In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress of the United States for a Declaration of War against the “Imperial German Government.”
Only a year before, in 1916, Wilson had successfully run for re-election with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” This was true as far as it went, since Wilson had managed to keep the United States neutral in a war that had torn apart much of Europe and the colonies of Europe since it had begun in the summer of 1914.
It had not been an easy task. Public sentiment against Germany and its allies had increased markedly after the sinking of the liner Lusitania in 1915 and the periodic use by the Germans of unrestricted submarine warfare as a counter to superior naval power among its enemies. Wilson and most astute American politicians were well aware that much of the United States had been settled by German immigrants. In fact, by 1917, the largest single ethnic origin of the people of the United States was not English or Irish or Scottish. It was German.
How would these sons and daughters of German immigrants react to a war against their “Fatherland?” That was a question to which no one had an easy answer at the time.
Nevertheless, President Wilson felt the resumption by the Germans of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 was the last straw. He felt he had no choice but to ask for war.
With the outbreak of the war, large numbers of men immediately volunteered for military service. Social and service organizations moved to support the war effort and thousands of dollars were pledged to support the war.
It would take the United States more than a year to mobilize its men and guns and supplies and get them to Europe. American soldiers would only be in action for a few short months. But more than 116,000 American soldiers died and several hundred thousand were wounded. Only the American Civil War had taken more lives.
As the war continued, many people in Columbus and across America began to seek people to blame.
Spurred by the exaggerations and distortions of a shrill campaign of anti-German “illustrative and descriptive material” by the governments of the allied nations, many people began to turn against the German-American communities in their own country.
In Columbus, there was some reason to believe that people loyal to Germany might be engaged in sabotage. A 1920 history of Columbus remembered these incidents: “A fire in the American Chain Company’s plant was officially believed to have been the result of a pro-German plot. …Two men were indicted by the Federal Grand Jury for attempting to destroy machinery at the Ralston Steel Car Company’s plant and several men were arrested for making derogatory remarks against Liberty bonds.”
The danger posed by events such as these was real. But these sorts of events were very few and far between. Nevertheless, the response by the community against its German and German-American citizens was quite extensive and took many forms:
“The study of German in the public schools was at first restricted and later banished entirely … the banishing of German from the schools was made the occasion of the public burning of German textbooks. Woodpiles were made at the street corners on East Broad Street, and books brought to them were burned on April 19, 1918, while members of the Columbus Reserve Guard stood by to see that there was no interference.”
There was no interference.
“The Board of Education was more thrifty than individuals; it sold its German texts at 50 cents a hundred pounds, on condition that they be reduced to pulp. The proceeds totaled more than $400.”
“The City Council also responded to the anti-German sentiment by changing the name of Schiller Park to Washington Park and of Germania Park to Mohawk Park, and by renaming Schiller, Germania and Bismarck streets to Whittier, Stewart and Lansing streets, respectively. The petitions for the changes were many and the protests few. The local branch of the Order of Druids, after 60 years of using the German language in its ritualistic work, substituted English, and some business organizations eliminated all Teutonic suggestion in their names. The First and Second German M.E. churches dropped the word “German” from their names and the former substituted the word ‘Zion,’ erecting also a tablet with the inscription, ‘We stand for God and Christ, Our Country and Flag, Humanity and Democracy.”
While all of this was happening, the last German newspaper in Columbus closed its doors as well.
One might well wonder how all of this came to pass in a city with a strong German heritage. German immigrants were among the first settlers in Columbus and central Ohio. With the coming of the Ohio Canal and the National Road, hundreds of German immigrants began to arrive in Columbus. Many settled in the area south of the town’s city limits at Livingston Avenue. By 1840, the largest single ethnic group in Columbus was its German community.
The German neighborhood extended north into the downtown as far as Town Street and as far east as Parsons Avenue. It was, in many ways, a world of its own with German churches, singing societies, athletic teams and social organizations.
So why was there not a stronger protest against the changes made to German Columbus in World War I? The answer is that by 1918, only a small percentage of the population of Columbus was ethnic German. The sons and daughters, the grandsons and granddaughters of the German immigrants had come to see themselves as more American than German.
There once was a belief that America was a great “melting pot” where every sort of immigrant melted together and assimilated to become an American. We know now that a better analogy is more like a great pot of stew where all of us acculturate but retain at least some of our ethnic identity.
In the end, in 1918, most of the German-Americans of Columbus felt themselves to be more American than German.
German Columbus survived its greatest trial in 1918. The community and its churches and vital organizations have survived into yet a new century and complement the extraordinary success of the German Village historic district over the past half-century.
German is once again taught in the schools. German culture is alive and well.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.