Throughout the early part
of the twentieth century, the European continent became crisscrossed with
diplomatic alliances in order that the Old World powers might be able to
secure and maintain their overseas colonial empires. The larger empires
– Britain, France, and Russia – had accumulated vast overseas territories
and sought to protect them from invasion by other powers. Smaller
empires like Germany and Austria-Hungary had entered the colonial acquisition
program late so that the extent of their territorial holdings was much
less. This disparity in size caused many Germans and Austro-Hungarians
to believe they were blocked from the colonization of foreign lands and,
as a result, the protective Axis alliance among Germany, Austria-Hungary
and Italy then later the Ottoman Empire was formed.1
Discontent and distrust of the larger world powers eventually escalated into an all-out conflict waged by the Axis Powers against the members of the Triple Entente – France, Britain, and Russia. This resulting war, however, was not confined to the European continent alone. Originally, the United States had declared its neutrality in this conflict, although much American support was demonstrated toward the Entente powers. Then in 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution ending the Russian involvement in the war, the neutrality that America had maintained for most of the war wavered. Fearing the Axis powers' ability to concentrate their forces entirely on the Western Front would crush the already weakened allies, America joined the fight with the remaining members of the Entente alliance.2 For the United States now, it was crucial to have the support of its citizens in their global war. Yet, there existed within the United States a population of German-Americans that were not supportive of the United States’ belligerence to their “mother country,” and the American government initiated actions to control this group of German-American dissidents. As the war raged on in Europe, a “war” in the United States for allegiance to the country was being waged between pro-German Americans, to which Charles Francis Himes belonged, and “patriotic” Americans.
The withdrawal of Russian forces from the war allowed the German army to concentrate its entire force on the Western Front. The German commanders did not expect America to become involved in the war because of the relatively large German population in America. The former ambassador to Germany, James Gerard Watson, delivered a speech at the beginning of the American entrance into the war in which he related a conversation he had with a German government official. In his words, the German official told him America would not enter the war because there were 500,000 Germans living in America that would rise up against the American government if it should attempt to enter the war. The ambassador replied that there were 500,001 lampposts from which the bodies of those 500,000 German-Americans would be hanging from the day there became an even remote threat of a German uprising.3 Even the Kaiser doubted American involvement in the war because of the German presence in America. He was once heard to state:
Even now I rule supreme in the United States, where almost one half of the population is either of German birth or German descent, and where 3,000,000 do my bidding…No American Administration could remain in power against the will of the German voters…4
The remarks of the ambassador and Kaiser reflected a very real fear among the American population as to the loyalty of the German-American population. Ambassador Watson continued in his speech to say that it was time for individuals to decide where their loyalties lay – with America or with Germany.5 On the surface the only threat Americans perceived was the loyalty of the German-American population, but as an article in the March 14, 1918 issue of The Dickinsonian stated, the real enemy of the war was autocracy personified in the German people:
Prussianism is, we hope, the last and worst expression of autocracy. Two hundred years ago the Hohenzollern became monarchs and they have been the robbers and highwaymen of Europe ever since. They have had for their goal the idea of world achievement and world domination. You know the story of Napoleon, of the robbery of the Austrian provinces, the robbing of the little nations, and of Alsace-Lorraine. Twenty-five years ago the Kaiser called together his generals and admirals and spread before them a series of maps and said, “Gentlemen, the three men that I have studied most have been Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon; all three aimed at world empires and failed. I am aiming at World Empire and shall succeed. This map is Germany as it is at present. The second map shows the first move and when this is completed we will turn to this,” and he revealed a third map which had the word Germania across Europe. “The next and final move is this,” and he brought out a map with the word Germania written across the Western Hemisphere. For three years the Kaiser has corroborated these statements.6
Americans grew to fear the threat of German expansionism, and
the presence of many people of German birth or German decent increased
that fear on this side of the Atlantic.
In retrospect their fears might have been over exaggerated by propaganda campaigns. Sources indicate that most German-Americans were either pro-American/Entente or wavered in their loyalties depending on the moment and situation. A smaller number were adamantly pro-Kaiser, but as it was this population that was the most vocal, the American fear of the enemy being in “their own backyard” was perceived to be real.7
Himes was a member of this small vocal minority and became involved in organizations that supported his views. His education at Giessen and his German ancestry afforded him an opportunity to experience German culture and to see it as a highly refined culture rather than the barbarism it was portrayed as in Allied propaganda. One of the earliest organizations he belonged to was Vereinigung Alter Deutscher Studenten in Amerika, which was a group of German educated scholars. The group convened a congress in New York in April 1914, for the purpose of bringing together German educated/speaking scholars in order that they might get to know each other and establish a sense of community and unity among the group.8
Himes’ participation in these German-American societies allowed him a forum in which to express his political views and meet others with the same view. His journals also revealed his feelings towards Germany and the war being fought, in his opinion, against them. On Easter Sunday 1916, Himes conducted his own protest against the recently issued ultimatum by Wilson to Germany by refusing to attend Easter services as his journal entry indicated:
Did not go to church. The serious condition of affairs with Germany, Wilson has sent an ultimatum…and the church has done nothing to prevent that calamity, but has gone on its little way…I can not sit under its performances without an inward indignant protest of its failure to grapple the question in the name of humanity if not religion, so I do not go.9
His journals indicate that not only was he pro-German in his views,
but was also critical of American institutions in their handling of the
In Pennsylvania, particularly in the central area, there existed a large population of German-Americans and immigrants. At the beginning of the war in Europe, organizations already in existence established their view of the war and adjusted their societies and publications accordingly. One of the most radical was the Penn Germania originally known as The Pennsylvania German. In a letter addressed to Himes from the group, the managing editor of the magazine described the struggle of the Germans as, “…unshackling themselves from a hampering past and environment…” and the war as “…the world’s direst calamity…”10 The National German-American Alliance was also another outspoken pro-German society. The society’s leader Charles Heaxamer had so much faith in the influence of German-Americans that he believed the NGAA would be able to use its force to influence policy in Washington to either keep America out of the war or to follow a pro-German track if it became involved.11
As the war escalated in Europe, attempts to raise the loyalty of German intellectuals in America to their “mother country” increased accordingly not necessarily to undermine the allied war effort as put forth by propaganda machines, but rather to generate support and understanding for the German position. In New York, a new organization, the German University League, formed in an attempt to “educate” the country on the positive aspects of German culture. In a letter to Himes, the League tried to rally support among members to take a stand on “The conflict now being waged against Germany and Austria-Hungary by vastly superior numbers…”12 The letter also stated its goals as being:
1. To establish in the United States a well-organized centre for former students at Universities in Germany and Austria-Hungary.
2. To cooperate in these serious times with every effort to strengthen the regard for the Germans and for their aims and ideals, and to secure for them, now and in the future, fair play and proper appreciation.
3. To correct misinformation about German conditions and problems, by placing before educated Americans and before the Press of this country reliable material bearing on German affairs.13
Despite the society’s attempts to provide information regarding the
German perspective in the fight, the anti-German sentiment in the country
only increased so that by 1917 the society was forced to disband on December
American involvement in the war only increased the anti-German feelings and the belief that the war was entirely the fault of the Germans. In a letter to The Dickinsonian in 1917, a student remarked, “…the present war was desired and brought on by the German people as a whole and it is supported and its barbarities excused to this day by the German people as a whole.”15
The increased fear of the Germans increased the animosity to the German-American community and resulted in actions being taken against them. On June 15, 1917, the United States government passed the Espionage Act and then passed the Sedition Act on May 16, 1918, which made it punishable by fines or imprisonment for anyone:
…to willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements,…or incite subordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty,…16
With these two laws, enforcement officials were able to arrest and punish
anyone whose loyalty to the country’s war effort could be questioned.
National wartime hysteria expanded the war against the Triple Alliance not only to a war on Germany specifically, but to a war on German culture in America as well. Increased reports of German sabotage and subversive acts on the part of German intelligence agents caused mob rule to dominate in many places. The German language was banned in many schools, German books were burned, and foods that were obviously of German origin were given more “patriotic” names so that "sauerkraut" became “liberty cabbage.”17 Those individuals whose loyalty was questionable were often times asked to make public displays of their allegiance to the United States of America by either signing a statement or kissing the flag.18 One of the most violent incidents against German-Americans was the lynching of Robert Paul Prager on April 5, 1918. Prager, a known socialist and German sympathizer, was made to show his loyalty to the country by repeatedly kissing the flag and parading up and down the street with flags in hand. For his own safety the St. Louis police put him in jail, but a mob overpowered the police station and lynched him.19
For Americans like Himes that were pro-German in their views of the war, the country was not a kind place. Anyone who questioned or criticized the American war effort or the American government was regarded with suspicion. People who were arrested or murdered as a result of these acts were victims of a modern day witch hunt against dissenters of the American government. It can be argued, however, that these people were more American than those who persecuted them were. The constitution guarantees a person’s freedom of speech; those who spoke out against the war were exercising that right in the face of opposition. Those who were regarding these people as traitors and spies were blindly following an extreme that shook the very principles upon which this country was founded. Unfortunately this lesson was not learned following the First World War. Fear of anything “un-American” prompted many to harass and punish those who were not supportive of the American government. It was not until the 1960s that the Unites States government began protecting the rights of dissenters to exercise their freedom of speech.
Audio Clips of Civilian Experiences During the War
"We had to be so careful..."
"Nobody would eat kraut..."
that we are in the war..."
End Notes For Text
Himes, Charles Francis. Journal entry 23 April 1916. Charles Francis
Collection. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College,
Kirbach, Hugo. Letter to Himes. January 1915. Charles Francis Himes
Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle,
Kriebel, H.W. Letter to Himes. 17 December 1917. Charles Francis Himes
Collection. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College,
Vereinigung Alter Deutscher Studenten in Americka. Invitation, 1914.
Himes Family Collection. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson
College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
"Beat back the Hun with Liberty Bonds." War Poster. Online. Internet.
3 May 2000. Available:
“German Enemy of U.S. Hanged by Mob.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. 5 April 1918: 1.
"The Hohenzollern Dream." Online. Internet. 2 May 2000. Available: http://www.vrnoir.org/propaganda/bkaiser.gif
“A House Divided Against Itself.” The Dickinsonian. 14 March 1918: 1,
Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle,
Letter to the Editor. The Dickinsonian. 19 Apr. 1917: 7. Archives and
Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
U.S. Sedition Act. 16 May 1918. Online. Internet. 19 Apr. 2000. Available:
Brock, Frank. "We had to be so careful." Interview. Undated. Online.
Clyde, Lola Gamble. "Nobody would eat kraut." Interview. 1976. Online.
Watson, James Gerard, former U.S. Ambassador to Berlin.
“But Now that We are in the
War…” Online. Internet. 22 Apr. 2000. Available:
Peterson, H.C. & Gilbert C. Fite. Opponents of War 1917-1918.
Sullivan, Richard E., Dennis Sherman, & John B. Harrison.
A Short History of Western
Civilization, Vol. 2: Since 1600. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.