|Lesson 4||Table of Contents||Lesson 6|
GERMAN-AMERICANS IN TIMES OF STRESS: WORLD WAR I & WORLD WAR II
1. Key personalities
Charles J. Hexamer (1862-1921). An American-born son of a Forty-Eighter was an engineer from Philadelphia. He founded the National German-American Alliance in 1901 and served as its first president. Hexamer was an apologist for Wilhelmine Germany and a blunt critic of U.S. foreign policy, but nevertheless a proud American.
George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962). Born in Germany, he came to the U.S. while in his teens and was a student at the City College of New York. A promising young poet in both German and English, he became a pro-German propagandist at the time of World War I. His weekly magazine, The Fatherland, eloquently argued the German point of view in English. He was imprisoned from 1943 to 1947 as an enemy agent.
Hugo Muensterberg (1863-1916). A German-born professor of psychology at Harvard, he was a pioneer in applied psychology. A prolific scholar, Muensterberg wrote for popular magazines as well as learned journals, thus becoming a national celebrity. But he found himself shunned and denounced when he emerged as a pro-German apologist following the outbreak of World War I. He collapsed and died while teaching a class at Radcliffe College.
Victor Berger (1860-1929). Austrian-born Socialist in Milwaukee. After editing a German-language newspaper he later became editor of the English-language Milwaukee Leader. Berger served in Congress from 1911 to 1913, the first Socialist to hold a congressional seat. He condemned American entrance into World War I. He was reelected to Congress in 1919 but was denied his seat in the House. Subsequently Berger was elected again and was a congressman from 1923 to 1929.
2. Main trends
The policies of Otto von Bismarck during the second half of the 19th century molded Germany into a unified nation dominated by Prussia. By 1900 Germany had also become a major industrial nation and an indisputable world power. Its leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was commanding in appearance and dynamic in manner. To many Germans he was the incarnation of German national pride. There were others, however, who were uneasy about the spirit of boastful militarism which had become an increasingly evident part of German national life under his reign.
On the eve of World War I, German-Americans were divided in the way they viewed the Kaiser. The majority were probably carried along by the wave of German nationalism, but the Kaiser also had his critics. Foremost among these were the Socialists, who were opposed on principle to militarism and who had been the target of oppressive anti-Socialist laws in Germany in the 1880s. German-American Catholics, like Catholics in Germany, could not forget the "Kulturkampf," the struggle between Bismarck and the Catholic Church. Missouri Synod Lutherans were also inclined to mistrust the imperial German government, which they vaguely associated with the liberal theology of Adolf von Harnack. To the pacifist American Mennonites there was nothing at all to be admired in the militaristic spirit that pervaded modern Germany. After all, the Mennonites, like the other Anabaptist sects, were strictly opposed to bearing arms and, having been persecuted for their faith, had few feelings of cultural attachment to Germany.
Despite reservations, millions of Americans felt a degree of emotional attachment to the German language and German culture. Sometimes this was closely tied in with church membership and sometimes with membership in a German-speaking club ("Verein") or other voluntary association. The German-American press, once largely in the hands of political liberals, had passed to the control of younger immigrants whose attitudes reflected those of imperial Germany. Because of the massive tides of immigration which had taken place esp. between the 1830s and 1890s, the Germans had become an important ethnic block in American society. With regard to certain issues they tended to take a uniform stand. They were, e.g., strongly opposed to prohibition and to Sunday closing laws, which they viewed as infringements of personal liberty.
The German-American Alliance, formed in 1901, was a classic pressure group which aimed to influence politicians in behalf of the German-American stand not only on such issues as prohibition, but likewise on the need for physical education and protection of the woodlands. As relations between Germany and the U.S. began to deteriorate during the decade preceding World War I, the Alliance became increasingly supportive of the imperial German government and its aims. By the time World War I broke out, its pro-German rhetoric had reached a crescendo. Spokesmen for the German-American Alliance were widely quoted in the English-language press and probably played into the hands of those who were promoting anti-German sentiment. The Alliance was essentially a hollow organization with inflated membership figures and little rank and file participation. It was never really trusted by German-American church groups.
After the outbreak of war in 1914 the English-language press, particularly largely British-owned east coast papers, tended to support the Allied cause and became increasingly critical of Germany's war aims. During 1915 a series of incidents fanned the flames of anti-German feeling in the U.S. The sinking in May of the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, was widely resented. The attempted assassination of the financier J. P. Morgan by a fanatic German immigrant on July 4, 1915 was another such incident. In August the New York World published a well-documented series of articles exposing the extent to which the German government had been involved in providing financial support to pro-German propaganda in the U.S. The fact that there was nothing illegal about this was never part of the discussion, nor did anyone object to the fact that the British government was carrying on similar propaganda efforts in the U.S. at the time.
During the period of U.S. neutrality between 1914 and 1917 there was an ongoing debate over the question of whether the U.S. should make any concessions in order to avoid becoming involved in the war. Relations between the U.S. and Germany became strained when the Germans threatened unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral ships in British waters. The German-American press repeatedly insisted that the danger of the U.S. becoming involved in the war could be lessened if the U.S. would end the munitions traffic with the Allies. In the interest of lessening tensions with Germany an attempt was made to pass legislation prohibiting American citizens from travel on ships such as the Lusitania which were registered with countries involved in the war. The Wilson administration, however, became increasingly committed to opposing any restrictions on U.S. trade with the Allies. Was it because the Allies' demise would have meant huge losses for American companies?
In 1916 there was a national election in which Woodrow Wilson ran against Charles Evans Hughes, a colorless Republican candidate. By this time German-American voters had become completely disillusioned with Wilson and heavily favored Hughes. Both candidates, however, had become increasingly strident in denouncing "hyphenated Americans." In part they were egged on by former president Theodore Roosevelt's accusations of widespread disloyalty among "hyphenates" and by his demands for national military preparedness.
By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917, American public opinion had begun to seize upon the idea that true Americanism entailed rejection of all foreign values even to the extent of giving up the use of any foreign language. This sort of nativistic thinking has a long history in the U.S. and is with us still today, but during the period 1917-1918 it was blown into grotesque proportions. Many German-Americans found themselves harassed and mistreated. The war dealt a great blow to the German-language press in America. Of the more than five hundred German-language periodicals that existed before the war, less than half were able to survive the war years. German-language theaters suffered a similar decline and many church groups decided to largely abandon the use of German in church services.
In some places anti-German hysteria took on a sinister cast. There were unsubstantiated claims of widespread German espionage and sabotage. Organizations of super patriots such as the National Security League harassed individuals, often with the connivance of state and local officials. Laws were passed banning German from schools and in some cases banning the use of any and all German books in school libraries. In February of 1918 the Senate began an investigation of the National German-American Alliance, after which the organization voted itself out of existence. Publications such as Victor Berger's Milwaukee Leader were harassed by the Post Office. The government's Committee on Public Information flooded the country with grotesque anti-German propaganda. By 1920 German-American voters had largely turned to the Republican Party because of bitter disillusion with how the Wilson administration had run the country during the national crisis. In some states German-American voters supported third-party candidates such as the Socialist Eugene V. Debs (of Alsation ancestry and cousin of Albert Schweizer). Third-party candidates were also popular with German-American voters in some state and local elections. Robert La Follette's Progressive Party was successful in Wisconsin and the Farmer-Labor Party won many local elections in Minnesota.
The situation in World War II was quite different. Although hard times in Germany during the 1920s had brought many new immigrants, the German language had much less importance in the U.S. on the eve of World War II than had been the case on the eve of World War I. Although the German-American press in the Depression era tended to be optimistic about the "New Germany," Hitler had his articulate detractors in America. Many German-Americans, still smarting from the experiences of World War I, preferred to be non-committal. The German-American community as a whole never attempted to mount any propaganda efforts favoring Nazi Germany.
There were only a few fanatics. The most notorious Nazi organization was the Deutschamerikanische Volksbund (German-American National League), generally referred to as "the Bund." Its rallies at Madison Square Garden presented a familiar picture, brown-shirted Nazis with swastika flags and racist rhetoric. The leader of the Bund, Fritz Julius Kuhn, had immigrated in 1927. His followers tended to be other recent immigrants who had not experienced the wave of anti-German sentiment during World War I. The Bund suffered a major setback in May 1939 when Kuhn was arrested for embezzling funds from his organization. He was imprisoned, stripped of his U.S. citizenship and deported.
Untold in the public media and politically undigested remains the story of internment of German-Americans during World War II.
Arthur D. Jacobs, Stephen Fox, and Paul Knauer have amassed stunning documentation (see below).
3. Suggested further reading
Sandor A. Diamond. The Nazi Movement in the U.S. 1924-1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974.
Frederick C. Luebke. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I. Dekalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1974.
Harry N. Scheiber. The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, 1917-1921. Ithaca, NY, 1960.
Carl F. Wittke. German-Americans and the World War. Columbus, OH: Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, 1936.
WEB-wise: http://www.serve.com/shea/germusa/intern.htm - Arthur D. Jacobs, Major, USAF Retired; Researcher: Internment in the United States during World War II, December 7, 1941-July 1948.
Created: 4 August 1998, SEL
Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: Eberhard Reichmann, email@example.com
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