The Teutonic Terrorist Panic of 1917

The current threat from (or hysteria over) “domestic terrorists” is often compared to incidents in Nazi Germany. Arnold Schwarzenegger referenced Kristallnacht, while I pointed out how Hitler did not let the crisis of the 1933 attack on the Reichstag capitol go to waste, but instead exploited it to crack down on German liberties. Yet, a better analog might be the Wilson administration’s demonization of German-Americans in 1917.

Although we are constantly lectured on the crucial role of immigrants in American history, the vast contributions of Germans to American culture have been vanishingly hard to notice for the last century due to the anti-German craze unleashed during the Great War, which shoved German-Americans into becoming the least assertive of our ethnicities.

For an example of how German-Americans once were far more in-your-face, when I first lived in Chicago, I was astonished to find an eighteen-foot-tall, eighty-ton bronze statue down the street depicting a muscleman holding an eagle that was said to symbolize Young Werther. Its plaque reads:

The Master Mind of the
German People
The Germans of Chicago

That’s not the kind of inscription we’ve seen much of over the last century.

Likewise, across the street from my apartment building was the spectacular Dewes Mansion, which a Prussian brewer had built in the hope that it would be worthy of someday hosting the Kaiser or Prince Heinrich on an imperial visit to Chicago.

Evidently, judging from these bits and pieces of history still visible, the U.S. before 1917 was full of culturally confident Germans producing tributes to their own impressive civilization.

Yet they suddenly vanished, merging into the broad American population with only a trace here and there of their former distinctiveness.

Keep in mind that Wilson’s anti-German clampdown of 1917 was not wholly unwarranted by German bad behavior.

For instance, in July 1916, German agents blew up a thousand tons of munitions destined for Czarist Russia on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor. Thousands of windows were smashed in Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty was permanently damaged. Ever since, visitors have not been allowed to climb up to the torch. West Germany finally finished paying $95 million in damages to the U.S. for the Black Tom sabotage in 1979.

The final straw that drove America into the war was the Zimmerman Telegram from the German foreign minister to the president of Mexico offering him an alliance to reconquer Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, but not California—that was to be reserved for the Japanese if they cared to invade. (Because the world was then ruled by unstable empires, WWI was likely history’s peak for real-life conspiracy theories about plots to redraw the global map, such as Germany transporting Lenin to Russia, the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence of Arabia, the Sykes–Picot secret treaty, and the curious Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial in San Francisco.)

On the other hand, unlike the months after Pearl Harbor when it was not unreasonable to worry about the Japanese aircraft carriers striking the West Coast, the Imperial German surface fleet, having been checked in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland, was largely bottled up in the North Sea and had little way to get at the U.S.

The Great War was thus a war of choice for the U.S., with no Pearl Harbor to incite unanimity. So, while the anti-Japanese panic in 1942 California was rooted in misguided but understandable paranoia, the anti-German mania of 1917 was largely political, a contrivance abused by pro-war politicians to generate ardor for the conflict while clubbing their domestic opponents into submission.

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