Friday, February 21, 2020

Burning Beethoven

is the title of a book by Erik Kirschbaum, alumni of Freiburg's university, years 1982/83. The book describes the eradication of German culture in the United States during the First World War. A German translation is available with the more dramatic title, Geteert - gefedert - gelyncht (Tarred - feathered - lynched. The persecution of German immigrants in the USA during the First World War. A forgotten chapter of American history.)

Erik, a descendant of a German-American family, is a native of New York City. He has been based as a correspondent for the Reuters international news agency in Berlin since 1993. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times, and several prominent European newspapers since 1989. He became widely known for his book Rocking the Wall, Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert That Changed the World.

Prof. Jörn Leonhardt introducing the talk
Last Tuesday Erik gave a talk about his new book at Freiburg's university. The presentation was introduced by Professor Jörn Leonhard, a leading expert of modern European history and author of the bestseller Die Büchse der Pandora, Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs (Pandora's Box, A History of the First World War).

Erik Kirschbaum making his argument
In 1914 the population of the United States was about 100 million, of which 8 million were German immigrants. Many regions of the United States were home to a flourishing, vibrant German culture. German Gesangvereine (choral societies) Turnvereine (gymnastic clubs), and breweries with adjacent beer halls thrived in the so-called German triangle between Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

In this context, I learned that in the second half of the 19th-century, initiatives for prohibition led by pietistic Protestants, though successful on a local or state level, failed in the States on the federal level because German and Irish population groups were strongly opposed.

At the outbreak of the war - Brittania ruled the waves - the British cut all the cables between Germany and the United States. So the prerogative of information from the old world was with the British.

During the first two years of the war, the success of this biased information remained limited, and many Americans stayed committed to isolationism. President Woodrow Wilson actually won the reelection in 1916 using the slogan, "He kept us out of the war." However, the content of the so-called Zimmermann telegram addressed to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, changed it all.

In the dispatch, the German government proposed military and financial support to Mexico for a quid pro quo attack on the United States. In exchange, Mexico would be free to annex "lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona." This information served as fresh evidence of German aggression. Coupled with the resumed unconditional German submarine attacks, it finally turned the U.S. government in favor of entering the war.

With this, a fury of anti-German hysteria swept the country. The German language was eradicated from schools, churches, and newspapers. Their number, once 488, diminished dramatically, and those surviving had their texts to be translated into English out of fear of spying. German books were burned. A cleansing of the American language produced new words. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, dachshunds were renamed liberty pups, and even German measles got the attribute liberty (measles). Didn't we have freedom fries when France and Germany refused to participate in the second Iraqi war?

Suddenly even other foreign languages spoken in the States, e.g. Norwegian, not only became suspicious but were regarded as unpatriotic. Is this one of the reasons that teaching of foreign languages in the States still has such a low priority? How does Pete Buttigieg's unamerican multilingualism compromise his chance of winning the Democrat nomination?

Following the entry of the United States in the war, some German aliens falsely suspected of being spies of the Reich were hanged by mobs, many more German-Americans were attacked, discriminated against, or even sent to internment camps as the flyer announcing Erik's talk informed. The author actually knows of fourteen persons belonging to the German community who were regarded as spies, mistreated by the mob, and finally hanged.

Near the end of the war, an article in the Los Angeles Times even attacked German music as barbaric, a good reason that Erik Kirschbaum chose the alliterated title Burning Beethoven for his book.

P.S.: At the end of the war, there were strong aspirations to make the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918 the law of the land since the opposition by a "German" population no longer existed. In fact, the U.S. Senat proposed prohibition as the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. As Wikipedia knows," Upon being approved by a 36th state on January 16, 1919, the amendment was ratified as a part of the Constitution. By the terms of the amendment, the country went dry one year later, on January 17, 1920."

Is the fact that the U.S. became dry in 1920 and had to remain abstinent until February 20, 1933, part of the German Kriegsschuld (the guilt of war)?

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