During World War I, various aspects of German culture in the United States were suppressed or put under great strain. Sauerkraut became “Liberty Cabbage,” Dachshunds became “Liberty Hounds,” and German measles became “Liberty Measles.” Orchestras stopped playing works by Beethoven and Mozart and, in an ironic case of foreshadowing, books written by German authors were burned.
Iowa, with its large German population, was not immune to this wave of paranoia. The case of Berlin, Iowa is just such an example. In May 1918, Governor Harding enacted the so-called “Babel Proclamation,” which banned all languages besides English in public settings, including all schools and religious buildings. Shortly afterward, 40 men voted to change the name of Berlin, Iowa to Lincoln, a name which it has still today.
Officially, this change was a result of patriotic sentiment of the town’s residents in order to allay any suspicions by non-residents. However, stories of other communities facing attacks of an anti-Germanic nature, coupled with the length between the US entrance into the war and the decision to make the change, create a substantial space for research and evaluation.
This presentation will center around research conducted at the University of Iowa Special Archives and the Iowa State Historical Society. Especially in focus will be the collected documents and papers of Berlin, Iowa resident Ted Rehder. His documents include maps, postcards, and letters from Central Europe and the US. His personal story is closely entwined with that of Berlin, Iowa. Local German-language newspapers from the time period will also be studied in order to provide context, as well as the German-American viewpoint throughout the war. Themes of immigration, assimilation, and what truly makes someone an American will be explored.
These themes are timeless and instructive. At a time when massive migrations of people from the Middle East to Europe are taking place and subsequent challenges have resulted, the story of Berlin, Iowa provides a parallel that serves as a reminder that current crises are not wholly unprecedented; they have occurred before. New solutions can be found when the past is studied.
Brian Gilg, ’16
Sponsor: Tyler Carrington