(Note: this continues the series of articles by Paul Likoudis which I am publishing each Thursday.)
AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM:
DER WANDERER & THE 1916 ELECTION
by Paul Likoudis
seventh in a series
As Europe headed into the third year of the Great War in the summer of 1916, Americans faced one of the most bitter and bruising campaign seasons in its history, as Democratic President Woodrow Wilson sought re-election against his Republican challenger, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.
For Joseph Matt, the editor of Der Wanderer and a major influence in the most important German-American groups at the time, it didn’t matter which party or candidate won. Neither, he figured, would keep the country out of the European war, neither would correct our disastrous participation in Mexico’s civil war; neither had a “constructive” program for America.
“It makes no difference which political party is in power in this difficult time,” he wrote in an October 5 editorial. “For the basic root of the malaise affecting our American political life lies
in the fact that there is no really constructive party, no party whose program is anchored in eternally valid ethical principles. On the contrary, any party in control allows itself to be swayed by considerations of momentary advantage, and it is from this standpoint that judgments about ‘right or wrong’ [German text uses English here] are formed....”
In this election, German-Americans’ loyalty to the United States was questioned, their morality impugned and their votes courted by both parties – the Democrats to whom they were traditionally loyal, and by the Republicans who understood German-Americans loathed Wilson.
Even before the campaign opened, the Germanophobic Wilson, in his December 1915 message to Congress, accused German-Americans of having “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our government into contempt, to destroy our industries...and to debase our policies to the uses of foreign intrigue.”
His address drew a response from Frederick Kenkel of the Central Verein, who wrote: “We regret this utterance and deplore its effects,” charging it was “calculated to foster unfounded suspicion and mistrust of a large element of our American people.”
Kenkel’s appeal for moderation was picked up by the New York Times, which published an editorial, “Germans Attack Wilson,” criticizing “certain fanatics and alien propagandists” who “subordinate their religion to their transmarine idolatry.”
German-Americans, naturally, were opposed to American entry into the European war on England’s side, and German-American groups, including the Central Verein, organized massive rallies – one in Manhattan attracted more than 100,000 demonstrators – protesting entry in a war that would only serve the interests of “international capital.”
“German-American organizational efforts grew even more feverish and complicated in the election year of 1916,” writes Notre Dame historian Philip Gleason in his book The Conservative Reformers: German-American Catholics and the Social Order. “In February, German-American journalists met in Chicago to form the National German Publishers Association. Ex-president [Nicholas] Gonner of the Central-Verein and August F. Brokland of Die Amerika and the Central Bureau were among the Catholics at the meeting....”
As German-Americans rallied in opposition to the war, Der Wanderer’s editor Joseph Matt, writes Dr. Gleason, “was troubled by the number of Catholics flocking to the North American Alliance,” a German-American association led by socialists, Freethinkers and “self-seekers” who did not share the same views “on the duties of citizenship” as did Catholics.
As the summer of 1916 approached, anti-German-American propaganda intensified. On the opening day of the Democratic Convention in St. Louis, June 14, Woodrow Wilson darkly warned at a “Preparedness” rally in Washington: “There is disloyalty active in the United States and it must be crushed.”
Wilson accused anti-war German-Americans of treason and blackmail, charging their threat to exercise their political might at the polls constituted aiding a foreign government. Wilson pledged he will “teach these gentlemen once and for all that loyalty to this flag is the first test of tolerance in the United States.”
“Speaking in the Midwest on the same day,” writes Dr. Alan Carlson in his book The American Way: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity, “former President Theodore Roosevelt was less circumspect about the identity of the disloyal:
“‘No good American...can have any feeling except scorn and detestation for those professional German-Americans who seek to make the American President in effect a viceroy of the German Emperor.’
“Roosevelt blasted ‘adherence to the politico-racial hyphen which is the badge and sign of moral treason.’
“One day later the Democratic Party, meeting in Convention in the heavily German-American city of St. Louis, adopted a platform plank on ‘Hyphenates’ and ‘Americanism.’ Together, these stood as ‘the supreme issue of the day,’ the document declared. Anyone ‘actuated by the purpose to promote the interests of a foreign power in disregard of our own country’s welfare’ created ‘discord and strife’ among Americans, obstructed ‘the whole sum process of unification,’ was ‘faithless to the trust...of [U.S.] citizenship,’ and stood as ‘disloyal to his country.’ Any ‘division’ of Americans into antagonistic racial groups destroyed ‘that complete... solidarity of
the people and that unity of sentiment and national purpose so essential to the perpetuity of the nation and of its free institutions’....
“Held during the third year of The Great War in Europe,” Carlson continues, “the American election of 1916 became, at least at the rhetorical- and domestic- political levels, a form of civil war. More broadly, the supposed ‘German-American threat’ to national unity betokened a crisis in American self-understanding....”
Carlson continues: “When Hughes won the Republican nomination on June 10, German-Americans congratulated themselves on their success. But they also reaped the ‘Flag Day’ denunciations by Wilson and Roosevelt....Wilson made ‘anti-hyphenism’, along with ‘he kept us out of war,’ his major campaign issues. In early September, he warned darkly about ‘the passions and intrigues of certain active groups and combinations of men amongst us who were born under foreign flags [and] injected the poison of disloyalty into our most critical affairs.’ He largely succeeded in casting Hughes as the candidate of ‘the Kaiser’ and of extremists of all kinds. When the St. Louis Chapter of the Alliance endorsed Hughes and boasted of 20,000 members ready to vote as a block, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch accused the group of a ‘vehemently unAmerican,’ pro German conspiracy.”
The anti-German hysteria fueled by Wilson and Roosevelt, Carlson reminds us, had consequences:
“Out in the states, countless vigilante acts directed against German-Americans occurred. In Illinois, there were ‘nightrider’ attacks on Mennonite churches with skulls and crossbones painted over the doors. A mob demolished the piano of a German singing society in Eugene, Oregon. Eight men entered a Birmingham, Ohio, pastor’s study, and burned his books. In Bishop, Texas, a mob flogged a German Lutheran pastor. The tar-and-feathering of German-speaking clergy was common. Boy Scouts burned German-language papers in Columbus, Ohio, while the National Guard torched German books in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Pacifist Mennonites and Hutterites were jailed and treated with unusual brutality. German language classes – called a ‘distinct menace to Americanism’ – disappeared from many school districts; among all the others, the number of students fell sharply. In South Dakota, authorities closed a Mennonite flour mill when a customer reported finding glass chips in the flour. The spirit of the age was ably expressed in a pamphlet linking the Alliance to the brewing industry, A Disloyal Combination:
“‘Everything that is pro-German [in this country] must go. The German Press. The teaching of German in the elementary schools....German alliances and the whole German propaganda must be abolished....The brewers and allied liquor trades that back such an alliance should suffer the same penalty’....”
AT THE CROSSROADS
Against this over-heated political background, on October 5, 1916, Der Wanderer’s editor Joseph Matt wrote a page-one editorial “Am Scheideweg” – At the Crossroads:
“American election campaigns have never enjoyed the reputation of promoting the education of the people in high ideals. For the most part, they were dedicated to self interest, eloquence, demagoguery. Pessimists generally came out ahead when they claimed to find their dour
expectations realized in our political life. ... But those who sought comfort in the politician who repeated the phrase: ‘My son, you have no idea how much nonsense is spoken in world governance’ – these were not on the short end either....
“It is hard to say what is the dominant characteristic of the current campaign: is it a tragedy of a people undoubtedly called to high tasks which sets about building its future devoid of all planning and setting of goals and lacking any kind of solid principles or is it a comedy in
which its political leaders articulate soothing, multivalent phrases behind which an ego-trip stands as a categorical imperative. Thus, the anointed leaders set about extolling each other.....
“Our people, the ruling party, the leaders of the parties have the splendid opportunity to make their mark on world history and assure for the American republic lasting gratitude from all the peoples now suffering from the catastrophe of a world war.... It makes no difference which political party is in power in this difficult time. For the basic root of the malaise affecting our American political life lies in the fact that there is no really constructive party, no party whose
program is anchored in eternally valid ethical principles. On the contrary, any party in control allows itself to be swayed by considerations of momentary advantage, and it is from this standpoint that judgments about ‘right or wrong’ are formed....
“A similar tone is adopted in a document by D. W. Lawler, Democratic candidate for the Senate, in which he attempts to illuminate the political climate. He tries to calm down the German-Americans, to protect the President against charges of xenophobia, and to convert the
Republicans to a position for which Mr. Wilson has been criticized. He is not very successful in defending the President. According to his logic it is not Wilson who is guilty of embittering the German-Americans but rather the evil Republican spokesmen who have put Mr. Wilson in a
“The fact is and remains that Mr. Wilson was the one who first raised the infamous charge of disloyalty. He did this not in the name of a private citizen who had no responsibility to discharge but as the highest official of the Republic. All the wooing by Democratic press offices and Democratic politicians cannot change this point one bit....
“Mr. Wilson has squandered the trust of the great mass of German-Americans. That he insulted and defamed them – because he didn't know them – as Mr. Lawler suggests – German-Americans could and would have to forgive for the sake of the country. But their attitude toward him will not be defined by feelings of personal revenge. They just don't
think that he is the man who in this troubled time should be entrusted with the helm of the ship of state. His Mexican policy dictated by fanaticism and a know-it-all attitude has revealed him to be a political dilettante of the most dubious sort. His policies toward the belligerents have the stamp of bias, narrow-mindedness, and one-sided judgments. The things that are known about his methods as he simply insisted on imposing his will on Mexico lead us to expect the worst from him for the time when it will be cleaning-up time in Europe....
“From him one can expect that at the last moment he will shove through our country's participation in the world war when he judges that to be useful for carrying out his dark plans. One can expect that he will support England's position at a future peace conference. In short,
Woodrow Wilson is not the man into whose hands one can easily entrust the fate of our country in view of the uncertainties of the present world situation.
“We have said it often and now we repeat it: we don't have complete trust in Mr. Hughes either. We completely respect his problematic situation and don't fail to recognize that his prospects for an electoral victory would be nothing short of brilliant if he were forced to do without the
support of people like Roosevelt, Root, Lodge, etc. but it is precisely these people whom he will not be able to get rid of once he has been elected. With a man like Root as Secretary of State and a Roosevelt in the role of minister without portfolio a Republican administration might be formed that is even more disastrous than one under Mr. Wilson whose weaknesses would at least shield the country from the worst consequences of his dismal policies. We don't feel any great confidence in the expectation of some German-American papers that Republicans would learn
a lesson from a Wilson defeat and guard themselves from falling into the same errors as plagued the Democrats and keep the German-Americans at arm's length....After the election one would speedily forget that Wilson was defeated with the help of German-Americans and one could even rely on the conclusion that Mr. Hughes was elected in spite of Roosevelt's fierce rumblings against the German-Americans.
“The dilemma facing the German-Americans would be easier to solve if it were possible to devise a common electoral program uniting the great mass of German-Americans. Such a platform could lead to a powerful demonstration through which they could make Mr. Wilson aware of their lack of trust in him and could show the Republicans that they won't let
themselves be used as a tool and that they would not be ready to sign up for the Republican Party without adequate guarantees. As the situation looks now the most useful strategy lies in the direction of abstaining from voting in the presidential election. It is possible that in the last weeks before the election Mr. Hughes might declare himself in a clearer fashion on some of the critical issues. In this way, he might be able in part to put to rest the strong misgivings legitimately attaching to the nature of his main supporters. In his latest speeches he has come
somewhat closer to supporting these legitimate expectations, but he has a long ways to go to set aside all misgivings.
“Our discussion so far has focused on the forthcoming presidential election. Of equal importance are the Congressional elections.... It is beyond dispute that the Democrats have proved their ability to govern. There is no point now in seeking to wrest any position of power from the Democrats in Congress. We consider it undesirable that either party have an absolute majority in Congress. But a simple majority of Democrats in Congress seems to us to be necessary to provide a check against a potential Republican administration. One only has to consider the kind of influence a Lodge, for example, might have as chair of the Foreign
Affairs Committee to be convinced of this argument.
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson went to Congress and asked it to declare war on Germany, which Congress did two days later.
This declaration of war, observed Dr. Gleason, “began a period of ‘inner martyrdom’ for German Americans and marked a turning point in their history....Newspapers and societies were ‘scoured away’ in the storm of anti-German feeling that swept over the country....Because their old homeland was the national enemy, portrayed as the embodiment of everything evil, the self-confidence and self-esteem of the Germany-American was, if not extinguished, at least seriously undermined. German Catholics suffered along with their ethnic brethren, and the psychic damage of the war is discernible in many aspect of their post-war development....”
While anti-Catholic newspapers demanded that German-American Catholics – “papal henchmen” – be deported, writes Gleason, “more distressing to German American Catholics was the lack of sympathetic support from their fellow religionists and attacks on things German by other Catholics....”