During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture As the U.S. entered World War I, German culture was erased as the government promoted the unpopular war through anti-German propaganda. This backlash culminated in the lynching of a German immigrant.
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During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture

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

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

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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.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking German).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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