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Anti-German Hysteria in Greater Cincinnati

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Newspaper article found on microfilm in the Local History and Genealogy Department at Covington. Appeared in the Kentucky Post on September 25th, 1918 on page 1.

My ancestor, Louis Lang, then going by the name Ludwig, emigrated from his home in Alsace-Lorraine in 1895 when he was 15 years old. On the passenger list for the ship traveling from Antwerp, Belgium to New York City, his family listed that they were headed directly for Cynthiana, Kentucky, where Louis’s eldest brother was a farmer.

Louis lived a normal life: he got married and had two daughters, subsequently divorced his wife, and spent the rest of his life as a farming bachelor before dying at the age of 47.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but Louis caused some confusion for me when I started to research him

I first read Louis’s name when I found my great-grandmother, at the age of 14 months, with her family on the 1910 census. It was there that I saw Louis was listed as a naturalized American, born in Germany. Since both of his parents were listed as also being born in Germany, I simply assumed that that side of my family was German.

But, I noticed on the 1920 census that my great-great-grandfather Louis was no longer claiming his German heritage. This time around, he listed his birthplace as France despite his native tongue still being listed as German. The 1920 census also listed Louis’s parents as being French instead of the previously stated German.

Some may argue that the reason Louis changed his country of origin was due to Alsace-Lorraine reverting from German back to French terrain. After all, in 1870, only ten years before the Langs left Europe, the region had belonged to France. (The history of the Alasce-Lorraine territory is very complicated and convoluted. Including any sort of summarization of the difficulties the region went through would be doing it a disservice). Whether he was trying to be accurate, or simply using modern borders to his advantage, the area’s reversion to French rule was beneficial for Louis: he could now call himself French because being German in America during the early 20th century was not an easy experience.

The Greater Cincinnati area is predominantly German. Everything from our regional cuisine to Oktoberfest and Maifest celebrations, to the names of Mainstrasse in Covington and Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati should make that obvious. But while Greater Cincinnati now takes great pride in its ancestry, the city wasn’t always so comfortable with its heritage.

It was during World War I that the area went into what some historians refer to as “anti-German hysteria.” Newspapers routinely ran articles that were little more than propaganda villainizing the opposing German forces, and leading many Americans to question the loyalty of their German-American neighbors. Whether the citizens in question were born in the states or not was irrelevant.

Before World War I, Germans had assimilated to American life while still managing to keep certain aspects of their heritage intact; numerous people still spoke German and practiced their cultural traditions, there were German language newspapers in print, and clubs with German emphasis to them, such as the Covington Schutzengesellshaft, a German Shooting Club.

It was during World War I that things changed for German immigrants. Suddenly, although German is America’s largest single ethnic group, it was dangerous to be German. By the thousands, German-Americans signed up to serve in the military to defend their country and prove their patriotism.

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World War I parade in Covington, Kentucky. Photograph courtesy of Faces and Places.

Despite the vast amounts of German names in the military, measures were still taken to remove the German traits of the area. In a Cincinnati Enquirer article titled “Condon Openly Opposes Views Expressed by Faunce” it’s stated that German was taught in Cincinnati schools beginning in 1841. But, by the time the article ran on the 20 of February 1916, students and community members thought that the 75 year long tradition had run its course, believing that by speaking and teaching German, the Kaiser was winning. Condon, the Cincinnati Superintendent at the time, said that he did not believe that the teaching of German had any effect on a child’s patriotism and refused to remove it from his schools. Yet a year later, Condon relented and agreed to remove the teaching of the German language from only elementary schools, keeping it in high schools’ curriculums. Not long later, in 1919, the Ohio Legislature passed the Ake Law, which flat-out banned the teaching of German to students in the 8th grade and below.

Across the river in Kentucky, though no such law was passed, people were still against the teaching of German in schools. In Covington, a petition was sent around and signed by 4,000 people, demanding the removal of German from public schools. The petition was granted, though they decided to finish teaching German in the 1918 school year. The teaching of Spanish was then started in many public high schools, a trend that still continues today.

Continuing the abhorrence of the German language, citizens petitioned to change the names of various locations in the area. In Newport, German Street was changed to Liberty Street. In Covington, Bremen Street was changed to Pershing Avenue in honor of General John Pershing (the irony here is that Pershing was of German descent himself; “Pershing” is the Americanized version of the German surname “Pfersching”).

Following in the same spirit of renaming the streets, a trend began nationwide of American companies relabeling their sauerkraut to “liberty cabbage” worried that their product wouldn’t sell with its German name. Similarly, hamburgers were temporarily renamed “liberty steak,” and one doctor even tried to change the name of German measles to “liberty measles.”

Even libraries were not immune from the anti-German fervor. A front page, above the fold, article from the 20 March, 1918 Kentucky Post stated that the books in the Covington Library were “examined” and that four German books were removed from its shelves. All four tomes were published prior to 1915 and had little to do with promoting the Kaiser; one was nothing more than a romance novel.

Only a couple months later, on 2 May, 1918, another front page Kentucky Post article ran, this time regarding the books at the Newport Library. This article focused on one book in particular, The War and America by Hugo Münsterberg (you can read the entire book here: https://archive.org/details/waramerica00mnuoft), that was discovered after a “probe” of the library by the Campbell County Council of Defense. The article spends a column and a quarter of the front page dissecting why the book was a danger that needed to be removed from the library’s shelves. In the final section of the article, librarian Henrietta J. Litzendorf says that when Münsterberg’s book was removed, “there were about 400 library books printed in German and about 50 in which Prussianism and Germanism was printed.” Litzendorf then continues to justify the book’s appearance on the shelf, saying what probably happened was that the book had been out with a patron when the shelves were culled, causing it to be missed. When it was returned it was simply replaced on the shelf. A quote from Miss Litzendorf concludes the article, “All books pertaining to explosives were also filed away at the request of the government, but we did away with the German books of our own accord.”

The following day’s Kentucky Post stated that the Newport Library’s copy of Münsterberg’s The War and America was destroyed by the Campbell County Council of Defense.

While all of this could be viewed simply as amusing kneejerk reactions, there were more dangerous happenings due to the anti-German sentiments. There were numerous accounts of people being charged with sedition for insulting the government, having to pay fines or serve jail time due to perceived threat. Nationally, there were several instances of lynching of German-Americans when they were thought to be a danger.

The longest lasting damage of all this hysteria was not simply that books were destroyed or that road names were changed, but it was that many Germans were forced to lose a part of their heritage. While there has been an effort in recent years to observe German traditions, there will always be a small portion lost to time due to Americans’ panic about the war and suspicions of their neighbors.

This blog was written by Beth Coyle, of the Local History and Genealogy Department in Covington.

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