One Hundred Years Ago, Anti-German Hysteria Consumed Cincinnati


One morning in May 1917, jeweler Fred “Fritz” Hartmann was arrested at the corner of Twelfth and Main streets by Cincinnati Police Officer Elmer Young. In court, the police officer told Judge Arthur Spiegel that Hartmann had “created excitement” by shouting loudly that he was a German soldier. Just one month after the United States declared war on Germany, Judge Spiegel had no patience whatever for Hartmann’s outburst and fined him $5 and costs. The judge said:

“If you want to be a German soldier, return to Germany, but if you want to be an American, be a real one.”

Herr Hartmann was lucky to be let off with a fine and warning. Many Cincinnati Germans, such as Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ernst Kunwald, were arrested and imprisoned at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, for the duration of the war.

A front-page editorial cartoon exemplified the Cincinnati Post’s continual anti-German crusade during World War I.

From Cincinnati Post 18 March 1918 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Overnight, anti-German animosity consumed Cincinnati in 1917. Gemütlichkeit was verboten and every German Cincinnatian was suspected of spying for “The Hun.” The city’s attitude is reflected in the Cincinnati Post [28 September 1918]:

“All Huns look alike. They are savage, brutal, contemptible and evil-looking and they are all numbskulls and flat-heads.”

The Post gave front-page coverage to a rally convened by the Rev. I. Cochrane Hunt, pastor of Covington’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where the following resolution was approved by acclamation:

“Resolved: That the citizens of Covington petition Congress to pass laws interning all German aliens for the duration of the war and then sending them back to Germany, and enact more stringent legislation governing all seditious and traitorous acts.”

During the First World War, Cincinnatians opposed anything German, including German language instruction in the Cincinnati schools.

From Cincinnati Post 5 September 1917 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Sedition could mean almost anything supporting Germany, such as an heirloom painting hanging on your wall. John Bloom, a Hungarian living on Central Avenue, was rousted from his bed at 4:20 a.m. one Monday to discover that his apartment was on fire. He hustled his family outside, but the firefighters discovered something shocking as they battled the blaze – a “large painting of the Kaiser.” Bloom was arrested and turned over to federal authorities.

When 278 horses died in Covington in March 1918, local Germans feared lynching as the anti-immigrant hysteria reached fever pitch. The horses were on their way to artillery units on the European front lines and began dying as soon as they were let out from freight cars for water and forage. It was obvious, the Cincinnati Post thundered [18 March 1918], that the horses were poisoned by some traitor in our very midst:

“The beast is here. It is useless to keep on coddling ourselves into the comfortable feeling that it is 5,000 miles away. Today it strikes at animals. What will it do tomorrow? We must find it.”

Although scientists who investigated the deaths believed that fungus-invested hay had caused the deaths, the Cincinnati Post continued to hammer away at the idea that German agents lurked in the Cincinnati underworld.

Those German spies and saboteurs, the Post claimed, were offered comfort by the daily indoctrination of Cincinnati schoolchildren through the nefarious “kultur” of the “Potsdam poison plotters.” The Post [10 September 1917] devoted much of its front page to a review of a poem, “Heil dir, Germania” (Hail to you, Germania”) that appeared in a Cincinnati schoolbook.

“The ‘glory’ of Germany which the poem sings is now tarnished with the blood of murdered women and children and stained by the hands of men, who, for the sakes of their ambitious schemes, tear treaties into scraps of paper.”

In an editorial, the Post [5 September 1917] asked Cincinnati parents to look into their consciences:

“Do I want my child to assimilate at school the alien thought and tradition against which most of the civilized world is now fighting?”

The Cincinnati Post fanned the flames of anti-German hatred, demanding the schools cease German instruction and encouraging the city to rename “Hunnish” streets. Among the streets renamed to reflect pure American values were Bremen (now Republic), Berlin (now Woodrow), Hapsburg (now Merrimac) and Hamburg (now Stonewall).

Today, Cincinnati’s German pride is found abundantly in our Teutonic foods including goetta, bratwurst, and beer. During World War I, such “Hunnish” food was a sign of shame. Even the city Workhouse had to change its menu. No more sauerkraut! Prisoners ate patriotic “liberty cabbage.”

If there was one voice of sanity in this tide of disdain, it belonged to Rene deSilz, who worked as a translator for Cincinnati manufacturers. Retired because of injuries from the French Army, deSilz was asked if he objected to working with Cincinnati Germans. He replied:

“Have ill feeling toward one another? I should say not! That is not the way civilized folk feel.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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