Crown Prince Heinrich and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in New York, February 25, 1902

Crown Prince Heinrich and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in New York, February 25, 1902

German-Americans during World War I

World War I had a devastating effect on German-Americans and their cultural heritage. Up until that point, German-Americans, as a group, had been spared much of the discrimination, abuse, rejection, and collective mistrust experienced by so many different racial and ethnic groups in the history of the United States. Indeed, over the years, they had been viewed as a well-integrated and esteemed part of American society. All of this changed with the outbreak of war.

World War I had a devastating effect on German-Americans and their cultural heritage. Up until that point, German-Americans, as a group, had been spared much of the discrimination, abuse, rejection, and collective mistrust experienced by so many different racial and ethnic groups in the history of the United States. Indeed, over the years, they had been viewed as a well-integrated and esteemed part of American society. All of this changed with the outbreak of war. At once, German ancestry became a liability. As a result, German-Americans attempted to shed the vestiges of their heritage and become fully “American.” Among other outcomes, this process hastened their assimilation into American society and put an end to many German-language and cultural institutions in the United States.

Although German immigrants had begun settling in America during the colonial period, the vast majority of them (more than five million) arrived in the nineteenth century. In fact, as late as 1910, about nine percent of the American population had been born in Germany or was of German parentage – the highest percentage of any ethnic group.[1] Moreover, as most German-Americans lived on the East Coast or in the Midwest, there were numerous regions in which they made up as much as 35 percent of the populace. Most of the earlier German immigrants had been farmers or craftsmen and had usually settled near fellow countrymen in towns or on the countryside; most of those who arrived in the 1880s and thereafter moved to the ever growing cities in search of work. Soon enough there was hardly any large U.S. city without an ethnic German neighborhood. German-Americans wielded strong economic and cultural influence in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, with the latter three forming the so-called German triangle.

German immigrants were generally considered to be hard-working, thrifty, and charitable – a successfully integrated group that still clung to its cultural heritage by maintaining German-language schools, newspapers, and various social clubs. No other immigrant group founded so many different societies: there were specific occupational groups, shooting clubs, singing groups, literary associations, and gymnastic clubs, as well as societies for Germans from particular regions, to name just a few. Craftsmen founded mutual benefit societies to provide assistance in the event of invalidity or to support the widows and orphans of members. Members not only attended weekly meetings, but also participated in weekend activities and charitable events. They helped newcomers, cared for the elderly, and supported each other in times of personal or professional need. By 1915, there were thousands of these societies all over the country, with more than two hundred in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Milwaukee, respectively.[2] But not all German immigrants joined these clubs. Some engaged in political work, or joined labor unions or business organizations; others preferred their churches and the social networks that sprang up around them. This was especially true in rural areas, where churches were the center of cultural and communal life. Despite their differences, most Germans had one thing in common – a love for and an ongoing commitment to the German language. German-Americans may have come from different parts of Germany, but most of them felt united by a common conception of cultural “Germanness.” In summary, one could argue that before 1914, the vast majority German-Americans had a nostalgic love for their ethnic heritage, yet no sense of political loyalty toward Imperial Germany.

American Reactions to the Outbreak of War in Europe

When news of the war reached the United States in August 1914, immigrants from all over Europe reacted with sympathy and concern for the citizens of their home countries. Among those immigrants were thousands of German reservists who rushed to German consulates in the U.S. in an effort to return home and join the fight. German-Americans also held patriotic meetings in cities such as New York and Chicago and collected for war relief funds. Such enthusiastic “war fever” was prevalent among all immigrant groups, but since people of German origin made up a high percentage of the American population, they came under heightened public scrutiny.

The reaction of German-Americans to the war varied, however. That was to be expected, given their regional, political, and religious diversity. German immigrants did not form a homogenous group. German-Americans included “Germans” who had emigrated from various German-speaking territories prior to their official political unification in the German Empire of 1871, Reichsdeutsche immigrants, ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, as well as members of religious groups with distinct identities, such as Mennonites. By 1914, the vast majority of German-Americans were American-born descendants of such earlier immigrants. Although many of them strongly sympathized with their relatives in the old “Fatherland,” they identified firstly as Americans and thus wanted to stay out of the war. Most of their fellow Americans shared this attitude, along with President Woodrow Wilson, who immediately declared the country's neutrality.

Before long, however, the news from Europe began to divide the country. Reports that German soldiers had committed atrocities against Belgian civilians circulated widely and gave rise to anti-German sentiment in the United States. Most German-Americans viewed these stories as fabrications, the work of British propaganda. In response, the German Foreign Office decided to launch a counter-propaganda campaign in the United States. Its agents submitted their own accounts to German-language newspapers and sponsored the founding of the journal “The Fatherland,” which became the mouthpiece of the German government.

Still, it was not enough to combat an anti-German sentiment that had been growing in the U.S. for two decades. Under Kaiser (or Emperor) Wilhelm II, Germany had developed a militaristic reputation, and, to make matters worse, the United States and Germany had already been embroiled in a confrontation over the Philippines in 1898. Furthermore, at the time, Germany and the United States were involved in growing economic competition not only in North America and Europe, but also in Latin America, which only heightened the tensions between the two nations.[3] By the turn of the century, Wilhelm II knew that anti-German sentiment was on the rise in the U.S., and in 1902 he tried to improve Germany’s image among Americans by sending his brother Heinrich on a “goodwill tour” of the United States. Unfortunately, Wilhelm and Heinrich’s efforts were to no avail. Not long after the outbreak of World War I, Americans started to view the conflict as a war of ideology: the Allies were portrayed as defending “civilization,” the Axis Powers were seen as asserting their “cultural superiority.” This fateful equation of German culture with military might soon proved disastrous for German-Americans.[4]

In May 1915, the Lusitania, a British passenger steamer, was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Irish coast, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 124 Americans. The situation for German-Americans worsened immediately. In their defense, German officials maintained that the crew had been warned not to sail into a war zone, and they accused the ship of carrying war contraband for the British (which was indeed true).[5] Still, most Americans viewed the sinking of the Lusitania as an unscrupulous German attack on civilians, indeed as an act of cold-blooded murder. Thereafter, many – if not most – Americans identified German Kultur with destruction and barbarism, and they regarded Germans as “uncivilized brutes” and “Huns,” a term used by the Kaiser himself in a 1900 speech in which he instructed departing German troops to be as menacing and ruthless as “Huns.”

In 1915-16, several groups (among them German-Americans, but also pacifists and socialists) tried to keep the United States out of the war by demanding an embargo on munitions shipments to all belligerents. The Wilson administration, however, argued that wartime contracts with participating nations were still within the scope of American neutrality. At the same time, many influential Americans, including banker J.P. Morgan, came out in open support of the Allies. In fact, Morgan soon became the leading financier of the war effort by providing Britain, France, and Russia with loans and by convincing other bankers to do the same. Opponents of the war and the Wilson administration alike claimed that Morgan was trying to draw the United States into the war in order to rescue his loans. A loss on the part of the Allies would have indeed devastated the American economy and financial sector. American manufactured arms and munitions were delivered mainly to the Allied powers on account of their control of the sea. German agents, therefore, tried to cut off these supply lines by committing acts of sabotage in the United States. They blew up munitions shipments, docks (the best-known example is the explosion on Black Tom Island in New York's harbor in July 1916), and possibly several munitions plants. Some of these attacks were planned, financed, and carried out by officials from the German Foreign Office, while others resulted from private initiatives. The latter included Eric Muenter's plot to blow up the U.S. Senate and his July 1915 attempt to assassinate Morgan, whom he viewed as a war profiteer. Berlin and Vienna also called on emigrant workers from Germany and Austria-Hungary to stop producing goods for the Allies. In the end, these efforts went nowhere. What they did do, however, was expand the scope of anti-German sentiment to encompass not only German nationals, but also German-Americans, who were now viewed as potential spies and saboteurs.[6]

The year 1916 saw the growth of the preparedness campaign. “Patriotic” societies, as they called themselves, such as the National Security League and the American Defense Society, now stressed the importance of preparing the country for self-defense and eventual war. They demanded compulsory military training at schools, the end of foreign-language instruction, and “100 percent Americanism”: a slogan that was shorthand for patriotism, loyalty, and unwavering support for the government.[7] The question of German-American loyalty also became an issue during the 1916 presidential election campaign, when candidates Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes both declared hyphenated Americans to be potentially disloyal. Another prominent person who spoke out against Americans with purported divided loyalties was former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose verbal attacks were often published in the nation's newspapers. Americans of German descent now found themselves under a constant burden of proof regarding their attitude toward the war in Europe. Even though they were being attacked for alleged disloyalty from both Democrats and Republicans, German-Americans voted as they always had – not as an ethnic bloc, as some politicians had hoped, but in accordance with their previous political allegiances, just like the rest of the country. Unwilling to fight in Europe, American voters narrowly reelected President Wilson, who had campaigned under the slogan “he kept us out of war.”

Against the backdrop of German sabotage, preparedness campaigns, and America’s financial entanglements with the Allies, two events in February 1917 finally triggered the decision to go to war: the first was the German government's announcement that it planned to resume submarine warfare; the second was the so-called Zimmermann Telegram, which had been sent to Mexico by Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Secretary. The telegram had been intercepted by the British and handed over to the Wilson administration. In the telegram, Zimmermann, writing on behalf of Germany, offered the Mexican government their lost territories in the American southwest in return for an alliance in the event of an American declaration of war. Unsurprisingly, the American public reacted with indignation and outrage, and on April 6, 1917, after another sinking of an American merchant ship and the loss of more American lives from German submarines, the United States government declared war on Germany.

America's Mobilization for War

After war was declared, President Wilson immediately proclaimed all German citizens “alien enemies.” They were barred from living near military facilities or airports, in all port towns and in the nation's capital. They had to disclose their bank accounts and any other property to an Alien Property Custodian appointed by the attorney general. Furthermore, in 1918, Germans had to fill out registration affidavits and be fingerprinted. German citizens in America who failed to comply with these rules or who were considered potentially dangerous were placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. The camp at Hot Springs in North Carolina accommodated most of the 2,300 employees of German passenger and merchant ships; about 1,300 German Navy personnel were kept at Fort McPherson in Georgia. All other suspects (academics, journalists, business people, artists etc.) were brought to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia – about 1,400 for the duration of the war. Fort Douglas in Utah was used for approximately 500 prisoners of war, but soon also included more than 800 “alien enemies” and about 200 American conscientious objectors.[8]

The instant mobilization of the country became a matter of priority for the Wilson administration. The economy had to switch to products necessary for the war; soldiers had to be recruited, trained, equipped, and transported to Europe along with munitions, arms, and tanks; the production of food had to be stepped up in order to supply not only the American population but Allied citizens as well; decisions had to be made about whether to rely on a volunteer army or to introduce compulsory military training; and the American people had to be prepared to make personal and financial sacrifices. Every U.S. state was to establish a Council of Defense for the purpose of helping the government cope with these challenges.[9]

In order to mobilize Americans behind the war effort, so-called patriotic organizations and the federal government alike employed anti-German propaganda. President Wilson appointed journalist George Creel to head the newly created Committee on Public Information (CPI), which was tasked with strengthening the war effort by rallying the public behind the government through speeches, posters, films, and door-to-door campaigns. The CPI also worked closely with immigrant organizations to get the government's message into every household.[10] The fear of spies grew when Americans were warned to be watchful of their neighbors of German descent and to report any suspicious person to the authorities. It was rumored that spies were poisoning food, and that German-Americans were secretly hording arms. The situation was only made worse by newspapers and government officials, both of which fed the public’s paranoia. Nearly nine million potential German-American spies were a frightening thought to most citizens. Many Americans started to look twice at their colleagues and neighbors. Patriotism and loyalty could only be proven by subscribing to liberty loans, donating to the Red Cross, participating in parades, and joining the armed forces. Any form of dissent was henceforth considered pro-German and thus unpatriotic.

New laws restricting the rights of speech, publication, and trade were passed shortly after America’s entry into the war. These included the Espionage Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act, both passed in 1917, and the Sedition Act of 1918. From that point on, any criticism of the government, the draft, or any aspect of the war could be punished by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to twenty years. This, of course, represented a severe break with established democratic traditions in the United States. Still, only a few congressmen supported Senator William Borah (R-Idaho) when he spoke out against these measures, arguing: “It is not necessary to Prussianize ourselves in order to destroy Prussianism in Europe.”[11] In fact, the laws on the punishment of verbal criticism were even stricter than those in autocratic countries such as Russia, and they contravened all civil rights guaranteed in the constitution in an unprecedented way.[12] The laws were passed in part to stem individual acts of vigilantism, which in the past had led to lynchings, beatings, and the tarring and featherings of war opponents. Nevertheless, mob actions escalated in April 1918 in the wake of Germany’s Ludendorff Offensive, which caused the first significant American casualties. In accordance with the popular slogan “If you can't fight over there, fight over here,” members of patriotic societies made certain that everybody in their neighborhood contributed to the war effort. They also harassed anyone who opposed the war, especially those of German stock, but also socialists, pacifists, and conscientious objectors. German-language services in churches were disrupted and German-language newspapers were shut down; churches housing German congregations were painted yellow; schoolchildren were forced to sign pledges in which they promised not to use any foreign language whatsoever; citizens of German descent were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem. The most notorious case of mob action was the lynching of Robert Prager in Illinois in April 1918. Prager, a German native who had applied for American citizenship, was known to harbor socialist ideas and was suspected by his neighbors of stealing dynamite. Although this could not be proven, he was dragged out of town, stripped, and hanged. This lynching caused outrage among many prominent Americans; nevertheless, court proceedings found the members of the mob not guilty.[13]

Once the United States entered the war, German-Americans found themselves in a “no win” situation: if they told anyone that they opposed the war, they could face trial; if they avoided the topic altogether, they were considered “lukewarm” patriots. Even those who fully embraced patriotic activities were often suspected of being hypocrites who were hiding their “true” feelings. In July 1917, an American officer summarized this sentiment when he declared: “the truly dangerous German-Americans, the ones we have to watch and exterminate are the German-Americans who wear American flags on their coats but harbor ultimate loyalty to the Kaiser.”[14] The exclusive right to define who was a real American was claimed by the members of so-called patriotic societies: “One hundred percent” Americans did not use any language other than English, did not read foreign-language newspapers or attend foreign-language church services, were not members of any clubs adhering to German customs (French and British clubs became particularly fashionable during the war, however), and did not criticize the government. Many Americans charged German-Americans with divided loyalties or insufficient patriotism unless they proved their “innocence” by contributing generously to patriotic causes. The vast majority of German-Americans, however, were loyal to their (adopted) country and did not understand why they – more than anyone else – had to prove something that was a matter of fact to them. Their situation was attributable to several factors, some of which were beyond their control: first, their sympathy for relatives back in the old country was turned against them once the United States entered the war; second, in the early years of the European war several prominent German-Americans had voiced their opinion that German culture was superior to American, and this cultural chauvinism was later held against the whole ethnic group; and third, the large number of Americans of German descent was seen as a cause for concern, especially after German Foreign Undersecretary Arthur Zimmermann suggested in 1914 that Germany could use this “fifth column” against the U.S. any time it chose.[15] Of course, Zimmermann’s statement was delusional and completely unfounded: German-Americans were much too heterogeneous to be united, and as Americans, they were interested in preserving their cultural rather than their political heritage.

The Effect of Anti-German Sentiment on German-American Cultural Identity

In the fall of 1917, the fight against Germans in Europe was extended to their Kultur in the United States. This battle against all things German included a ban on the use of the German language in schools, universities, libraries, and religious services. Additionally, German societies, musical organizations, and theaters were shuttered and the German-language press in America was forced to shut down. Patriotic organizations claimed that the preservation of the German language would hinder German-Americans’ assimilation into American life and, even worse, brutalize young people: “Any language which produces a people of ruthless conquestadors [sic] such as now exist in Germany, is not a fit language to teach clean and pure American boys and girls.”[16] In most public schools, teachers were forced to sign loyalty pledges, and many pupils no longer dared to enroll in German-language courses. By March 1918, thirty-eight out of forty-eight states had restricted or ended German-language instruction in schools. Ohio, Iowa, and Nebraska passed the strictest language laws in the country; since their laws also prohibited the use of any foreign language in public places or on the telephone, the U.S. Supreme Court declared them to be unconstitutional in 1923 and 1925, respectively.[17] Public and university libraries ended their subscriptions to German-language newspapers, books written in German and even English books that dealt with Germany and Austria-Hungary (such as history books or tourist guides) were stowed in basements for the duration of the war. However, some libraries went so far as to destroy them or to sell them as wastepaper; several of these books were actually publicly burned along with German-language newspapers during local patriotic celebrations.

Most German-American congregations suffered from the language ban, and many of them eventually switched to English for their religious services. Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites were among the groups that were most heavily exposed to hostility, because their members were not only of German descent but also generally opposed to military participation. (Ironically, they had once left Europe to evade military service and find religious tolerance.) During wartime, however, their pacifist creed was taken as proof of their pro-German sympathies; the fact that most of them kept apart from their American neighbors made them even more suspect. In general, they chose not to comment on the public discourse; they continued to operate their own schools, cherished their old customs, spoke their German dialects, and resisted Americanization. None of them felt any loyalty toward Germany; they just wanted to be left alone to practice their faith and live according to their religious beliefs. Many so-called patriotic organizations were irritated by this behavior, and they renewed their efforts to force those groups to contribute to the war effort. Several members of these religious groups were beaten, churches were destroyed, their cattle was sold in order to buy liberty bonds in their names, and American flags were hoisted on their schools. These religious communities were left with two options: either to suffer this treatment or emigrate. The more liberal congregations chose the first option and worked out a compromise with the Wilson government in which they allowed their young men to participate in the civil service. Still, some Mennonites were drafted into the armed forces, and several of them were jailed as conscientious objectors. More than 1,500 Mennonites and Hutterites finally migrated to Canada during the war in order to escape further harassment and prosecution.[18] In times of frantic mobilization, when the German language was as much an enemy as Imperial Germany itself and when war opponents were seen as traitors, there was no room for tolerance for ethnic peculiarities and pacifist ideals.

These self-proclaimed patriotic organizations also started campaigns to Americanize the United States nominally. Hundreds of German names for towns, streets, parks, and public buildings were changed. Extremely recognizable German names such as “Berlin” or “Hamburg” became “Pershing” or “Belgium.” Many German-Americans sought to avoid further harassment by changing their family names, often shortening them or translating them into English. The same was true for most cultural societies. Actual legislation or local pressure led to changes in club names, the halting of publications (or at least a switch to English), an end to meetings for the duration of the war or even the outright termination of clubs. Several German theaters that were dependent on the language skills of their patrons had to give up performing in the years to come. Even music fell victim to patriotic scrutiny. Most well-known orchestras had conductors and musicians who were either German or German-American, such as Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ernst Kunwald of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, or Karl Muck, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (who ended up in Fort Oglethorpe), to name only the most prominent. Many orchestras and opera houses stopped playing works by German and Austrian composers such as Beethoven or Mozart to avoid being labeled disloyal. For some patriotic societies, German music was particularly perilous since it stirred the emotions of listeners; for others, it was a perfect tool for German propaganda: “German music, as a whole, is dangerous, in that it preaches the same philosophy, or rather sophistry, as most of the German literature. It is the music of conquest, the music of the storm, of disorder, and devastation.”[19]

German-language newspapers also came under intense pressure from these so-called patriotic organizations. Many readers cancelled their subscriptions, companies stopped advertising in them, no one wanted to deliver them anymore, and vendors stopped selling them. Many of them switched to English, some merged with former competitors, others ceased operations for the duration of the war. Many ethnic societies and German-language papers failed to survive the war; still, not all of them were destroyed. Though strongly diminished, several continued into the decades after the war.

On the whole, the treatment of German-Americans during the war varied from region to region and depended on their numbers and on the behavior of local politicians and attorney generals. There was less harassment in places where there were few citizens of German descent, since they were not perceived as a real threat. Likewise, there were fewer arrests of German-Americans and less scrutiny in places where local politicians and lawyers resolved not to enforce laws to the fullest. However, when politicians and officials decided to use the situation to advance their careers, they were often able to incite a community to hatred against anyone who appeared to dissent – just as Joseph McCarthy did thirty years later. As a result of the war, many German-Americans preferred to conceal their ethnic background, as could be seen in the first postwar census, when about 900,000 German-born Americans seemingly vanished, only to reappear under the categories of American-born or other ethnicity.[20] Insofar as they held onto their German language, culture, and traditions at all, many German-Americans did so in private or turned it into folklore.

German-American Entrepreneurs during the War

As soon as the United States declared war on Germany, President Wilson proclaimed all German citizens “alien enemies.” As mentioned above, that meant that they were no longer allowed to live or work near military facilities or airports, in ports or in the nation's capital. This caused serious problems, because most cities included several exclusion zones. Many people who were professionally dependent on mobility, such as service technicians or carters, were no longer allowed to move around freely. Although employers could apply for permits that government officials issued when a worker was declared loyal, thousands of “alien enemies” lost their jobs. Soon, officials at the Department of Justice acknowledged this as a problem: “. . . it became apparent that an immediate exclusion of all German alien enemies from the prohibited areas . . . would result in unnecessary and serious hardship upon the alien enemies, and would undoubtedly precipitate a serious labor problem.”[21] In New York, some German-Americans tried to ease the hardship by establishing the Agricultural and Industrial Relief Bureau, a private initiative that placed unemployed persons in open positions. In Chicago, the situation grew even worse on May 1, 1918, when the city council withdrew trade licenses from all non-naturalized persons of any nationality, leaving more than 6,000 craftsmen, shopkeepers, pub owners and other businesspeople (and their workers) unemployed.[22]

The private fortunes of “alien enemies” also came under scrutiny. Even before the passage of the Trading with the Enemy Act in October 1917, Charles Warren, the deputy attorney general, appointed a special assistant for New York who was responsible for disclosing the bank accounts of “alien enemies.” Other attorney generals followed suit in other states. For the duration of the war, “alien enemies” needed a permit to withdraw or transfer money from their accounts. Additionally, after the passage of the act, all German citizens had to disclose any other property to Alien Property Custodian A. Mitchell Palmer. Business owners had to hand over their books and customer lists for inspection. If Palmer decided that these business relations were a threat to the United States, he was authorized to sequestrate the company's capital for the duration of the war. Up until the end of the war, Palmer held about 32,000 assets in a trust worth approximately $800 million (approximately $10.4 billion in 2011 dollars).[23]

Anyone who had business relations with Germany was also affected by the passage of the Trading with the Enemy Act, which restricted trade with countries hostile to the United States. Even though maritime warfare around the British Isles and the blockade of Germany had already curtailed most oversea trading options, numerous financial ties persisted – the result of a growing globalized economy. Many American companies had sold their shares in German businesses once war between the two countries had been declared. Mitchell Palmer, however, was more concerned about possible German shares in U.S. companies. He feared that Germany could use its influence over those companies to hinder the American war effort or, at least, use the profits for its own war economy. On March 28, 1918, an amendment to the Trading with the Enemy Act was passed. The amendment legalized the confiscation of German capital investments in the U.S and made it possible for the government to put them up for auction. Palmer thereupon divided “alien enemy” property into two groups: the first group included the property of people he regarded as “friendly” to the United States. Their investments and possessions were preserved unharmed until the end of the war. The second group included large-scale German corporate investments in important American industries such as textiles, machinery, and especially chemistry. Those investments were put up for sale.[24] Another amendment was passed on November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice. It legalized the confiscation and sale of thousands of patents that German scientists and companies had taken out, both in Germany and the United States. German companies were world leaders in the development and production of dyestuffs and medicinals, and now American companies were able to use their competitors' techniques and knowledge without having to compensate them. Palmer immediately sold about 4,500 patents to the Chemical Foundation, an organization of the American chemical industry, which then licensed those patents and brands under the foundation's name.[25]

As mentioned previously, after the outbreak of war, German-American shopkeepers and businessmen were quickly targeted by self-proclaimed patriotic organizations. They were told to stop advertising in allegedly disloyal newspapers, to hoist the American flag on their buildings, and to make sure that their employees contributed to liberty loan campaigns – even if that meant threatening them with unemployment. Bigger companies were often asked to make office space available so that members of patriotic organizations could work directly on their premises and keep an eye on employees. Many employers received anonymous telephone calls asking whether they still employed German-American “spies” (i.e. German-American workers); other employers no longer promoted anyone with a German name.[26]

Numerous German-American entrepreneurs felt compelled to change the names of their companies to prove their loyalty. In doing so, they were often responding to ultimatums such as this: “Our love for America should not tolerate anything which is German ahead of anything which is American and we will not tolerate it. The German-American bank [in Milwaukee] should be forced to discontinue business until its company chooses a name which is thoroughly American, purely Democratic, and PATRIOTIC.”[27] For many German-American businessmen, renaming their companies was the only way to stop customers from boycotting their products, especially since their competitors often embraced slander in order to gain an advantage.

The aversion to German names was not limited to persons and companies, however. In April 1918, a delegation of greengrocers asked the Federal Food Board to rename “sauerkraut,” since sales of pickled cabbage had dropped 75 percent since the beginning of the war. They suggested “liberty cabbage” or “pickled vegetable” as more suitable names. The Food Board concurred and the product was henceforth sold as “liberty cabbage.” This led to an immediate rise in sales, since consumers no longer felt that it was unpatriotic to buy it.[28] Other so-called German products were renamed as well – for example, “hamburgers” were now called “liberty sandwiches,” and the “Bismarck pastry” was renamed “American beauty.” When it became clear that the aversion to all things German even encompassed German shepherds and dachshunds, breeders renamed them “Alsatian shepherds” and “liberty pups,” respectively. Even the “German measles” needed a more patriotic name, and the malady was thus renamed “liberty measles.”[29]

Most German-American entrepreneurs overcame wartime difficulties by changing their companies’ names (and often their family names as well), by advertising in patriotic newspapers, by proving their loyalty through generous contributions to liberty loan campaigns, and by joining patriotic organizations to leave no doubt of their patriotism. Many local German-American businessmen were fortunate to have loyal customers who continued buying their products throughout the war. Others were not so lucky. The war years, for example, were particularly difficult for German-American brewers and pub owners, who, on top of anti-German sentiment, had to contend with the beginnings of Prohibition as well.


[1] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913), 194.

[2] Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Germans,” in The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 405-25, here: 417.

[3] By 1913, America’s share of international trade had reached 11 percent, putting the country in third place behind Great Britain (15%) and Germany (13%). David Kennedy, Over Here. The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 298.

[4] Clara Eve Schieber, The Transformation of American Sentiment toward Germany, 1870-1914 (Boston and New York: Cornhill, 1923), 241-44.

[5] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” American Historical Review 41.1 (1935): 54-73.

[6] Katja Wüstenbecker, Deutsch-Amerikaner im Ersten Weltkrieg: US-Politik und nationale Identitäten im Mittleren Westen (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007), 81-83, 92-95.

[7] John Carver Edwards, Patriots in Pinstripe: Men of the National Security League (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982).

[8] Jörg Nagler, Nationale Minoritäten im Krieg: Feindliche Ausländer und die amerikanische Heimatfront während des Ersten Weltkriegs (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2000), 536-649.

[9] William J. Breen, Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federation, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984).

[10] Stephen Vaughn, Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

[11] Cited in Edward Robb Ellis, Echoes of Distant Thunder. Life in the United States, 1914-1918 (New York: Kodansha International, 1996), 436.

[12] Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America. From 1870 to the Present (Cambridge, MA, and New York: Schenkman Publishing Co. and Two Continents Publishing Group, 1978), 73-75, 101-04.

[13] Donald Hickey, “The Prager Affair: A Study in Wartime Hysteria,” Journal of the Illinois Historical Society 62 (1969): 117-34.

[14] Arthur Guy Empey in McClure's (July 1917): 21.

[15] At the end of 1914, Zimmermann told U.S. Ambassador James Gerard that there were approximately 500,000 German reservists in the United States who could easily be called upon to fight. James W. Gerard, My Four Years in Germany (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1917), 237.

[16] Wallace H. Moore, The Conflict Concerning the German Language and German Propaganda in the Public Secondary Schools of the United States. Ph.D diss. (Stanford University, 1937), 33-34.

[17] I.N. Edwards, “The Legal Status of Foreign Languages in the Schools,” in Elementary School Journal 24 (December 6, 1923): 270-78; Cora Lee Nollendorfs, “Deutschunterricht in Amerika im Schatten des Ersten Weltkrieges: Öffentlich-offizielle Verfahrensweisen und gesellschaftliches Gebaren,” in Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 35.2 (1985): 190-99.

[18] Gerlof D. Homan, “Mennonites and Military Justice in World WarI,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66.3 (1992): 365-75.

[19] The Nation, no. 107 (July 6, 1918): 3. See also J.E. Vacha, “When Wagner was Verboten: The Campaign against German Music in World WarI,” New York History 64 (1983): 171-88.

[20] Wüstenbecker, Deutsch-Amerikaner im Ersten Weltkrieg, 323-27.

[21] Annual Report of the Attorney General, here: the report for 1918 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1916-22): 32.

[22] See The New York Times, March 23, 1918, 6.

[23] Nagler, Nationale Minoritäten, 455-60. All current values (in 2011 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, using the Consumer Price Index.

[24] Thomas R. Kabisch, Deutsches Kapital in den USA. Von der Reichsgründung bis zur Sequestrierung (Stuttgart: In Kommission bei Klett-Cotta, 1982), 293-94.

[25] Kennedy, Over Here, 312-13.

[26] Gerd Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants, and Americanizers: The View from Milwaukee, 1866-1921 (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967), 174-75.

[27] Wisconsin State Journal (January 12, 1918). The bank changed its name to the American Exchange Bank.

[28] “Sauerkraut Disguised So Patriotic Folks Can Eat It,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, April 7, 1918.

[29] Wüstenbecker,Deutsch-Amerikaner im Ersten Weltkrieg, 286-89.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title German-Americans during World War I
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018