German culture can be seen all around New York City at this time of year. Oktoberfest is underway, and the festival has become a fixture at drinking establishments across the city. To mark the occasion, this past weekend was the Steuben Parade, one of the largest German-American heritage events in the country. But less than a century ago, German-Americans' culture was demonized, and there was a concerted effort to erase the imprint of German language and culture from the city’s, and the country’s, landscape.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 placed America’s German community – both immigrants and native-born citizens – in a precarious position unlike anything they had experienced before. This was a population with deep roots in America, but also one undergoing important transformations. During the nineteenth century, there were two major waves of German-speaking immigrants – the first was the result political unrest in the German states during the 1840‘s and 1850’s, while the second occurred in the 1880’s and 1890’s. By 1910, the census showed 2.5 million people born in German-speaking countries, and another 5.8 million first generation German-Americans, making them the largest ethnic group in the country. In his book Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans in World War I, Frederick Luebke explains that this second wave of immigrants was poorer, less educated, and generally less critical of the regime in Germany than the previous group, who had largely been political refugees. As a result, a German-American community emerged that was more self-confident, politically organized, and openly proud of their cultural heritage.
At the turn of the twentieth century, New York City had a thriving German community with a vast network of institutions. They established newspapers, hospitals, schools, and clubs all over the city. German brewers had made New York one of the largest beer producing cities in the country, and they operated beer gardens, amusement parks, and hotels to serve their thirsty customers. While Germans built these cultural institutions, they also gradually assimilated into the wider American culture. By the outbreak of the war, the city’s Germans were already becoming upwardly mobile. For two decades they had been leaving tenement districts like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side – once known as Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany” – for more middle-class neighborhoods like Yorkville in Manhattan and Ridgewood and College Point, Queens.
There were German spies in the United States plotting sabotage and planting propaganda, and they infiltrated German-American cultural and political institutions. Even the mistress of Warren G. Harding, then a US senator from Ohio, is now believed to have been a spy. One of the largest acts of sabotage was perpetrated in New York Harbor on July 30, 1916, when a munitions depot on Black Tom Island in Jersey City exploded. The explosion killed four people, destroyed millions of dollars of war materiel, and damaged the nearby Statue of Liberty. No one was ever charged with the crime, but it was believed to be the work of a German spy ring led by Lothar Witzke that launched a similar attack on a naval base in San Francisco Bay the following March. (For more on this topic, read this article).
There were dangerous spies operating inside the country, but the ham-fisted manner in which law enforcement behaved makes it difficult to this day to untangle the genuine threats from baseless accusations. Statements like that of the US ambassador to Germany, James Gerard, that there were 500,000 German reservists, and 501,000 lamp post from which to hang them, were patently absurd and inflammatory, but hardly uncommon. One of the bluntest implements employed by the government was the American Protective League, an auxiliary of federal law enforcement agencies empowered to identify and investigate German sympathizers. In reality, it was a vigilante group that harassed, smeared, and attacked anyone with ties to Germany or left-wing political views. With 250,000 members across the country, the group did not uncover a single genuine act of espionage, and was far better at attacking labor unions and anti-war activists than hunting spies.
But it wasn’t just government authorities who lashed out at Germans. Regular Americans participated in anti-German activities in both mundane and horrifying ways. In the first year of the war, sauerkraut producers complained that demand had fallen by 75%, and they asked the Federal Food Board to rename their product “Liberty Cabbage” or simply “Pickled Vegetable” to remove the German stigma. But it got worse than just refusing to eat sauerkraut. In Edwardsville, Illinois, a local German-speaking pastor was forced into hiding by a violent mob when he refused to ring the bells of his church according to daylight savings time, which was introduced for the war. The low point of this anti-German hysteria was undoubtedly the lynching of Robert Prager in April 1918 in Collinsville, Illinois. A German national accused of being a spy, Prager was seized from his jail cell by a mob and hung from a tree outside of town. He was certainly not a spy, but his pride and intemperate nature probably goaded on the crowd. His murderers were easily acquitted at trial, and the Washington Post remarked, “The more one ponders ... [the] estimate of 400,000 spies, the harder it is to grow righteously indignant over the Illinois lynching.” Prager’s was the only successful lynching, but that was by pure luck – many others were strung up only to be spared at the last minute or to somehow survive the ordeal.
New York City’s Germans fared rather better than most. They were becoming less geographically concentrated, more prosperous, and more assimilated. In the second part of this post, which will appear later this week, we will explore how anti-German sentiment impacted the landscape and community of New York City.
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.
 Luebke, Frederick C. (1974). Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans and World War I. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
 Sherp, John K. (1954). History of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1853-1953. New York: Fordham University Press.
 "German Flags Stir Wrath," New York Times, 29 May 1915.
 Robenalt, James D. (2009). The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
 "The City's Streets Aglow with Flags," New York Times, 7 April 1917.
 "The Race for the White House," Harvard Advocate, 29 January 1920.
 Luebke (1974).
 "To Strike Germany from Map of U.S.," New York Times, 2 June 1918.
 "Sauerkraut May Be 'Liberty Cabbage,'" New York Times, 24 April 1918.
 "1918: Robert Prager lynched during war hysteria," ExecutedToday.com.
 Luebke (1974).