Thoughts from the Author

Mar 2, 2018

Author Erik Kirschbaum shares his thoughts from Berlin. He says that "when the war ended there was little left of the German-American culture. The scars were too deep and many, like my grandfather, just stopped speaking German. He said he forgot it all. But it’s more likely he was just too scared to speak it any more."
Credit Erik Kirschbaum / Used with permission

Hi, my name is Erik Kirschbaum and this is a story about a dark – and forgotten chapter of U.S. history.

Long before Americans ever had a taste of “freedom fries” there was a brief era a century ago when hamburgers were changed into “liberty steaks”, sauerkraut was turned into “liberty cabbage” and Americans got sick with a disease renamed “liberty measles” instead of “German measles”.

That might sound funny in 2018 but it reflects a traumatic chapter of US history 100 years ago. The eruption of anti-German hysteria that wiped out German culture in the US shook an increasingly divided country as it drifted into the war in Europe. The giant German ethnic minority that had long been such an important, influential, and integral pillar of fin-de-siècle society came under sudden attack from jingoistic Americans determined to do their part “over here” in the fight “over there” against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

The hatred and even violence against German-Americans came out of the blue. It was a reaction to their efforts to keep the United States neutral and out of the war in Europe as well as to their ability to preserve so much of the German culture, language, pride and traditions that they had brought with them across the Atlantic.

It is well known that the US entered World War I in April 1917 and the “doughboys” played an important role in helping to win it in 1918. But less well known is what happened to all those German-Americans.

Their plight is worth taking a closer look at, even 100 years later, because the United States has experienced similar waves of heightened patriotism, hysteria, hostilities, persecution and discrimination against minority groups -- especially after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Americans of German descent nowadays represent the country’s largest ethnic group the with some 46 million claiming German ancestry. That may surprise a lot of people who wonder why German-Americans became hidden in plain sight. Back in 1900 New York City had one of the world’s second largest German-speaking populations with about one million of the 3.4 million New Yorkers regularly using the language – for many U.S.-born German-Americans, including my grandfather, German was the only language they knew. 

The Germans had been pouring into the country from the middle of the 19th century, to build bridges, buildings, companies and churches. Their industriousness, creativity and traditions helped shape the United States at a pivotal junction in its history. 

There were 488 German-language newspapers in 1910 with a combined circulation of more than 3 million, and German was taught in schools from an early age in many states. But the Germans have long since disappeared as a distinctive ethnic group. What happened? Why did the United States go to such extremes to purge the language, the newspapers and German education in a few short years?

America had long been polarized by the war itself and increasingly doubtful about the loyalty of the German-Americans, especially in those pockets of the Midwest filled with German-speaking immigrants. Liberty bonds used by the government to help finance the war were not as popular in the Midwest as they were on the East Coast – which many saw as a sign of lacking patriotism and support for the war effort. Many German-Americans tried to cling to their hyphen, their dual loyalties, perhaps too tenaciously.  There were fears that the country could be filled with German sympathizers.  

In waves of violence, more than 30 German immigrants and German-Americans were killed, many in vigilante hangings. 

Civil liberties were also upon in the name of patriotism. Many German-Americans were falsely accused of being spies, saboteurs or assaulted for simply for being German. Thousands were convicted of sedition on trumped up charges or simply interned without being charged or without any justification other than their German roots. There were also public book burnings in towns and cities across the country where German-language books were set on fire.

When the war ended there was little left of the German-American culture. The scars were too deep and many, like my grandfather, just stopped speaking German.  He said he forgot it all. But it’s more likely he was just too scared to speak it any more.

Erik Kirschbaum is the author of “Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I”, a book by Berlinica Publishing Company, New York, 2015.

Also by Erik Kirschbaum Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert That Changed the World (Americans in Berlin) by Erik Kirschbaum (2015-05-01) Paperback – 1762