During World War I, much of Milwaukee's German heritage was washed away in a tide of nationalism. One of the city's most respected German-language publishers followed suit.
George Brumder is one of Milwaukee’s forgotten media tycoons. Emigrating to Wisconsin from his native Germany in 1857 at age 18, Brumder settled in Milwaukee and opened a bookstore. After learning the bindery trade, he began publishing German-language books and, in 1874, took over a struggling daily newspaper called the Germania and turned it into one of the city’s most widely-read papers. Over the next several decades, he acquired a number of other businesses and German-language publications. His portfolio even briefly included the Boston Americans baseball team, later to become known as the Red Sox.
In 1896, with Brumder as the nation’s most prolific German-language publisher, he oversaw the building of the iconic Germania Building on West Wells Street. Brumder died in 1910, but his empire lived on as a respected Milwaukee brand.
Then came the Great War. At its onset, there was much sentiment among the city’s Germans for the Kaiser. A benefit at the Milwaukee Auditorium was held that drew thousands, raising over $160,000 for war sufferers in the old country. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the tide quickly turned. Germany was now an enemy nation and the many long-standing traditions and customs of Milwaukee’s German-Americans were seen as actions bordering on sedition.
German language lessons were barred from public schools, German-language theatrical performances were shuttered, and German businesses and street names were changed. The Germania Building became the Brumder Building and the three-ton Bronze statue of Germania – the personification of the German nation – was removed from above the building’s entryway.
Brumder’s flagship newspaper, which had merged with the Milwaukee Herold und Seebote to become the Germania-Herold in 1913, was renamed the Milwaukee Herold. Their popular annual almanac, for years known as the Germania Kalender, was retooled for 1919 as the Milwaukee America Kalender, and swapped out Germania as its cover image for the Statue of Liberty.
After the war, Anti-German sentiment in the city rolled back and some of the whitewashing of German culture was eventually undone. The Brumder Building was rechristened as the Germania Building in 1981. The massive statute of Germania herself, however, was never returned. After its removal, it sat in storage for decades. Around the time of World War II, the statute was either moved or destroyed, the trail on its whereabouts going cold. Its fate remains a mystery to this day.
Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.