10 famous German immigrants who changed the world

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Not a lot of people in his native country are familiar with Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730 – 1794), but in the US the German-born military officer is a household name: he is considered one of the heroes of the American Revolutionary War of 1775 – 1783. Von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, was recruited into the Continental Army by Benjamin Franklin. He used his extensive military experience to drill and discipline the badly organized and ill-equipped troops, transforming them into an effective army. Under the leadership of George Washington, the Continental Army eventually defeated the British. Today, Baron von Steuben is honored every year on Von Steuben Day, when parades are held in several US cities. A statue of von Steuben stands in Lafayette Square just north of the White House.

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Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902) was one of the most famous caricaturists and cartoonists in the United States in the 19th century. He was born in the southern German town of Landau and immigrated to the US with his family during his childhood. Working for the illustrated political magazine Harper’s Weekly, Nast established the elephant and the donkey as symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, which are still in use today. Nast has also been credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus – a round friendly grandfather figure wearing a red suit.

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In early 1853, the carpenter and instrument builder Henry E. Steinway (1797 – 1871), together with four of his sons founded the piano manufacturing company Steinway & Sons. Steinway had immigrated to the US from Germany a few years before and anglicized his name – originally, it had been Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg. In 1880, some years after Steinway’s death, his sons returned to Germany and established a production site in Hamburg to meet rising demand in Europe. Today, Steinway & Sons is one of the leading piano manufacturers in the world. Its instruments were and are the preferred choice of many of the most influential and renowned pianists, including Lang Lang, James Levine and Billy Joel as well as Arthur Rubinstein, Cole Porter, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz.

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In 1896, newspaper owner Adolph S. Ochs (1858 – 1935) bought The New York Times, a newspaper that had been in decline for a number of years. Ochs, the son of German immigrants to the US from Bavaria, returned the Times to profitability, greatly increasing circulation. Today, the Times with its slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, is regarded by many as the greatest newspaper in the world. It has won 125 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other publication. The Ochs-Sulzberger family has retained control of The New York Times Company through a special class of privately held stock until the present day. A. G. Sulzberger, great-great-grandson of Adolph Ochs, replaced his father Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. as publisher of the paper in 2018.

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At the age of 18, Loeb Strauss (1829 – 1902), who would later become world famous under his anglicized name Levi Strauss, immigrated to the US with his widowed mother and siblings from the Bavarian town of Buttenheim. The family settled in New York. However, in 1853 the business opportunities arising from the gold rush in California prompted Strauss, who had started a dry goods business, to move to San Francisco. One of his customers, the Latvian tailor Jacob Davis, had the idea to reinforce blue jeans with metal rivets to create more durable work garments and was looking for a financial backer to patent the concept. Strauss and Davis founded a business together and became the first manufacturers of modern blue jeans, which have been an international fashion staple for decades.

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The acclaimed author Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955) is regarded by many as the greatest pre-war 20th Century German writer. Mann’s best-known novel “Buddenbrooks”, first published in 1901, is an epic tale of decline about a dynasty of north German merchants. In 1929, Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mann left Nazi Germany in 1933 and eventually settled in the United States in 1939. After teaching at Princeton University for a few years he moved to Los Angeles, where he and his family moved into a villa in the city’s Pacific Palisades area. There, Mann produced works including “Doctor Faustus”, “Joseph the Provider” and “The Holy Sinner”. Today, the villa is owned by the German government and is used as a transatlantic meeting venue. German scholarship recipients live there for short periods to work on projects promoting the transatlantic relationship. It is financed by the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, as well as funds from private foundations. Having left the US in 1952, Thomas Mann died in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 12, 1955.

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The German-American industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger, who was born in 1944 in the southern German town of Beuren, has dedicated his career to improving the interaction between humans and technology through design. Esslinger established a design agency when he was 25 and began working for consumer electronics companies including Wega and Sony. In the early 1980s, he re-named the agency Frogdesign and moved it to California, where he took up working for Apple. His design for the Apple IIc home computer (pictured left) was the beginning of a pioneering design strategy, which made the brand world famous. Esslinger’s subsequent clients included Microsoft, Disney, Siemens and Lufthansa. Among designers, Esslinger is a living legend.

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Lion Feuchtwanger (1884 – 1958), a playwright and novelist from Munich, became the most widely-read German-speaking author of his time in the US and Britain, when his novel “Jud Suess” was published in 1925. The novel, which sold around 300,000 copies in Germany before 1933, describes Jewish life in Germany during the Age of Enlightenment and is also seen as an attempt by the Jewish author to analyze anti-Semitism at the time of the Weimar Republic. After the Nazis came into power in 1933, Feuchtwanger was deprived of his citizenship while abroad. His works were among those subjected to public book burnings. In 1940, Feuchtwanger and his wife immigrated to the US, eventually settling in California. Their new home, Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, became a frequent meeting place for famous refugees from the Nazis, including Bertolt Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Einstein. In 1995, Villa Aurora became an artist residence and, once again, a place for international cultural encounters. It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

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Having sold more than 20 million books around the world, Cornelia Funke is Germany’s most successful author by global sales. Funke’s fantasy novels for older children and young adults have been translated into more than 50 languages. Among her most successful works are the “Reckless” and the “Inkheart” series of books. Funke, who was born in the German town of Dorsten in 1958, has been living in California since 2005. Time Magazine counted her among the 100 most influential people in the world in the same year.

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Sebastian Thrun is an innovator, entrepreneur and computer scientist who was born in Germany in 1967. He has made major contributions to the fields of robotics and autonomous driving. After moving to the US as a young academic in 1995, Thrun, as the director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University, led the development of “Stanley”, an autonomous car, which won a major competition by the Pentagon. Thrun went on to head Google’s hardware innovation lab, Google X. Currently, Thrun is President and CEO of the Kitty Hawk Corporation, a manufacturer of electric aircraft. He is also involved in the online education company Udacity.

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