The German/Austrian-Hawaii Connection

NOTE: This is an updated version of a blog I first posted in May 2010.

I’m currently in Hawaii. As usual, I’m on the outlook for Germanic connections, and even here, so far away from Europe, there are many. First, I wanted to see if there were any direct historic ties between the Sandwich Islands (now better known as Hawai’i) and the German-speaking countries. I didn’t have to look very far. Aboard the Resolution, the ship that took Capt. James Cook to his discovery of the Hawaiian archipelago in 1778, were a German-Swiss artist and three German sailors.

Since Cook’s discovery, Hawaii has been influenced – positively and negatively – by other haoles (outsiders), including Americans, British, French, Portuguese and Asians. It turns out that people from the German-speaking parts of Europe have played some key roles in Hawaiian history. If you study Hawaii’s past, you’ll run across many German names: Hackfeld, Hillebrand, Isenberg, von Chamisso, Lemke, Pflueger, Scheffer, Spreckels, and Zimmermann. At one time, the island of Kauai in particular had a sizeable German population. The island’s main town, Lihue, was nicknamed “German Town.” There were German Lutheran churches and schools in Lihue and Honolulu (Oahu).

World War I pretty much put an end to the German presence in Hawaii, but I want to concentrate on two enduring legacies: one German and over a century ago, the other Austrian and much more recent.

Heinrich Berger and the Hawaiian State Song


Heinrich (Henry) Berger
PHOTO: Hawaii State Archives

In 1872, Berlin-born Heinrich August Wilhelm Berger (1844-1929), on loan from the Prussian king, became the director of the Royal Hawaiian Band, a post he would hold until his death in 1929. In 1874, King Kalakaua asked Berger to compose music to honor the prior King Kamehameha. The German composer adapted the melody of Prussian anthem “Heil dir im Siegerkranz” (an oft-borrowed melody also heard as “God Save the Queen” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) for the “Hymn of Kamehameha I.” King David Kalakaua had written lyrics to honor Kamehameha, and those Hawaiian words, with music by Berger, became the royal anthem for Hawaii. The royal anthem later became the Hawaiian national anthem. “Hawai’i Pono’i” was declared the official state song by the Hawaii legislature in 1967. There are two sets of lyrics in Hawaiian and English.

In 1905 the Royal Hawaiian Band was taken over by the city of Honolulu, and it is today the oldest municipal band in the US. Berger, later known as Henry Berger, is also considered the father of the Honolulu Symphony. He proudly became a naturalized citizen of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1879. He helped preserve Hawaii’s musical heritage by printing out the music and words of traditional chants, hymns and other native music. His own compositions include: “The Hula March,” “Hilo March,” “Kohala March,” “Nu’uanu Valley Polka,” and “Sweet Lei Lehua” (written in honor of his daughter, who died in 2001). Heinrich Berger’s grave (marked “Henry Berger”) is located in the cemetery of the historic Kawaiaha’o Church in Honolulu, where Berger was the organist for many years.

2012 Hawaiian Band

The Royal Hawaiian Band performs in 2012. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

One more thing, before we move on… The uniforms worn by King Kalakaua and the members of the Royal Hawaiian Band reflect a Prussian military style that was adapted by another German, a tailor named Paul Lemke.

Alfred Preis and the USS Arizona Memorial
Few of the 1.5 million tourists who annually visit the gleaming white USS Arizona Memorial in the waters of Pearl Harbor realize that it was designed by an Austrian-born architect. Ironically, Alfred Preis (1911-1993) had fled the Nazi takeover of his homeland before being imprisoned as an “enemy alien” in 1941, not very far from where his architectural gem now stands.

In 1929, the same year Heinrich Berger died in Honolulu, Alfred Preis graduated from a secondary school in Vienna, where he had been born. He went on to study architecture and work as an architect and freelance designer in Vienna. Although he had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1936, that did not protect him from the dangers caused by Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. With the help of the Catholic Refugee Association, Preis fled Austria and sailed to America in 1939.

USS Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor was designed by Alfred Preis.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Soon he was in Hawaii working for the architectural offices of Dahl and Conrad in Honolulu. Preis worked there until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After the attack, Preis and his wife, along with the Japanese and Germans then living in Hawaii (US citizens and non-citizens alike), were rounded up and imprisoned in special compounds surrounded by barbed wire fences and guards. Mr. and Mrs. Preis ended up living in a tent at the Sand Island “detainment camp” in Honolulu Harbor. They remained there for three months before being released. His son Jan-Peter Preis, a Honolulu architect today, claims that Alfred never expressed any bitterness about his captivity during the period of post-attack hysteria.

Although Preis also designed several landmark buildings in Honolulu, he is best known for the USS Arizona Memorial, which was opened and dedicated by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The design that Preis created, selected from among several others, had to meet the US Navy’s criteria, which called for a bridge-like structure that did not come into contact with the Arizona. As with almost any architectural project, Preis’ memorial also had its critics, but with time, most people agree that his design serves its purpose well. After his death in 1993, the Austrian-American architect’s ashes were scattered in the waters around the USS Arizona and its memorial.