German Immigrants During World War I
Sometimes immigrants face hardships that have nothing to do with learning a new language, finding a clean place to live or getting a good job. Those difficulties can be much easier to overcome than dealing with an invisible problem—discrimination. In Iowa, as in other states, immigrants have faced discrimination because of events that were taking place far away.
German-Americans in World War I
During World War I (1914-1918), many people became afraid of immigrants. Because the United States was at war with Germany, some people were concerned German-Americans would sympathize with Germany instead of the United States.
Many people of German descent lived in Iowa. Iowa’s governor William Harding issued a decree requiring people to speak only English. This meant that some people could no longer use the language they understood best. While many people in Iowa and around the nation thought the rule was silly and unnecessary, it created hardships for Iowans with strong ethnic backgrounds. It affected not only Germans but Norwegians, Czechs, Danes and Dutch speaking Iowans as well. Many conducted church services in their native languages, which now became illegal. Many schools stopped teaching German language courses. German-Americans also had to buy Liberty Bonds to support the U.S. war efforts. Sometimes they were forced to take part in patriotic celebrations. In Davenport some German books were burned. In some places German-Americans were victims of beatings.
Some German immigrants chose to make changes themselves so people would not discriminate against them for their heritage. Some families stopped celebrating German traditions. Some businesses changed their names to more American sounding names. Making the changes was easier than trying to defend their loyalty to their new country. They thought their actions would prove their loyalty.
Not all people thought that immigrants would be disloyal to their new country. They pointed out that many German-Americans were serving in the military. However, the new laws were still enforced.
These events had a long lasting affect on German traditions in Iowa. Following the war few families continued to speak German and many other customs were lost.
- Deborah Gore, Ed., “German-Americans in World War I,” The Goldfinch 12, no. 4 (April 1991): 8.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.