Through the last half of the 19th C., Germany provided more immigrants to Iowa than any other ethnic group. They often settled together in cities, towns, or rural neighborhoods and preserved many aspects of their traditional culture. German was the language in the home, in the school, in church, and in many business connections. German language newspapers covered local, national, and international events of interest to their readers. While Germans often formed a majority along many of the larger Mississippi River cities like Dubuque and Davenport and in western Iowa towns like Carroll and Audubon, they were a visible presence in many communities across the state.
In some significant ways, some aspects of German culture clashed with beliefs and customs of native-born culture. Many Germans were Catholic in a state dominated by Protestants. Germans also observed a “continental Sunday” socializing with friends and attending outdoor concerts or other entertainments in the afternoon and evening. In the greatest tension of all, Germans opposed Protestant efforts to restrict the sale of alcohol. Beer was an accepted part of German culture while many Protestants saw the beer hall as a threat to the sanctity of the human and public safety.
When WWI started in 1914, Americans were divided in their support of the competing sides. Immigrants nearly always favored their homelands. Resenting centuries of British domination, many of the Irish spoke out against the French-English alliance. Germans naturally pointed to British attempts to stifle German development. Similarly, Canadians, British and French immigrants favored their native lands. The dominant feeling, however, was that the war was a European conflict. Its issues did not concern the United States and America must do what it must to avoid being dragged in. However, with German attacks on American shipping and then all-out submarine warfare, the United States declared war on Germany and entered the conflict on the side of the Allies.
With the help of a very effective propaganda office directed from the highest levels in Washington, D.C., public opinion immediately shifted against Germany: its leaders, its army, and all things German. Iowa followed the trend. Local committees organized to root out any evidence of subversive activities. German-Americans were subject to pressures to prove their support for the United States’ war effort. If they did not buy war bonds or donate to the Red Cross, local citizens’ groups might visit their homes to make them sign a pledge. Any comment in support of Germany drew threats of violence or ostracism from the community. Sometimes German-Americans experienced minor incidents of violence. German symbols were targets. German language classes in schools were dropped. German books were taken off the shelves and sometimes burned. Businesses with German names adopted American identities. Even German foods came in for Americanization: sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage.
Iowa claimed the national spotlight when Governor William Harding issued what became known as the Babel Proclamation in May, 1918. He declared that it was illegal to speak any language but English in public. That included church and telephone conversations. Ethnic groups other than German also found themselves caught up in the law. Iowa contained many ethnic communities. Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians protested when they could no longer hold church services in their own language. The governor’s proclamation was on shaky legal grounds, and it drew derision from within Iowa and across the nation. However, its impact on public opinion further strengthened anti-German sentiment.
Anti-German sentiment undercut ethnic communities after the war as well. Any visible attachment to a former homeland could risk one charges of being less the “100% American.” Before the war, Iowa was dotted with a variety of strong ethnic communities. Improvements in transportation, especially the automobile, accelerated the integration of local populations. National prohibition was adopted in 1919 with passage of the 21st Amendment making the manufacture and sale of most forms of alcohol illegal. Because beer was such a staple of German culture, many rural German communities continued to manufacture bootleg liquor and make themselves targets of law-enforcement agencies, further drawing the ire of prohibition advocates.
For Further Reading
Leola Allen,"Anti-German Sentiment in Iowa During World War I." The Annals of Iowa 42 (1974), 418-429. Online at https://doi.org/10.17077/0003-4827.11215
Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (ISU Press, 1996)