Beware of Becoming What You Hate

Feb 19, 2018

War posters featuring propaganda depicting Germans as mad monsters were used to create fear in WWI.
Credit Harry R Hopps / Wikipedia

I have often suspected that if people aren't careful, they become what they hate. How many times have you seen a hypocrite pontificate about hypocrisy? A bigot complain he or she is the object of someone else's bigotry? Or someone preaching tolerance harbor assumptions that aren't actually that tolerant?

It's hard for people to see themselves as others do -- there's a reason for that which I'll get to in a bit -- and because of that we sometimes wind up acting like the very people we most despise.

About a hundred years ago, a particularly brutal wave of hatred swept the world. We call it World War I, but they called it the Great War, in part because their governments told them they were fighting for something great. Woodrow Wilson said it would "make the world safe for democracy." In fact, he went further and said it wasn't just a war for democracy, it also was a war against the tyranny and lawlessness he associated with Germany.

Yet, as Erik Kirschbaum reveals in his new book Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I, some Americans took that message so far they wound up more than a little tyrannical and lawless themselves.

Before I get to what they did, it's important to remember how prevalent German culture was in the United States before the war. It was common in those days for Americans to see store signs in German, to hear people speaking German on the street, or to see German newspapers in newsstands alongside their English-language competitors. Did you know, for example, that only five cities in Germany had more Germans in them than Chicago did in 1900? Or that seventy percent of the Lutheran churches in St. Louis still preached in German right up until 1914? In fact, there were so many German-Americans speaking, reading, and writing German that it changed the way English-speaking Americans spoke English. It's because of German influence that we now say "cookbook" instead of "cookery-book," like the British do; that we send our kids to "kindergarten," another German word; or that we think the Titanic struck an iceberg instead of an ice-mountain.

The story Kirschbaum tells is how all that was swept away because of hate. And that's the part of his book that's depressing. Consider, for example, the views of Arthur Guy Empey, who expressed them a 1917 issue of McClure's magazine. Unlike modern politicians, who usually insist their problem is with another government and not another people, Empey took aim at all Germans. "We are not fighting Prussianism and Militarism alone," he wrote. "We are at war with Germany, the German people, and everything connected with Germany." Empey even had a plan for other Americans who thought as he did. Make citizen's arrests. "If at any time you hear a remark against our government or against our allies, no matter how trivial or unimportant it may seem to you, either arrest that person or report his or her name and address," Empey wrote. Now, if you're tempted to dismiss him as a fringy hothead, bear in mind that was the same year a Life magazine cartoonist suggested lynching, and Congress passed laws designed put German-speaking war opponents in jail and German-American newspapers out of business.

I began by suggesting that there's a reason we become what we hate. I think it has a lot to do with fear. Fear debilitates our reason and short-circuits our common sense. It makes us an easy mark for those, like  Wilson's government, who seek to manipulate us into seeing the world as they do. In a sense, fear causes us to lose ourselves. It's no secret these days that we Americans are pretty divided. Some of us are Republicans, some Democrats, some liberals, some conservatives.

We've always had different ideas, that's nothing new. But we haven't always feared each other so much. Yet maybe it's not the other side so much as the fact that we can't talk to the other side that's really dangerous. If there is one thing the eradication of German culture in America demonstrated, it's that if you scare a person enough, he won't even notice that he's become the thing he hates.