Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Anti-German Hysteria in Wisconsin

Conflict on the Homefront: Wisconsin During World War I

Expression Leads to Repression | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Registration of Enemy Aliens, 1917. WHI 35407.

Registration of Enemy Aliens, 1917

Unnaturalized Germans registering as enemy aliens at the New York Federal Building. Registration was necessary for them to be able to travel within the various armory districts in New York City. View the original source document: WHI 35407

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: One class period

"Once led into a war, our people will forget that there was ever such a thing as tolerance . . . ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman, the man in the street." - Woodrow Wilson on the eve of requesting from Congress a declaration of war.

The newspaper articles, photos, and letters in this section are samples of the rampant anti-German hysteria in Wisconsin during World War I.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze primary source documents
  • Explain different points of view on the same historical event

Background

On the evening prior to visiting Congress to request a declaration of the war against Germany, President Woodrow Wilson had a quiet conversation with one of his favorite journalists, Frank Cobb of the New York World. President Wilson is reported to have told Cobb, "Once led into war, our people will forget that there ever was such a thing as tolerance ... ruthless, brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman, the man in the street." A former professor of history, Woodrow Wilson realized that a national crisis often resulted in the silencing of unpopular opinions.

True to President Wilson's prediction, American society became less and less tolerant of citizens who disagreed with their government's actions, including dissenters such as labor radicals, religious pacifists, and socialists. Also at risk were several million Americans of German ancestry. German Americans comprised the largest ethnic group in Wisconsin in the 1910s, accounting for more than 45 percent of the state's foreign-born population.

Fed by war propaganda, many Americans became nervous about the existence of German spies and traitors in their neighborhoods and seemed intent on removing all things German from their communities. Some of the actions may seem humorous. Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage; wieners became hotdogs; and German measles became liberty measles. On a more serious level, zealous patriots in Wisconsin banned the German language in elementary schools, burned German books, and tarred and feathered German Americans suspected of opposing the war efforts. The only way German Americans could avoid persecution was to deny their German heritage. Therefore, many German-American families, businesses, and communities decided to anglicize names and pronunciations. In Milwaukee the Germania Building became the Brumder building, and the elected leaders in the Washington County community of Schlesingerville changed the name of their town to Slinger. An irrational fear of anything German overtook the nation and lasted throughout the war.

To help allay fears and provide laws to deal with treasonous behavior, Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Espionage Act in June 1917 and the Sedition Act in May 1918. The Espionage Act imposed fines of up to $10,000 and jail sentences up to 20 years on persons convicted of recruiting, or aiding the enemy. The act also authorized the postmaster general to ban from the mails any material that he considered treasonable. The Sedition Act made it a crime to speak against the purchase of war bonds or to "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government, the Constitution, or the uniform of the army or navy.

Patriots flooded the Wisconsin court system with charges that their fellow citizens had violated the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Usually the accused had criticized America's war policy, praised Germany, or argued that the war was a class struggle. An atmosphere of repression and tension spread throughout Wisconsin as people felt they could not express their opinions.

The newspaper articles and letters in this section contain a sample of the rampant anti-German hysteria in Wisconsin. The newspaper articles are found in the microfilm collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library. The various letters between Governor Philipp, the Wisconsin State Council of Defense, and the German Lutheran Church of Washburn are stored in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.

Resource Materials

Procedures

  1. Because each document is different and demonstrates a different aspect of the wartime culture, it is appropriate and useful to split your class into groups. Each group will be responsible for presenting the main points of their article(s) to the class as a whole. The newspaper analysis sheet and the analysis questions for the series of Washburn-related letters will help students critically examine these documents.

  2. Ask students to research the impact World War I and World War II had on the cultural identification and language retention of German-Americans. Suggested resources include:

    • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. Amherst, MA: Humanity Books, 2000.
    • Zeitlin, Richard H. Germans in Wisconsin. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000.
    • German-Americans. Produced by Jerry Baber. 30 min. Schlessinger Video Productions, c. 1993. Videocassette.
    • Have students assemble a photocopied collection of documents (newspaper and magazine articles, photos, letters, journals) highlighting the stories of people who disagreed with their government's actions during World War I, such as labor radicals, religious pacifists, and socialists. Additional Wisconsin examples include Senator Robert La Follette and Socialist Victor Berger. Follow up on these collections by discussing various ways and means to discover the level of "widespread" support for the war.
  3. Ask students to consider the following statement and write a response essay. Supreme Court Justice Oliver W. Holmes upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage Act after the war. He stated, "When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in times of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured as long as men
    fight . . . no court could regard them as protected by Constitutional rights."

Bibliography

  • Cary, Lorin Lee. "The Wisconsin Loyalty Legion, 1917-1918," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn (1969): 33-50.
  • Cornebise, Alfred E. War as Advertised: The Four Minute Men and America's Crusade, 1917-1918. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1984.
  • Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
  • Crowell, Benedict. The Giant Hand: Our Mobilization and Control of Industry and Natural Resources, 1917-1918. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921.
  • Cuff, Robert D. The War Industries Board. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  • Darracott, Joseph, and Belinda Loftus. First World War Posters. London: Imperial War Museum, 1972.
  • Falk, Karen. "Public Opinion in Wisconsin During World War I," Wisconsin Magazine of History, June (1942): 389-407.
  • German-Americans. Produced by Jerry Baber. 30 min. Schlessinger Video Productions, c. 1993. Videocassette.
  • Glad, Paul. The History of Wisconsin, Volume V, War, a New Era, and Depression, 1914-1940. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1990.
  • History Committee of the Four Minute Men of Chicago. The Four Minute Men of Chicago. Chicago: 1919.
  • Krog, Carl E. "The Battle Against the Kaiser: Social and Cultural Conflict in Marinette, Wisconsin During the World War I Era," The Yearbook of German-American Studies, 26 (1991): 231-247.
  • Lorence, James J. Enduring Voices: Document Sets to Accompany The Enduring Vision. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
  • Lorence, James J. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
  • Mock, James R. and Cedric Larson. Words That Won the War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.
  • The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War: Hollywood Goes to War with Cameras Blazing. Produced by David Shepard. 52 min. Republic Pictures Home Video, 1986. Videocassette.
  • The Papers of Woodrow Wilson-November 11, 1917- January 15, 1918, Volume 45. Princeton: Prince ton University Press, 1984.
  • Paris, Michael. The First World War and Popular Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
  • Stevens, John Dean. "Suppression of Expression in World War I." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1967.
  • Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History, Volume II. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. Amherst: Humanity Books, 2000.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Soldier in the Wars of the U.S. Bowie: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996.
  • Trask, David. World War I at Home. New York: Wiley, 1969.
  • Trattner, Walter J. "Julia Grace Wales and the Wisconsin Plan for Peace," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring (1961): 203-213.
  • Vogt, George. "When Posters Went to War," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter (2001), 38 -47.
  • Zeitlin, Richard H. Germans in Wisconsin. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2000.
  • Zwick, Jim. "World War I Posters: Artists Mobilizing the Home Front," BoondocksNet.com. (2001)

 

Standards

Wisconsin Model Academic Standards
Standard B - History: Time, Continuity, and Change
REFERENCE NUMBERBY THE END OF GRADE 12 STUDENTS WILL
B.12.1 Explain different points of view on the same historical event, using data gathered from various sources.
B.12.2 Analyze primary and secondary sources related to a historical question to evaluate their relevance, make comparisons, integrate new information with prior knowledge, and come to a reasoned conclusion.
B.12.4 Gather various types of historical evidence, including visual and quantitative data, to analyze issues of freedom and equality, liberty and order . . . and form a reasoned conclusion in the light of other possible conclusions.

Credit

This lesson was developed by the Office of School Services for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt to fit your students' needs.

Primary Sources Used in "Conflict on the Homefront" Lessons

Additional World War I Resources