Book recalls Milwaukee during ‘Great War’
Mixed allegiances bubbled after U.S. combat entry

By Tom Jozwik - Special to TimeOut

May 11, 2017


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Historian Kevin Abing’s book on Milwaukee, with a large ethnic German population during World I, focuses on the intense feelings when the United States fought Germany.

This spring marks the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. Milwaukee Historical Society archivist Kevin Abing examines “the war to end all wars” from a Milwaukee perspective in a 240-page book scheduled to be released Monday and available through Amazon.

“A Crowded Hour: Milwaukee During the Great War, 1917-1918” is the first book by the Lancaster native and who has a doctorate in history from Marquette University. An admirer of the works of popular historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Erik Larson and James McPherson, the author said he “tried to write (‘A Crowded Hour’) so a general audience can enjoy it,” supplementing narration with footnotes representing “the trained historian in me.” Research venues included the National Archives in Washington, D.C., while Abing’s “variety of sources” ran from newspaper accounts to politicians’ papers and FBI case files.

Abing, 57, who lives in Milwaukee with wife, Laura (a grant writer who contributed her editing skills to his book), was interviewed by telephone. An edited transcript follows.

Q: Why did you choose the topic you did? Why the title “A Crowded Hour”?

A: When I was the assistant archivist I was going through the Dan Hoan (1916-40 Milwaukee Socialist mayor) collection. I came across documents describing the whole anti-German hysteria (in World War I Milwaukee). This would be a really interesting story to tell, I thought, a story not many people know about. World War I is one of the pivotal events of U.S. history, but it got relegated to the back burner. You still feel the effects today. Things haven’t changed all that much as far as the feelings about immigrants, for instance.

Kevin Abing

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The U.S. was only in the war 18 months, but it was one of the most intense and divisive periods of Milwaukee history. I wanted to convey that sense (through the title).

Q: I’ve read that, before World War I, Milwaukee was America’s most Germanic city, but that, once the war was on, Milwaukeeans felt compelled to duck into doorways to so much as speak German. True?

A: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Milwaukee was called “the German Athens.” German culture and theater and music were so dominant. Certainly it was one of the most Germanic cities, along with St. Louis and Cincinnati. Prior to the U.S. entry into the war, being a German-American wasn’t a crime. Once America was in the war, you were risking life and limb if you were to speak German in public. A German theater company attempted to stage a play; the American Legion objected; a cannon was pointed, from in front of City Hall, at the Pabst Theater.

In the eyes of people around the country, Milwaukee was a suburb of Berlin. Germans were still the dominant ethnic group (but) it was not a good time to be a German, or a Socialist. The deep-seated animosity against the Germans - who had been the most respected ethnic group in the country - and the Socialists must’ve been a bitter pill for them to swallow. A Germania statue was removed after a military recruiter complained, 250 people changed their names in Milwaukee, the Deutscher Club became the Wisconsin Club, Dachshunds were called liberty pups or something ... it was all kind of silly. That whole anti-German thing lingered well after the war. The war put Mayor Hoan in a tough spot. He was against the war (as a Socialist and personally), but he basically stayed mum and worked with pro-war people in the city.

Q: A number of Milwaukeeans experienced mixed allegiances when the Great War broke out, didn’t they?

A: Absolutely, absolutely. People in Milwaukee had relatives back in Germany, relatives fighting. But most learned to keep their mouths shut. Most did their duty, just like everybody else did. For some of the ultrapatriots, it was not good enough.

The Germania-Herald, the main German newspaper, sympathized with the Germans before the war and criticized (President Woodrow) Wilson for favoring the French and English allies. The Germania-Herald became pro-Wilson and pro-American war effort. Some papers went under, like the Socialist Milwaukee Leader. The government revoked their mailing privileges. In the anti-German, anti-Socialist climate the Milwaukee Journal was a ringleader, fully behind Wilson and the war. The Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for its war coverage.

Q: As it turned out,

wasn’t Milwaukee something of a model city during World War I?

A: Although there were lynchings elsewhere, and some near-riots (in Milwaukee), there was no mob violence with killings - a tribute to the Milwaukee police. June 5, 1917, was the initial draft registration and there were feelings of “There will be trouble.” Almost 50,000 registered in Milwaukee that day (but about the only trouble was that) two guys got into a fight over which of them would be the first to sign up. On registration day, for the first time, all 2,000 saloons closed. But not for the whole day. Once the registration was over, the bars reopened, and they did a really brisk business.

Milwaukee, the best-governed city (with) the most honest administration in the country, demonstrated its patriotism time and time again. In Liberty Bond drives, Milwaukee exceeded by far its quota, even though the state didn’t always do so. Labor unions held back major strikes. Conscription was pretty comparable to most cities. In the flu pandemic of 1918, Milwaukee fared much better than cities out east - one of the lowest death rates in the country (although more than 1,000 died). Schools, churches, saloons were closed, political rallies forbidden, department store sales restricted. It had a tremendous economic impact on the city. But it brought the city together, to fight this invisible foe. (On the other hand) it was a lot more gritty than what people would think. Poor housing conditions, pollution ... Milwaukee was (America’s) second-most densely populated city, next to New York. The Milwaukee River - you didn’t dare drink any of that water!