Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War
I get messages all the time from people lamenting the lack of German shops and Restaurants… worries from people because the German clubs are getting fewer… sadness from people wondering why German isn’t being taught in their schools. Regret that they never learned the language from parents or Grandparents… that it was even “forbidden” in the home. I understand it’s hard to grasp why, in a country where one in five people has German background, there relatively few German businesses. There’s a reason, and it’s bigger than you might think. Erik Kirschbaum’s, “Buring Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War 1” examines a painful time in American history not usually taught in schools… but is incredibly important to German-Americans for understanding WHY our culture is seemingly underrepresented.
Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War 1
Eradication feels like such a strong word. But Erik Kirschenbaum isn’t tossing it around hyperbolically. In the space of just a few years, starting with the onset of WWI an alarming number of laws and proclamations changed German-American life forever.
When the War began, most German-Americans strove to keep the United States out of the war, a feeling that many Americans also held. President Wilson insisted on “staying neutral”. But as the wheels of war turned, things began to change. Suddenly “neutral” meant supplying Great Britain with war materials, such as ammunition.
But worse, the British propaganda machine worked overtime to spread stories about German wartime atrocities. Horrifying stories of rape and murder were published in American newspapers… but the problem was, it was mostly made up. Journalists embedded in the war or traveling in Belgium (the topic of many of the stories) couldn’t corroborate any of it. Still, the truth couldn’t make it past the blockade…and by then, it was too late.
Paranoia about Germans and German-Americans spread across America. Talk of spies and suspicion of sabotage led political leaders to speak out against Germans. People were asked to prove their loyalty by “kissing the American flag” or told to buy Liberty Bonds. “Suspicious” German-Americans were tarred and feathered, and some were even lynched. It was dangerous to be German. And ultra patriotic Americans were ready to root out the German plague on their soil.
Losing the Language
Before World War 1, there were 488 daily German language newspapers with a combined circulation of 3,391,000 (p.88 Burning Beethovan). 10 years later the numbers were only 25% of that. Why? German Newspapers in America published essentially the same news that the English language papers published… with a notable exception. They wouldn’t participate in “War-hysteria”. This concerned politicians, and on June 15, 1917, President Wilson signed the Espionage Act, making it a crime to interfere with the war effort. Then the Postmaster General banned any item from the mail that could urge treason or resistance to the law. The final nail was the Trading with the Enemies Act of 1917. While it was meant to be a law that restricted trade, it also “authorized censorship. Now all German newspapers and magazines would have to be published with an English translation. This killed many small publishers.
But it was the schools that were hit harder.
Before the War, German was commonly taught in schools, from elementary through high school. And some University classes in science and mathematics were ONLY taught in German. With the backing and encouragement of the National Security League, and the American Defense society, States began to write new laws to ban teaching German in elementary schools and high schools. (As a horrifying aside- those groups also created the Junior Loyalty League that encouraged students to turn in “disloyal” teachers).
German language books were stripped from libraries and burned, music by German composers could no longer be performed. Nebraska Governor Ross Hammond got cheers with a speech stating, “There must be no teaching of a foreign tongue in our schools, and no paper printed in a foreign language should be allowed in the United States mail”.
For German-Americans, it was safer to lose that hyphen, and just become Americans.
When the War ended, and the dust cleared, much of the wartime hysteria faded. But it was too late. “German culture and sense of community were wiped out by the end of WWI” (p.150 Burning Beethovan).
Erik Kirschbaum answers the question. WHY. Why, when German immigrants were such a strong and vital part of the settling and creation of America, if there are so many people who can claim German heritage, if so much of the language uses German words, if our very school system is based on the German structure… why isn’t America more German? Burning Beethovan: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War 1 takes a hard look at a few years in America’s history that goes a long way to explaining the loss in a very readable book.
Another History book?
History wasn’t your favorite subject, and now you are wondering about whether you want to read a history book? Burning Beethoven only has around 160 pages (complete with illustrations!), and the subject makes it a page-turner. It’s not a book of dates, it’s a book of stories that relate to German life in America.
Order Your Copy of “Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I” Here
The book is currently out of print, so it sometimes vanishes from Amazon. You might find it used on Thrift Books.
Pieces of Germany in America Today
Fortunately, today there is a resurgence of interest in German Culture in America. People are once again proud to call themselves German-Americans (the hyphen is BACK!). While the country is nowhere close to pre-war numbers German Clubs, German Schools, German Restaurants, and German Festivals are out there if you look.
I’ve put together some resources to help you find what you are looking for (and let me know if I’m missing something! Email [email protected])