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During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 7, 2017 5:51 pm

This week marks the centennial of U.S. entry into World War I, a conflict that shattered empires and cost millions of lives. On the American home front, it made this country less culturally German.

Today, when the question of loyalty of immigrants has again become contentious, what happened a century ago has special relevance. World War I inspired an outbreak of nativism and xenophobia that targeted German immigrants, Americans of German descent and even the German language.

It was a remarkable reversal of fortune. Germans were the largest non-English-speaking minority group in the U.S. at the time. The 1910 census counted more than 8 million first- and second-generation German-Americans in the population of 92 million.

There were still more German-American families that had been in the country longer, many since Colonial times. They were Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Mennonites, Jews and free thinkers of no religion at all.

"During the 1850s, 900,000 — almost a million — Germans went to the United States," says historian Kenneth Ledford of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "That's at a time when the German population was only about 40 million."

German-Americans often worshipped in churches where German was used. They could live on city streets or in towns with German names. And while many immigrants assimilated into the English-speaking mainstream, many others sent their children to German-language public schools.

Ledford says cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago gave parents the option for their children in elementary school to receive their instruction in German as well as in English.

"German was the lingua franca of the literary scene, of the entertainment scene, of the theaters," says Richard Schade of the University of Cincinnati. He says many cities were also home to German-language newspapers and clubs where German was spoken.

The social life of the community was lubricated with the beverage Germans brought from the old country. Lager beer was drunk cold in beer halls. Beer put Germans on a collision course with the growing temperance movement. But the biggest collision ahead was over language. Before World War I, German wasn't just an ethnic minority language; it was the most studied modern foreign language in America.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman says in 1915 about 25 percent of all high school students in America studied German. But by the end of the World War I that had changed dramatically. German had become so stigmatized that only 1 percent of high schools even taught it.

"During the war, there is an argument that if you learn German, you will become the 'Hun,' " Finkelman says, using the pejorative term for anyone from Germany. "And there was this notion that language was somehow organic to your soul. So if you spoke German, you would think like a German, you would become a totalitarian in favor of the kaiser."

For the first three years of the war, the American people were divided over getting involved. When members of minority groups spoke against entering the war in support of Britain, including some, but not all German-Americans, their patriotism was questioned. They were disparaged as "hyphenated Americans."

After President Woodrow Wilson took the country into war he said, "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready."

Schade says this anti-German sentiment extended to internment.

"Hans Kuhnwald, the concertmeister of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was interned; the German language was forbidden; the German-American press was heavily censored; libraries had to pull German books off the shelves; German-American organizations were targeted," Schade says, "and what happened, of course, is the German-Americans considered themselves to be good Americans of German extraction, several generations removed from the old country."

The demonization of German-Americans took its ugliest turn in Collinsville, Ill., which is now a suburb of St. Louis. On April 4, 1918, a German immigrant, Robert Prager, was lynched.

Robert Stevens, vice president of the historical museum in Collinsville, says Prager's nationality wasn't the only thing that led to his murder. He was a socialist who worked at a local coal mine, and he was on the wrong side of the miners union. But that April night, Prager got on the wrong side of a drunken mob that accused him of spying for Imperial Germany.

"They stripped him totally naked, and they put a rope around his neck, and they paraded him down Main Street, making him sing patriotic songs," Stevens says. "And they would take their beer bottles and break them in front of him. So he had to step on the broken beer bottles, cut his feet really badly."

Prager professed his love for America and kissed the flag that his tormentors wrapped him in. Even so, he was taken to the edge of town to a hanging tree.

"The group lowered him down quickly and, you know, break his neck," Stevens says. "They hollered, 'once for the red,' and they lowered him again, 'once for the white' and 'once for the blue.' "

Pete Stehman, who grew up in Collinsville, says the townspeople didn't talk about Prager for decades, but over the years he became fascinated with the mob's crime and the town's silence. He has written a book about it.

He says that when 11 men were put on trial for the lynching, they were all acquitted. And he points out that the local newspaper wrote about the verdict.

"The community is well convinced he was disloyal," the newspaper article read. "The city does not miss him. The lesson of his death has had a wholesome effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation."

Years later, in his memoir, the editor who wrote that article would call the trial "a farcical patriotic orgy."

While historians differ on what effect this had on German-Americans, Frederick Luebke, author of Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I, says "a few reacted by asserting their Germanness with new vigor." But he adds, "others sought to slough off their ethnicity as painlessly as possible."

In the anti-German hysteria of World War I, the assimilation of German-Americans was accelerated. And being a hyphenated American would mean being suspect in nativist eyes for decades to come.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week marks the centennial of U.S. entry into World War I, a conflict that shattered empires and cost millions of lives. Here's something else it did on the American home front. It made us a less German country - culturally.

Today, when the question of the loyalty of immigrants has again become contentious, what happened a century ago has special relevance. The first world war inspired an outbreak of nativism and xenophobia that targeted German immigrants, Americans of German descent and even the German language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking German).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: It was a remarkable reversal of fortune. Germans were the largest non-English speaking minority group in the U.S. at the time. According to the 1910 census, 1 out of every 11 people in this country was either a first or second-generation German American.

There were still more German American families that had been in the country longer, some since colonial times. They were Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Mennonites, German Jews and freethinkers of no religion at all.

KENNETH LEDFORD: The German emigration from Germany to the United States was quite significant.

SIEGEL: That's historian Kenneth Ledford of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

LEDFORD: During the 1850s, 900,000, almost a million Germans went to the United States. And that's at a time when the German population was only about 40 million.

SIEGEL: German Americans often worshipped in churches where German was used. They might live on city streets or in towns with German names. And while many immigrants assimilated into the English-speaking mainstream, many others sent their children to German-language public schools.

LEDFORD: Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago all gave parents the option for their children in elementary school to receive all of their tuition in German as well as in English.

SIEGEL: Richard Schade of the University of Cincinnati says those very cities were also home to German-language newspapers and clubs where German was spoken.

RICHARD SCHADE: German was the lingua franca of the literary scene, of the entertainment scene, of the theaters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Louie (ph) thought that he ought to be a sport, so he thought...

SIEGEL: The social life of the community was lubricated with the beverage Germans brought from the old country - lager beer, drunk cold and consumed in beer halls.

SCHADE: They had emporiums where Germans gathered on Sunday to drink beer and be entertained by German stars.

SIEGEL: Beer put them on a collision course with the growing temperance movement. But the biggest collision ahead was over language. Before World War I, German wasn't just an ethnic minority language, it was the most studied modern foreign language in America.

PAUL FINKELMAN: In 1915, about 25 percent of all high school students in America studied German.

SIEGEL: That changed dramatically. Legal historian Paul Finkelman says German had become so stigmatized, only 1 percent of high schools even taught it.

FINKELMAN: During the war, there is an argument that if you learn German, you will become the Hun, of course which was the pejorative term for anyone from Germany. And there was this notion that language was somehow organic to your soul. So if you spoke German, you would think like a German, you would become a totalitarian in favor of the kaiser.

SIEGEL: Bear in mind that for three years, Americans had watched the war in Europe from the sidelines. From 1914 until 1917, the U.S. remained neutral. And the American people were divided over getting involved. When members of minority groups spoke against entering the war in support of Britain, including some but not all German Americans, their patriotism was questioned. They were disparaged as hyphenated Americans.

Among those who did the disparaging was former President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1915, he declared there is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is American and nothing else.

And after President Woodrow Wilson took the country into the war, he said any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready. Historian Kenneth Ledford.

LEDFORD: The Office of War Information engaged in mobilization that attacked all forms of hyphenization, attacked anybody who expressed any support for Germany. And local authorities, local super patriots took this cue and pushed it ever farther.

SIEGEL: How much farther? As historian Richard Schade says, during the first world war, it even included internment.

SCHADE: Hans Kuhnwald, the concertmeister of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was interned. The German language was forbidden. The German American press was heavily censored. Libraries had to pull German books off the shelves. German American organizations were targeted. And what happened, of course, is the German Americans considered themselves to be good Americans of German extraction several generations removed from the old country.

SIEGEL: And they felt victimized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I see you and Otto (ph) not in church yesterday and worried about you.

SIEGEL: That feeling, mentioned in letters and recalled in family stories, is re-enacted at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We're tired of this war and being called monsters because we are German.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mein Gott, what would your grandfather say? He did not say he wants Germany to win the war.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: She comes home because she lost her teaching job. She cannot find work anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: But she's such a good teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yes, but she teaches German.

SIEGEL: In St. Louis, a letter to the editor - read here by writer Jim Merkel - suggested ways to make that city less German, more American.

JIM MERKEL: (Reading) While we are trying to eliminate everything German from our city and country, why not change the name of Berlin Avenue? I am sure Pershing Boulevard would be a name approved by all. Let's wipe out everything German.

SIEGEL: General John Pershing commanded U.S. forces during World War I. Merkel, who writes about the German community of St. Louis, says the city went ahead and did just what the letter writer suggested and then some.

MERKEL: Hapsburger Avenue is now Cecil Place. Kaiser Street is Gresham. Knappstein Place was Providence Place. Von Verson is now Enwright. Berlin Avenue is now Pershing. And Bismarck was named part of 4th St., but it no longer exists.

SIEGEL: Frederick Luebke, the author of "Bonds Of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I," says the aftermath of the war found this large and diverse ethnic group, many of whose sons served gallantly in the war, dispirited and, as a community, diminished.

FREDERICK LUEBKE: In the immediate post-war era, many states enacted laws that forbad instruction in the German language in the public schools below eighth grade. German Americans continued to feel that they were being discriminated against. The organizations that were pro-German in the cultural sense were greatly weakened.

SIEGEL: While historians differ on what effect all this had on German Americans, Frederick Luebke says a few reacted by asserting their Germanness with new vigor, but, he adds, others sought to slough off their ethnicity as painlessly as possible. In the anti-German hysteria of World War I, the assimilation of German Americans was accelerated, and being a hyphenated American would mean being suspect in nativist eyes for decades to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHAEL STEIN SONG, "STRANGER THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.