In Times of War

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From the early decades after their arrival in Wisconsin through the mid-20th century, the experiences of German Americans in Wisconsin were profoundly influenced by major wars.

Civil War (1861–1865)

In 1861, Wisconsin Germans, including many non-citizens, volunteered to fight for the Union. However, the draft established a year later was immensely unpopular. Protests broke out in several cities, starting with an attack on the Port Washington draft office on November 10, 1862, which was perpetrated mainly by immigrants from Germany and Luxemburg. Nevertheless, the German-American men went off to battle, many in German volunteer infantry regiments, such as the Wisconsin 9th. German women, like their neighbors, ran family farms and businesses, worked as nurses in hospitals, and sent packages to the front. The war also brought prosperity to Wisconsin. Farmers profited from high wheat prices, and some enterprising businessmen made a fortune, like Milwaukee’s Sebastian Walter, an immigrant from Rhein-Hesse whose company sold enamelware to the army.

World War I (1914–1918)

On the eve of World War I, 8.7 % of all Americans and 38% of all Wisconsinites were German born or had at least one German-born parent. The vast majority were patriotic Americans who were proud of their German heritage and advocated for American neutrality. In March 1916, under the motto “Charity is Neutral,” a “German-Austrian-Hungarian Bazaar” in Milwaukee drew 170,000 people and raised $150,000. Although the majority of German Americans stood with the US after its entry into the war in 1917, there were widespread anti-German sentiments. Schools stopped teaching German, place names were changed, German-language newspapers ceased publication, and German Americans felt pressured to buy Liberty bonds. In rural communities, however, life often continued with little change.

World War II (1939–1945)

Two decades and a depression later, another war pitted America against Germany. This time, however, German Americans faced less hostility. Even though there was a chapter of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund in Wisconsin, its members were mostly recent immigrants, and the established German-American community completely rejected it. Many German-American men served in the military and women replaced them in the workplace. In addition, thousands of German POWs provided labor on Wisconsin farms and in the canning industry. After the war, some returned as immigrants, occasionally sponsored by the very people they had worked for as prisoners. Across the ocean, new relationships were forged and old ones were revived as desperate people in war-torn Europe tried to connect with family members in America. Wisconsinites sent CARE packages, churches sponsored refugees, and soldiers came home with German brides.

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Additional Reading on “In Times of War”

Civil War

Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments, by William Burton. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Wisconsin Women in the War Between the States, by Ethel Alice Hurn. Wisconsin History Commission, 1911.

Wisconsin and the Civil War, by Ronald Paul Larsen. The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2017.

World War I

 “America’s Alien Enemies: Registering as German in Wisconsin in World War I,” by Lee Grady. Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter 2018.

The Great War Comes to Wisconsin, by Richard L. Pifer. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017.

In Their Own Words: German Americans in the World War I Era – A Virtual exhibit. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2017.

World War II

Women Remember the War, 1941–1945, by Michael E. Stevens. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1993.