Americans rushed to display their newfound loathing for all things German

Thursday, January 21st, 2021

The current hysteria over “domestic terrorists” is often compared to incidents in Nazi Germany, Steve Sailer notes, but a better analog might be the Wilson administration’s demonization of German-Americans in 1917:

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917 (despite Wilson having been reelected five months before on the slogan: “He kept us out of the war”), the Wilson administration launched a propaganda and censorship campaign to castigate antiwar dissent as treason and potential insurrection.

Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 to imprison Americans for crimes of “insubordination.”

The Sedition Act of 1918 doubled down, proscribing up to twenty years’ imprisonment for publishing disloyal language about the government of the United States. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was imprisoned for a speech outlining the anticapitalist critique of war until President Harding pardoned Debs and invited him to the White House.

We didn’t have tech monopolies back then to censor free speech for us for free, so the Postmaster General was instructed to block from the mails any document questioning American involvement.

By June 1917, many Americans remained unenthusiastic about the war, so the Wilson administration switched from promoting the war as a high-minded crusade for democracy and peace (“the war to end all wars”) to stoking anti-German ethnic hatred. Propaganda posters declaring “Destroy This Mad Brute: Enlist” portrayed the German Reich as a mad gorilla raping a lovely American redhead.

This push by the powers-that-be inspired a sudden Teutophobic cultural revolution as Americans rushed to display their newfound loathing for all things German. Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage, dachshunds became liberty hounds, and, strangely, German measles were redubbed liberty measles.

In Cincinnati, pretzels were canceled from bars’ free lunches. Literary works printed in German were discarded by libraries and there was an occasional book burning.

The Goethe statue in Chicago was vandalized and it was debated whether to melt it down for war weapons.

A German-born baker was lynched in Illinois by coal miners and the jury acquitted his murderers.

At the more refined end of society, 29 musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were rounded up and interned at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. Beethoven and Bach disappeared from concert schedules and the German Richard Wagner was replaced by the Frenchman Hector Berlioz.

As in 1939, it was hard to keep up with the rapidly changing political line. For example, a movie mogul who produced a patriotic silent film extolling the American Revolution of 1776 suddenly found his film vilified for being against the King of England.

By the time America finally calmed down under Harding’s “return to normalcy,” German-Americans had learned to keep their heads down. Restrictions on immigration passed in the 1920s helped American society mature. Hence, the challenges of the Depression and WWII were navigated with less of the national nervous breakdown that accompanied Wilson’s second term.

The Wilsonian forced assimilation of Germans proved helpful during World War II when German-Americans were overwhelmingly loyal. But the U.S. probably permanently lost some of the brilliance of German culture.

Looking back, the whole episode seems embarrassing.


  1. Adar says:

    Unique German communities in the USA all gone because of WW1 and Prohibition. Beer garden every block in the distinct German neighborhoods all shut down. Ethnic cohesion destroyed. And all for the worse. Germans make the best Americans.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    At least some German restaurants and taverns survived by re-branding themselves as “Bohemian” or “Austrian”, but yeah, a real cultural loss.

  3. Kirk says:

    Wilson and the freaks he brought into his administration were real pieces of work. Not only did they victimize and attack German-Americans, they also did all kinds of other nasty little things that have conveniently been glossed over and completely forgotten.

    There were the hordes of so-called “Four-minute Men” that were run by the Committee on Public Information, who would harangue the public at every opportunity. Woe to anyone who dared question them, what they said, or who dissented, because someone would be waiting in the wings to beat them up in many cities.

    There were networks of quasi-official informers that would turn people in for things like “hoarding”, simply because they’d saved their sugar rations to make things like preserves. My great-grandmother fell foul of these creatures in Portland, Oregon, that bastion of upright Progressivism. They came into her house, tore it apart because someone reported that she’d “hoarded” sugar; what she’d done was carefully go without and saved it, in order to make her prize-winning preserves. A jealous neighbor turned her in; her supplies, laid in to prepare for winter, were confiscated and taken down to the local Democratic Party headquarters, where it was handed out to Democrats. Great-grandmother, you see, was not “one of them”, and her family came from back east, with a well-known reputation for being abolitionist. Members of the family went bankrupt during the Civil War, supporting things like the Massachusetts black regiments.

    The crap that went on under Wilson has all been swept under the rug, just like Roosevelt’s confiscation of gold specie. It’s all carefully forgotten, and if you mention it in the wrong venue, they will call you a liar–But, the documentation is out there, buried in the libraries. I could hardly believe some of the stories that were passed down, so I went looking. The newspapers from that era are fascinating reading, when you realize the implications. It’s not hard to understand how they got Prohibition through, in that era–The votes were rigged, and the whole thing was an epic fraud perpetuated mostly by Democratic Party operatives.

    The sad fact is that the American public is basically incredibly stupid and easily misled about things; the real history, and the implications of it all are oftentimes utterly ignored.

    What’s hysterically funny, though? The Nazis studied Wilson and his methods, enacting as many of them as they thought they could. Ironically, there were things that Wilson and his coterie of fanatics did that even the Nazis thought were over the top, and refused to try to enact…

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    Canada is not immune from this stuff either. Kitchener, Ontario is named for Lord Kitchener, hero of Khartoum and WWI, or rather, re-named, since it was already called new, or little (can’t remember which, I think “new”), Berlin, for all the German immigrants who settled there.

    You also get weird situations like a great, great (great?, not sure how many greats), grandfather of mine. My family on my maternal grandmother’s side was German. One of a group of sponsored German immigrants to South Africa from the vicinity of Bremen, in the mid 1800s. First German settlers in southern Africa. My great Aunt was the family genealogist, and tracked down the branch of the family that stayed in Germany, and there was family lore of the branch that went to Africa, and disappeared out of the local family knowledge.

    Just before WWI, my ancestor went back to Germany on business, and was promptly interned by the Germans on the outbreak of war because he was a “British Subject”.

    He returned to South Africa afterwards, re-established himself and his business, and upon the outbreak of WWII, was promptly interned by the South African government because he was an ethnic German!

    You can’t make stuff like this up!

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