Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From "German Days" to "100 Percent Americanism"

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From "German Days" to "100 Percent Americanism"

Article excerpt

McLean County, Illinois 1913-1918: German Americans, World War One, and One Community's Reaction

As celebrations go, Bloomington, Illinois' German Days, held in October of 1913, was quite an occasion. Up to 20,000 people from around the McLean County area filled the streets each day of the three-day event. They marveled over elaborate parades, sampled German foods, and generally celebrated the unique culture of Germany and its contributions to the local community.1 The inclusive and celebratory nature of this event provides a stark contrast to the mood and actions of this same community less than five years later. Nearly a year after the United States' 1917 entry into World War One, the German-American community in McLean County experienced an intense period of anti-German rhetoric. The reactions that followed this rhetoric helped to alter the dynamics of the community and the previously vibrant and visible aspects of German culture were soon difficult to find. How did this transformation happen? How could a community, which displayed no outward predisposition for such strong anti-German reactions, convert so quickly into a region characterized by distrust and fear of anything "German"?

Obviously, wartime persecutions did not originate with World War One nor did they end there. President Lincoln set aside habeas corpus to incarcerate suspected Confederate sympathizers and the United States military, under presidential orders, imprisoned thousands of JapaneseAmerican citizens during World War Two. World War One was also not the first time that propaganda was used to help mold national reactions; both before and during the Spanish-American War, the press played a significant role in bolstering public support for United States intervention in Cuba. But words of hate and the violent acts directed by some Americans towards Arab-Americans, Muslims, or those assumed to be "the enemy" based simply on their outward appearance in the wake of the September, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, which occurred in spite of repeated media and leadership attempts to raise awareness and appeal for tolerance, demonstrated that those entities cannot always completely shape the public's reactions. It is precisely because McLean County's reactions during World War One were not necessarily predictable, unique, or isolated historic events that this community's story is important. It can serve as a valuable case study on how reactions to fear-whether that fear is real, or imagined and manufactured-can produce powerful and very real community transformations.

The Great War in Europe was the culmination of years of rising nationalism, militarism, and shifting political alliances as the various blocs struggled to retain a balance of power. When this precarious balancing act toppled in 1914 resulting in war, alliances based on economic factors, politics, and nationalistic and expansionistic desires split Europe into two opposing camps-the Allies dominated by Great Britain, France, and Russia and the Central Powers dominated by Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But by the time the United States entered the war in 1917, Germany, epitomized by their vilified Kaiser, had become the overriding symbol in the United States of "the enemy," and fear of the possible catastrophic effects of any lingering German sympathy or empathy emerged as a dominant message in the national and state level propaganda campaigns, in which the government's definition of patriotism left no room for ties to the "Fatherland." Fear imagined-a nationwide German conspiracy to subvert the United States war efforts, gave birth to a real fear-a nationwide government supported conspiracy to subvert and eliminate the "German" in German-American culture. But in the days before television, the Internet, and twenty-four hour news cycles, the presence of a nationwide, or even a statewide, propaganda campaign, seems to provide insufficient explanation for the reactions of a specific local community. …

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