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During World War I, Minnesota nativists waged an all out war on German culture in the state

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Men tarred and feathered in Minnesota during 1918 campaign by anti-Nonpartisan Leaguers, c.1918.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Germans were the single largest ethnic group in Minnesota. Nativism during this period was a “patriotic” attitude that saw recent immigrants — particularly those of German descent — as potentially traitorous. Many felt that because German Americans shared their heritage with the Kaiser and the German Empire, they would side with the enemy power. That many German Americans advocated neutrality until the U.S. declared war was further proof of disloyalty to nativists.

The most conspicuous nativist agency was the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS). Created by the state legislature in April of 1917, the MCPS was a seven-person commission headed by Governor J. A. A. Burnquist. It was given near-dictatorial powers to support the war effort at home and root out disloyal elements. While much of the commission’s activity focused on attacking labor advocates and political dissenters in the Nonpartisan League and the Industrial Workers of the World, the MCPS kept a close watch on German Americans as well. There was, in fact, much cross-over between these two groups, since many German Americans were both socialists and pacifists.

The MCPS took drastic action in dealing with a gathering in New Ulm on July 25, 1917. The meeting was organized by Brown County Auditor Louis Vogel, Mayor Dr. Louis Fritsche, and city attorney Albert Pfaender. Its agenda was to discuss the constitutionality of the draft. The MCPS and its agents already suspected Pfaender and Fritsche of sedition. A month later, Burnquist had them both deposed.

Another victim of the July 25 rally was Adolph Ackermann, president of Dr. Martin Luther College. During the demonstration, he gave a speech questioning the government’s motive for entering the war. In response to his comments, the MCPS coerced the college to force Ackermann’s resignation.

Nativism sometimes served personal and business interests. After Fritsche was removed from office, the MCPS pressured the State Medical Society and the Brown–Redwood County Society to revoke the ex-mayor’s medical certification. Two doctors on the review panel who voted against Fritsche ran practices in Springfield, a town in keen business competition with New Ulm. Fritsche was eventually exonerated.

Another vested-interest case unfolded in Springfield, where mostly German American stakeholders proposed creating a new bank. The president of the existing State Bank of Springfield submitted the names of those stakeholders to the MCPS to investigate their loyalty.

Some members of the Catholic Church also stood to benefit from anti-German policies. Archbishop John Ireland had long promoted the “Americanization” of the Church. During the war, this attitude gained ground. The archbishop urged that English should be the only language of church liturgy — a move that alienated German Catholics and their clergy, who conducted mass in German. This division allowed many Irish Catholics to assume leadership positions at the expense of their German counterparts.

The German-language press was an obvious target. The MCPS kept a close eye on many of these publications. Albert Steinhauser, publisher of the New Ulm Post and the New Ulm Review, featured many German articles in his papers that criticized the war. Under pressure from the commission, he was arrested and expelled from the Minnesota State Editorial Association in 1918. Even more severe, federal authorities jailed Volkszeitung editor Frederick W. Bergmeier of St. Paul for the duration of the war.

Perhaps the most hotly debated nativist issue was the use of German in the classroom. Many schools, both public and parochial, used German as the primary language of instruction. While Minnesota did not ban this practice outright, the MCPS did urge school boards to make English the exclusive educational language, with the exception of foreign language courses.

The commission compiled a list of objectionable textbooks that could not be used for the teaching of German. Catholic parochial schools also faced strong pressure from religious leaders to abandon German. Both Archbishop Ireland and Stearns County Bishop Joseph Busch strongly pressed for the exclusive use of English in Catholic schools.

Teachers also suffered as a result of nativist activity. In Wabasha County, public school teacher Irene Bremer resigned and lost her teaching certificate after making alleged pro-German comments. She was ordered by the MCPS and a superintendent to attend a normal school and prove her loyalty in order to teach again.

German Minnesotans responded to nativism in different ways. While many spoke their minds and suffered, others kept quiet and out of sight. Some became vehement and vocal “patriots” or “100% Americans” in order to deflect suspicion. A few even spied on other Germans for the MCPS. The replacements for both Fritsche and Pfaender were themselves German Americans. Bishop Busch, the stalwart “Americanizer,” was of Austrian stock.

On February 25, 1918, the MCPS began registering unnaturalized aliens (non-natives to the United States) at its St. Paul headquarters. On April 1, in the same city, a statue personifying the nation of Germany called “Germania” was removed from the Germania Life Insurance Building, soon renamed the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.

The MCPS and other officials both represented and sanctioned a general culture of fear and hostility against German Americans. Such antagonism manifested itself throughout society at large. Indeed, many of the investigations conducted by the commission were petitioned by private citizens. This created a climate of paranoia and violence. Fritsche and his family, after his disgrace, lived in fear of their well-being and lives; this was by no means unusual for victims of nativism. Nativist Minnesotans boycotted their German neighbors’ stores, vandalized their property, and called for them to resign from their jobs.

A particularly gruesome case of violence occurred in Luverne. On August 19, 1918, John Meints, a German American farmer suspected of disloyalty, was kidnapped by a large group of men and driven to the South Dakota border. Whipped, tarred, and feathered, he was told that if he returned to Minnesota, he would be hanged. Meints later sued thirty-two men for false imprisonment for $100,000. Though the court sided with the defendants, a 1922 settlement awarded him six thousand dollars.

When World War I ended, so did much of the MCPS’s justification. It was abolished by legislative act in 1919 and met for the last time in 1920. With the commission’s demise and the end of the war, anti-German nativism lost much of its momentum.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/05/2016 - 09:21 am.

    How Soon We Forget

    Or perhaps we were never taught about what happened to our own ancestors,…

    as they, themselves, were scapegoated in response to our nation’s involvement in foreign conflict,…

    with their country(ies) of origin,…

    or in response to the “undesirable” label attached to economic and political refuges of our grandparents and great grandparents’ generations,…

    by those who were already settled here in the US.

    Those of us who CLAIM to worship the God of the Bible need to re-examine our knowledge of it,…

    especially the commandment, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” [Leviticus 19:34]

    This is especially the case with those political candidates who so loudly proclaim their own Christianity and fealty to the Bible.

  2. Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/05/2016 - 09:26 am.

    And round and round we go

    Never underestimate the human capacity for oppression in the face of fear. The saddest testament will be the utter failing of those who bother to learn the history to apply it to modern events.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/05/2016 - 10:43 am.

    Lessons not Learned

    If history is not taught, it cannot be remembered by current generations or applied to future issues.

    [Seems foolish to have shunned those who brewed our beer, doesn’t it?]

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 01/05/2016 - 11:22 am.

    More than just anti-German

    The MCPS also served some of our state’s captains of industry in their efforts to stamp out populist political activities and unions. The late historian Carl Chrislock wrote a good book on the MCPS, and another on the progressive era in Minnesota, both published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

    As to religion and politics, one need look no farther than the Golden Rule and its equivalent in various major faiths to see how practice diverges from preaching: good preaching, that is, because bad preaching has long been a force of intolerance.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/05/2016 - 01:43 pm.

    My maternal grandmother, born in 1899,

    was the daughter of German immigrants.

    She told me about the extreme prejudice during World War I, including a teacher who never missed an opportunity to bash Germans and German-Americans, even though she knew that most of her students were one or the other.

    The newspapers were full of horror stories generated by the British press (and later proved to be untrue) and picked up uncritically by the American press. Ironically, the fact that these stories of outlandish German atrocities were later proved to be lies later made it harder for Americans to believe the early accounts of the Holocaust.

    The same types of mean-and-dumb youths who went around harassing Iranian immigrants in 1979 and go around harassing Muslims nowadays were going around in 1917-18 harassing German immigrants.

    My grandmother grew up in the neighborhood along West Broadway, and it was so heavily German that adults could live comfortably without speaking English, whether shopping, working, socializing, or going to church. (Gee, does that sound like any situation today?) The children of my grandmother’s generation grew up bilingual, speaking German at home but preferring to speak English with other children, even during breaks at the German Lutheran church’s Saturday school.

  6. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 01/05/2016 - 05:05 pm.

    $6,000 was big money in 1922

    That $6,000 lawsuit award in 1922 doesn’t sound like much, but adjusted for inflation it’s equivalent to $84,750 in today’s dollars. Source: calculator on the home page of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve website.

  7. Submitted by Mark hayes on 01/05/2016 - 09:23 pm.

    anti-German nativism lost much of its momentum

    Have any of you been in a Lutheran Church and wonder why there is a Lutheran flag on the left and the US Flag on the right as you look at the altar?

    It is because there is an innate fear 100 years later of persecution. As the pastor faces the congregation the flag of the church is on his right and the US flag is on his left. This is a sign of patriotism and unity that the German immigrants first loyalty is to God and secondly the United States.

    In 2016, those flags are still there and no one ever talks of removing them.

    • Submitted by Julie Barton on 01/06/2016 - 07:31 am.

      Not just in Lutheran churches though…

      You’ll find this set up in every Protestant church I’ve ever been to: Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist. None of these come from a German start.

      I think it is a loyalty issue, just as you say, but it isn’t because of wars with Germany: it is because of forced patriotism as a method of integration for an immigrant county. If you look through old photographs (pre-WWI), you are going to see a US flag behind the preacher/lectern. I have some old family photographs taken during the Civil War and it is the Confederate Flag seen behind the pulpit.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/06/2016 - 10:15 am.

        The last two Episcopal Churches I have belonged to

        have not had American flags in the sanctuary. (I was raised Lutheran but haven’t attended a Lutheran church in years.)

        When someone asked the rector of the church I attended in Portland why there was no U.S. flag next to the altar, the response was that God transcends nationality and does not favor the United States over any other country.

  8. Submitted by Amy Farland on 01/05/2016 - 11:30 pm.

    old habits die hard?

    I remember as a young child in the 50s listening to my grandmother and her closest friend, both German Americans (one had emigratef from Germany in the late 20’s), gossiping in the kitchen, whispering in German. Whispering in a kitchen owned by one of the women with no one else there but a 5 year old child. And when they realized that i had woken from my nap they quickly switched to English — speaking German was something apparently they could only do in a very private way, even in a free democracy? in the middle of Minnesota, So the idea that this was all gone by 1920? there was also WWII folks. and then there was the Red Scare. and McCarthy. and so people who had been targeted from childhood on … well i think they spent a very good part of their lives in more fear than we realize or can even imagine today. It is one thing to read of history. It is another to put yourself in someone’s shoes and really imagine that history.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/06/2016 - 01:07 pm.

    I’ve always been intrigued

    by the tarred and feathered ritual. That had to be quite the inconvenience to deal with afterwards for who knows how long.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/06/2016 - 02:12 pm.

      Inconvenience

      And probably painful. While the tar used then wasn’t like what we consider to be tar, now, removing it would probably be a painful process. And getting it into wounds, such as those inflicted by whipping, would hurt quite a lot, too.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/07/2016 - 04:29 pm.

      Definitely painful

      Having a substance heated to the melting point adhere to your skin would not be pleasant.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/08/2016 - 01:48 pm.

        Depends

        Many of the substances considered to be tar at the time (not the black gooey asphalt-like stuff we think of now) have melting temperatures that weren’t terribly high. Kind of like the hot wax they use for hair removal–it’s not the application that hurts. Plus, since those substances are mostly water insoluble, they don’t wash off, so you either have to scrape, rip, or wait till the natural sloughing of skin molecules is sufficient to leave the tar behind. Of course, with the last option, you have to live with ruining your clothes, so scraping or ripping it is.

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