President Wilson had a big problem. He had succeeded in getting Congress to declare war on Germany in April, 1917, BUT it was a war that the vast majority of Americans opposed. Further, the largest ethnic minority in the country were Germans. These Americans were both recent immigrants and those, like my ancestors, who had been in the country for generations and had nurtured and sustained their German culture through devotion to their language, food, community groups and institutions.
Immediately after war was declared, the Wilson administration launched a number of major initiatives to mobilize the country for the war. This included instituting a military draft and passing the Espionage and Sedition Act to quash dissent and opposition to the war. These efforts were bolstered by an official propaganda campaign in support of the war that framed it as a glorious crusade in defense of democracy, and ‘a war to end all wars’. As the enemy, Germans were demonized and portrayed as barbarians that were less than human.
Not surprisingly, this government-sanctioned propaganda campaign had real consequences on the lives of ordinary Americans and their communities in late 1917 and 1918. As documented in books like Burning Beethoven by Erik Kirschbaum and Degrees of Allegiance by Petra DeWitt, thousands of anti-German incidents took place in communities across the country, ranging from book-burnings to public shaming of ethnic German opponents of the war and forcing them to kiss the U.S. flag to the lynching of an ethnic German in southern Illinois. The German language press was censored and hundreds of newspapers and magazines were driven out of business. Churches were forced to stop conducting services in German and the teaching and speaking of German in schools was forbidden in multiple states and cities.
Also not surprisingly, Americans from all walks of life, in communities large and small, pushed back against the propaganda and defended themselves and their German-ethnic neighbors. In September of 2016 I learned of an example of organized resistance from that time when I visited my cousins in Altenburg, Missouri, a small town of three hundred-plus souls 90 miles south of St. Louis. There, one hundred years ago, a group of nine young men pictured here — -including my great-uncle Ernst — -organized the Altenburg Militia to defend themselves and their community from the rash of anti-German activity in neighboring towns.
According to Mary Beth Mueller Dillon in her book Altenburg Missouri, a sign hangs below this picture in the Perry County Historical Society Museum in Perryville, MO which reads: “During WWI, the German-Americans who had lived in this region for more than half a century were threatened by the anti-German movements in neighboring counties. German books were burned in the region during raids. The local folklore states the Altenburgers were notified that they were going to be attacked. The Altenburgers responded, “You better bring a lunch, because it’s going to take all day.” They formed a militia and waited, but they did not have to defend their freedom.”
Dillon goes on to quote Robert Fiehler who stated: “…it was during WWI when this took place. Around Altenburg most everybody was all German. If there was an Englishman in here, they didn’t say much…This is just hearsay, they threatened to come up here into these towns and tar and feather some of these people and burn the German books…They told Fred Taraton over in New Wells, a blacksmith, that they were going to come and tar and feather some of you guys. So they said, well just tell them to come on. They were just waiting for them, they had their guns loaded, they took that pretty serious.”
Having only these few pictures and quotes, we can only imagine how the anti-German campaign in 1917–18 shaped the lives and choices made by the nine men of the Altenburg Militia and their neighbors. Otherwise, the story of the Altenburg Militia is largely lost.
I felt the loss of the details of this story and its lessons very acutely when I drove through Altenburg last Fall and noted the proliferation of Trump-for-President yard signs. The targets of xenophobic rants and nationalist jingoism used by a cynical president have changed. The human cost in fear, pain and suffering are unchanging.
What will be the story we leave behind of our response to these times?