One of the main aggressors in World War I, Germany invaded a neighboring state, presenting the move to its citizens as a necessary preemptive strike. Throughout the Great War, the German government violated the rules of war and international law, used prohibited chemicals, destroyed civilian vessels, blew up architectural monuments, and tortured people. Resentment toward the aggressor state resulted in persistent Germanophobia. All over the world, Germans experienced exclusion from peaceful life: restrictions on movement, removal from office, seizure of assets, imprisonment in special camps, or deportation. Calls for what we would call the “canceling” of German culture (Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart included) were also frequent. The wave of anti-German sentiment did not begin to subside until the end of the war, but not for long – for apparent reasons.
The beginning of the war and the Germanophobia
The German Empire's disproportional ambitions
The US attempts to rid itself of Germans
Germanophobia in Great Britain
Displeasure with Germans in Russia
War gives way to a short-lived armistice
The beginning of the war and the Germanophobia
On June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Vienna learned about their death at around noon, but the news caused little stir. No newspapers were printed during the weekend, and the emperor was on vacation in Bad Ischl, his summer residence. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Europe entered the Belle Époque – a prolonged period of peace, technological progress, and cultural renaissance. However, the German Empire was gunning for war. The German government was quick to assure Vienna of its unconditional support. Kaiser Wilhelm II scribbled on the margins of the diplomatic report: “Now or never! The Serbs must be swept away and that right soon!” On July 28, 1914, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia in a direct telegram and began shelling Belgrade. In the course of the next few days, half of the European states ended up involved in the massive conflict that would later be referred to as the Great War, and later still, the First World War. A total of 38 states participated in it, directly or indirectly.
Despite Saint Petersburg, Paris, and London being prepared to join the war early on, the decision about its start was primarily Berlin's responsibility. As historians justly remarked, “if the long-term responsibility for unleashing the First World War falls on all of its main participants, albeit to a varying extent, it was primarily German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism that triggered it in August 1914 specifically”. Germany's disproportionate military, political, and economic ambitions were commonly regarded as the sole cause of the war. The Treaty of Versailles, which concluded WWI, contained Article 231: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” The Triple Entente nations charged the former German Emperor Wilhelm II with “a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties”, among other things.
Germany's disproportionate military, political, and economic ambitions were commonly regarded as the sole cause of the war
Germany waged an aggressive, at times barbarian war, using asphyxiating gases (the Battle of Ypres), poisoning wells, destroying rescue vessels and hospitals, massacring civilians on occupied territories, ruining religious and historical monuments (the shelling of the Reims Cathedral), and attacking civilian vessels (the sinking of the Lusitania). Millions of Germans lived outside the German Empire. When the war broke out, their situation began to deteriorate rapidly. Instinctively, the inhabitants of Germany's adversary nations extrapolated their hatred for the aggressor state on all representatives of the German people. Germanophobia was taking over the world more rapidly than Kaiser Wilhelm II was conquering enemy lands.
The German Empire's disproportional ambitions
A militarist, authoritarian state shortly before the war, Germany sought first of all to challenge Great Britain’s political hegemony. The German government's imperialistic foreign policy doctrine was titled the Weltpolitik: pushy and aggressive, it revolved around reclaiming Germany’s “international standing” and securing the status of a global power. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who prioritized his personal greatness, implicated himself in all foreign policy events, easily fell for manipulations, lies, and flattery, and was to a certain extent personally responsible for triggering the war, although the top-ranking aristocracy backed his efforts.
Kaiser Wilhelm II implicated himself in all foreign policy events and easily fell for manipulations
Germany sought to redefine its spheres of influence. Its colonial claims grew by the year. In the late 19th century, the German Empire took the Marshall Islands, some of the Samoa Islands, and other territories in Africa, Oceania, and China “under its protection”, establishing control over 2.9 million square kilometers of land with a population of 15.6 million people. However, German colonies were still significantly smaller than those of Great Britain. The new empire could not counter Great Britain without a powerful navy, so it undertook to build an armada of a whole new level. Everyone in Europe realized that the Kaiser’s Germany presented a material threat and was prepared for aggression. In 1899, following Wilhelm II’s visit to the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government agreed to offer Germany the concession to build and run the Baghdad Railway. The Germans gained control over a network of railways stretched across 2,400 kilometers with access to Aleppo, Khanaqin, and the Persian Gulf. Essentially, this placed the Ottoman Empire within the sphere of German interests. As could be expected, Great Britain and Russia perceived this development as an infringement on their regional influence. War was imminent.
Meanwhile, the German government nurtured the already popular imperialistic and nationalistic sentiment at home. For one, the ambition of “making Germany great again” was apparent from the membership statistics of nationalist organizations: the Kyffhäuserbund (a veterans’ association) brought together 2.8 million Germans, while the Deutscher Flottenverein (the Navy League) had 1.1 million members. The Pan-German League included a plethora of journalists, teachers, and public servants who actively promoted the ideas of their nation being oppressed, deprived of “vital space”, and encircled by enemies. Nationalists demanded that the Emperor defend Germany’s interests in an increasingly aggressive fashion: through rapid foreign expansion, the annexation of the Baltics, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and the establishment of German political and economic rule over the Balkans and the East. In 1897, Germany got a new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs: Bernhard von Bülow. In his very first speech in the Reichstag, he outlined the future policy that had been in the works for a while – without mincing words: “The days when Germans granted one neighbor the earth, the other the sea, and reserved for themselves the sky, where pure doctrine reigns – those days are over. In short, we do not want to put anyone in our shadow, but we also demand our place in the sun.” In 1902, the German General Staff issued the manual Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege (The Usages of War on Land), in which the Kaiser’s military lawyers justified why a country at war could use all means available in the name of military success, including those violating the norms established by international law.
“The idea of the fleet seized the imagination of one man after another around the stammtisch and grew to a raging flame which, fed and fed anew with German wine, burned in homage of its originator. The fleet, these ships, amazing machines of bourgeois invention which, once set in operation, produced world power, just as in Gausenfeld certain machines produced a certain paper known as ‘World Power’; this was what meant more to Diederich than anything else, and it was above all the fleet that won over Cohn as well as Heuteufel to the national way of thinking. A beachhead in England was the dream that wafted through the Gothic vaults of the Ratskeller. Eyes sparkled, and the bombardment of London was planned out. The bombardment of Paris was a by-product of the process and fulfilled the plans God had made for us. For ‘the Christian cannons do their work well’, as Pastor Zillich said.” (A fragment of The Loyal Subject, a satiric anti-fascist novel by Heinrich Mann, translated by Ernest Boyd. The novel recounts the story of an ardent supporter of Wilhelm II)
On August 4, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II made an opening address at a Reichstag session, declaring: «I know no more parties, I know only Germans.” His eloquence helped him garner support for the war even among its opponents. Thus, the leader of the Social Democrats, who had been rallying against the war, voted in favor of war loans – mostly out of fear that his party might be banned. The idea of a preemptive strike necessary to counter the hostile ambitions of the alliance struck by England, France, and Russia was central to legitimating the war. The Kaiser managed to persuade everyone that Germany was defending itself from the Triple Entente’s aggression.
The US attempts to rid itself of Germans
During the pre-war decade, the US welcomed an average of one million immigrants a year. The state pursued the “Open Door Policy”, imposing no restrictions on the number of newcomers. Most were driven to the States by economic considerations – fleeing poverty – but some of the immigrants were political. Thus, German national Louis Viereck, a Socialist party member, escaped to America in 1896 after multiple altercations with the state (first, exile from Berlin and then imprisonment). Another Socialist, Max Bedacht, also fled to the US after a strike that resulted in criminal prosecution with a looming prison sentence. The beginning of the Great War suspended Transatlantic travel almost entirely. Most liners were transformed into hospitals or military cargo vessels. Cruisers that continued commercial operation risked falling prey to Germany’s U-boat campaign.
By 1910, the Germans had become the largest group of non-English-speaking immigrants on American soil. According to the 1910 census, one in eleven Americans was German in the first or second generation. German remained the most widely studied foreign language. Some cities (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, and Chicago) had German schools, newspapers, and even clubs. The German-speaking immigrant community was believed to be among the most attached to their native culture. Some of them rushed to German embassies, hoping to return to their motherland and join the fight. Others, however, opposed Germany’s aggressive policy and sided with their new homeland. The former faced considerably more powerful public outrage.
Even before the First World War broke out, Americans generally felt more negative about Germany than any other European nation. With time, especially after the reports of atrocities committed by the Germans in Belgium in 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the Americans came to perceive Germany as Europe’s main aggressor. Their apprehension toward the Kaiser’s supporters across the ocean applied to their German neighbors at home – sometimes with a higher intensity.
Americans generally felt more negative about Germany than any other European nation
Across the entire country, individuals, associations, and politicians sought to rid themselves of German culture and German influence. Public and university libraries ended their subscriptions for German-language publications and moved books in German to the basements. Some libraries went as far as burning or otherwise destroying them. Germantown, Nebraska, was renamed to Garland to honor a fallen American soldier. East Germantown, Indiana, was renamed to Pershing; Berlin, Iowa, became Lincoln. In June 1918, a congressman from Michigan sponsored a bill that prescribed similar renaming of all things conceivable: thus, he suggested calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage”, hamburgers “liberty steaks”, dachshunds “liberty pups”, and even replacing German measles with “liberty measles”. Some Americans called for a ban on Beethoven’s, Bach’s, and Mozart's music.
A fragment of Liberty Bond advertising, in which Americans of German and Austrian descent are persuaded to show loyalty to the United States
Ernst Kunwald, an Austrian conductor heading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was arrested on December 8, 1917, and deported to Königsberg on charges of interest in German music, among other things. It is rumored that, when the US president Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to approve the declaration of war on Germany, Kunwald, who was conducting the American national anthem, turned to his audience, which included a great many Germans, and said: “But my heart is on the other side.” March 25, 1918, saw the arrest of Karl Muck, a conductor who headed the Boston Symphony orchestra. His contemporaries described him as follows: “A good and patriotic German, he had become greatly attached to this country, and altogether he was a thoroughly unhappy man.” Not only did Muck include German music in all of his programs, but he also allegedly refused to grant the request (although he was most likely unaware of it) to perform The Star-Spangled Banner, the US national anthem, with which many orchestras started to open every their performance in the fall of 1917. Despite his Swiss passport, Muck was deported to Copenhagen. The US law allowed for the arrest of all German-born individuals, regardless of their nationality at the time.
The US law allowed for the arrest of all German-born individuals, regardless of their nationality at the time
By the early 1920s, 34 states introduced the requirement of English-only tuition at schools. By 1918, South Dakota had prohibited the use of German in phone conversations and at public gatherings of more than three people. A year earlier, the Espionage Act was passed, prohibiting the mailing of any materials that “promote or incite treason, rebellion, or violent resistance to any law of the United States”. The Sedition Act of 1918 extended the Espionage Act, also forbidding the use of any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” with regard to the US government, constitution, armed forces, or flag in oral or written statements and publications. A few college professors were charged with disloyalty under the Sedition Act and fired. American institutions (such as the Red Cross) prohibited individuals with German surnames from applying for membership for fear of sabotage. The Department of Justice attempted listing all German aliens, stopping at around 480,000. Over 4,000 ended up in jail in 1917 and 1918. Germans and Austrians also needed authorization to withdraw or transfer money from their accounts.
A WWI-era propagandist poster of the US intelligence, depicting Kaiser Wilhelm II as a spider
Newspapers exposed the Germans’ terrible crimes, calling them “the Hun” and reporting rape and torture. All US media agencies were openly pro-English and anti-German. Needled by propaganda, Americans saw spies everywhere. On December 29, 1917, Collinsville Herald wrote: «Every German or Austrian in the United States, unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy.” The most tragic incident effectuated by the anti-German sentiment was the lynching of Robert Prager in Illinois in April 1918. A native of Germany who had applied for American citizenship, Prager was suspected of stealing dynamite from his neighbors. Although he was never found guilty, an angry mob took him out of town, tore off his clothes, made him wrap himself in the US flag and walk the streets, beat him up, and finally hanged him. The court found his murderers innocent, but the killing caused a stir among many public figures. St. Louis Star-Times journalists reminded the nation that in the meantime other Americans were fighting overseas for humanity: “We cannot successfully battle the Hun if we are to become the Hun ourselves.”
A US government poster depicting a refugee with a child chased by a dark and menacing figure of a German soldier. 1918
In response, many Americans of German descent made sure to publicly state their opposition to the German Empire and declare their allegiance with the US. Some bought war bonds as material proof of their loyalty. Others changed their surnames to blend in: from Schmidt to Smith, from Mueller to Miller. Newspapers openly encouraged such practices, asking their readers: “Are you an American or a Hun?” Soldiers of foreign descent made up 18% of the American army. Almost one in five conscripts had been born abroad. Many immigrants who joined the armed forces did not speak English and knew nothing about the structure of the US military or state. However, they received language training and were consolidated into separate divisions. Thus, the 77th Infantry Division consisted almost entirely of foreigners who lived in New York: Italians, the Chinese, Jews, the Irish, Russians, and representatives of other nations, Its emblem was the Statue of Liberty, as a symbol of the choice they made by coming to America and the values they stood for.
The intensifying isolationist sentiment after the First World War closed the «doors to America”. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 established the country's first numerical limits on the number of immigrants that could enter the US. The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act, tightened the restrictions and made them permanent. In 1924, the entire immigration process was replaced with the visa system that is still in place today.
Germanophobia in Great Britain
Tens of thousands of Germans moved to Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century for various reasons including Germany’s lack of tolerance in many matters. In comparison, Britain was considered to be way more liberal. According to the 1911 census, Great Britain had 53,324 German immigrants. Many of them were employed in low-paid jobs, such as sugar boiling, or worked in service industries: 10% of British waiters were German. Naturally, none of them were prepared for the growing animosity.
On August 5, 1914, a day after declaring war on Germany, the Parliament passed the Aliens Restriction Act, which required their mandatory registration with the police, should the need arise to deport or intern them (internment is the detention of foreign nationals in their country of residence if it is at war with their country of origin). Restrictions were also imposed on the movements and travel of “enemy aliens”.
A British traveling permit issued to aliens
The act also obliterated German newspapers and clubs. Enterprises owned by German nationals were shut down, and their financial and material assets were confiscated without reimbursement to the owners. Men eligible for conscription service (17-55 years old) that were categorized as enemy aliens were arrested and interned in special camps. The largest, Knockaloe, was on the Isle of Man and held as many as 23,000 prisoners at its height. The number of the interned grew throughout 1915, reaching 26,173 by July and 32,440 by November.
German civilian prisoners of war in the Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man, 1915
Prisoners could petition for release on the grounds of nationality or personal circumstances. In all, over 15,000 such claims were submitted, but only 7,343 were granted. National grounds included occupational skills or experience that was of value to the country and the war effort. Personal grounds could include age and infirmity, length of residence in the UK, marriage to a British-born woman and a son or sons serving in the British armed forces. Throughout the war, the British government deported German women, children, and senior citizens. Only 22,254 Germans remained in Great Britain in 1919.
The most serious manifestation of Germanophobia was the anti-German riots that flared up multiple times, most notably after a German U-boat sank the Lusitania near the Irish shores on May 7, 1915 (taking 1,198 lives). The unrest started in the Lusitania’s home port, Liverpool but soon engulfed the entire country. Almost every German shop had its windows smashed. London suffered the most, with 1,950 buildings damaged. Like in America, the British press called Germans “the Hun”, alluding to their brutality. A typical headline of the time was “No Compromise with a Race of Savages”.
Anti-German riots in London, 1915
The Brits were constructing Germany's image as the “initiator of the global slaughter”. It was labeled “an aggressive militarized machine”, and Emperor Wilhelm II, “a new conqueror”. British media painted him as a “butcher” and “cutthroat” who moved his soldiers like pawns, displaying “cruel military despotism”. In this propagandist framework, Britain assumed the role of the guardian of Western values, while Germany had to contend itself with the lot of Eastern barbarians, who could only wage war and most importantly, wanted nothing else. German soldiers were depicted as aggressive and brutal, “true beasts”. Stories of Germans raping women and attacking children were commonplace.
Germany was labeled “an aggressive militarized machine”, and Emperor Wilhelm II, “a new conqueror”
British propaganda made extensive use of the Kaiser’s “Hun speech”, delivered in July 1900, to illustrate the country's militarism and belligerent foreign policy. Wilhelm II himself compared the German empire to the Hun kingdom: “Great overseas tasks have fallen to the new German Empire, tasks far greater than many of my countrymen expected. The German Empire has, by its very character, the obligation to assist its citizens if they are being set upon in foreign lands. ... The means that make this possible is our army.”
The British royal family changed the name of their dynasty from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor. King George V renounced all of his German titles. Prince Louis of Battenberg did not only have to change his name to Mountbatten but also resigned from his post of the First Sea Lord, the supreme position in the Royal Navy. German shepherds were renamed to Alsace shepherds, and the English Kennel Club did not allow the use of the old term, “German shepherd”, as the official name of the breed until 1977. Several streets in London were also renamed. Berlin Road in Catford got the name Canadian Avenue, and Bismarck Road in Islington became Waterloo Road.
Displeasure with Germans in Russia
When the Great War broke out, attitudes in the Russian Empire were similar to those in the UK. Great Britain’s ally in the Triple Entente, the Russian Empire was not viewed as a contender for the status of a “great power” but evidently desired it. Firstly, by virtue of its status quo, past achievements, and international standing; secondly, because of its recent disgraceful defeat in the Russian-Japanese War, from which it recovered surprisingly quickly.
On July 21, 1914, a mob of protesters in Saint Petersburg appealed to the mayor to remove all German employees of either sex from telegraph institutions because “Germans, the enemies of our Homeland, are relaying all of the telegrams to their brothers in Berlin”. The mob was chanting “Fight the Germans!” and “Away with them!”. On July 22, the city was reeling with rumors about the inappropriate treatment received by Russian subjects from Germans as they were leaving the country and the destruction of the Russian embassy in Berlin. Over the next few days, protesters rampaged German shops, factories, newspapers, and the embassy itself. After that, Moscow and other cities of the empire outlawed public protests. Nevertheless, Germanophobia was rampant and found new manifestations. In 1914, Moscow and the Moscow Governorate saw several anti-Austrian and anti-German strikes, with workers demanding the dismissal of their German-speaking colleagues.
Anti-German riots in Moscow
The more Germany applied poison gases and other illegal means of warfare, the stronger public outrage became. In April 1915, Petrograd (the new name of Saint Petersburg) was shaken by an explosion at the Okhta Gunpowder Plant. The public was quick to blame German spies who had allegedly planted a bomb. Rumors about army supply shortages also began to spread. Another challenge was famine, along with soaring prices. Even the government fell prey to Germanophobia, as the public vocally accused it of loyalty to the Germans and spying for the enemy. The exhausted nation kept seeing signs of German sabotage right and left. Members of the royal family – Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her sister Elizaveta Feodorovna – were openly denounced as spies. A call by Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich to “strictly distinguish between known traitors and the loyal servants of the Tsar and our Homeland, despite them bearing foreign surnames” did not bear fruit. Anti-German attitudes were slowly evolving into a revolutionary sentiment. On November 1, 1916, the leader of the ‘Kadets’ Pavel Milyukov addressed the State Duma, concluding his accusation of the government and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in particular as follows: “So which is it: stupidity or treason?” The nation and the army responded in unison: “Treason.” In February 1917, posters read: “Away with the government! Away with the German woman!”
War gives way to a short-lived armistice
In the summer of 1914, German media published more and more propagandist pieces about the prospect of an early and victorious end of the war. However, as early as in 1915, a considerable part of Berlin's population started to feel the consequences of the sea blockade more and more acutely, as Great Britain impeded the supplies of raw materials and food. Germany had not planned for a long war, and Berlin was mostly out of food just a few months into it. Since the fall of 1914, the authorities tried to intervene in food production and distribution. The poor supply situation and rapid price growth eventuated in upper price food limits, followed by comprehensive rationing.
In February 1915, Berlin became the first German city to issue bread ration cards. Initially, the municipal authorities of the capital set the ration at 2 kilos of bread weekly or 225 grams of flour daily per capita, but the flour ration was soon cut to 200 grams. By the end of 1915, most foodstuffs were strictly rationed in Berlin. In practice, however, they were hardly ever available even for those with cards. Lines in front of shops grew longer by the day. Due to the ongoing food crisis and disparities in the food distribution system, Berlin and other German cities faced protests and riots. However, the overly optimistic and enthusiastic press coverage of the war made the German society morally reluctant to face defeat. By the decisive moment when Wilhelm II fled from the capital and rebellion engulfed the country, the imperial government had been aware of its failure for several months.
Berliners lining to buy food, 1916/1917
June 1919 saw the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany, as the defeated side, was stripped of its colonies. Alsace and Lorraine reverted to French ownership, and Belgium also obtained some territories. The country was fully disarmed, down to an army of up to 100,000 troops with up to 4,000 officers. A fifty-kilometer demilitarized zone was established on the right bank of the Rhine, with English and French troops stationed across the river, on its left bank. Reparation payments were immense, in the vicinity of 20 billion gold marks over the first 15 years and around 132 billion in the following 30 years. These amounts obliterated the possibility of Germany’s economic recovery. Germany was the only state to bear official responsibility for World War I. Having read the text of the Treaty of Versailles, the French Marshal Foch is rumored to have said: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Twenty years later, in 1939, Hitler's Germany invaded Poland. Fueled by humiliating clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, German revanchism pushed the country to another act of aggression.
Despite its “insufficiently total” nature, the First World War became the first military conflict to erase the boundaries between civilians and combatants. Participating countries had to mobilize all of their national resources, including public opinion. The enemy’s hostility was perceived as the primary existential threat, so the enemy had to be destroyed, preferably for good. Radicalization led to Germanophobia. Even though the Treaty of Versailles contained paragraphs about bringing Kaiser Wilhelm II to justice, he had fled to the Netherlands, where he did not suffer from any hardships, unlike his people.
Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands, where he did not suffer from any hardships, unlike his people
After the end of the First Worlds War, the refugee issue rose to an unprecedented scale, mostly because of the collapse of Imperial Russia. From one to one and a half million Russians fled to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany, Asia Minor, Manchuria and Shanghai. To handle the crisis, the League of Nations led by Fridtjof Nansen developed specialized travel documents for the needs of refugees. The identity card was issued yearly. It indicated the carrier’s personal details, nationality, and race and guaranteed freedom of movement. Holders of “Nansen passports” could travel between countries to seek employment or reunite with their families. Later on, Armenians fleeing persecution in Turkey could apply for Nansen passports too. Fifty-four countries recognized this form of ID for Russians, and 38 countries recognized it for Armenians as well. Among its holders were composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, writer Vladimir Nabokov, and artist Zinaida Serebriakova. For its efforts in issuing passports to stateless persons, the Nansen International Office for Refugees won the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize. Although the issue of refugees was far from being resolved because society persisted in dividing them into “good” and “bad”, the migration crisis triggered by World War I was only a stepping stone to the even more massive and dramatic exodus that Europe would experience in the next war.