World War I: When Wurst Came to Worst

(The following post is by Jennifer Gavin, senior public affairs specialist at the Library of Congress.)

In the United States, a century ago, there were more than 8 million citizens of German origin or with German ancestry – the largest single group among those of foreign birth or ancestry, but still less than 10 percent of the total U.S. population of over 102 million. Like other immigrant groups, they were scattered all over the country, with concentrations in many big cities, and like other immigrant groups, they “had their ups and downs” as they interacted with neighbors of different backgrounds.

Destroy this mad brute Enlist - U.S. Army. Prints and Photographs Division.

Destroy this mad brute Enlist – U.S. Army. Prints and Photographs Division.

One of the bigger “downs” followed the opening of World War I (the art of that war is the subject of a current Library of Congress exhibition). It was a German war of aggression, and much U.S. public sentiment turned against Germany and Germans, even as then-President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war. This reached a fever pitch with the German U-boat sinking of the British luxury liner “Lusitania,” causing the loss of 1,198 lives including those of 123 Americans. The public – both in England and the U.S. – was shocked that the German war machine would torpedo a passenger ship rather than sticking to warships or merchant-marine vessels.

When that sentiment turned, and particularly after the U.S. got into WWI, it suddenly became difficult to be German. Schools stopped offering classes in the language, once common. Music by German composers such as Mendelssohn and Wagner ceased to be performed. Many Americans with German surnames anglicized them. There were even efforts to rename foods of German origin – sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage,” for example.

The anti-German feeling increased stateside, where former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt denounced “hyphenated Americans,” meaning German-Americans and Irish-Americans, the two largest groups of immigrants in the country. President Wilson shared that view, saying “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”3g11355r

Many German-Americans proved their loyalty by joining U.S. military service and fighting “the Huns” in Europe. Among them was my grandfather, Phil Oberhauser. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army in France during the American engagement there, seeing service in the battles of Chateau Thierry, Verdun, and the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. He was mustard-gassed and suffered from problems with his lungs and teeth for the rest of his life. But he made it out alive, became a traveling paper-products salesman and married a girl who first approached him on roller-skates. She was working at a telegraph office in Omaha – an office so large the staff skated from the telegraph operators on one end of the building to the public counters at the other.

Albert Einstein, Washington, D.C. Prints and Photographs Division.

Albert Einstein, Washington, D.C. Prints and Photographs Division.

After the war ended, anti-German sentiment settled down, until the return of German militarism under Hitler. However, Germans fleeing the Third Reich were welcomed into the U.S., and many became celebrated (if sometimes controversial) new U.S. citizens, including many scientists – physicist Albert Einstein, rocket scientist Werner von Braun and chemists Otto Loewi and Max Bergmann – and other celebrated artists and intellectuals.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

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