When my husband and I decided to move to Minnesota from Germany 32 years ago, we were attracted by a state with a vibrant metropolitan area that was home to diverse industries and businesses, a range of small to midsize towns in beautiful rural settings, and wide open hinterlands with wilderness areas and natural parks that offered plentiful recreational opportunities. We had also heard that Minnesotans were open-minded and welcoming in the way of the pioneers, believed in caring for and investing in their communities, and that they practiced a lifestyle designed to happily defy the challenges of living in a northern climate.
All of our expectations were met. And over the past three decades, we learned other things about our fellow Minnesotans. There are more people of German ancestry in Minnesota than of any other ethnic background (38.6 percent, to be exact). German immigrants settled in Minnesota starting in the 1850s, established cities like New Ulm, St. Cloud and Shakopee, and steadily gained in influence in St. Paul, too. The Rathskeller in the basement of the State Capitol, completed in 1905, is decorated with German inscriptions about eating, drinking and staying warm.
Since I was appointed to the post of honorary consul of Germany in 2009, I have had the opportunity to meet many more recent German immigrants. They come from many walks of life: bakers and cooks, mechanics and engineers, lawyers and physicians, teachers and scientists, artists and entrepreneurs. Those who came as adults were usually educated and trained in Germany and brought their skills and professional know-how with them.
Today, Minnesota is home to many German entrepreneurs and over 80 German companies. Allianz Life Insurance, one of the largest global insurance companies, has its U.S. headquarters in Minnesota. The industrial giant Siemens has several subsidiary companies here, and Siemens light-rail trains are running on the Green Line from Minneapolis to St. Paul. However, the majority of these firms are small to midsize industrial technology companies such as Sick Optic or Turck. They belong to the 99 percent of German businesses that are global technology leaders and innovators in their specific niche and one of the reasons why the German economy has fared so well even during the economic downturn.
Direct investment by German companies has created over 9,000 jobs in Minnesota, and Germany is the largest European export market for Minnesota products. This may be why the Minnesota Trade Office decided to open its European office in Düsseldorf last year.
Business relations are also supported by the Minnesota chapter of the German-American Chamber of Commerce, established in 1992, which offers local business networking opportunities as well as access to the national and international network of the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce.
The Minnesota-Germany connection is further enhanced by strong cultural networks and exchanges. The Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota organized exchanges between German and Minnesota representatives from government, business, labor and academia to explore solutions in the area of health care, renewable energy and workforce development. The implementation of health care reforms in Minnesota has been informed by these exchanges, as has the discussion about renewable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions, where Germany is a global leader. And the German experience with dual vocational training has informed the current legislative initiative on education, training and workforce development in Minnesota.
Now, if you have the impression that German Minnesotans are all business, then you should join the Germanic-American Institute on Summit Avenue in St. Paul for one of their many entertaining events. At the end of January, they will celebrate Carnival German-style — it’s an experience not to be missed!
The institute also offers German language classes for children and adults and, in 2005, was instrumental in the founding of the Twin Cities German Immersion School, a public charter school in St. Paul that has achieved excellent results and is ranked among the top K-8 schools in Minnesota.
Minnesota today is even more vibrant and cosmopolitan than when we first came here. Of course, Germany has changed, too. When I left in 1982, it was a divided country. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought down the Iron Curtain and led to the reunification of Germany and of Europe. As we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of German reunification in 2015, Germany is more cosmopolitan and diverse than ever, second only to the United States in immigration. Together with the Minnesota International Center, I invite you to take a closer look at my native country and become a Minnesota pioneer in Germany.
Christa Tiefenbacher-Hudson is honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany.