How intense patriotism during WWI changed the dynamic among Milwaukee's ethnic communities.
A large crowd gathered outside the Milwaukee Auditorium in the early evening chill of March 2, 1916, eagerly waiting for the doors to open. For months, the city’s newspapers had promoted grandiose plans for a charity bazaar to help widows and orphans of German, Austrian and Hungarian soldiers who had fallen in the war raging in Europe. The doors opened at 7 p.m., and the crowd surged inside to witness what a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter called the “greatest enterprise of its character ever undertaken in the Cream City.”
More than 2,000 workers, many of them the cream of Cream City society, transformed the auditorium into a “veritable fairyland.” In Juneau Hall, Mrs. Gustav Pabst sold frankfurters and beer to patrons as they strolled through a miniature representation of Heidelberg, Germany. In Kilbourn Hall, Paula Uihlein greeted visitors as they enjoyed the fresh air of a “Biedermeier garten,” and in the main hall, waitresses dressed in short, black-and-white Viennese skirts doled out light refreshments and steins of beer at a reproduction of a Viennese Wiener café. The basement contained a reproduction of the trenches in which the soldiers in Europe were fighting and dying, while other halls were devoted to vaudeville programs, billiards or displays of electrical machinery. The latter included an electric chair patterned after the one used at Sing Sing prison. Visitors could sit in the chair, and more daring souls could even take a slight shock if they wanted.
At 7:45, representatives from German, Austrian and Hungarian veterans’ societies, resplendent in their regimental uniforms, marched into the main hall and took positions as guards of honor around a flower-decked pavilion in front of the stage. A trumpet blast at 8 announced the formal opening of the bazaar. At that moment in Washington, D.C., German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff pressed a button, and a flash of light illuminated the pavilion in the auditorium. Leo Stern, head of the Wisconsin German-American Alliance, delivered an address to dedicate the Iron Cross positioned in front of the Wiener café. The people’s thoughts and sentiments, Stern said, were not only with the widows and orphans of the dead heroes but also “with the maimed and blinded victims from the fighting lines, with those unfortunate prisoners of war suffering untold hardships in the ice and snow bound regions of Siberia.” The bazaar clearly demonstrated Milwaukeeans’ desire to help those to whom they were connected by blood or a common homeland. “Today,” Stern concluded, “they are all our brothers – are the sons of so many nations, in the true sense of the word, who fight together for their ideals and rights, who are united in rain or snow or cold, in the terrible fire of bullets, in storm, in danger and victory, day and night.”
When the bazaar ended five days later on March 7, more than 175,000 people had attended and more than $150,000 had been raised for the suffering women and children. Even The Milwaukee Journal, which vehemently supported the British and French in the war, admitted it was “impossible to conceive the immensity of the bazaar. The state fair and several circuses, together in one enclosure wouldn’t be in it. It is without doubt the biggest thing ever attempted in Milwaukee.”
Three years later, the Pabst Theater was in the midst of its fall season and had presented a number of plays in the German language. On October 30, 1919, members of the Milwaukee County Central Committee of the American Legion – representing some 4,000 ex-servicemen – visited the president of the German Theater Company, Adolph Landauer, and presented a resolution calling on the company to discontinue immediately any plays in German. The legion posts threatened to do “everything in their power to stop all such performances.” Landauer ignored the petition. The next morning, however, a German 77-millimeter gun was positioned in front of City Hall, pointed directly at the Pabst Theater. The gun, a gift that was to be officially presented to the city on Armistice Day, had been temporarily stored in a barn at Lake Park until members of the American Legion liberated the piece in the middle of the night and dragged it all the way to City Hall in the rain and mud. C.S. Perry, secretary of the County Central Committee, claimed the legion would use only legal means to block further German productions and would not resort to any violence. But the intent behind the gun’s positioning was crystal clear. The Milwaukee Journal reported it had a salutary effect and that “broad smiles were seen on many faces.”
The bridge connecting these dramatic swings in attitude was World War I – the “Great War” – also known as the “War to make the World Safe for Democracy” or the “War to End all Wars.” It did neither of those things, but during its 18-month span, World War I reshaped Milwaukee’s – and America’s – social and political landscape.
To patriots who supported the war effort, Milwaukee was the worst of all worlds. They considered the city, a stronghold of labor union and Socialist activism, too radical for the “accepted” social, economic and political order. Above all, many within the city and across the country questioned where the loyalties of Milwaukee’s large German-American population would lie after the U.S. joined the Allied Powers’ struggle with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Super-heated patriotism unleashed by the war fused any and all dissenting elements into an anti-American bogeyman that needed to be stamped out no matter what the costs. Akin to the Vietnam-era strategy of destroying the village in order to save it, self-proclaimed patriots trampled cherished traditions and Constitutional rights in a hysterical drive to promote 100 percent Americanism. Their energy was misguided. No enemy spies were caught in Milwaukee; only one person was tried (and later acquitted) for sabotage in the city’s numerous factories; and the vast majority of its German-Americans remained loyal or, at the very least, silent throughout the war.
Other developments filtered through the prism of the war effort added to the intensity of Milwaukee’s “crowded hour.” From mundane struggles to make ends meet amid skyrocketing prices to loftier questions regarding the meaning of citizenship within the increasing influence of a growing government bureaucracy, the war affected every level of society and every aspect of people’s lives. Gender norms were upset as women stepped into male-dominated occupations to meet wartime labor demands and to act as interim breadwinners for their families. Once in the workforce, many women were reluctant to go back to their socially sanctioned roles. Furthermore, women’s war work provided fresh fuel for the long-debated suffrage movement and ultimately helped women gain the right to vote. A Spanish fl u pandemic in 1918 compounded tension within the war-weary city, killing more than 1,000 Milwaukeeans and some 50 million worldwide.
While government contracts made factories hum, wages increase and profits soar, the war spelled disaster for one of Milwaukee’s iconic industries. Since the mid-19th century, temperance boosters had waged a losing battle to decrease, if not eliminate, the evil influence of alcohol. Milwaukee breweries, however, buoyed by the city’s large immigrant population, thrived. The war was the tipping point that allowed Prohibition efforts to gain steam. Supporters claimed alcohol had to be kept from the young men flocking to serve their country if various branches of the military were to operate at peak efficiency and successfully carry out America’s moral crusade to save the world. What’s more, the grain used to brew beer and distill spirits was more sorely needed to feed not only our own soldiers but our Allies as well. Milwaukee’s beer barons could not stem the tide, and the “drys” gained the upper hand. Breweries either shuttered their doors or creatively adapted to stay afloat, manufacturing everything from candy bars and cheese to snowplows.
At war’s end, Milwaukee had changed and was poorer for it, with the scales decidedly tilted toward what was lost rather than what was gained. The human cost alone – 430 dead servicemen along with those killed during the Spanish fl u outbreak – drained the city of untapped potential. During the frenzy of the war, much of Milwaukee’s German cultural heritage disappeared, and its labor and Socialist movements were seriously weakened. Hard feelings and intolerance lingered well after the signing of the armistice in November 1918.
Though the war was hailed as an opportunity for the U.S. to be a beacon to the rest of the world, it was hardly one of the country’s or city’s shining moments. As we mark the centennial of American involvement in World War I, Milwaukee’s volatile, layered and often short-sighted experiences reveal the folly behind targeting a specifi c ethnic group during a time of crisis, not unlike current suspicions in today’s world of international terrorism. ◆
This article is an excerpt from Kevin J. Abing’s book A Crowded Hour: Milwaukee During the Great War, 1917-1918 (published by Fonthill Media, available through Arcadia Publishing). Abing is head archivist in the research library at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.