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Anti-German hysteria in the United States during World War I led to restrictions
on speaking German and to internment.
Illustrate how anti-German fervor played out in the forced registration, internment, and oppression of German Americans
Many Americans were suspicious
of the loyalties of German Americans during
World War I. Theodore Roosevelt, in particular,
denounced "hyphenated Americanism" in wartime.
German names of foods,
streets, and even places were changed. Frankfurters became "hot dogs"; sauerkraut was "liberty cabbage"; and Berlin, Michigan was renamed "Marne, Michigan."
At the height of wartime
fears, the German language came under restriction. Nebraska and Iowa each passed
laws limiting the speaking of German in schools and other public places.
In 1917, President
Wilson passed two pieces of legislation imposing restrictions on German-born
Americans. The U.S. government maintained a list of German-born aliens or
citizens, and imprisoned more than 6,000 of these immigrants from 1917 to 1918 for
allegedly assisting Germany’s war effort.
War bonds were debt securities issued by the government to
finance military operations during times of war. They generated capital for the
government and gave civilians a feeling of involvement in their national
During World War I, many German Americans were broadly accused
of being sympathetic to the German Empire without regard to their individual
loyalties. Former president Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most significant voices
in this national suspicion, denouncing "hyphenated Americanism" and insisting
that dual loyalties were impossible to maintain in times of conflict. This wartime
xenophobia spread throughout the United States in the form of community scorn
and organized state and government repression.
Anti-German fervor during World War I resulted in the renaming
of food that was of German origin or that simply sounded German. Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," frankfurters were called "hot dogs," and Salisbury steak was
given a less gastronomically pleasing but more Americanized label: "meat loaf." Streets
and even some municipalities with German monikers changed, such as the renaming
of the Michigan town of Berlin to "Marne" in honor of those who fought in the Allied
victory at the First Battle of Marne.
In early September, Congress passed a bill requiring all
German-language newspapers published in the United States to print English
translations of any commentary about U.S. government policies and international
relations or the state or conduct of the war. The same rule was applied
regarding any other nation with which Germany was at war.
While thousands of German immigrants were forced to buy war bonds to prove their
loyalty to the United States, they were rewarded with widespread xenophobia
from national organizations as well as from their neighbors. The Red Cross barred
individuals with German last names from joining, for fear of sabotage. The Cincinnati
Public Library was asked to withdraw all German books from its shelves. In much
darker examples of bigotry fueled by the war, German-born Robert Prager was
dragged from a Collinsville, Illinois, jail and lynched by a mob who suspected
him of spying, while a Minnesota minister was tarred and feathered when he was
overheard praying in German with a dying woman.
Language was a major fear factor driving the anti-German hatred
and manifested itself in legislation that attempted to isolate foreign-language
practitioners. In the 1918 Babel Proclamation, the governor of Iowa prohibited
all foreign languages in schools and public places. Nebraska barred instruction
in any language except English, although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the ban
illegal in the 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska. The response by German Americans
was often to "Americanize" their names (e.g., changing "Schmidt" to "Smith," or "Müller" to "Miller") and to limit their use of the German language in
public places, especially churches.
In anticipation of support for Germany among immigrants, President Wilson
issued two sets of regulations, on April 6 and November
16, 1917, imposing restrictions on German-born male residents over the age of
14, including natives of Germany who had taken citizenship in countries other
than the United States. Approximately 250,000 men were required to register at
their local post offices and carry registration cards at all times, as well as report
any changes of address or employment; the regulations were extended to women in
The U.S. government investigated thousands of people under these
regulations and eventually arrested approximately 6,300 “aliens.” Allegations
included spying for Germany or endorsing the German war effort. Internees were held
at two camps splitting the eastern and western United States along the Mississippi
River: Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and Fort Douglas in Utah. While most
internees were released in June 1919, some remained in custody through March
and April 1920.
While Germany was at war with France and Britain beginning in August
1914, America had not yet joined the conflict. Yet there were several German
military vessels in U.S. ports that were ordered to leave or be detained. The
crews of these ships were first held as alien internees and later as prisoners
When war broke out in Europe, hundreds of men on two German
cruisers, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich
and the Kronprinz Wilhelm, were unwilling
to face the might of the British Navy in the Atlantic and instead lived for
several years on their ships in various Virginia ports and frequently enjoyed
shore leave. Eventually they were given a strip of land in the Norfolk Navy
Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, on which to erect accommodations.
In October 1916, the ships and their personnel were moved to the
Philadelphia Navy Yard along
with the structures, which became known locally as the "German Village."
Yet the village was still located at a secure U.S. military facility surrounded
by barbed wire. In the spring of 1917, nine detainees escaped, prompting U.S.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to transfer the other 750 residents of
the village to secure units at Fort McPherson in Georgia and Fort Oglethorpe,
separated from the civilian internees there.
In December 1914, the German gunboat Cormoran attempted to refuel and restock its provision at the
American island territory of Guam. Denied the full amount of fuel needed, the
German captain optioned to remain in Guam along with the crewmen as alien detainees.
Most of the crew lived on board due to a lack of housing and relations remained
friendly, even though the German seamen outnumbered the island’s contingent of
a result of German U-boat attacks
on American shipping, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in
February 1917. U.S. authorities in Guam imposed greater
restrictions on the German detainees as relations between America and Germany
worsened. Following the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, Americans
demanded, "the immediate and unconditional surrender of the ship and
personnel." The captain and crew destroyed the Cormoran with an explosion that took several German lives. The surviving
353 German sailors were shipped to the U.S. mainland as POWs on April 29, 1917.