[USA, 1917/18] Shaken, Chiara looked at the Liberty Bonds she was about to buy. On it was a creature with a Pickelhaube abgebildet, so obviously a German. It was completely dehumanized, and even a gorilla did not look like it. More like the monsters from the horror films. “Halt the Hun!” she read, and on another “Remember Belgium”. But this “Hun” had nothing in common with her beloved grandfather, Lorenz Bergmann, who had come from Germany to the United States so many years ago. She had German roots and would love to see Germany, that seemed impossible now.
The USA were at war. Only last month President Wilson in an address to the Senate had advocated “peace without victory”, now the USA were at war.
Public opinion turns against Germany
The United States under President Woodrow Wilson had remained neutral until now. Wilson had run his election campaign in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war!”, and he was re-elected. Certainly, the democracy USA had more sympathies for the England and France than for Imperial Germany and Austria, but most Americans wanted to stay out of war. Already the Allies were receiving massive shipments of supplies and a near limitless line of credit from the U.S. But economy was kept on a peacetime basis, the U.S. army too, despite increasing demands to prepare for war. President Wilson enlarged the United States Navy.
Over the last years, public opinion had turned against Germany. The “Rape of Belgium”, Hoover’s “Relief for Belgium” preventing Belgians from starvation, the sinking of the Lusitania through a German torpedo in May 1915. For a long time already British newspapers and war propaganda struggled to attract American support, and the English-languages press in the United States increasingly supported Britain. Economically, the USA were long involved: the Allies relied on US supplies and armaments, and loans to pay for them. Many Americans wanted America to be better prepared for hostilities, some openly opted for intervention, like former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Wilson unsuccessfully tried to mediate a settlement. However, he also repeatedly warned that the United States would not tolerate unrestricted submarine warfare, in violation of international law.
Unrestricted submarine warfare
But still the US government clung to its policy of neutrality, until in early 1917 die Lage sich zuspitzte. By early 1917, Tsar Nicolas II had lost all support, his terribly suffering people wanted peace, Russia was at the brick of revolution. That was good news to the German High Command, since it would practically take Russia out of the war. the prospects for the Allies darkened, those for Germany brightened – more forces available for their Western Front, break the devastating army stalemate and finally defeated the Allies. However, the British naval blockade threatened to starve Germany into collapse.
At the end of August 1916, the generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had taken over the High Command, both were committed to a military victory, along with the Admiralty they opted for unrestricted submarine warfare. Germany’s chance to still win the war was the U-boat fleet, and it was only effective when submarine warfare was no longer restricted. Military and political leaders were aware this would probably trigger the USA’s declaration of war, but they were sure they could force Britain down niederringen before U.S. troops would arrive in Europe and engage in combat eingreifen.
Soon Hindenburg and Ludendorff got their way. Overruling chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s warnings, Kaiser Wilhelm II agreed that from February 1 onwards, submarine warfare should be unrestricted and overtly so, that means U-boats had permission to sink without warning all ships except passenger vessels.
President Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917, and asked Congress for arming merchant ships and all measures that were necessary to protect U.S. Commerce. Yet stops short of declaring war. He adheres to a policy of “armed neutrality” and declares that the United States will not go to war in the absence of an “overt act.”
On March 1, 1917, the American public learned about a German offer to Mexico to side up against the USA. On January 16, 1917, Secretary of State Arthur Zimmermann had sent a coded telegram to his ambassador in Mexico: If the USA entered the war against Germany, Mexico should become Germany’s ally, and if they were victorious, Mexico could regain Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona from the USA. He had taken advantage of an agreement by the State Department to allow the German Embassy to transmit encoded messages, supposedly in the pursuit of a peaceful settlement. Far from pursuing peace, the Zimmermann Telegram proposed that, in the event of war between the United States and Germany, Mexico join an alliance with Germany in which Mexico would make war against the United States. Mexico offered bases on its coast to the Germans for their U-boats, Germany offered generous financial assistance.
British Naval Intelligence had intercepted and decoded the Zimmermann Telegram and delivered it on February 23 to American Ambassador Walter Hines Page in London. On February 28 it got to President Wilson. He was was shocked by Zimmermann’s proposal and personally offended by the German Embassy’s abuse of the privilege of transmitting encoded messages, released the telegram and its decoded content to the press.
The President and his fellow Americans were outraged. The USA had just fought an almost guerilla war against Pancho Villa in Mexico. Across the nation, support grew for intervention. By the end of March, Wilson’s cabinet unanimously advised war. Economically, the USA were long involved. The Allies relied on US supplies and armaments, and loans to pay for it. By April 1, the Allies had exhausted their means of paying.
A war to end all wars
Germany’s taking up unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking ships and taking lives, has dominated the American political scene this month. On April 2, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany specifically citing Germany’s renewed submarine policy as “a war against mankind. It is a war against all nations.” He also spoke about German spying inside the U.S. and the treachery of the Zimmermann Telegram. Wilson urged that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” On April 4, the Senate voted to declare war against Germany by a vote of 82-6. At 3:12 a.m. on April 6, the House of Representatives passed the resolution in a vote of 373 to 50.
A hard time for German-Americans
It was a hard time for German-Americans. It had been difficult during the last years already, when the tide of public opinion was turning against Germany, and suspicion grew that they were sympathizing with Germany and the Central Powers.
Also the discussion about a nationwide ban on alcohol became increasingly political. Most breweries in the USA were run by German or Austrian emigrants, and although the wine industry was mainly in Italian-American hands, there were wine-makers of German descent too, like the Mountain Men vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley, her mother Amber’s home. Prohibition, a nationwide ban on alcohol, would endanger their existence too.
Now things had gotten serious and threatening. German Americans were harassed in many ways. 26 states issued laws against the use of the German language, in some areas even the teaching of German was forbidden and German-language schoolbooks were burned. Under the Alien Enemies Act, Germans who lived in the USA were occasionally arrested and interned. German-Americans had to prove that they lived, thought and felt as US citizens, not as subjects of the Kaiser in faraway Germany.
The pictures are from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.