Clark County in the Great War: How Propaganda Fueled Anti-German Hysteria in WWI

By Sherri Goudy

The Great War was one of the most damaging conflicts in history.  It was the bloodiest and most deadly.  New weapons were engineered, and old models were improved to maim and kill on a scale not seen before.  But another weapon, and old and trusted powerful instrument of destruction, was utilized in a way to pit not just armies, but entire nations against one another during WWI.

Propaganda is a formidable weapon of war. It is used to promote patriotism and convince populations that their cause is just. It strengthens nativism, nationalism, and an “us vs them” mentality.  However, it can be destructive as easily as it rallies.  It can be more powerful than any other weapon because it is used to dehumanize.  Using false ideas and images, propaganda is used to create hatred towards the enemy.  And it works, often with lasting effects.

In WWI, the US was allied with European countries against Germany. Part of the war effort was to promote patriotism and ensure that every American citizen was invested in the war.  People were bombarded daily with newspaper articles, political cartoons, and posters telling them what was happening overseas.  Headlines read: “Soldiers killed in action with the Germans” and “German U-boat shells American Ship.”  Increasingly, Anti-German sentiments began to develop across the nation. This resulted in book bans, changing street names from German sounding to English, removing German language classes from the education system, and falsely accusing German-Americans of treason.  Even popular foods with German names were changed, some of which have remained today – such as “frankfurter” to “hot dog.”

In Ohio, where there was a huge German-American population, and anti-German sentiment was a serious problem.  In Cincinnati, the attacks on German culture are well documented.  13 street names and businesses with German names were also changed.  The German newspaper there was raided.  And the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Ernst Kunwald, was unjustly taken into custody under the Alien Enemies Act and later deported.  This was not exclusive, and any city in Ohio with German populations reacted with similar anti-German hysteria.

The Springfield Daily News was filled with anti-German propaganda.  Movies advertisements such as this one fed into the hysteria that Germans were not just the enemy, they were a curse.

Photo 1SDN Feb 24 1918 pg 9 - Jun 8 2018 - 10-15 AM - p1 (002)

Political cartoons also fueled the sentiments that Germans were not civilized.

Photo 2 PC Unclean

Fear about the German agenda also plagued the US during the war.  The headline at the top of the paper read “Huns plan to Germanize America unearthed.”  The article which accompanies the headline is about rifles being imported to the US by Germany to be used by Germans if they won the war.

Photo 3 SDN May 14 1918 front - Jun 8 2018 - 10-35 AM - p1 (002)

The Ohio Americanization Committee was originally formed to promote values of being American and to teach English to immigrants wishing to become US citizens.  Formed by Governor James Cox, it had good intentions at the start.  However, this group quickly adopted anti-German sentiments, and began to censor German books.  They suggested banning “pro” German books from libraries and schools.

By April 1918, just a year after the US had entered the war, the anti-German sentiment had spread to the schools in Springfield.  All German classes had been eliminated from the curriculum.  The newspaper published this image drawn by one of the students in the city.  The headline read “High School Boy is Talented Cartoonist.” The image depicts the exile of German books from the school, with a boot kicking them out, and the children and teachers watching with a smile.  The caption reads “no more Hun for us!”

Photo 4 SDN April 28 1918 sports pg 10 - Jun 8 2018 - 10-22 AM - p1 (002)

The promotion of American ideals was also a huge part of the propaganda machine during WWI. Governor Cox travelled throughout Ohio speaking about the war.  He came to Springfield on numerous occasions, and beginning on May 22, 1918, the Springfield Daily News published ads and articles about his talks on Americanism.

Photo 5 SDN May 22, 1918 pg 4

Governor Cox vowed that “Treason will be stamped out.”  He gave a talk that he expected each naturalized citizen to prove its loyalty to Ohio and America by fighting under the flag.  For some communities, such as the Mennonites who did not believe in fighting in war, it was near impossible to stick to their beliefs without appearing to be a traitor to America. For them, this article must have seemed almost threatening to their culture.

Photo 6 Treason will be stamped out like a snake

Anti-German hysteria had major consequences for the US, specifically the German Americans.  Springfield, as well as many other communities throughout the US had thriving immigrant populations.  These communities felt a deep connection to their heritage and enjoyed speaking, writing, attending church and clubs, and eating foods that helped to keep them in touch with their roots.  However, during WWI to be pro-German meant you were anti-American, and many people were forced to give up, or at least hide their truth for survival.