A campaign of pro-German propaganda massively backfired against the German-American community in World War I, Sally Gimson follows the story through the pages of The Fatherland magazine 43(1): 52/55 | DOI: 10.1177/0306422014522915
Bonds of war
A bAcklASh AGAinSt the German-American community in WWI ended with German words being banned, and
Berlin, Michigan, being renamed. The word hamburger was even dropped and replaced by “liberty steak”.
To help trace the little known tale of efforts to persuade the United States to support Germany during the war, Index on Censorship was given special access to the digital collection, Propaganda and Recruitment, which includes all the copies printed of The
Fatherland magazine, a publication started in New York in August 1914 by George
Sylvester Viereck, an American citizen who became the German government’s most ardent apologist in the US. By the time the
US entered the war in April 1917, Washington’s own much more powerful and sophisticated propaganda machine had turned its fire against them.
As US President Woodrow Wilson put it in his Flag Day speech in June that year in Washington: “The military masters of
Germany…filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people.” German agents, he declared, had “diligently spread sedition among us and sought to draw our own citizens from their allegiance”.
Seven million copies of this speech were distributed by the government’s Committee on Public Information. It marked the escalation of a vicious campaign against GermanAmericans. In that same month Congress passed the Espionage Act, followed by the
Sedition Act in 1918 (repealed in December 1921), which prohibited “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States”. America had gone to war in Europe after staying neutral for three years, and now needed to bind
Americans together in the war effort.
At the turn of the twentieth century,
German-Americans were the largest nonEnglish-speaking ethnic group in the US.
According to the 1910 census they numbered eight million out of a total population of 92 million, and comprised a quarter of the white population. They were the most numerous ethnic group in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los
Angeles and Milwaukee.
Many were well-assimilated, but there was also a strong culture of clubs and churches. By the 1890s there were nearly 800 German-language newspapers and journals in America. Although this had fallen to 522 by 1917, there were still almost as many
German-language publications as in all other foreign languages combined. at UNIV OF NORTH DAKOTA on June 4, 2015ioc.sagepub.comDownloaded from 53 indexoncensorship.org
The earliest German settlers arrived in 1708. They were Palatines fleeing religious persecution, and settled as farmers in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. A second wave of German immigration began after 1830, growing pace after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and a third wave, 1.7 million, came between 1881 and 1892 when the German economy was depressed.
Frederick Luebke, whose book Bonds of
Loyalty is the only useful survey of GermanAmericans during World War I, argues that most people’s political loyalties always lay with the United States. But from the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, even though the
USA had declared neutrality, it would never be the same for German-Americans.
Anglo-Saxon Americans believed the
Kaiser was intent on world domination and would use all means at his disposal to achieve his aims. Many German-Americans were unable or unwilling to understand that this was the general view. Most, at least at the beginning, supported Wilson because they did not want to go to war. ➔
Above: A group gathers to show the various Washington D.C. newspaper headlines on November 11 1918, the day World War I ended
C red it: N ara A rch ives/R ex at UNIV OF NORTH DAKOTA on June 4, 2015ioc.sagepub.comDownloaded from 4 3 . 0 1 54 indexoncensorship.org
But some saw neutrality as an admission of weakness, and an opportunity to bind the German-American community together by appealing to an anti-British
It was a view the pro-German magazine
The Fatherland propagated. George Viereck used the magazine, which boasted the strapline Devoted to Fair Play For Germany and
Austria, to try to educate Americans in the virtues of the German position and show the basic bad faith of the Allies. By October 1914 its circulation was 100,000.
A cartoon in The Fatherland on 30 September 1914 shows the Iron Cross and the
Union Jack with the rubric: “Two Crosses of totally different standards: the German
Imperial Cross and the well-known Double
Cross of Great Britain.”
Viereck used the pages of his paper to raise money for German war bonds. In New York, the German Historical Society inaugurated a war relief fund by selling rings bearing the
Iron Cross, which were advertised in The
Fatherland. Newspapers of the time said thousands of New Yorkers exchanged jewelry and cash for the rings, which bore the inscription: “To show my loyalty to the old
Fatherland, I brought it gold in time of trouble for this piece of iron.”
German propaganda was, however, incompetent. The gravest error happened over the sinking of the passenger steamer
Lusitania in May 1915. On the day the
Lusitania sailed for Liverpool, the German ambassador in America authorised the embassy in Washington to place an advertisement in the New York Times warning that any ship flying the flag of Great Britain and in waters round the British isles was liable to be destroyed.
This notice appeared next to a Cunard advertisement for the Lusitania, days before it was sunk by a German submarine off the southern coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,200 lives – including 124 American citizens.
An earlier political bungle was a lobbying effort led by German-Americans to impose an embargo on all arms sales including those to Britain. American companies were making a lot of money in arms sales and armament exports, and a conference in support of the proposed embargo in January 1915 turned into a fiasco. The men who ran the conference, including Viereck, were condemned by the New York Times as “agents of German propaganda”, as indeed they were.