New York City is an interesting case by which to examine the experience of German-Americans during World War I, because it was both a center of pro-German activity and home to a large population of loyal, hard-working German-Americans. The city’s status as America’s media, industrial, and commercial capital meant that it attracted plenty of propagandists, saboteurs and spies. The unapologetically pro-German stance of many cultural elites, combined with the genuine threats to the city posed by German agents, made life difficult for average New Yorkers of German descent, who were for the most part well assimilated and deeply patriotic.
One measure of assimilation is the decline in membership in traditionally German-speaking churches. Most Holy Trinity in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s oldest German Catholic church, saw its number of German-speaking parishioners fall by three-quarters between 1891 and 1908. Today, this church stands as one of the most beautiful in Brooklyn, but then, as now, it was German in name only. Unlike in other parts of the country, there is little or no evidence of German religious institutions in New York being singled out for discrimination. The so-called “club” Germans had a tougher time, however; raids were frequent, and these groups were generally more outspoken and politically active. Some were even forcibly disbanded, like the German-American Alliance of Brooklyn, which was ordered dissolved by the state legislature in April 1918, “for the good of the country.”
Most people coped with the situation by voluntarily downplaying their German identity and outwardly displaying their patriotism; this affected both religious and secular institutions. The Amityville Dominican Sisters, an order based at Most Holy Trinity, changed their official language from German to English, and many singing societies began performing exclusively in English. One New York shooting society even offered its range in New Jersey for use by the US military when America entered the war. New York City did not enact any language restrictions, but the board of education did ban all textbooks with favorable mentions of Kaiser Wilhelm. Due to their vociferous support of Germany during the neutrality period (and some even after), German-language newspapers were harangued by rivals and abandoned by readers. The press that had thrived in recent decades withered away, and across the country, the number of German papers fell by half between 1914 and 1919, and readership fell by two-thirds.
The lives of working people of German descent were deeply affected by the war. Employment in many places became contingent upon learning English, and employees that were “suspect” – either for their heritage or political views – were forced out in some cases. New York was of great strategic importance as an industrial center and port, and German U-boats left American coastal shipping extremely vulnerable, even in the protected confines of New York Harbor. As a result, nearly all people of German ancestry were removed from service on harbor craft, and 400 German nationals in New York when the US declared war, including 200 sailors, were interned at Ellis Island. They were soon transferred, as officials feared that their vantage point from the island provided useful information about American shipping that could be transmitted to the enemy.
German plots – real and imagined – were uncovered in the papers almost daily. Whether they were sabotaging Brooklyn sugar production or poisoning America’s wheat crop, spies were feared to be everywhere. Even the abandoned Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in downtown Brooklyn was rumored to be a hideout for German saboteurs. In 1918, a group of federal agents dug into the sealed tunnel – and found no spies. After they left, they apparently told no one where they had been, because the tunnel remained undisturbed – official records said the tunnel was demolished in 1861 – until 1980, when it was rediscovered by a young explorer (tours were offered of the tunnel until recently, when they were shut down by the city for safety concerns).
Some of the changes to German-American society were temporary and superficial, but a lynchpin of German (and American) cultural life was also under attack: alcohol. Prohibition gained tremendous momentum during the war, and prohibitionists seized the political opportunities in vilifying all things German, especially their drinking culture in general and the beer barons who bankrolled many German-American civic and political institutions specifically. Though it did not come into force until 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – Prohibition – was submitted before Congress in December 1917, at the height of anti-German sentiment.
While previously the so-called “dry” movement had been able to tap into anti-immigrant feelings to paint saloons as un-American dens of vice, the outbreak of the war gave them the opportunity to draw a direct line between drinking and the barbarism of the German Empire. Not only did German culture produce the war raging in Europe, they argued, but alcohol sapped American strength, wasted American food, and kept Americans divided into disloyal ethnic enclaves. Saloons were even implicated in German espionage. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle opined in December 1917, “The German spies and agents in this country have shown both their ingenuity and their daring in ‘this sort of warfare‘ waged upon us on our own borders. A saloon in the neighborhood of a factory gives excellent opportunities to approach workmen, to secure information from them or to bribe those who may prove bribable.” Add to this the fact that the success of German brewers over the previous 50 years had put them in command of America’s alcohol market, but suddenly, the war made them vulnerable, and the drys had the chance to knock out alcohol for good (learn more about the history of the prohibitionist movement at the Westerville, OH Public Library's Anti-Saloon Archive).
If anything, German drinking culture was less destructive than that of most native-born Americans. Beer gardens were open, sociable places where entire families could gather and enjoy beer alongside other wholesome amusements. Contrast this with the common saloon, which excluded women and children and offered few amenities beyond the usual vices. But even saloons were not what the drys made them out to be. As Michael Lerner points out in Dry Manhattan, “these saloons were not refuges where working-class ethnics avoided assimilation into American culture. Rather, they served as bridges between the old world and the new, places where the newly arrived immigrants could learn from their predecessors and begin the often painful process of adapting to a new homeland.” But the wheels were already in motion. During the war, the government enacted regulations severely restricting the production of alcohol, and by war’s end, more than half the states had enacted prohibition laws. Within a year, America would be dry from coast to coast, and all 24 of Brooklyn's breweries would be shuttered.
Like much of the history of this war, at least in this country, the story of German-American experiences is largely forgotten. As a result, both the public’s knowledge and the academic scholarship has suffered. Scholars seem to be divided between those who view all Germans as innocent victims and those who believe in every alleged German plot against America; neither view presents a complete picture. But in the history of our own city, and in the landscape around us, we can find pieces of this story that give us a better understanding of the trials that these Americans, immigrant and native-born, experienced during this trying time of war, suspicion, and fear.
Read Part 1.
Special thanks to Father Timothy Dore of Most Holy Trinity-St. Mary Church, and Joseph Coen, archivist at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, for helping me with the research for this article. Also, thanks to Save Ellis Island, an organization working to restore the portion of the island currently closed to the public. We visited the area on their tour with Open House New York, which is when I snapped the photo from the former internment quarters.
To learn more about Brooklyn's German heritage, join us for our Brewed in Brooklyn Tour, which explores the emergence of Williamsburg's German community, the ascent of lager beer, and the impacts this has had on the brewing industry today. For tickets and information, click here. For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment below. If you would like to follow this blog, subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for the Urban Oyster email newsletter. All photos by Andrew Gustafson unless noted.
 Most Holy Trinity Centenary, courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn Archives.
 "German Americans Finish," New York Times, 20 April 1918.
 Luebke, Frederick C. (1974). Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans and World War I. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
 Luebke (1974).
 Durante, Dianne L. (2007). Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. New York: NYU Press.
 "Interned Germans Are Freely Visited," New York Times, 27 August 1917.
 "Take 200 Germans in Round-Up Here," New York Times, 27 September 1917.
 "Explosion Wrecks Big Sugar Plant," New York Times, 14 June 1917.
 "Fear Ship Brings German Fungus to Kill Our Wheat," New York Times, 8 February 1918.
 "Old Tunnel Eludes Police Explorers," New York Times, 29 July 1936.
 "Dry Zones for Factories," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 December 1917.
 Okrent, Daniel (2010). Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner.
 Ogle, Maureen (2007). Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. New York: Harcourt.
 Lerner, Michael (2007). Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.