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Oklahoma Memories

Cordell German Paper Threatened

2009-11-02

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Song - "Over There" (written by George Cohan)

If there is one song associated with World War One, it is this one, the pronouncement that the Yanks were coming to the aid of France and England.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

As World War One broke out in 1914 between the large powers of Europe, the population of the United States was divided fairly equally into those who supported England and France and those who supported Germany. While the U.S. under President Wilson tried to remain neutral, England's dominance in the Atlantic Ocean slowly shifted our trade and our allegiance to the side of England and France and against the Germans. From 1913 to 1917, when the U.S. declared war on Germany, our ambassador to Berlin was James W. Gerard. In this speech Gerard spoke about the 500,000 plus Americans of German descent living here in the U.S. and how Germany thought they would help that country if war broke out between the United States and Germany. "The foreign minister of Germany once said to me 'Your country does not dare do anything against Germany because we have in your country 500,000 German reservists who will rise in arms against your government if you dare to make a move against Germany.' Well, I told him that that might be so, but that we have 501,000 lamp poles in our country, and that was where the reservists would be hanging the day after they tried to rise."

For the many German-Americans in Oklahoma this shifting loyalty made for an increasingly difficult existence. These Oklahomans, mostly wheat farmers in the north-central portion of the state, considered themselves Americans foremost but saw no need to abandon their heritage. For a large number of families business and home life were conducted entirely in German and many older immigrants never learned English. As the U.S. began to take on a pro-English and anti-German stance in the war pressure was applied to these German-Americans to forsake their roots and discard their history. Tactics used to persuade these German Oklahomans varied from polite requests to brutal intimidation. People overheard speaking in German were at various times physically attacked. Being a small minority, the German Oklahomans usually complied with the various requests and in several cases entire towns changed their names: Bismark in McCurtain County became Wright City, in Kingfisher County Kiel became Loyal, and Korn changed its name to Corn.

In France General John J. Pershing promised victory but said it would not be easy. "3,000 miles from home an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting. Invoking the spirits of our forefathers, the army asks your unclenching support to the end that the high ideals for which America stands may endure upon the earth."

One of the strongest and loudest voices of Germanic culture in Oklahoma came through the German press, and of those Oklahoma Vorwarts, published by Julius Hussy, was one of the largest. While other German language papers were closing down throughout the state, Hussy and Vorwarts continued to promote German culture and heritage and defend German wartime actions. With the official entry of the U.S. into the war in 1917 the pressure on German-Americans intensified and Hussy's paper came under constant attack. It was in this week of 1918 that 50 armed men stormed the Vorwarts office in Bessie and effectively shut it down under threat of death.

Germanic culture in large part was erased from Oklahoma because of World War I, but the history and struggle of these people is preserved for posterity in the collection of German language papers available for public use in the Research Library at the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.