Several posts on Hoosier State Chronicles have focused on Indiana’s German heritage. We would be remiss, then, not to do one on our legislature’s attempt to eradicate the teaching of German in Indiana schools.
On February 17, 1919, three months after the armistice that ended World War I, the Hoosier State became one of fourteen states to ban the teaching of German to children, a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment. At least one other Midwestern state, Iowa, went even farther than that.
A great introduction to the mass hysteria and bitterness launched at German-Americans during the war and into the 1920s is Ali Selim’s incredible movie Sweet Land (2005). Since this post is about xenophobia — and since xenophobia hasn’t gone away — it’s worth stating that Selim is an American filmmaker of Egyptian and German heritage and was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can view the trailer here.
(Actress Elizabeth Reaser in Sweet Land, a movie about anti-German bigotry in a small Midwestern town.)
Based on writer Will Weaver’s short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” Sweet Land, set around 1920, is a complicated love story. Inge Altenberg, an “orphan” who has been living in Norway, immigrates to rural Minnesota, where just a few hours after her arrival, she is due to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik — whom she has never met. At the start of the wedding ceremony, however, it becomes clear that Inge isn’t Norwegian, but German — and a Socialist. “There will be no wedding today,” says the Lutheran minister, standing in a church founded by a German (Martin Luther). Inge quickly discovers the townspeople’s hostility toward everything German, an animosity that survived World War I. Germans, she hears, engage in prostitution, polygamy, and everything bad.
(Devils and their master, the Kaiser. )
From 1914 to 1918, the U.S. and its allies in Britain, France and Italy took dehumanizing propaganda to new heights. Cartoonists, U.S. Army posters, and newspapers stoked up bizarre, irrational hysteria that engulfed America. The results were sometimes just petty, like renaming sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and German measles “liberty measles.” But the U.S. and Britain could also engage in acts of nauseating brutality.
One of the cruelest and weirdest phenomena to come out of First World War propaganda was the war on dachshunds — considered a German breed. At the time German was being driven out of schools, in England and the U.S. dachshunds were sometimes stoned or stomped to death in front of their owners. (Novelist Graham Greene remembered this in his autobiography.) When “patriots” harassed a Chicago dog breeder, he shot every dachshund in his kennels. Bulldogs, a symbol of Britain and the mascot of the U.S. Marines, were turned loose to attack and kill the “German” pets. The Jasper Weekly Courier, printed in a heavily German town in southern Indiana, carried a syndicated story about this. Apparently the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, who didn’t get to fight on the Western Front had nothing better to do than to kill dogs:
(A website on pet health claims that “In the United States the poor Dachshund went from one of the ten most popular breeds in 1913 to being represented by 12 survivors in 1919.” A “lonely dachshund” showed up in Topeka, Kansas, that year in search of a home.)
With Allied print media insisting that the Kaiser’s soldiers were bayoneting and eating babies and committing other outrages, it’s easy to see how hysteria got out of hand, even in areas like Pennsylvania and the Midwest, which had large German-American populations.
Indiana’s 1919 anti-German law wasn’t the first of its kind. Parents and school boards had already been striking German classes out of school curricula before the U.S. even entered the war. And devaluing the German language was a coast-to-coast phenomenon. The City University of New York reduced the value of its own German courses by one academic credit. Evanston, Illinois, banned the language in its schools in 1918. California kept up a ban on high-school German into the 1920s. (In 1941, California banned it in churches.) At a speech on Long Island in 1917, Theodore Roosevelt urged Americans to rid the country of German, otherwise America risked becoming “a polyglot counting house for dollar chasers.”
A sign painter in Indianapolis who opposed Gothic lettering mentioned that Americans were already burning German textbooks. At Indy’s Shortridge High School, one of the best in the country, a newspaperwoman connected to the Red Cross was applauded during a speech when she criticized the administration for not canceling German classes there. The German teachers switched to teaching Latin. Meanwhile, a new course — on “contemporary war history” — was started. A hundred students enrolled. At a time when the U.S. was claiming to oppose German militarism, Shortridge considered its military history course to be the first ever offered at an American public high school.
On the eve of the vote in Indianapolis, a visitor from Iowa spoke at the Statehouse. Iowa’s Governor William L. Harding was one of the most dishonest and opportunistic politicians in American history. Though he had curried favor with Iowa’s foreign-born citizens during his election campaign, when the war broke out he turned against them. Proponents of Indiana’s German-language ban were later accused of the same kind of hypocrisy.
(Iowa’s William L. Harding in 1915.)
Harding’s 1918 “Babel Proclamation” in Iowa did more than simply ban German instruction, though. The infamous law banned the speaking of all foreign languages in public, including Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and Czech, which were still common in the Midwest. Fearing “spies,” Harding made having a foreign-language conversation on the telephone, on street corners, and in churches and schools a criminal offense. Iowa’s law was no empty threat. Violators were arrested and jailed.
Harding had plenty of admirers. “Liberty Leagues” and “councils of defense” wanted laws to keep German off the streets and even ban it in private homes. The author of the “Babel Proclamation” spoke in Indianapolis on February 13, 1919, a few days before Indiana outlawed the teaching of German in Hoosier elementary schools.
The main proponent of Indiana’s bill was State Senator Franklin McCray of Indianapolis. As Lieutenant Governor Edgar Bush reminded the General Assembly, this bill would overturn a long-standing law dating back to the 1860s. Bush told the Senate:
Indiana’s 1869 law likely had to do with teacher shortages — and the fact that in German communities, it just made sense.
One of the most glaring oversights of the anti-German law was that many speakers of the language were Mennonites and Amish, Christian pacifists highly unlikely to be working as secret agents.
Though the German army committed real outrages in World War I and the bill’s proponents mentioned fear of “future German propaganda” aimed at American children, focusing on the atrocities of “Huns” was a sly way to pass a law that was actually deeply entangled with immigration, prohibition and labor unrest. As 1919 dawned — one of the most turbulent years in American history — “wet” and “dry” advocates, capitalists and socialists, anarchists, pacifists and suffragettes battled for the “soul” of the country.
Most German-Americans were farmers or industrial laborers and had a history of being Socialists, pacifists and isolationists. When the Socialist Party tried to steer America away from entering World War I, arguing that American entry would play into the hands of wealthy industrialists and bankers, pro-war advocates countered that anyone who opposed the war supported the Kaiser. In 1924, Progressivist presidential candidate Robert LaFollette carried Wisconsin, a heavily-German state, partly as a result of his anti-war record.
German fondness for beer and liquor also earned the hostility of many Prohibition advocates, who had spent decades slowly “shutting off the tap.” A nationwide ban on booze was just around the corner, coming in January 1920. Yet as Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot back in 1855 proved, the history of Prohibition was closely tied to anti-labor attitudes. Squelching the German language was part of the process of extinguishing German sociability at a time when workers got together in pubs and beer gardens to talk about labor grievances and organize.
(A World War I-era cartoon slanders “Huns” — Germans — as booze-lovers who cause crime, poverty and waste.)
(An American woman sends a message to “Kaiser Wilson” in 1916 — four years before women were given the right to vote.)
While fear of “Huns” and “traitors” got anti-German bills going, America’s huge social problems were reflected in the Indiana bill. That year, Gary would be shut down by a national steel strike, a Federal raid on Communists led to the deportation of hundreds of European immigrants (including Hoosiers), and an anarchist bomb plot nearly killed several major U.S. officials.
Although the formal language of the Indiana law would be more elevated, a state senator named Duffey, speaking on the Senate floor, lashed out at the “stupid heads” of Germany and their sympathizers in America, who threatened to strangle education and spread disloyalty. Duffey finished off with a call for deporting traitors. He didn’t know it yet, but he was sounding the keynote of 1919:
As revolutions and radicalism reared their head, the anti-German bill was about more than bigotry against German culture. Many people who supported the law had German last names, after all, like Speaker of the House Jesse Eschbach. Lieutenant Governor Bush read a letter at the Statehouse from “150 residents of Seymour of German extraction” who favored the language ban and asked why it was taking so long. The Germans of Seymour probably didn’t want to be associated with “subversives,” “traitors” and “terrorists.”
The 1919 law completely banned German-language instruction up to the eighth grade. It was followed by a further law prohibiting high-school German courses. Fortunately, the men who wrote these bills recognized that at the college level, “the contributions of Germany in literature were too great to be ignored.” (Indiana University President William L. Bryan, who criticized the bills, agreed.) The penalty for instructing children in German? A fine of $25 to $100, or a jail sentence of up to six months — or both.
Urged by the Lieutenant Governor to enact “100 percent American” legislation, the House and Senate put the elementary-school bill up for a vote on February 13, 1919. It passed in fifteen minutes. Only one legislator — Senator Charles A. Hagerty of South Bend — voted against it. Yet even Hagerty’s opposition seems to have been against the political opportunism of the bill’s promoters, not a real concern for education. The legislation was signed into law by Governor James P. Goodrich, who had already signed Indiana up for early Prohibition in 1917.
The South Bend News-Times, a liberal paper, thought the bill a classic case of legislative overreach, since most German-Americans were already trying hard to adopt English in their churches and schools. McCray had insisted that it would not interfere with the use of foreign languages in religious worship. (Many Lutheran churches still used German, and it was the main language of instruction at a few major Catholic seminaries.)
Ironically, the anti-German bills were overturned in 1923 by another man named McCray — Governor William Terry McCray, who also butted heads with the Klan.
A few months after Governor Goodrich signed Indiana’s law, an anti-German bill passed through Pennsylvania’s legislature, also by a large margin. Pennsylvania Governor William C. Sproul, however, vetoed it. Sproul’s remarks to the press were probably the most intelligent words to come out of the whole debate.
(Durham Morning Herald, Durham, North Carolina, April 7, 1922.)
Hoosier State Chronicles has digitized over 8,000 issues of the Indiana Tribüne, once a major German-language newspaper. Published by The Gutenberg Company in Indianapolis, the Tribüne was silenced on June 1, 1918.