World War I Omaha

Soldiers march down the street in formation during a World War I military parade on Farnam Street in Omaha. 

America’s entry into World War I spawned rampant super patriotism.

Nebraska and Iowa, like other states, witnessed excesses such as the public burning of German-language books and ceremonies in which citizens of German birth or descent suspected of “disloyalty’’ were forced to kiss the American flag, said retired University of Nebraska historian Frederick Luebke.

Yellow paint, designated the color of disloyalty, was applied on the homes, businesses and churches of people suspected of being “slackers,’’ Luebke wrote in “Nebraska: An Illustrated History.’’

Bruce Nicoll put it this way in “Nebraska: A Pictorial History”: “While fighting to make the world safe for democracy, Nebraskans nearly lost it at home.”

Examples from the Nebraska and Iowa homefront:

» The Legislature created the Nebraska Council of Defense in 1917. The council’s first task was to coordinate production and conservation of food, aid in the supply of farm labor, engage in Red Cross work and organize Liberty Loan drives.

Soon it became an extra-legal police force, monitoring the loyalty and attitudes of Nebraskans, especially those of German heritage. Those the council deemed questionable were “dealt with by the council in a manner suited to the circumstances.’’ Written threats, inquisition-like panels, violence and imprisonment were aimed at people who spoke German or were otherwise “questionable.’’

» Iowa Gov. William Harding, a Sioux City lawyer before entering politics, issued a statement that made it illegal to use any language but English in public. The edict was nicknamed the “Babel Proclamation.’’ Harding said “misunderstandings’’ resulted from the use of foreign languages. He said in a public speech that God did not hear prayers spoken in any language but English.

» From the Dunbar (Nebraska) Review: “Wednesday evening some 150 people of Avoca and vicinity visited the home of John Burhe, Fred Buckman and Fred Barkell and treated each of them to a nice coat of tar and feathers, a rope was placed around the neck of Fred Buckman and he was led to the home of his sister who is also said to be pro-german and they both promised to be good and contribute to the Red Cross or anything else they wanted him to, if they would let them go. A sign was put up in front of the post office ‘No German talk in this town or there will be more tar and feathers.’ ”

» The Rev. Karl Klette, who served St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Pender, Nebraska, from 1917 to 1920, was to preach in both German and English. At a special meeting in May 1918 the congregation decided that confirmation classes and Sunday school classes would be taught in English “because of the war and its effect on people.’’ Sermons would be in English twice a month. Baptisms, funerals and other functions could be conducted in German. “The pastor should look for English song books and Bibles for use in church.’’

Still, German-language functions continued into the 1930s. Easter services were held in German at 9 a.m. and in English at 10 a.m. The annual meeting was held in English in 1935.

The Rev. John Kupfer, who served the Pender congregation from 1921 to 1932, encountered a torch-wielding mob at his home in another community one night during the war years. He was warned not to preach in German. His reply to the mob: I won’t when you’re in the pews.

» All Americans were encouraged to buy government-issued bonds known as Liberty Loans. People who did not buy the bonds were considered unpatriotic and slackers. Failure to cooperate often resulted in appearance before “slacker courts.’’ Sioux City had an “Incognito Military Court.’’ Four hundred people answered summonses to appear before the court in Council Bluffs.

» “No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language.”

This foreign language prohibition, known as the Siman Act, was enacted by the Nebraska Legislature in 1919. Children who had not successfully completed eighth grade could be taught only in English.

In May 1920, Robert T. Meyer, an instructor at the one-room Zion Parochial School near Hampton, taught the subject of reading in the German language to 10-year-old Raymond Parpart. The Hamilton County attorney entered the classroom and discovered the boy reading from the Bible in German.

Meyer was tried and convicted in Hamilton County Court and fined $25. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, 4-2. Meyer appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. His lead attorney was Arthur Mullen, an Irish Catholic and a prominent Democrat, who had earlier tried and failed to obtain a Nebraska Supreme Court injunction against enforcement of the act.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Meyer. Justice James Clark McReynolds wrote that the “liberty” protected by the Due Process clause included teaching in and learning foreign languages.

david.hendee@owh.com, 402-444-1127

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