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German Day parade

The German Day parades in Lincoln in the early 1900s used to attract thousands of spectators. But with the coming of World War I, anything German was seen as treasonous.

They had to change the route because 13th and M street was getting repaved, but that didn’t dampen the 1910 German Day parade.

Thousands lined the 2 1/2-mile circuit, which started at 11th and J and meandered through downtown and ended up on the Capitol grounds.

“Along O Street and other thoroughfares of dense traffic, the masses of people filled the sidewalk and overflowed onto the pavement,” a reporter wrote 108 years ago.

Led by mounted police, the autumn afternoon parade took 35 minutes to pass, with firefighters and the Havelock shopmen and politicians and bands.

But this was, at its core, a tribute to all things German in a young city heavy with its ancestry. The parade was dominated by float after float commemorating Germany and German immigrants, members of the Nebraska-German Alliance, 150 Sons of Herman and 400 German school children carrying German and U.S. flags, who “received a great deal of notice from the crowds.”

The newspaper called it a spectacular pageant. “A portrayal of the contributions which Teutonic civilization and manhood has contributed to the national development of this country.”

“It was a revelation and an awakening.”

And it was about to become a casualty of war.

A century ago, Lincoln was a haven for German immigrants and Germans from Russia and other German speakers, with the city claiming its population to be about 50 percent of German extraction, said historian Jim McKee.

Walk through the Haymarket at the time, and you’d hear people speaking German, reading German-language newspapers, eating German food; the Czechs may have brought kolaches, but Germans from Russia imported the runsa.

Look up, and you’d see their names on the buildings. Huber, Henkle, HP Lau.

They didn’t hide their roots when they stepped off the train. They celebrated them.

“There was no pressure to assimilate,” said Gerald Steinacher, a professor of European history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The idea of America for many of those people was America would allow them to be who they wanted to be.”

Which is why what happened next was remarkable: During the first world war, a city pulsing with so much German blood allowed anti-German sentiment to take root, fuel hysteria and change the way Lincoln lived.

“People were looking askance at Germans,” McKee said. “And they were also looking askance at themselves, it appears.”

Here’s how:

It rained on their parade: After years of successful celebrations, the parade quietly disappeared. No more shopmen from Havelock, no more Sons of Herman.

“There will be no German day celebration in Lincoln this year,” the Lincoln Daily News reported in 1915. “So far as is known no effort has been made among the citizens of German descent in the city toward the setting aside of a holiday.”

There was no reason given for canceling the event, the paper noted. But it took a guess.

“It is understood the war in Europe has had a sobering effect on the people and with the strife among the different nationalities it was thought best not to attempt a festival.”

It rewrote the map: The leaders of Germantown, 20 miles northwest of Lincoln, didn’t waste time trying to distance themselves from the enemy. After the U.S. declared war in 1917, the town council voted to change the name to honor the first area soldier to die. But it didn’t specify the manner of death, so the town was renamed Garland — after Raymond Garland, who died of pneumonia on the way to France.

And 35 miles east of Lincoln, the town of Berlin had already rebuilt from the devastating Easter Sunday tornadoes in 1913, which leveled the business district and damaged 75 homes.

So when a series of suspicious fires broke out on main street in 1918, during the height of the war, residents surrendered. They petitioned for a new name, and Otoe was chosen — less than a month before the end of the war.

“But the joke is on Berlin,” said McKee, the historian. “Because it wasn’t named after Berlin, Germany; it was named for a local farmer.”

It changed the law books: Nebraska became one of the few states in the U.S. to enact a law making it illegal to teach students — public or private — in a foreign language, said Steinacher, the UNL professor.

Language was such a large part of a culture’s identity, but starting in 1919, it was treasonous. And Robert Meyer paid the price — a $25 fine.

The parochial school teacher in Hampton was caught reading from the Bible in German to a fourth-grader, and then he was charged and convicted.

He appealed, but the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld his conviction. He appealed again, and the U.S. Supreme Court sided in his favor in 1923.

“The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue,” Justice James McReynolds wrote.

Lincoln made its own laws, too. Such as declaring it illegal to speak German to a shopkeeper during a business transaction, McKee said.

And the city was evidently OK with it. “You have a very high preponderance of Germans,” he said. “And city ordinances passed that affected them negatively, and yet they seemed to accept it and embrace it.”

It changed the curriculum: Lincoln’s public schools had a problem in the early part of the century: They were losing German students to German schools.

Administrators initially resisted adding German-language classes to compete, but by 1912-13, Lincoln High had four German teachers. A year later, the district announced plans to add conversational German classes at Hayward, Bancroft and Park elementary schools.

“German schools were teaching in German, and they were trying to reach that ethnic group,” said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner and a former school board member.

In December 1917, though, the district abruptly discontinued all classes except for high school and junior high electives, and a year later disposed of many of its German textbooks.

It stripped people of their identities and muted their culture: German ministers were forced to deliver their sermons in English, even though some of their congregants couldn’t understand a word, McKee said.

People changed their names. Mueller to Miller, Schmidt to Smith. German-American Bank to Continental National Bank.

Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. Professors were charged with sedition. Lincoln’s mayor forbid the visiting Minneapolis Symphony from playing anything by a German composer.

“Everything that had anything to do with Germans, even the music, even Beethoven, was seen as treasonous,” Steinacher said. “There was this hysteria, this kind of mood, this kind of mentality that was somehow unleashed.”

It wasn’t just Germans. Before the war, Lincoln was the new home of immigrants from all over Europe. They were proud of their heritage, which made for a thriving and interesting city.

But that changed quickly, Steinacher said. And the pressure to prove their loyalty to America had a chilling effect on all cultures.

“The first world war really damaged the diversity of Nebraska,” he said. “There was no real reason to start this kind of discrimination against this part of the community. It really backfired, because we lost so much.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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