annual reception with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Steuben Parade is especially proud of its latest crop of Grand Marshals: German Hollywood Star Ralf Möller, who has starred in “Gladiator” and “Batman & Robin”, brings red-carpet-clamor to Fifth Avenue; and NYSE Euronext CEO Duncan Niederauer is happy to present a corporate angle within the Parade and to celebrate the strong business connections between Germany and the US.

Many companies succeed in both countries, and some of the most successful use the Steuben Parade as a showcase. Among the main sponsors are Mercedes-Benz, Bayer and Deutsche Telekom. These companies appreciate the changes the Parade has undergone. “The Parade Gala Banquet used to be a nightmare,” says Mercedes-Benz CFO Norbert Litzkow. Today he enjoys the affair, which might have to do with the fact that a quite cheesy entertainer has been replaced with a Big Band and that the program is hosted by a pro: A famous New York TV personality with German background has lend her face to the Gala.Of course, companies do not support the Parade because of the Banquet – they are interested in the German-American clientele. With their above average income, they are an attractive target group.

Mercedes shows new models

KissingerAmbassador K. Scharioth, H. Kissinger, General Chairman L. Halter

Mercedes will actually show off two new models at the Gala Banquet, hoping to attract buyers. Not only corporate German-America appreciates the new Steuben Parade. It is also held in high esteem by politicians and diplomats. The German ambassador in Washington, Klaus Scharioth, is a regular, and German Secretary of State Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a reception in New York harbor last year as part of “German-American Friendship Month“. Representing German politics this year is Volker Hoff, Secretary for Federal and European Affairs in Hessen, the “Official Partner State” of the 2008 parade. Hessen uses the event as a platform to show off in front of approximately 100 000 spectators. Four floats commemorate the romantic parts of Hessen alongside the River Rhine, Elvis Presley’s time as a G.I. in Bad Nauheim as well as the Brothers Grimm whose fairy tales after all inspired much of America’s Disney culture.

The fourth float commemorates the Berlin Airlift of 1948; the planes supplying Berlin took of in Frankfurt. Sixty years later, one of the Airlift’s biggest hero joins the Steuben Parade as well: Col. Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy Bomber”. He remembers “when General Clay returned to New York in 1948 to a ticker tape parade.” This time around it’s his turn. The day before the Parade, Col. Halvorsen will visit the German School in White Plains, NY, to tell students from sixth to twelfth grade about the Airlift. Giving students a chance to hear from the source is one more project the Parade started to strengthen German-American friendship.

Lars Halter is General Chairman of the German-American Steuben Parade, a volonteer position. More information about the event can be found on