German American Heritage Month (2010)

This was originally posted September 2010 during German American Heritage Month. In it I discuss the intolerance and bigotry shown towards German Americans a little over 100 years ago during WWI. The bottom-line is we need to stop the cycle of violence & racial injustice and come together as Americans regardless of our race, creed, or national origin.

German American Heritage Month begins September 15 (2010) and the 200th Oktoberfest begins on September 18 (2010) and somehow this got me to thinking about the recent uproar in the news over the opening of a mosque near the WTC site in New York. The connection is that this is not the first time where certain ethnic groups living in America have become scapegoats and targets of scorn. It seems that any ethnic group, race, or religion can come under fire just because someone is afraid of someone who is different from them.

Germans have been in America since colonial times, but was not until the 1840’s that a large number of German families immigrated to the US. I have two German families in my family tree, both on my mother’s side of the family. One her mother’s side the Kollros family came over from Baden in the 1840’s and on her father’s side, the Spiegel family came over from Sachsen in the 1850’s. According to the US Census Bureau, German is the third-most reported ethnic ancestry in the US Census – the top two being African-American and Hispanic.

Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio

In the 19th century, a number of US cities boasted a large German population with their uniquely Germanic neighborhoods such as Cincinnati (Over-the-Rhine) and St. Louis (Dutchtown). Milwaukee can boast of being the home to a number of German founded breweries – most notably Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, and Blatz. An area near New Orleans known as the German Coast (Côte des Allemands) was settled by German immigrants in the 1720’s. Texas attracted many Germans who entered through Galveston. As in Milwaukee, Germans in Houston built the brewing industry. Texas had about 20,000 German Americans in the 1850s. By the mid-1850s the Germans formed one-third of Louisville, Kentucky’s population.

Constantine Kollros (1838-1916), great, great-grandfather

Germans were the largest immigrant group to participate in the Civil War; over 176,000 U.S. soldiers were born in Germany. German-Americans did not form a single voting-bloc. Protestant and Jewish Germans tended to vote Republican, while German Catholics favored the Democratic party, but German-Americans were solidly opposed to Prohibition whenever it came up for a vote. German-Americans felt that blue laws that prohibited the consumption of alcohol on Sundays were directed towards to them as group as it was their custom to spend Sunday afternoons at the Beer Garden socializing and drinking beer.

Nativist hostility (Know-Nothingism) towards German-Americans stemmed from a perception that they were an ethnic group that was most resistant to assimilation. German-American children were educated in schools both public and parochial that were either bilingual or exclusively taught in German. Church services – Lutheran and Catholic – were conducted in the German language. By the late 19th century, there were over 800 newspapers and other regular publications in the German language – there were 176 German language publications in Cincinnati alone.

German-Americans gave to the rest of America such things as kindergartens, Christmas Trees, hotdogs, hamburgers, pretzels, and most importantly, beer!

Erhardt J. Kollros (1883-1946), great-grandfather

For the most part German-Americans were seen by other Americans as thrifty, hardworking people whether it was the cigar maker in Dallas, Texas or the band conductor in Louisville, Kentucky, yet there was this stereotypical view of German-American as evidenced by the popular turn-of-the-century comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids and in the second decade of the 20th century the attitude of some towards German-Americans suddenly changed from punchline to punching bag.

Art by Harold Hering Knerr

When WWI started in 1914, the US stuck to its policy of isolationism and for a time the British feared that if the US did enter the war that it would be on the side of Germany and the Central Powers. Of course, when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania in 1915, with 128 Americans aboard, popular opinion shifted towards America’s entry into the war on the side of Britain and France and war was declared on Germany in April of 1917. America’s entry into the war against Germany unleashed a storm of mass hysteria within the US against “all-things” German and Americans of German descent suddenly became the target of abuse and mob-action.

George C. Spiegel (1839-1925), great, great-grandfather

Suddenly anything connected with Germans or Germany became suspect. Street and city names were changed. In the Garden district of New Orleans, Berlin Street became General Pershing Street. The city of Berlin, Michigan was renamed Marne. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”. German measles became “liberty measles”, hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches” and Dachshunds became “liberty pups”. (Remember “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” in 2003?)

Libraries removed works by German authors. In some places there were actual book burnings. German-American schools and newspapers by the thousands were forced to permanently close through intimidation. The US government war propaganda machine encouraged citizens to spy on their German-American neighbors. In Minnesota a Lutheran minister was tarred and feathered when he was overheard praying in German with a dying woman. Anti-German tension culminated on April 4, 1918, in the brutal lynching of a German immigrant in Collinsville, Illinois, who was accused of making “disloyal remarks”.

Helen “Nellie” Spiegel (1872-1954), great-grandmother

Anti-German hysteria in the UK even forced the King of England to change his German name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor and give up all German titles and styles on behalf of his relatives who were British subjects.

US Army enlisted poster from WWI

Practically overnight German-American culture was erased. The final blow came after the war when the Prohibition shutdown the breweries, the German taverns and beer gardens.

To quote a great German philosopher: “Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit.” (“There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity.”) – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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