By Jeff Suess, Cincinnati Enquirer
One hundred years ago, in April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson convinced Congress to declare war on Germany, that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
But hostilities had already been raging in hearts and minds on the home front.
Since war erupted across Europe in August 1914, allegiances in America aligned along ethnicities. German-Americans, making up more than half of Cincinnati’s population, supported the fatherland and raised funds for German and Austro-Hungarian widows and orphans.
As the war dredged on, nativism took root. Newspapers printed one-sided war coverage. President Wilson railed against “hyphenated Americans,” a slight against German-Americans. Even the growing support for Prohibition was seen as a fight against the Germans.
Then, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, all pretenses disappeared. German culture was attacked. Anti-German hysteria swept the nation – especially here. German language classes, taught in Cincinnati schools since 1840, were dropped. The Enquirer offered the headline: “Bang! Hun Study Is Floored.”
The public library moved their 10,000 German books to the subbasement. “This library has been used to further a reptilian and insidious propaganda by enemies of the United States,” said board trustee James Albert Green. “German literature published during the last 40 years is tainted with the ideas and ideals which American boys now are giving their lives to combat.”
German-Americans felt pressured to prove their loyalty. German street names were changed: Bremen Street to Republic, German Street to English. The German National Bank became Lincoln National Bank. The German Mutual Insurance Co. became Hamilton County Insurance.
The statue of Germania at 12th and Walnut streets in Over-the-Rhine was rechristened Columbia, and the German name on the building was plastered over, finally uncovered in 2014.
Persecution wasn’t so much physical violence, “but the dread thereof and the knowledge that the public at large would idly stand by, either approving or indifferent, in the presence of misdeeds,” Guido Andre Dobbert wrote in “The Disintegration of an Immigrant Community.”
On Oct. 6, 1917, federal agents raided the offices of the Cincinnati Volksblatt, a German-language newspaper, along with editors’ homes, but found no evidence of sedition.
Saddest of all was the fate of Ernst Kunwald, the Austrian-born conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. On Dec. 8, 1917, he was arrested for allegedly speaking out against the government, but was released. One month later he was taken into custody under the Alien Enemies Act. He and his wife spent the rest of the war at the Fort Oglethorpe internment camp in Georgia, then were deported.
The war ended Nov. 11, 1918, but the anti-German sentiment didn’t fade right away. In 1919, the Ohio state legislature passed the Ake Law, banning German language instruction before the eighth grade, and the following year Prohibition began.
Sources: “Cincinnati’s German Heritage” by Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Enquirer files
“German-Americans and the Guns of August 1917” symposium, sponsored by the Indiana German Heritage Society, hosted by the German-American Citizens League, will be held in Cincinnati March 17-18. Info: www.ighs.org/annual-meeting.html
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