Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Anti-German Hysteria in the First World War

Anti-German sign outside of Edison Park, Chicago, 1917.
At the outbreak of the First World War, anti-German hysteria swept the United States.  Symphonies refused to play the works of Beethoven and Bach.  Saloons stopped serving pretzels.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”  The teaching of the German language was removed from schools.  City streets with German names were changed in Chicago and other cities throughout the United States. 

And it gets worse. In April of 1918, German-born Robert Prager was seized by a mob in Collinsville, Illinois. He was stripped of his clothes, wrapped in the American flag and led to the center of town. Along the way, he was forced to kiss the flag several times. Then, he was hanged before a cheering crowd of several hundred. Newspapers applauded the lynching. At the trial, the men accused of his murder were acquitted. The jury wore red, white and blue ribbons to court and took only 25 minutes to find the perpetrators not guilty.

Shortly after war was declared on Germany, Robert Bishop was sitting in his favorite saloon, Conrad’s, in the South Loop in downtown Chicago. Although the proprietor, Conrad Mueller, had been in the United States for many years, his business was seeing a slump. And, like many German nationals at the time, he found himself the target of abuse:

Robert had never seen that man in Conrad’s before. He was a short, balding man with a well-trimmed mustache---no one out of the ordinary. He certainly didn’t raise suspicion like some people did when they walked into bars. Upon hearing the accent of the barkeep, however, he launched into a tirade against “huns” and “krauts.” It had been a relatively quiet evening up until that point. Robert sat by himself at the bar, warm with beer. Like others in Conrad’s, he had attempted to simply ignore the man. But when the loudmouth started blaming Conrad for the sinking of the Lusitania, he had had enough.
     “You’re a fucking baby-killer! Go back to your own country!” the man screamed.
     And with that, Robert lost it. He jumped from his seat and punched the man squarely in the face. The man was startled and when he lunged for Robert in return, Robert pummeled the man’s face with his fists. It wasn’t much of a contest. The man was drunk and disoriented. Some of the other patrons, who had sat not saying or doing anything when the incident began, started cheering and applauding. Robert got lost in the moment, caught up in the energy of the fight. He swung viciously and pushed. At one point, he had the man on the ground and was about to smash a bottle into his face when his arm was stopped. He flashed in anger at the person who had dared to stop him at this crescendo.
     Conrad, who held his arm, didn’t need to say anything. His eyes said it all. There was no anger in those eyes. No resentment. If those eyes could speak, they spoke gentle words, as if to say, “enough. No more. It is done.”
     And all of the anger rushed from Robert like air. His knees almost gave out. He felt exhausted. He staggered over to a barstool as the man on the floor coughed and rolled over in the sawdust. Conrad walked over to him.
     “My name is Conrad Mueller,” he said. The bar was silent. “I own this place. I may not be from here. But I am an American. I love this country more than you can possible imagine. This country has given me much to be thankful for.” He knelt down beside the man, who recoiled nervously, expecting another punch, no doubt.
      “When the Lusitania was sunk, you have no idea what that did to me. I gave up my homeland. Do you understand? Six months later I became American citizen. So, be careful who you tell to go back to his country. This is my country.”
     Conrad then turned, retied his apron and took his place behind the bar. Slowly the other patrons resumed their conversations, clinked their glasses together in cheers and began laughing once again. No one even saw the man get up and leave the bar.
     Conrad set a mug of Edelweiss in front of Robert.
     “There are ways to do things, my young friend,” he said. “And most of the time, you don’t need these.” He held up his fists. “Using these is too easy. And that is the problem with the world today, I am afraid.” He then set his hands gently once again on the top of the mahogany bar and, reaching for a white rag, began wiping it down.
     “But the things he said----“
     “Words is all. I have been around for a long time. And I have been called worse things. Trust me.”   (Lilac Wine, Chapter 17)
In terms of anti-German sentiment, Chicago was not quite as bad as other areas, probably due to the high concentration of German-Americans within the city.  In 1900, 1 out of every 4 Chicagoans were either born in Germany or had at least one parent from Germany.  Nonetheless, Germans living in Chicago also found themselves the object of scorn and suspicion.  The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was forced to step down due to his German nationality.   Beer gardens, a staple in German bars throughout the north side, closed.  And many German-Americans Americanized their names so as to alleviate any suspicion cast upon them. 

In periods of war and conflict, such reactions are not uncommon.  Many may look back on the situation facing German-Americans during World War I as an anomaly; a relic from the past.  Yet recent events regarding Muslim Americans prove otherwise.

In Lilac Wine, Robert Bishop, a young man with no enthusiasm for the war, finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion.  Outspoken and loyal to friends, Robert faces this sentiment head-on, with disastrous results.


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