Montana’s come a long way since 1918, when the state banned teaching of the German language, burned German textbooks, restricted gun ownership for Germans and passed a sedition act that became a model for the federal sedition act. 

Today, 16 German exchange students attend Hellgate High School from one of Missoula’s two “sister cities,” Neckargemund, Germany. (Palmerston North, New Zealand, is the other.) 

On Sunday, hundreds of local residents gathered in Caras Park to welcome the exchange students and celebrate German-American heritage and culture at the 26th Missoula Germanfest. 

“As Missoula becomes more of an international city, with refugees and businesses, it’s time to act like an international city,” said Tom Bensen, executive director of Arts Missoula, which sponsors and organizes the annual event. “The sister-city program is a form of cultural diplomacy, to promote peace and understanding.”

More than 2,000 cities, states and counties in the United States are partnered with 140 countries around the world as part of Sister Cities International, a nonprofit that grew out of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 “National League of Cities” citizen diplomacy initiative “to create and strengthen partnerships between communities in other countries” and “build global cooperation at the municipal level, promote cultural understanding and stimulate economic development.” 

“I think it’s significant that it took a man of war (Eisenhower) to initiate a program of peace,” Bensen said. 

Retired University of Montana professor and dean Gerald Fetz helped initiate the sister-city partnership between Neckargemund and Missoula after a Fulbright-sponsored faculty exchange with Professor Erich Pohl of Heidelberg, Germany, just 6 miles downriver from Neckargemund. 

After a German delegation visited Missoula, and Missoula’s Mendelssohn Club Choir visited Germany -- accompanied by then-Missoula Mayor Dan Kemmis -- an official sister-city “Pledge of Friendship” was signed by Kemmis and Neckargemund Burgermeister Oskar Shuster in 1993. 

“We have German students here this year, and next year some of our students will go over there,” said Fetz.  “It’s a great opportunity to get to know another part of the world. We have a lot in common.”

Neckargemund, too, has a river that runs through it; the Neckar, a tributary to the Rhine, near where it merges with the river Elsenz. (The word Neckargemund translates to “confluence of the Neckar.”)

“We don’t have your mountains, but we do have a river,” said Felix, one of the high school students from Neckargemund. “It’s a lot hotter here,” added Phil, another exchange student. Both said they think Montana is “beautiful.”

Faculty and student exchanges now involve two universities and three public high schools in Missoula and their German counterparts, as well as art and photo exhibit exchanges and numerous visits to and from both cities. 

And every year since 1993, the Missoula Sister-City Committee for Neckargemund hosts a Germanfest to celebrate all things German.

On Sunday, bratwurst and sauerkraut was available, of course, as was plenty of beer for those of legal drinking age. The German Bakery from Stevensville sold bretzels, keine bisse and kase stangen. 

For many, the festivities began on Saturday at the related Oktoberfest at Bayern Brewery. 

“There were 300 to 400 people there,” said Bayern marketing and events coordinator Shawna Chandler. “There was a giant Congo line. Our brewmaster Thorsten even joined in, wearing his lederhosen. It got a bit crazy.” 

Frank Clinch traveled all the way from Great Falls for the Fest. “I grew up in a fairly ethnic family and I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of Montana,” he said. “A diversity of people bring different types of culture to the mix, and I like sharing that with people.”

“I have German heritage,” says Joe Rangitsch, of Helena. “So I came over to explore that a bit.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, German Americans are the largest self-reported ethnic group in the United States, at about 44 million. The first significant group arrived to American in the 1670s. An estimated 8 million Germans arrived in the 19th century. Another 7.5 million arrived between 1820 and 1870, drawn to the United States in hopes of finding religious freedom, economic opportunity and land.

Today, about 27 percent of Montana residents are of German descent – the seventh highest percent in the nation. (Neighboring North Dakota is No. 1, at nearly 44 percent.) 

They opened the first kindergartens in America and introduced Christmas trees. They brought us hot dogs and hamburgers. Although they didn’t invent beer, they helped perfect it by introducing hops to the process and developing larger kettles, improving quality and quantity. 

But they weren’t always treated so well. 

“Montana led the nation in repression of German immigrants,” according to a report by the Montana Historical Society. When the United States entered World War I, there was widespread fear of “communists.” Germans, seen as “unpatriotic,” were considered a severe threat. Some Montana farmers expressed concern that Germans would take over their homesteads. 

Montana historian K. Ross Toole once wrote, “No state in the union engaged in quite the same orgy of book burning, inquisition of suspected traitors, and general hysteria as Montana.”

It was a past difficult to imagine at Caras Park on Sunday, as people raised their steins and shouted “Prost!” to their collective German heritage.