Go fill your coffee cup. This'ns a long one.
Seventy-nine Montanans were convicted under the state law, considered among the harshest in the country, for speaking out in ways deemed critical of the United States. In one instance, a traveling wine and brandy salesman was sentenced to 7 to 20 years in prison for calling wartime food regulations a "big joke."
But the silence — and for some families, the shame — has ended. The convictions will be undone on Wednesday when Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a descendant of ethnic Germans who migrated here from Russia in 1909, posthumously pardons 75 men and three women. One man was pardoned shortly after the war.
Forty-one of those convicted, including one woman, went to prison on sentences from 1 to 20 years and paid fines from $200 to $20,000.
– "Pardons Granted 88 Years After Crimes of Sedition," New York Times
The recent immigrant rallies and Montana pardons brought to mind an article I wrote years ago (based on research for a Bicentennial play) about Germans in Minnesota during the same WWI period.
It's a story nearly erased from our history.
In the summmer of 1917, war fever was creating frictions between patriots and German-Americans. People with German names were forced to kneel in the street and kiss the flag. The offices of one newspaper were wrecked because its editor had attended peace rallies. Another editor in Minneapolis was indicted on charges of interfering with enlistments because he had reprinted speeches made by Sen. Bob LaFollette and another U.S. congressman!
Many towns had their unofficial vigilance groups to organize flag-kissings and other intimidation, as well as more civilized efforts such as selling war bonds and singing patriotic hymns. Then the state legislature established the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (CPS), and dissent — along other civil rights — became subject to active state suppression.
The CPS was given powers of seizure and condemnation, subpoena and contempt, and it could also investigate the performance of public officials. It went on pursue activities outside its charter, such as the regulation of liquor outlets, promotion of patriotism in the schools, and investigation of supposed subversives.
For a while it dealt with small potatoes — neighbors and coworkers reporting on each other. But then came the rally in heavily German New Ulm that stirred up the entire state.
Split in the German Community
It started as a meeting to honor local draftees and to explain the obligations of conscription to other young men subject to the new draft law. Before the CPS was through, a number of New Ulm's leading citizens lost their offices and had their livelihoods threatened.
Several young men had approached Mayor Louis Frische and asked him to join in planning a meeting of draftees, some of whom had asked City Attorney Albert Pfaender to explain their obligations under the new draft law. Although there were doubtless some in the heavily German-settled region who supported the Fatherland, most were either isolationist or strongly patriotic.
The town's elite, like Frische, were descendents of fiercely independent Turner settlers who had little love for clergy, military or overbearing government. They had left Germany after the Revolution of 1848 had failed to bring about the reforms they sought. Their remaining affiliation was with high German culture, not Prussian politics.
A larger group of Germans had come with little cultural baggage and no education after leaving a country where they had known only war, famine and political upheaval. In America, their determination and hard work had paid off, unlike in the old country, so they easily shed their German attachments.
A potential war with Germany would set back their aspirations, unless they were perceived as wholehearted Americans. The irreligious socialists and dissenters were a further threat to pious and illiterate ex-peasants who wanted nothing more than to assimilate.
Frische agreed to chair a community meeting; speakers and two bands to accompany a parade of drafted men were secured. As plans progressed, the purpose of the event shifted somewhat, although it's unclear how.
Petitions were drawn to urge Congress not to send American soldiers to Europe unless they volunteered to go. Posters publicizing a "draft protest meeting" were printed and hung. Most people learned of the meeting by word of mouth or from a mass announcement rung over rural phone lines. A community already riven by different notions of loyalty and patriotism was ready to boil over.
A Meeting Becomes a Rally
By the evening of the meeting, nearly 6,000 people crowded the parade route and another 2,000 had marchers assembled behind parade marshall and County Auditor Louis Vogel. (New Ulm's population was less than 3,000.)
After a medley of patriotic tunes, the mayor greeted the crowd and urged only "proper, peaceable and legal means be discussed." An impassioned but politic City Attorney Pfaender invoked home, family, the Commandments, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Star Spangled Banner. He based his message on an article in Bob LaFollette's magazine and the Constitutional authorization giving Congress the power to "call forth militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions."
By this reasoning, there were no provisions for sending non-volunteer troops outside our national borders. Pfaender told the audience that the draft law itself was legal and must be obeyed, but they were within their rights to muster public opinion against sending troops overseas and to work for a referendum against war.
One of the speakers was Dr. Adolph Ackermann, the president of New Ulm's Martin Luther College, who challenged the government to make America safe for Americans before trying to make the world safe for democracy.
The local newspaper editor and veteran of two wars, Capt. Albert Steinhauser, spoke against government suppression of the press and the general "craze for money-getting." But he also said:
The people are stirred to a greater depth than they have been for years. They are now thinking more about the political, social and economic questions of the day in 24 hours than they did in the past as many months.
For years we have been chasing after false gods such as the accumulation of wealth and have subserved all other activities to this one thing. We have cared little for honor or justice... This war may bring about a great awakening and in the end be beneficial.
The statewide reaction to this German assertiveness was immediate. Counter-rallies were organized, including one in New Ulm that drew 10,000 or 20,000 — as usual, depending on who was counting. The CPS also pounced.
After a preliminary investigation, it recommended to the governor that Fritsche, Pfaender and Vogel be suspended from their offices while the investigation proceeded. The governor complied.
The three were provided a prepared recantation statement, which they declined to sign.
After a hearing, Fritsche and Pfaender were removed from office. Vogel, who convinced the panel he was training a spotlight on the courthouse flag during the event, was reinstated.
The State Medical Association ordered its county chapter to conduct proceedings against physician Fritsche. The county board found him not guilty for lack of evidence, and then lost its charter, starting a split in the local medical community that lasted a decades.
Pfaender was expelled from the State Bar Association, despite an apology and admission that his participation was a mistake.
College president Ackermann was fired by the trustees, reportedly after the CPS threatened to close the school.
Editor Steinhauser was kicked out of the Minnesota Editorial Association on grounds of disloyalty. The local American Legion was unsuccessful in getting his military pension revoked, but he was arrested and jailed for publishing quotations from German newpapers that ridiculed the U.S. The charges were eventually dropped.
A google search for "New Ulm draft protest" and "Mayor Louis Frische," yielded only one legitimate hit, a college paper. A transcript of the key CPS hearing disappeared from the Minnesota Historical Society. Families of persecuted citizens, like the relatives of the seditious Montanans, were ashamed and kept things quiet.
But that was all 90 years ago. Things are different now.