Written By: Pavlina Schriel
“New York, the largest city in the United States, is indeed a melting pot for people from all nations”, wrote Gerhard Hirseland in the 1958 journal commemorating the Steuben Parade. While they could not foresee the success the Steuben Parade would have, the founders certainly knew that it was time for an event like this. Writes Hirseland: “While people from all nations hold their marches and parades, there has for decades been one exception: One of the largest immigrant groups, which has for almost three centuries helped build America and still helps make it great, has never publicly shown their significance- the German-Americans.”
“On September 20th, 1958, they put an end to this”, continues Hirseland. “10,000 German-Americans marched in a long Parade up Fifth Avenue, and about 150,000 spectators cheered for their countrymen of German descent.” Leading the parade as Grand Marshal was New York mayor Robert Ferdinand Wagner, the son of an immigrant from Germany’s Palatinate region. By his side marched New York governor Averell Harriman and New Jersey Governor Robert Baumle Meyner, whose roots trace back to the Baden and the Alsace region in Germany.
Throughout the years some floats have completely changed, while some still echo motifs of the past. In 1958, the float of the New York Turners had four young men exercising on parallel bars. In recent years Johanna Quaas, a regular amateur competitor in Saxony, Germany, has performed her gymnast skills on a float.
Copies of journals from 1959 and 1960 show that many of the German-American groups who have been with the parade since the beginning are still participating. The Plattduetsche Volksfest Vereen both from Brooklyn as well as New York still join in, as do the United Bavarians. Other groups, however, stand immortalized in pictures and memory. The United Pfälzer are not around anymore, neither is the Badischer Volksfest Verein, which had a float in the first parade remembering Civil War General Franz Sigel. The 86th Street Restaurant Association is gone too, as are most of the establishments it once represented. The Heidelberg restaurant and Schaller & Weber are the last surviving witnesses of the German-American days of Yorkville.
While some German companies have closed shop over the years, among them German language newspapers and family owned breweries, many new ones have opened and flourished. Nowadays, New York has more German restaurants and bars than it has had for the past two decades. Many of these businesses actively support the parade as well as the events throughout German-American Friendship Month.
Over the past six decades, many of Germany’s highest-ranking politicians have marched in the parade. Among them were Presidents Walter Scheel, Richard von Weizsäcker and Johannes Rau. Former German Chancellor Karl Carstens once led the Parade, as did Secretaries of State Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel. Several Minister Presidents representing their states have also participated. Politicians on the American side have also shown great interest in supporting the Steuben Parade as well. Local politicians like Mayor Wagner, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have recently marched. President Donald J. Trump led as Grand Marshal when he was a business mogul and television celebrity. Many other celebrities have taken part, such as actor Eric Braeden, magicians Siegfried & Roy, as well as supermodel Carol Alt.
From politicians to celebrities, many have reinforced their value for German-American friendship. The bulk of the credit goes to the thousands of volunteers who have worked tirelessly throughout the years. Many have dedicated their time to organizing various aspects of the parade from the floats and line-up, to handing out brochures, selling cornflowers, serving beer, soliciting ads, and even keeping the finances in order. Most of the duties have remained the same. For the past sixty years there have been many dedicated General Chairmen overseeing the entire organization.
There have been those who have stepped in and volunteered for a few hours, while others have dedicated more than half of their lives to the parade. To all who have been involved, our sincere thanks; you have made the German-American Steuben Parade the great and proud event it is today and will be for years to come.
Here’s to the next 60 years!