In the spring, World War I came to Columbus. On April 6, 1917, the Congress of the United States adopted a Declaration of War put forth by President Woodrow Wilson.
To most of the people then living in Columbus, the declaration did not come as that much of a great surprise. What had begun in 1914 as what many people thought would be a short conflict among the great powers of western Europe had turned into a conflict involving Africa, the Middle East and much of East Asia. And it had become a horrific conflict as well with battles like Verdun in 1916 taking more than 1,000,000 lives in a single battle.
The United States had maintained a policy of strict neutrality through the early years of the war. In fact, President Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the slogan, "He kept us out of war," and decisively won.
But now America was joining the struggle. In early 1917, the Germans, desperately needing a path to victory, had begun unrestricted submarine warfare once again. They hoped to win the war in one last major offensive before the Americans could effectively intervene many months or even a year later.
President Wilson went to Congress and asked for a Declaration of War.
All this was followed with great interest by people living across America and especially in the Midwest where large numbers of German immigrants had come to live in the mid-to-late 19th century. By the 1860's, Cincinnati had one of the largest German-speaking populations in the world. And every city in Ohio had large German populations as well.
In Columbus, recent German immigrants constituted more than 30 percent of the population in 1850. Recent Irish immigrants made up more than 20 percent. And the rest were people who were here before these immigrants arrived.
By the end of the Civil War, many of the earlier animosities had been quieted, but they never really went away. The Irish found community in the north end of the city and the Germans built a neighborhood of their own in the "Alt Sud Ende" or "Old South End" with German churches, school and social organizations.
When World War I began, there was an initial outpouring of extraordinary public support. Local national guard troops were federalized and began to train and arm themselves for conflict in Europe. A local Council of National Defense to coordinate local business and social activities pertaining to the war was organized as well.
A local account at the time said, "Flags appeared on homes and business houses. Factories began to receive war orders. Plans for speeding up production and transportation and for increasing conservation were laid." The federal government took over operation of the railroads for the duration of the war.
To many young men, the war seemed to be a great adventure. While the war in Europe had dragged on for years and become quite deadly, to many Americans, it seemed like a war worth fighting. President Wilson wanted to "make the world safe for democracy" and to fight "a war to end war."
The federal government knew that volunteers would not provide enough men to sustain what would become an army of several million men. For the first time since the Civil War, a draft was put in place, and it was met with remarkable equanimity.
The quota for Franklin County was 1,188 men and draft boards were established to register men for service.
By August 1917, the quota had been met.
On Aug. 30, 1917, the selected men were paraded along Broad Street and were cheered by a crowd of more than 15,000 people.
Patriotic fervor reached a fever pitch and public opinion turned against the German community on the south end of the city.
"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, April 19, 1918, while members of the Columbus Reserve Guards stood by to see there was no interference ...
"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, Whittier, Steward and Lansing Streets respectively. The petitions for change were many and the protests few."
The protests were few because by 1917, the immigrant German population had declined and much of German-American Columbus had become second- and third-generation Americans of German descent.
It should be noted that Washington Park is Schiller Park once again and that German is taught in the Columbus City Schools. But the street names in German Village never have been changed back.
And for Columbus and America the real struggle of steel and fire that was World War I was yet to come.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek Community News.