German Americans and World War I

German Americans and World War I
German Americans and World War I

Fears of German American subversion surfaced many times in the United States in the twentieth century. The publication of the Zimmerman telegram and the sinking of Lusitania, two still controversial events that contributed to the United States entering World War I, were not the only causes for U.S. alarm in the face of growing German aggression.

Beginning well before the nation’s entry into the war and lasting beyond the war’s end, many Americans shared a conspiracy-minded fear of espionage and sabotage by what Henry Landau once called “the Enemy Within,” a contingent of German Americans suspected of being more loyal to the Fatherland than to their new homeland.

Posters and pamphlets produced by the Committee on Public Information during the years of U.S. involvement in World War I depict German military aggression as an external threat, geographically distant but never completely removed from the North American continent.

In one such poster the German soldier is a brutal giant holding a rifle and bayonet and stomping around a war-torn Europe; Europe and the rampaging Hun are separated from the Statue of Liberty, and the nation it represents, by only a thin strip of water.

A second poster presents the U.S. infantry marching off to join the battle as the modern equivalent to medieval knights riding off to fight in a holy war against the infidel. World War I was thus regularly presented in the United States as a necessary and just war against an external threat.

However, there was also an emerging sense of a threat from within, a fear of espionage and sabotage that grew out of the large number of unassimilated, politically organized German Americans living in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of these German Americans continued to use their native tongue in daily life and to define themselves and their communities against mainstream U.S. culture.

German American Culture

In the nineteenth century, a pluralistic Germanlanguage culture had existed in the United States; as late as 1910, an estimated 9 million people in the United States still spoke German as their native tongue.

They formed the broad basis for readership of a large variety of German-language newspapers and publications and supplied membership for German-language clubs and parishes as well as the National German-American Alliance (1901–1918), an organization that actively opposed U.S. entry into World War I. These many speakers of German were also the force behind attempts at offering German as a language of instruction, or at least as a foreign language elective, in public schools.

Although by 1910 the German language was already being displaced by English among the younger generation, World War I drew a sharp cutoff line for German language instruction in the entire country. In 1919, German language instruction was forbidden in several states, including Indiana and Nebraska. In Nebraska v. Meyer, the Supreme Court decision in 1923, this ban was overturned.

The action of the first half of Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of 1922, One of Ours, is set near the city of Frankfort, Nebraska, and dramatizes the new distrust toward German Americans growing out of the tensions that peaked with the nation’s entry into war. In book three of Cather’s novel, a charge of disloyalty is brought against two established German immigrant farmers.

The evidence presented by the neighbors against the two men is “confused and almost humorous,” yet the judge decides the case against them and assigns a fine. In later sections of the novel, Cather continues to show her sympathy for German Americans in her depiction of two older women persecuted by their more thoroughly assimilated neighbors.

Suspected Acts of Sabotage

Even before the United States officially entered the war, there were suspicious fires and explosions at a number of U.S. plants and supply terminals. In January 1915, then again in November of the same year, fire consumed the Roebling plant in Trenton, New Jersey, where armaments and antisubmarine netting for the Allied powers were manufactured.

A set of explosions, likewise attributed by many to German saboteurs, occurred in early January 1917 in munitions plants in Kingsland, New Jersey. The most spectacular of such explosions was the “Black Tom” incident of 30 July 1916.

More than 2 million pounds of munitions stored on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor exploded; the explosion and the resulting fire caused enormous damage and killed three men and a child. These munitions were awaiting shipment to the Allies for use against Germany. The incident has thus been viewed by many as an act of sabotage by German agents.

With Congress’s declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917 came stringent controls to prevent further acts of sabotage. These included the issuing of two “Alien Enemy Presidential Proclamations” and the establishing of internment camps for people of German birth residing in the United States who had not completed the naturalization process.

Suspicions of an imperial German conspiracy have largely faded from public consciousness along with the more general cultural memory of World War I, but related conspiracy theories—particularly those involving the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram—are still in circulation.

The Black Tom explosion is perhaps the exception, as it has been the subject of several recent, highly speculative studies and has gained new relevance with the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, which sent the United States scrambling anew to uncover networks of saboteurs and those who fund them.

Within two weeks of the World Trade Center’s destruction, a guest columnist at ABQjournal reminded his readers that September 11 may not have been the first time the city was bombed by agents of a foreign power: “N.Y. Was Attacked by Terrorists in 1916.”