Washington in World War I

St. Louis Newspapers Claimed                   Washington Was Not Patriotic


By Suzanne Hill                                                                                                               

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, German-American citizens of Washington likely had mixed feelings. Recent immigrants and those several generations removed often felt ties to the old country.

In January 1917, the Franklin County Observer published news under the stacked headlines:

In the Fatherland
Interesting Bits of News from the Great German Empire
What's Doing in Old Home
Summary of the Most Important Happenings in the Land of the Kaiser
Timely Items for the German Readers

That Easter, services were held in both German and English at St. Peter’s Evangelical Church, now United Church of Christ. Some Washington women were members of the German Reading Club.

After the declaration of war, some 2,000 people came to Washington’s “Loyalty Day” on April 11. Local bands played patriotic songs with citizens singing along and politicians gave speeches to loud cheers. The American flag was raised on a new 60-foot flagpole at city hall, according to the April 13 edition of The Observer.

“Mayor (H.J.) Bleckman urged our people to stand firmly with the President and Congress in this war and earnestly pleaded that no one in our midst disgrace the honor of Washington by any act which may be against the welfare of the United States.”

The Observer opined that “Many of our people are foreign born and in time became good citizens, but now that we are in the great war they have forgotten other ties and will firmly stand by the flag they respect and love.”

The mayor told the crowd that “no matter what our opinions were before the declaration of war with Germany, it is now our duty to stand by the stars and stripes,” according to the Washington Citizen.

The Observer included the text of President Wilson’s war proclamation with several regulations regarding the “alien enemy,” referring to unnaturalized Germans, who could be “apprehended, restrained, secured and removed” if they were found to break any of those regulations.

By May 11, several men went to St. Louis for the Officers Reserve Corps examination. Frank Muench and John Pike were successful and were awaiting to report to Fort Riley.

Missouri National Guardsmen of the First and Fifth Regiments came to Washington on Sunday, June 3, standing on street corners, attempting to get young Washington men to enlist in the Army. They had no success in getting volunteers.

One of the guardsmen said Washington men had a “yellow streak running down their backs.” Another remarked, “If you don’t volunteer and are conscripted, you can’t return from the war with honors. You won’t get the nice clothes we are wearing, but you will get dirty clothes and do dirty work. You are only living to die, so why not volunteer today and die for your country,” the June 5 Observer noted.

The New Haven Leader presented a slightly different account, reprinted from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. It noted that officers had varied success in a recruiting tour near St. Louis.

“At Washington, a town of about 5,000 inhabitants, of whom the larger per cent (sic) are German-Americans, one recruit (a temporary resident) was obtained.” The officers recruited 33 from Union, population 1,600.

The officers first came to Washington on that Friday and returned Sunday. “While the residents showed more disposition to listen to them, no volunteers came forward.”

The St. Louis Republic was campaigning against the St. Louis German language press arguing, “They disseminate Hun propaganda.” That newspaper learned of the regiments’ attempts to enlist volunteers and attacked Washington’s patriotism.

The June 8 edition of the Washington Citizen reprinted the article, which originally ran under the headline of “Washington (Mo.) Is Not in the U.S.”

“Under this head were subheads of a like slanderous and calumnious character, written for the purpose of creating a nationwide hatred and detestation for our little city in the hearts of a country-loving people.”

A portion of the text of The Republic’s article follows here:

A ‘town without a country’ is Washington, Mo., a German settlement of 3,000 (This population figure is closer to accurate than the Globe-Democrat’s version with 3,670 in 1910.) on the Missouri Pacific. It has offered a studied indifference to all calls to duty in patriotic support of the Government in the present crisis, when the nation’s liberties are menaced as never before since revolutionary days. Not one residence has volunteered for service under the flag.

Officers on recruiting service from the Third Battalion, Fifth Regiment, discovered the utter lack of patriotic spirit in the Washington population when they visited the place recently. They discovered that since the call went out for volunteers for the Army and Navy, not one resident volunteered.”

The Washington newspapers, as well as those from neighboring communities, struck back at The Republic and the Globe-Democrat.

The Washington Citizen asked:

“What does The Republic mean by ‘studied indifference’? And what ‘all calls’ does it refer to? Our people take it that these calls referred to came from the officers who visited Sunday. How many patriotic citizens of Washington heard this call on a Sunday when they were in church or in their homes observing the Sabbath? How many knew that these officers were coming to town? And to whom did the officers appeal?”

The Citizen suggested that the young men “had taken some of the dryness out of Sunday and were not entirely responsible for what they said when they gave the officers curt and indiscreet answers,” leaving the officers with the wrong impression.

The newspaper speculated that young Washington men did not volunteer because they didn’t see the urgency, much as young men in other cities across the nation.

The Franklin County Observer countered the statement that no one had enlisted. “It is a malicious falsehood. At the city clerk’s office there can be obtained a verified list of 17 men who enlisted or attempted to enlist, some of whom were rejected; and these men traveled to St. Louis, 54 miles from here to offer their services.”

The Observer had telegraphed the news about Washington’s patriotic event to The Republic, but it was never published.

The Gasconade County Republican also tore into the St. Louis paper. “The Republic ought to get wise to the fact that our President says there is no disgrace in selective conscription (draft) which is the only fair and just way to raise an army. Why then, should men be condemned for lack of patriotism in not volunteering? … Where, anyway, did The Republic get its authority to judge the patriotism of the people of Washington or any other town and make gross misstatements reflecting on the honor of its young men?”

The Republican Headlight in Union took up for its “sister city.”

“It is true that most of its inhabitants are of German origin; but what of that? It cannot be proven by an authentic history of the United States that the Germans of this country, either native born or by adoption, were ever disloyal to the stars and stripes. We hope that this is still a free country and in the view of the conscription laws of the land, the young men of Washington had a perfect right to think that there would be ample time to serve under the law of conscription. …

“Has it come to be a crime to say that your grandfather came from Germany?”

The Advertiser-Courier in Hermann also came to Washington’s defense, calling the article “unjust and uncalled for. In Washington you will yet find veterans of the Civil War and nearly every resident of Washington is a son or daughter of a veteran. Washington did more than her allotted part in preserving the Union. … Our neighbor city … need not herald her loyalty and patriotism with flare of trumpets and beating of tom-toms in order to hide a yellow streak.”

Draft registration was underway, beginning in June. In Washington, 349 men registered on June 5–Registration Day. Those in charge of registration believed that all who were required to register had “with little or no disturbance or lack of patriotism,” noted the June 8 Observer.

“Franklin County can well point to this record with pride. The St. Louis newspapers who are in the habit of printing stories about the disloyalty of country districts will also take notice. Several thousand St. Louis men failed to register,” according to the June 22 Observer.

President Wilson called for 70,000 volunteers for the regular Army, but it appeared that men nationwide were slow to enlist.

Washington and the German-American Alliance


By Suzanne Hill

Imagine having allegiances to two nations. One is the land of your forebears or your birthplace. You live in the other one. You feel an emotional attachment to a place others now eye with suspicion.

German-Americans who felt they were losing their culture, organized the National German-American Alliance in Philadelphia in 1901 “to promote and preserve aspects of German culture,” according to Charles Thomas Johnson in “The National German-American Alliance 1901-1918.”

Like other communities with a sizeable German-American population, Washington had a local branch of the German-American Alliance.  

One early goal was teaching the German language in the schools. Over time the alliance nationally became involved with “controversial political and diplomatic issues,” such as prohibition, foreign affairs, women’s suffrage and immigration restriction. When war broke out in Europe, its agenda included neutrality and “fair-play for Germany,” Johnson wrote.

German-Americans comprised 23 percent of the population. When the nation entered World War I in 1917, patriotic Americans viewed them as a national threat.

The Washington branch organized in June 1910. More than 50 attended the meeting at Turner Hall, home of the Turnverein. Carl Barck, Missouri alliance president, speaking in German, explained the organization’s purpose. St. Louis lawyer Edward Schneiderhahn followed with a speech in English concerning prohibition. Thirty-five men joined, according to the Washington Citizen.

At a September 1910 meeting, P.F. Peitz, Washington president, and Elmar Schmidt were elected as delegates to a state meeting in Joplin.

The local branch participated in the annual Seisl Council Knights of Columbus picnic on Columbus Day in 1911. Members participated in the parade and presented a speaker, Emil Tollkaz from St. Louis.

In July 1912, it held a Sunday afternoon picnic with the main attraction, a “fat man’s race.” Taking part were Fred J. Ruether, Erwin Holtgrewe, William Giesike, Edward Downs, Ulrich Busch, Hermann Vedder and Joseph Rutsch.

Schneiderhahn returned to Washington during the annual German Day in October 1912. “Besides lauding the Germans and their good qualities, he said many pleasant things about Washington,” according to the Citizen.

He also “emphatically opposed woman suffrage,” giving several reasons why. Women would not take up arms during war. They would want to prohibit beer drinking and smoking. They would want men to come home no later than 7 p.m. Next, they would want men to cook.

Schneiderhahn criticized the sensational press, while stressing the importance of teaching children how to read and write in German.

H.A. Bleckman, Joseph Schmidt and Fred Spreckelmeyer Sr. represented Washington in St. Louis at the national organization’s centennial celebration of the German War of Liberation (from France), according to the October 3, 1913, Franklin County Observer.

World War I began July 28, 1914, with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Germany backed Austria-Hungary while Russia, Belgium, France and Britain fought against them as allies. The United States remained neutral, but provided supplies to Britain and other allies.

During this time, the alliance “confronted as never before the dichotomy of being American and also being German,” Johnson stated. The alliance took Germany’s side, fighting “propaganda that portrayed Germany as a threat to the civilized world.”

When a German U-boat sank the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, more than 1,100 died, including 128 Americans. Public opinion in both the U.S. and the world turned against Germany. President Woodrow Wilson protested the attack. Germany ended unrestricted submarine warfare. No attacks on passenger ships were permitted.

The Augusta branch voted to dissolve in 1916, because of “resentment of what was called the political activity of the state officers of the alliance. They declared the alliance was formed for other than political purposes,” noted the August 11, 1916, Observer.

Like other local branches and state alliances, the Washington branch took collections for German-Austrian captives, once netting $6.70, according to the September 8, 1916, Citizen.

Robert L. Soergel, Indianapolis, a member of the National German-American Alliance’s propaganda committee, spoke October 10, 1916, at a mass meeting in Washington. He said the organization’s purpose was to “preserve the German language in this country.” He lauded the German people’s education, culture and high morals, the Citizen reported.

Soergel veered into politics, stating that Germans in America should be for America first. “German people should support the candidate for president who preserves the respect for this country that other nations have been taught to recognize.” He believed President Wilson had failed in that regard. England had interfered with U.S. mail and ships and Wilson had only sent notes of protest to England which were ignored.

Eugene Vogt of St. Louis followed with a speech. He believed the U.S. was pretending to be neutral while sending ammunition to the Allies, prolonging the European war. He alleged Wilson could have stopped the war if he had embargoed ammunition. Because Britain stopped shipment of medical supplies German-Americans had sent for wounded German soldiers, he felt the U.S. was really fighting the British.  

The meeting had been advertised as a “non-partisan affair,” so this turn to politics surprised attendees. the October 27, 1916, Observer stated, “The German-American Alliance may have a very good purpose in view, but we can see no success for this organization so long as certain members are allowed to express their political sympathies,”

The Congressional Record of 1916, noted that by request, the German-American Alliance of Washington, Mo., presented a petition to the Committee on Foreign Affairs favoring an arms embargo.  It also presented a petition urging that House joint resolutions 84 and 85 and also Senate joint resolutions 30 and 55 concerning the proposed prohibition amendment not be passed.

The state alliance held its annual convention September 25, 1916, in Hermann, its first in a small town. According to the Hermann Advertiser-Courier, “Former conventions met and were royally entertained at Joplin, St. Joseph, Kansas City, St. Louis and in other large cities of the state.” Hermann was “known to be a real German town.” The Kansas City Times once quipped that “even the dogs bark in German.”

A German Day festival preceded the annual meeting on September 24. The Hermann newspaper reported that 10,000 people attended from St. Louis, Kansas City, Joplin and Springfield. (The Observer noted that “thousands” attended.) A chartered train brought guests from St. Louis and Washington. Another train came from points west. Events included a “festive” parade with a reported 2,000 people participating, religious services, numerous addresses, a barbecue, a sausage market, music and a Stone Hill Winery tour.

“But though it was German Day, the stars and stripes were everywhere, given the place of prominence for Americans of German ancestry met this day in the spirit of honor to the land and ideals of their forefathers and love for the Stars and Stripes,” according to the Advertiser-Courier.

In contrast to the displays of patriotism, Judge A. H. Nippert of Cincinnati, just returning from Germany and the front said in an address that “Germany above all others leads in Humanity First.” He denounced those who stated that “Germany must be crushed.”

When Germany declared on January 31, 1917, it “would resume unrestricted submarine warfare.” President Wilson severed diplomatic relations, according to Johnson. Many local and state chapters praised the president’s decision, proclaiming loyalty, but the national organization continued urging neutrality. Suspicions rose toward the national organization.

Wilson learned German U-boats had sunk three American ships in March. April 2, 1917, he addressed Congress asking for war, cautioning that war was against Germany and not the German people or German-Americans.

The alliance did not hold a national convention in 1917. The organization was in disarray over national anti-German hysteria and differing opinions regarding the war.

David W. Detjen in “The Germans in Missouri, 1900-1918: Prohibition, Neutrality and Assimilation” wrote that alliance leadership kept a low profile in 1917. When the executive committee planned the state convention, its members warned, “Watch with special care [your] actions and speech in this critical time, so that no one will have the opportunity to accuse us.” Avoid resolutions that “might cause offense.”

 “This year’s convention was to have been held in Kansas City, but recently it was decided to change the meeting place to Washington as it was feared that in Kansas City dissension might arise on account of the war between the United States and Germany,” the Observer noted.

Detjen had a different take.  “. . . it then shifted to Washington . . . possibly in order to promote better attendance.” About 75 percent of the delegates were from St. Louis or towns near St. Louis or Washington.

The 11th annual state convention was set for September 9, 1917, at Washington.

The Citizen reported on September 7, 1917, “nothing but business for the good the country, state and city will come up for discussion.” Election of officers and resolutions against national prohibition were on the agenda. The pageantry of the prior year’s event was absent.

A delegation from St. Louis drove to Washington in a caravan, the cars decorated with American flags. The convention theme was loyalty to the United States, according to Detjen. Business finished in two hours.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as other St. Louis newspapers, often looked suspiciously upon German-American activities. Prior to the convention, a headline asked, “Where Does the Alliance Stand?” It told readers, “Plans of the German American Alliance of Missouri to meet at Washington, Mo., Sunday will not be changed, it is said, notwithstanding the doubts of some members as to the wisdom of holding a meeting at this time.”

“For their own sake, the alliance should make it plain that the country and people with which they are identified have their sympathies and not the country from which they voluntarily separated themselves.”

In after-meeting coverage, the Post-Dispatch noted that the 140 delegates wore red, white and blue ribbons on their coats. The meeting opened with a declaration of loyalty and by singing one verse of ‘America.’ (Congress had yet to designate a national anthem, nor had the pledge yet been formally adopted.)

St. Louisan Dr. Charles Weinsberg, state president, said, “. . . any German who had no sympathy for his native country could not be a good citizen of this, his adopted land. He explained that it would be impossible for a man with character not to feel sympathy for the people of the country that gave him birth.”

Officers were elected. Weinsberg stated that everyone knew the alliance was opposed to prohibition. Resolutions passed at other conventions would stand.

When the Post-Dispatch interviewed Weinsberg in April 1918, he recommended that the state alliance suspend activities for the war’s duration, though the national organization already had disbanded. When asked how long the war might last, he predicted Germans would win it in six months.

That comment led to sedition charges against Weinsberg. After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty, the only officer of the entire organization to be tried for disloyalty under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, according to Johnson.

Americans became hysterical easily about German-American disloyalty and German spies, Detjen explained about Weinsberg’s arrest and trial.

After the convention, state officers “engaged in no significant activity,” Detjen noted. By spring 1918, leaders decided it would remain dormant for the war’s duration. Only four members of the state executive committee met in April 1918. Others failed to attend. Learning of Weinsberg’s arrest, they voted to dissolve the state alliance. Perhaps that was the end for the Washington branch, as well.

The U.S. Senate investigated the alliance’s support for Germany, fund-raising for German war relief, direct involvement in politics and possible ties with Germany, looking for evidence of disloyalty.  The alliance had been congressionally chartered in 1907 and expected to have the charter revoked, so it disbanded on April 11, 1918.

The Senate finished hearings, noting that the NGAA “had purposely set out to perpetuate the division of America along ethnic lines both prior to and after the outbreak of war in Europe,” according to Johnson.

By war’s end in November 1918, “a once-flourishing German-American culture was reduced to little more than a memory,” he wrote.