Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Do you speak German? If you were living in the United States at the time of World War I, the politically correct answer, regardless of veracity, would be a resounding NO!

During the 1850’s, 900,000 — almost a million — Germans went to the United States,” says historian Kenneth Ledford of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “That’s at a time when the German population was only about 40 million.” By the time the 1910 Census was taken, 8.3 million reported themselves as German-speaking, with many more claiming German heritage. Germans were the largest ethnic minority, and the United States had the third-highest number of German speakers in the world. (Bigham, p. 3) “Germans had come to the United States in droves in the mid- to late 1800s to escape religious conflicts, military conscription, and the lingering poor agricultural conditions that beset northern Germany. German immigrants brought to their new country expertise in farming, education, science, and the arts. They enriched their adopted homeland immensely as they assimilated, serving in government and military institutions. German-origin trade names such as Bausch and Lomb, Steinway, Pabst, and Heinz were commonly used every day in America.” By the turn of the 20th century, nearly every large city in the U.S. had an ethnically-German neighborhood. In Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati constituted what was known as the “German triangle.”

Even today, 14.4% of Americans of European or African ancestry report that their ancestry is German. In Indiana, it’s 23%. Moving closer to home, Evansville/Vanderburgh County’s population reports to be 29.6% German ancestry. If you live in Evansville or the surrounding area and/or know something of its history, you know that the German heritage here is strong. Just take a look at some of the street names within a few miles of USI: Dreier, Hartmetz, Rosenberger, Boehne Camp, Felstead, Mahrenholz, and Schutte. The west side is the older part of town and thus bears the strongest German influence, but on the east side you see names like Boeke, Burkhardt, and Weinbach. “The German churches were among the most obvious [examples of German inheritance]—Trinity Lutheran (the oldest German Protestant church, founded in 1841), First German Methodist Episcopal, German Baptist, Emanuel Lutheran, the Evangelical congregations—Zion, St. John, Bethel, and St. Paul,–and the German Catholic parishes—Holy Trinity (the oldest, founded in 1849), St. Mary, St. Boniface and St. Anthony” (Bigham, p. 4).

Four local newspapers: Evansville Journal (1834-1936), Evansville Daily Enquirer (1858-1859),  Tägliche Evansville Union (1866-1885), and Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat (1864-1918). Source: MSS 184-0012.

Four local newspapers from Evansville, Indiana, c. 1860. Source: MSS 184-0012.

These are examples of local newspapers from 1865, note the two German language ones, Tägliche Evansville Union (1866-1885), and Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat (1864-1918). According to Bigham (p. 5), in the period between 1851 to 1930, Indiana had 152 newspapers and magazines published in in the German language, and 26 of these were published in Evansville. There were annual German Day parades in June. German Day was organized around 1890 to celebrate German cultural, intellectual, and technological achievements. After the 4th of July, this was the most prominent civic celebration each year until World War I ended it. Below are photos of the 1908 parade down North Main Street near Iowa Street. (Mechanics Planing Mill Company was located at 516 North Main Street, formerly 1716 Main Street. It was built in 1887 and became Mechanics in 1893. It was destroyed by fire and razed in 1948. Gehlhausen Paints is in approximately this location today.)

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Germania Maennerchor, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/30BiOZY

Germania Maennerchor, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/30BiOZY

There were several German societies in Evansville, including the still-existing Germania Maennerchor. German singing societies (maennerchor means men’s chorus) were very popular. Germania’s website states, “As Germans settled in the United States, they tended to locate in close proximity to each other. This encouraged the continuation of their German lifestyles. It was much easier to adjust to this new land if they could retain some of their familiar behaviors, such as shopping at a German baker or butcher, or enjoying a beer in a German tavern or beer garden. In his free time, the German immigrant preferred to be with his fellow countrymen. This resulted in a large number of German organizations being formed across the United States that enabled the immigrants to gather socially and continue various aspects of German life. There were singing societies, athletic clubs, mutual insurance societies, and in harbor cities (such as Philadelphia and New York) there were charitable agencies founded to assist new immigrants. Everywhere Germans settled, singing societies were formed. In the 1840’s, the numerous societies had united in the national Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund (North American Singers’ Association) in Cincinnati, Ohio. In Evansville, Indiana, several singing societies were formed in the 19th century, the largest of which were the Liederkranz, founded in the 1850’s, and the Concordia Gesangverein.

Germania Maennerchor founders in Evansville, Indiana, 1914. Source: MSS 157-0118.

Germania Maennerchor founders in Evansville, Indiana, 1914. Source: MSS 157-0118.

Evansville also had a gymnastics/athletic association, Central Turnverein. Located at 720 SE 8th Street, most people know this as Central Turners. The original organization in Germany had a political component, and in the U.S. Turners were active in the Union Army during the Civil War. The picture below is where the organization met early on, in the old Kingsley Methodist church, from 1908 to 1914.

Turner Hall (Central Turners) in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: MSS 157-0551.

Turner Hall (Central Turners) in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: MSS 157-0551.

Having established the role of German culture in the U.S. and its prevalence in Evansville, let’s look at what happened to German-Americans in World War I. Germany’s militaristic stance under Kaiser Wilhelm I contributed to anti-German sentiment, but the bombing of the British ocean liner the Lusitania in 1915, with the loss of almost 1200 lives, 124 of them Americans, was possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back. Your friendly neighbor who happened to have a German surname and maybe spoke the language, even though s/he was probably at least a second generation American by this time, was suddenly seen as a spy and saboteur. “A sort of mass phobia against German-Americans developed as many were in fear that German spies were everywhere, reporting back all that they overheard to their motherland. In response, many German-Americans felt pressure to declare their stances against Imperial Germany in public gatherings just to prove their ties to America. At several universities, professors were charged under the Sedition Act with having made unpatriotic and presumably anti-war utterances, leading to some of their dismissals. Furthermore, American institutions such as the Red Cross barred individuals with German last names from joining in fear of sabotage. Numerous attacks were made on German-Americans in this time and such harassment sadly became commonplace. According to Katja Wüstenbecker, “citizens of German descent were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem.”” When the United States declared war on Germany, many German-Americans faced prejudice and violence. Check out this YouTube from the AmericanExperiencePBS channel at: https://youtu.be/FW8j_CHCOMQ

Theodore Roosevelt, in a 1915 speech to the Knights of Columbus, railed, “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” President Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.

Speaking the German language was viewed as a particularly perfidious act. It was more than just not speaking English—speaking German was somehow injurious to your soul. Paul Finkelstein, a legal historian, attempts to explain why people thought this: “if you spoke German, you would think like a German, [and] you would become a totalitarian in favor of the Kaiser.

The Trading with the Enemy Act (50 USC Appendix), passed in June 1917, suppressed the American foreign-language press and would not permit non-English printed matter to be distributed through the mail unless it carried a certified English translation. Nationwide, at all levels, speaking anything than English was legally forbidden. German speakers were ordered only speak English or face the consequences. Iowa Governor William Harding was adamant on this subject: he “banned the use of any foreign language in public: in schools, on the streets, in trains, even over the telephone, a more public instrument then than it is today. For Harding, the First Amendment “is not a guaranty of the right to use a language other than the language of this country—the English language.” Harding’s English-only order covered freedom of religion as well: “Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home.” And he told the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, “Those who insist upon praying in some other language . . . are wasting their time for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice of English.”” At this time, many church services were conducted in German….see this counterbalance to Harding’s opinion. Two local people had been confirmed in German in 1911 and 1915, respectively, even thought their grandparents had immigrated to this country prior to the Civil War. One of them, Amanda Mohr, explained the prevalent thinking: “If you weren’t confirmed in German, you weren’t confirmed. God didn’t listen to you in the English language” (Bigham, p. 7).

All church services began to be conducted in English. Publishers refused to print German works and sheet music companies banned German songs. Orchestras would not play German music. “Public and university libraries ended their subscriptions to German-language newspapers, books written in German and even English books that dealt with Germany and Austria-Hungary (such as history books or tourist guides) were stowed in basements for the duration of the war. However, some libraries went so far as to destroy them or to sell them as wastepaper; several of these books were actually publicly burned along with German-language newspapers during local patriotic celebrations.” Many German language newspapers, including the local Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat went out of business. German was no longer taught as a language in schools and colleges. “Legal historian Paul Finkelman says in 1915 about 25 percent of all high school students in America studied German. But by the end of the World War I that had changed dramatically. German had become so stigmatized that only 1 percent of high schools even taught it.” Names were changed: Germantown, Nebraska became Garland, and East Germantown, IN became Pershing, after the American war hero, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. (In a bit of irony, the name “Pershing” is but an Americanized spelling of the German Pfersching/Pfirsching/Pförsching.) Personal names were changed, and hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches,“ German measles “liberty measles,” sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” German Shepherds “Alsatians,” and dachshunds “liberty pups.” Bigham noted that the diacritical mark, the umlaut, virtually disappeared locally. (Bigham, p. 22) German organizations struggled or went under. Evansville’s Central Turnverein renamed itself Central Turners in 1918. According to Germania Maennerchor’s website, “While the 1st World War had begun in Europe in 1914, the United States did not join in this battle against Germany until 1917. In an early history of the club, it was recorded that “war clouds broke out over our land like a bolt of lightning from heaven”. As sentiments turned against Germany, membership in all German clubs began to drop drastically. Other singing societies in Evansville were greatly affected. The Concordia Gesangverein shut its doors for good. The Liederkranz was forced to sell its home, and eventually folded in the 1920’s. Germania Männerchor also saw declining membership, but was determined to survive. Germania offered citizenship classes for new immigrants following the war to boost membership. Over 100 attended these various classes.

Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. Source: MSS 157-0375.

Anti-German sentiment caused it to fold and be sold to the Knights of Columbus in 1918. It was used by other organizations over the years, but fell into disrepair until it is currently being renovated as part of an assisted living facility. Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. Source: MSS 157-0375.

To learn more about how German culture was erased during World War I, click here at: https://www.npr.org/player/embed/523044253/523044254#

One of the most heinous actions was the use of internment camps, which were used again for Japanese Americans during World War II. “After war was declared, President Wilson immediately proclaimed all German citizens “alien enemies.” They were barred from living near military facilities or airports, in all port towns and in the nation’s capital. They had to disclose their bank accounts and any other property to an Alien Property Custodian appointed by the attorney general. Furthermore, in 1918, Germans had to fill out registration affidavits and be fingerprinted. German citizens in America who failed to comply with these rules or who were considered potentially dangerous were placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. The camp at Hot Springs in North Carolina accommodated most of the 2,300 employees of German passenger and merchant ships; about 1,300 German Navy personnel were kept at Fort McPherson in Georgia. All other suspects (academics, journalists, business people, artists etc.) were brought to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia – about 1,400 for the duration of the war. Fort Douglas in Utah was used for approximately 500 prisoners of war, but soon also included more than 800 “alien enemies” and about 200 American conscientious objectors.” Hans Kuhnwald, the concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was one of those interned.

2. Robert P. Prager

Gravestone of Robert P. Prager, n.d. Source: https://n.pr/2LojyOO

Worst of all was what happened near St. Louis. “In Collinsville, Illinois, in April 1918, a German-born unemployed coalminer, Robert Paul Prager, made a speech containing pro-German comments and references to socialism. Town citizens, over the mayor’s protestations, were so incensed that a mob of 300 men and boys lynched Prager. The incident became notorious in the nation’s newspapers, which for the most part defended the lynching. None of the 300 participants was ever found guilty.

Casualties are to be expected in any war, and in this case, the expression of German culture in the United States was clearly collateral damage. Remember that in the 1910 Census, 8.3 million reported themselves as German-speaking; in the 2000 Census that number was 1,383,442, only 0.5% of the population. In Indiana that number is slightly higher, at 0.8%. Clearly there are many other circumstances which influenced this, but the anti-German sentiment rampant in World War I America played a part. The U.S. waged war against Germany again in World War II, but at that time studying German was viewed as a positive way to understand and defeat the enemy. Fortunately, German culture did not disappear completely as it’s still very evident locally in street names, personal names, festivals like Jasper’s Strassenfest, and the popularity of volksfests and bierstubes. Washington, D.C. houses the German-American Heritage Museum. Davenport, IA has the German American Heritage Center and Museum. Cincinnati has a German Heritage Museum. Milwaukee offers tours of Pabst Mansion, home of the founder of Pabst Brewing Company.  These are but a few examples, so today, the answer to the question, Sprechen Sie Deutsch? could be an affirmative, Ja! Yes!!

Resources Consulted:

“Ancestry in Vanderburgh County, Indiana.” Statistical Atlas online.

Baron, Dennis. “America’s War on Language.” The Web of Language , September 3, 2014.

Bigham, Darrel E. Reflections on a Heritage: The German-Americans in Southwestern Indiana. Pamphlet published by ISUE, May 1980. Available in USI Library: General Collection F 534.E9 B57

“During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture.” NPR: All Things Considered, April 7, 2017.

Germania Maennerchor website: History.

Little, Becky. “When German Immigrants were America’s Undesireables.” History Channel website, May 11, 2018.

Manning, Mary J. “Being German, Being American.” Prologue, Summer 2014.

Wüstenbecker, Katja. “German-Americans during World War I.” in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, v. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. September 25, 2014.

Digital photographic collections from University Archives and Special Collections:

RH 033 Evansville Postcards

MSS 157 Schlamp-Meyer Family Collection

MSS 184 Brad Awe Collection

This entry was posted in Evansville, Indiana, Indiana history, World War 1. Bookmark the permalink.

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