Anti-German Hysteria during World War One

This paper, finished on December 10, 2001, was written for German 61001, Research and Writing, MCLS Department, Kent State University in Ohio. The instructor was Dr. Hildegard Rossell. The exercise was designed to provide a guide to the pertinent resources on the subject, not to write about the subject itself. It was a true learning experience, the result of which I, John Heinl, can now joyfully share with others.


Most educated Americans are aware of the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Both naturalized and native-born Japanese Americans were rounded up along with Japanese aliens and placed in camps. Their constitutional rights were ignored; their property was confiscated and they became, in the eyes of America, the enemy.

These same educated Americans are mostly unaware of the mistreatment of naturalized and native-born German Americans during World War I. They were not placed in camps, but their constitutional rights were also shelved; some were tarred and feathered, and two were actually lynched. They were the targets of patriotic Americans who viewed them as the enemy among us. They were victims of vitriolic, British propaganda and nativism, the disease of our American culture that maintains that the native inhabitants, the first immigrants, are better than the latter ones.

I have documented many references that show how this anti-German hysteria happened and how it affected German Americans and their communities. The big question is, is nativism dead? Or is it just sleeping, dormant under the skin of our body politic, ready to erupt like a rash of racism or anti-Semitism? As the war on terrorism progresses and escalates, will Arab Americans suffer the same fate experienced by the German and Japanese Americans so long ago? For the present our President says no. But that could change overnight if enough Americans civilians are killed here in the homeland. Are the plans already drawn up to incarcerate 8 million Arab Americans?

When most Americans and West Europeans living today think of book burning, they think of May 20, 1933 in Berlin. Because it was filmed, the book burning has become part of every documentary about the Nazis. However, there were other book burnings that were not filmed. They happened not in Berlin, Germany, but in American cities from Cincinnati, Ohio to Lewistown, Montana. The German books were not fired by Nazis, but by patriotic Americans. The year was not 1933, but 1917 during World War I when the Constitution was temporarily shelved. Vigilantism was in, Constitutional rights were out. Loyalty to the flag and the English language were paramount.

Prior to and following America's entry into the First World War, German Americans in many states became subject to ridicule, ostracism, and occasionally violent attacks. They were denied their civil and constitutional rights. Anything German was anathema. The names of streets and cities were changed from German to English. The teaching of German was halted in public schools. The citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, lost no time after war was declared. The city government changed the names of 13 German streets; the Board of Education halted the teaching of the German language, and the public library removed German books and periodicals from its shelves. These things were accomplished only three days after the declaration of war on the Central Powers on April 6, 1917.

Even colleges and universities succumbed to the pressure and discontinued teaching German. Patriotic groups got to the New York Metropolitan Opera Company; its German repertoire was replaced with Italian and French works. It became downright foolish to speak German in public. In places it became unlawful to speak German.

In May 1918 Governor Harding of Iowa issued his infamous "Babel proclamation" which made English the only legal language in the state. The use of all other foreign languages (not just German) was illegal. Newspapers, schoolbooks, and ethnic church services had to be in English. The madness was contagious and rose and fell with the tides of the war.

In certain counties of Iowa, e.g. Cedar County, vigilantism was growing. Free speech, especially the wrong kind, was not en­couraged. The distinction between disloyalty in thought or speech and disloyal behavior became blurred. In order to understand how this rush to judgment occurred, it is necessary to go back to the beginning, to 1914 in America, and recount the political mood and decisions of America as war began in Europe.

Although anti-Germanism in America was a real threat to German Americans, it must be viewed as a small part of a much larger whole. The whole was the effort of the British and French governments to involve America in the war on their side. This propaganda effort was begun with the cutting of the German trans­-Atlantic cable to America on August 5, 1914. When the war began, 50,000 influential Americans were pro-Ally and 100,000,000 were apathetic and pro-peace. It was the purpose of British and French propaganda to reverse those numbers. By 1917 they did, and to this juggernaut of propaganda the German Americans fell victim. They were at the wrong place, at the wrong time. It was nothing personal, just business, as a Mafioso would say.

Since the subject of anti-German sentiments is so specific and on the radar screen of so few historians, knowledge of it is best found indirectly in just about any work dealing with World War I. An overview of this literature follows.

Begin the overview with the encyclopedias. The Britannica, Collier's, and the Americana all have good overviews of propaganda in general, and of propaganda in World War I in specific. Propaganda was the deciding factor leading President Wilson towards war against Germany. No mention is made of anti-German sentiment, but it explains the environment which made it possible

There is an historical dictionary titled The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War by Pope and Wheal. Anti-Germanism is not mentioned. Under "United States of America" mention is made of "hyphenated" populations within the USA, which contri­bu­ted support for both sides according to their origins. German Americans were included in the hyphenated populations. Nothing more of value to the topic is to be found in it.

For actual examples of civil rights violations of German Americans and anti-German hysteria, the database, America: History and Life, was excellent. It is also the only one with this type of information. I found 31 articles from jour­nals; each one dealt with a specific subject such as lynch­ing, anti-German acts at universities or in certain towns, anti-German sentiment in editorials, and mob actions. Without a doubt, this site is the most valuable of all the resources. Here alone you can find one documented story after another that deals with this topic.

The article describing the abuse and physical attacks on ethnic Germans in Lowden, Iowa by Derr is one of two journal articles from the America: History and Life database. The other one deals with the arrest and trial of 13 Cincinnati Socialists who were victims of anti-German hysteria by Wright. Both of these articles reveal the passions of the time. Good reading.

A second database, Historical Abstracts, contains six articles dealing with anti-German sentiment. However, they occurred in England and Australia, and therefore, are of no direct value to this paper.

There are many web sites dealing with World War I that are hosted by organizations, universities, and ordinary individuals. I found two mega-sites that are outstanding in their scope and depth of the subject. The first is ­The World War I Document Archive (See Herbert Brougham interview with President Wilson December 14, 1914.) which is hosted by The Great War Primary Docu­ment Archive, a non-profit organization, incorporated in Arizona. Founded in Feb 1996, the purpose of the organization is to preserve original documents relating to World War I. The files are stored on servers at the University of Kansas and Brigham Young University. This is a primary document-based site that has no equal I am aware of. It even encourages the use of MLA documentation style. Documents are grouped by year; some are in the original French or German. Ausgezeichnet!

The second mega-site is located at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and compiled by Vincent Ferraro. It is much larger in scope than the former. It is oriented toward international politics, and World War I is just one of many document branches. The site also of­fers speeches, governmental home pages, intergovernmental home pages (e.g., NATO), a list of think tanks, online electronic journals, and more. This is a monstrous site. However, none of the war documents are in their original language. Everything has been translated. Many of the sites I found through searches are actually part of this site.

Although both sites are excellent for understanding the war in Europe, neither one covers anti-German sentiment in America. That specific information must be acquired at lesser-known sites that only the determined will find.

The German Village Society of Columbus, Ohio was organized in 1960 as a non-profit corporation in the state of Ohio. The district was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975. Their site, the German Village Society contains the history of the village from 1814 to the present. The information about anti-German sentiment after the U.S. declared war is the usual: German street names were changed, the teaching of German in schools was banned, and German books were not only burned, but burned at the feet of the Schiller statue in Washington Park (formerly Schiller Park).

The Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Cincinnati maintains a large homepage with several good links: the German American Studies Program at the U of Cincinnati established in 1987 and the Max Kade German Cultural Center established in 1997. The German-American Studies Program lists over 200 links. Unfortunately, none of them covers anti-Germanism and several do not work. Some informa­tion on anti-German hysteria can be obtained at the tab for the history of Over-the-Rhine, the German section of the city. Here one learns that, as in the case of Columbus, Ohio, elementary schools dropped German language instruction, German street names were changed, and German publications were removed from the public library (they were stored in the basement, not burned). The names of businesses with German names were also changed.

There is a single-purpose site advertising the book, Over the Barrel, by Timothy Holian. It describes the beer brewing industry in Cincinnati from 1800 to the present. The author shows how the temperance forces used anti-German sentiment during WWI to fur­ther their cause and aid in the passage of the 18th amendment to the Constitution. The American brewing industry was mostly German in nature, and drinking was mainly a German American activity done in German American societies of all kinds. German brewers were shrewdly linked to German organizations whose loyalties were suspect. The reasoning was simple. If something is pro-German, it must be antiAmerican. Everything pro-German must go: the German press, the German language, German clubs, and German beer.

Raymond Cunningham at the University of Illinois has several anti-German articles on his page. The first, the lynching of a German American, Robert Paul Prager, is described in newspaper articles. He was literally pulled out of a jail where he was in protective custody and lynched by a mob of approximately 300 men. Cunningham's second article chronicles the beatings, clubbing, and various denials of constitutional rights, including murder, lynch­ing, and tar­ring and feathering that German Americans were subjected to in the western United States from April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918. Cunningham's third article, German and Austro Hungarian Internment, deals with the internment of 6,000 German and Austro Hungarian aliens in the United States from May 1917 to May 1920. The hysteria of the time is connected with the arrests and internment. A good description of the President's dictatorial powers is provided.

There is a site sponsored by the Center for History and New Media that has excerpts from a forthcoming book, Who Built America by Herbert Gutman. It gives a short, concise review of anti-German hysteria.

The role of newspaper cartoons was also very important in the propaganda field during World War I. Newspaper cartoons were used extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and they, along with films, were really effective in World War I. Some of the anti-German cartoons of W.K.Haselden are presented in an article by David Little. They add flavor to the topic and illustrate the level of hatred towards the enemy.

The next four sites offer no information about anti-Germanism during WWI. They may be skipped or viewed as time allows.

The roots of the German America Citizens League of greater Cincinnati go back to 1883. Its name changed several times through the years; it adopted its present name after World War II. Its site, the German American Citizens League, covers everything German from brewing to genealogy. It has a link to the Indiana German Heritage Society, the Kentucky Germanic Heritage Society, the Society for German American Studies, and the Germania Society of Cincinnati. It contains nothing of value in regard to anti-Germanism.

The site maintained for the Conference of Americans of Germanic Heritage by Gerhard Holford contains information about anything German, including anti-Germanism in both world wars. Located in San Jose, California, its purpose is "affirming the dignity of Germanic culture, heritage, and people" and "building the Germanic community in America." The site has a short chronology of anti-Germanism, but no references or links to references, e.g., it states that Michael Prager and George Koetzer were lynched, but not when or where. Another tab states that Michael Prager was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois, in 1916 during a wave of anti-German hysteria, but there are no links to the event. This site is good for ideas, but not much more. Too many "but's."

The Max Kade German American Center has societies at several American universities: Indiana, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Colorado College, Columbia, Southern California, Penn State, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. The societies are funded by grants from the Max Kade Foundation of New York, founded in 1947 by Max Kade, a wealthy German American businessman. The societies have links to each other and can be easily accessed (Adams). The information about World War I varies from site to site. Although the society provides interesting information, the information about anti-Germanism is scant.

This last site scripted by Michael Duffy is called First World War. Its only value is to demonstrate the effectiveness of British propaganda during the war. After all these years from 1918 to 2001 "educated" people are still repeating old propaganda as if it were the truth. As the webmaster admits, this pro-Ally site is not run by a professional historian. Reader beware.

The Handbook of the European War by Alfred Bingham is a superlative example of British propaganda masquerading as objective neutrality. It was published in November 1915, and according to the preface, is intended for American readers. The section covering the neutral powers has articles titled, "The Barbarians" and "Germany Uncivilizable" (sic). One can surmise from the titles how neutral they are or are not. In regard to anti-Germanism in America, this book is wanting. But in regard to British propaganda, it is a gem. Another "reader beware."

Although the Internet can provide a lot of primary and secondary information, it can't compare to a good reference book such as the following four. The first is Propaganda for War by H. C. Peterson. This book details the success of British propaganda in changing American public opinion from staunch neutrality to pro-Ally. Propaganda had created intolerance in America towards German Americans and anything German. This intolerance was equal to that of the French or the British in their own countries.

Capital was made of the old saw, "a picture is worth a thousand words." The pictorial branch of Wellington House, the department responsible for the production and distribution of propaganda, furnished the American press with war photos guaranteed to emotionally connect the American reader with the Allied cause. Here are some fine examples of their work. A pre-war picture of three German cavalry officers holding their competition trophies is entitled "Three German Cavalrymen Loaded with Gold and Silver Loot." A picture of a German soldier helping a wounded Russian is entitled "German Ghoul Actually caught in the Act of Robbing a Russian." The list goes on. Not only did the French and British give false titles to real pictures, but they also "doctored" pictures. The American public was at the mercy of professionals.

On April 14, 1917 President Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, an American version of Wellington House, and appointed George Creel to run it. He did very well.

The importance of Peterson's book in relation to my topic cannot be overemphasized. Propaganda is something Americans think happens only in other countries. In politics we speak of rhetoric, campaign promises, and public opinion polls; in newspapers and magazines we read editorials and letters to the editor. We just don't apply the word to ourselves. And when it is aimed at us, it's hard to recognize. Perhaps that's why Americans were so gullible during the war. Excellent primer on propaganda. Highly recommended.

The second book, Carl Wittke's German Americans and the World War, was printed in Columbus, Ohio in 1936. Part of it was translated by Otto Lohr in 1942 and printed by the Nazis in Stuttgart in a booklet called Schriftendienst Übersee. Its release during World War II was probably intended to remind German Americans how they were treated during World War I. The booklet deals with countless examples of German American freedom of speech violations and prosecutions under the Espionage Act of 1917. One's brain becomes numb after reading of so many mindless acts that happened here in America and not in some third world country. This is a great source book, because the bibliography is taken mainly from the German language newspapers in America. Only a handful of these papers are still publishing; hardly any of the defunct ones are on microfilm. The Rundschau, published in Youngstown, Ohio, is on microfilm at the Youngstown Public Library, but the quality of the reproduction is poor.

The third book, "German America and the First World War," is the doctoral thesis of Phyllis Keller. The Ph.D. was conferred on her by the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. Her bibliography is 26 pages long and is an excellent guide to printed sources for the topic. It includes two interviews, 12 manuscript collections, and two unpublished doctoral dissertations, in addition to books, articles, pamphlets, and newspapers. Overall, they are mostly primary sources. She uses a unique approach to the subject of Americans of German heritage or birth. Her paper is divided between German America and German American, a concept I have seen nowhere else in my research. She presents a well-structured picture of German life in America starting with emigration in the first half of the nineteenth century and ending with the treatment of German Americans during World War I. A profound work.

The last book, Ferrell's Woodrow Wilson and World War I, has an 18-page chapter titled "Civil Liberties and Civil Rights" that deals with the topic. Ferrell not only discusses the attacks on the civil liberties of German Americans, but also the continuing discrimination against black Americans in the Army and in the cities both north and south, while at the same time President Wilson is talking about making the world safe for democracy. Ferrell explains how the Progressive movement had accustomed Americans to government intervention in their lives, and made interference with civil liberties and civil rights easier to accept. Enforcing intellectual conformity was just the next logical step.

Ferrell takes a close look at the Committee on Public Information run by George Creel. The C.P.I. mobilized 75,000 amateur speakers who delivered a four-minute speech every ten days on a different topic. The C.P.I. enlisted historians and other scholars to write pro-Ally pamphlets about the war. A professor from Cornell University said after the war that he and other professors wanted to do something to beat the Hun and make the world safe for democracy.

American propaganda was enhanced by such public figures as former President Theodore Roosevelt and Elihu Root, Senator from New York. They preached Americanism and hated pacifists. They encouraged intolerance. Billy Sunday, a famous revivalist of the time, said that if you turn hell upside down, you will find "Made in Germany" stamped on the bottom.

The National Civil Liberties Bureau, the predecessor of the American Civil Liberties Union, did not have the stature and the resources of its successor to deal effectively with society's loss of reason during the WWI period. After the Armistice the hysteria continued, now directed toward Socialist and Communists and the I.W.W. The Red Scare of 1919-20 finally ended in the autumn of that year and reason began to reappear in society and the body politic. Ferrel's bibliography is organized by chapter, and this chapter is very extensive and useful in learning more about this subject. Highly recommended for understanding the war years.

The war played a disinterested part in its treatment of German Americans. As during the Civil War and World War II, the Presidency soaked up power from Congress like a sponge soaks up water. As it is difficult to wring all the water out of a sponge, so is it difficult for Congress to get back all its power from the Presidency. So in the aftermath of the war the German Americans experienced the same fate as all the other Americans: a federal income tax, the draft, government debt, the Federal Reserve System, a larger governmental role in the economy, a weaker Congress, and a stronger Presidency. In short, a decrease of individual rights.

Time marched on toward WWII. Although German Americans were able to resurface in society, they were not as "German" as they used to be before the war. They survived round one, but unknown to them, round two was only a few years away.

Researching this paper has been a joy. I had no idea of the magnitude and depth of the subject, which for all practical purposes is almost a non-subject. There are approximately 61,000 centenarians in America who were teenagers at the time. When they are gone, the last living memory of that era will be gone, too. Then only the newspaper articles, diaries, and public documents will attest to the time when America lost her moorings and stumbled. It is hard to believe it happened, and my wife does not. She accused me of being a victim of propaganda. As I read I thought to myself: where was the A.C.L.U. while this was going on? CNN could have had a field day with more news than they could process. This would fill the chat rooms on the Internet.

Today that just could not happen, or could it. U.S. flags are in, patriotism is in, and so are military courts. The new Department of Homeland Security could become the foundation for a police state. Before this war on terrorism is over, it could permanently change the interpretation of our constitutional rights. We must be vigilant and cautious, lest we too stumble and lose our moorings.



Ferrell, Robert H. Woodrow Wilson and World War I 1917-1921. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Keller, Phyllis. German-America and the First World War. Diss. U Pennsylvania,1969. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985.

Peterson, H. C. Propaganda for War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914-1917. Norman: University Press, 1939.

Wittke, Carl. Der Terror gegen die Deutschen in den Vereinigten Staaten 1917-1918. Stuttgart: Weinbrenner, 1942.


America: History and Life (1964-). ABC-CLIO. January 2000. 3 Dec. 2001 ""

Historical Abstracts (1960-). ABC-CLIO. January 2000. 3 Dec. 2001 ""


"Propaganda." Collier's Encyclopedia. 1994 ed.

"Propaganda." Encyclopedia Americana. 1995 ed.

"Propaganda." Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropedia. 1998 ed.

Venzen, Anne Cipriano, ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1995.


Handbook of the European War. Ed. Alfred Bingham. 2 vols. White Plains, New York: Wilson, 1916.

Historical Dictionaries:

Pope, Stephen, and Elizabeth-Anne Wheal. "The United States of America." The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War. London: Macmillan, 1995.


Yearbook of German-American Studies.

Journal Articles:

Derr, Nancy. "Lowden: A Study of Intolerance in an Iowa Community During the Era of the First World War." Annals of Iowa 50.1 (1989): 5-22.

Wright, Steven L. "An Appreciation of the Importance of Intolerance: World War I, Edward T.Alexander, and the Trial of Thirteen Cincinnati Socialists." Queen City Heritage 46.4 (1988): 3-18.


These two sites are at Ohio Link and are only availabel to university students or personnel. America: History and Life (1964-). ABC-CLIO. January 2000. 3 Dec. 2001

Historical Abstracts (1960-). ABC-CLIO. January 2000. 3 Dec. 2001


Fourteen websites are described and active in the text.

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