|Children standing in front of an anti-German sign posted in the Edison Park neighborhood, 1917.|
German Americans, however, failed to keep the United States neutral. German attacks on American shipping and revelations of a German initiative to secure a Mexican alliance in return for a promise of returned territory in the Southwest silenced many opponents to war with Germany. Once the United States entered the war, German Americans, as well as their culture, fell under growing suspicion. German-sounding foods were renamed: sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”; frankfurters became “hot dogs.” Chicago institutions were anglicized as well, with the Germania Club becoming the Lincoln Club, and the Bismarck Hotel the Hotel Randolph. Frederick Stock took a brief leave of absence from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to apply for naturalization. Zealous to ensure domestic security, private organizations such as the American Protective League monitored Chicago’s Germans and detained draft dodgers in occasional “slacker” drives.
The war also insinuated itself into Chicago politics. Mayor William Thompson plied German and Irish voters by advocating American neutrality and courted Chicago antiwar Progressives such as settlement house worker Jane Addams and University of Chicago professor Charles Merriam. Following the declaration of war, Thompson allowed antiwar groups such as the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Terms of Peace to meet in the city. The mayor drew further attention by spurning the visiting Marshal Joseph Joffre, of the Entente forces, as well as by his cold reception of Liberty Bond salesmen at the beginning of the first war loan drive. Thompson’s dubious patriotism was a factor in his 1918 loss to Congressman Medill McCormick in the Illinois Republican primary for the United States Senate. The same election also witnessed future mayor Anton Cermak’s defeat in the race for Cook County Sheriff, after he ran on a stoutly anti-German platform in a county dominated by heavily German Chicago.
World War I’s most significant long-term impact on Chicago involved economic adjustments, especially in the labor force. The war shut off immigration and siphoned native-born labor into the war effort. Many Chicago employers turned to women and African Americans, hiring them for jobs previously reserved for white men. These new opportunities, mainly in heavy industry, stimulated the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago and other northern cities. Some German Americans reacted by overtly defending their loyalty to the United States. Others changed the names of their businesses, and sometimes even their own names, in an attempt to conceal German ties and to disappear into mainstream America. Ironically, and contrary to Wilson's opinion about divided loyalties, thousands of German Americans fought to defend America in World War I, led by German American John J. Pershing, whose family had long before changed their name from Pfoerschin.
Fifteen years later, the shadows of a new war brought another surge in immigration. When Germany's Nazi party came to power in 1933, it triggered a significant exodus of artists, scholars and scientists, as Germans and other Europeans fled the coming storm. Most eminent among this group was a pacifist Jewish scientist named Albert Einstein.
Anti-German feelings arose again during World War II, but they were not as powerful as they had been during the first World War. The loyalty of German Americans was not questioned as virulently. Dwight Eisenhower, a descendant of the Pennsylvania Dutch and future president of the United States, commanded U.S. troops in Europe. Two other German Americans, Admiral Chester Nimitz of the United States Navy and General Carl Spaatz of the Army Air Corps, were by Eisenhower's side and played key roles in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
World War II, industrial expansion, and Americanization efforts reinforced the cultural assimilation of many German Americans. After the war, one more surge of German immigrants arrived in the United States, as survivors of the conflict sought to escape its grim aftermath. These new arrivals were extremely diverse in their political viewpoints, their financial status, and their religious beliefs, and settled throughout the U.S.
German immigration to the United States continues to this day, though at a slower pace than in the past, carrying on a tradition of cultural enrichment over 400 years old—a tradition that has helped shape much of what we today consider to be quintessentially American.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.