Bound to Repeat It

Feb 14, 2018

The Kansas Board of Education promoted the expulsion of German language from all schools, public or private. The powers that be tried to purify the language to achieve political correctness. “Hamburger” became “liberty sandwich” and German measles became “liberty measles.
Credit Wikicommons

I’m Galen Boehm from Kinsley, Kansas, for HPPR’s Radio Readers Spring Read commemorating the 100th year anniversary of WWI.  I’m covering Kirschbaum’s book Burning Beethoven, noting how fear rather than reason too frequently dictates how we respond to political and personal concerns.

Prior to WWI, German immigrants to the United States established settlements to provide a sense of social and cultural identity.  These immigrants came for religious, political and vocational reasons.  

Maintaining their cultural traditions, including their native language was critical as these immigrants made many contributions in areas including education and religion. Many German immigrants, especially those connected with the Catholic and Lutheran persuasions settled in Southwest Kansas, bringing special ethnic foods and civil government.  These German settlements experiences during WWI, negative repercussions when the United States eventually joined the Allied Forces of Great Britain, France and Russia to counteract the attacks of Imperial Germany. 

Two factors propelled Woodrow Wilson and the Congress to become ultimately a part of WWI:  the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the decoding of the Zimmerman telegram.  The Zimmerman report, sent by the German government offered the Mexican government generous financial support if Mexico would seek to recover the lost territories of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.  With this proposal, the United States’ military would likely divert its interest from the situation in Europe to maintaining a stance North of the United States/Mexico border.  

Kirschbaum details how the United States’ involvement with the European conflict with Germany effected the German settlements within the United States. Hysteria and fear became rampant, as did discrimination of the German people or anyone thought to be German connected.  The public in general lost sight of the difference between the German culture and the German people.  The German people were stereotyped as traitors.  The people who considered themselves Native to the United States, basically of English origin, sought to purify the country basically of any influence that could be considered German by such techniques as these: passing the Espionage Act; tar and feathering individuals; banning musical performances created by German composers.

The Kansas Board of Education promoted the expulsion of German language from all schools, public or private.  The powers that be tried to purify the language to achieve political correctness.  “Hamburger” became “liberty sandwich” and German measles became “liberty measles.  Purifying the culture destroys, perhaps for a limited time, those elements of society that elevate mankind to a spiritual height, the creative level.  The music of such composers as Beethoven and Mozart elevates us to a higher level of being, promoting dignity, respect and reverence for the creative talents.

We destroy that higher essence too frequently when emotions overrule reasons and fact. Will we as a society ever fully realize how our efforts to remain politically pure can be dangerous and deadly?  Kirschbaum’s answer is “yes,” if we learn the lessons of the history. George Tetyana’s maxim deserves consideration, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

As we Americans in the 21st Century deal with all aspects of immigration, let us remember that people, regardless of ethnicity, are human beings who have a culture that deserves understanding.

For HPPR’s Radio Readers, I am Galen Boehme from Kinsley, Kansas.