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Many German Americans fought in the Great War. Back home, many others endured witch hunts.

John KeuschOn the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns on the western front of the Great War fell silent, ending four of the bloodiest years in the history of the world.

The war demolished empires and reconfigured the map of Europe. Between 9.5 and ten million fighting men were killed; twenty-one million were wounded; 7.5 million were missing or taken prisoner. No one knows how many millions of innocent civilians were killed or maimed, how many children were orphaned, and how many families lost their homes.

The United States was a latecomer to the conflict. Our soldiers began large-scale actions only in August of 1917, yet 116,708 doughboys were killed in combat by the war’s end, and 204,002 were seriously wounded. And the war’s repercussions on the home front were profound.

“World War I had a far greater impact on the United States–personally, socially, economically, and politically–than most twenty-first-century Americans realize,” said John Keusch of Chelsea. Keusch vividly remembered the war years and their aftermath in an interview months before his death this year at the age of 103. As he recalled, those years posed a particular test for Washtenaw County. More than 6 percent of the county’s residents had been born in Germany, and more than 40 percent had German last names. Most German Americans had close relatives living in Germany, Austria, or–like Keusch–the Alsace-Lorraine region that Germany had wrenched from France in 1871. Overnight, they all became suspect.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, when the Allied Powers (Russia, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, and, eventually, the U.S.) squared off against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire).

When hostilities opened in 1914, Americans were determined to remain neutral. President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 in part because he kept us out of war. But Americans’ initial sympathies with Germany had already begun to fade. In 1915, a U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania, killing more than 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. Afterward, Germany suspended its unrestricted submarine warfare–only to resume attacks in February 1917. The U.S. then broke off diplomatic relations, and on April 6, Congress declared war.

At the time, the U.S. military had only 17,000 active members. When volunteers were slow to step forward, twenty-four million men were eventually ordered to register for the draft. Eighteen months later, two million American men were in uniform. Businesses–including many factories and mills in Washtenaw–were put on a war footing, and tensions heightened within German American communities.

All resident aliens over the age of fourteen were required to register with the government. Some were sent to internment camps. Publications opposing the war were suppressed, while a federal Committee on Public Information circulated anti-German propaganda. “A Major Kressey came to Chelsea and talked about the excessive cruelty of the Germans in Serbia, how they cut off the hands of the Serbians,” John Keusch remembered. “It was gruesome. I wasn’t the only one who suffered from nightmares afterwards.”

Orchestras no longer played music by Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart; French composers were favored instead. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”; hamburger, “liberty steak”; and German shepherds, “Alsatians.” Some dachshunds were killed by anti-German fanatics; others were rechristened “liberty pups.” Such was the hysteria that even the dreaded German measles became “liberty measles.”

To escape the harassment, some German families Anglicized their last names or gave their children Anglicized nicknames. Some Schmidts embraced the name “Smith.” The Rau family of Ann Arbor became the Rowe family. Many Wilhelms became “Willy” and Johanns “Johnny.” In 1919, Berlin, Michigan, was renamed Marne, after an Allied victory. In 1918, a Michigan congressman introduced a bill that would have required changing all German place names. Fortunately, the war ended before Frankenmuth and Hamburg disappeared from our maps.

Local newspapers warned of spies in Washtenaw County. Alton Grau of Freedom Township said his grandparents, who had settled in Washtenaw County in the 1840s, were issued resident alien cards by officials whose families hadn’t lived in the United States half as long. German-speaking schoolchildren were told not to speak the language outside the home. On party telephone lines, Germans conversed in English so their neighbors would know they weren’t speaking seditiously.

One of Saline’s leading businessmen, a Mr. Curtis, woke up one day to find accusatory graffiti scrawled in black paint all over his house and barns. The Rev. Dierburger of Chelsea was hauled before a committee questioning his loyalty to America; the Chelsea Tribune reported that he was found to be loyal. To avert similar suspicions, the pastor of the Salem German M.E. Church published the titles of his patriotic sermons in local newspapers. In 1918, after repeated accusations that he was pro-German, Omar Klink of Sharon Township shot himself.

At the same time, many German Americans fought for the U.S. Twenty-one-year-old George Lindauer and twelve friends from Chelsea were among the first wave of Washtenaw draftees inducted at the brand new Fort Custer. After training at Fort MacArthur in Waco, Texas, they were sent to Fort Merritt, New Jersey, and sailed to France on the German liner Vaterland. Caught in New York harbor when the U.S. declared war, it had been seized, converted into a troop ship, and renamed the S.S. Leviathan.

“Few of Washtenaw’s new doughboys had ever traveled far beyond county lines,” Keusch said. “The war let them see a world they had never dreamed of seeing.”

The fresh American troops broke the stalemate on the western front; as Germany’s armies retreated and the other Central Powers began to make peace, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated the throne, and peace negotiations began.

Those negotiations led to a premature announcement of the war’s end–the “False Armistice”–on November 7, 1918. “I was a student at St. Mary’s,” John Keusch recalled, describing the sight of 200 people making their way through town shouting “The war is over!” “We jumped out of our seats and ran out of school to join them. All the school bells and church bells and fire whistles rang all day long–and then that evening we learned that it was a false alarm. We were devastated.” Interviewed in 2001, Chelsea Milling Co. vice president Dudley Holmes also recalled that day. “Chelsea, like villages and towns and cities around the world, wildly celebrated the end of the war, only to be informed that the festivities were premature, that the armistice we celebrated was a fake. So, our boys in Europe had to get their noses in the mud again, until Germany finally did surrender. It was a cruel joke for many, many people. Soldiers at the front continued to die.”

Four days later, on November 11, Washtenaw County joined the world in celebrating the joyful news of the real Armistice with flags waving, whistles blowing, bells ringing, bonfires burning, bands playing, crowds cheering, gunshots blasting into the skies, and politicians making speeches. Factories, schools, stores, and businesses closed. Farm families drove into cities and villages to join the masses crowding the streets shouting, singing, laughing, praying, and crying. Farmers formed impromptu parades of tractors pulling flatbeds holding men and boys carrying anything that would make noise. They lit flares and fireworks, while children waved sparklers. The Home Guards of Chelsea, Saline, Pinckney, Ann Arbor, and Dexter drilled to the roars of proud neighbors.

Effigies of Germany’s deposed emperor were burned all over the county. Boys stretched a wire across Chelsea’s Main St. from the second story of the Kempf Bank to Vogel’s Drug Store and attached a figure labeled “The Kaiser.” When they jiggled the wire, the figure danced grotesquely, to the crowd’s delight. At the cement plant on Dexter-Chelsea Rd., the Kaiser was hung in effigy, and workers shot at the figure until it was demolished. In Ann Arbor, a figure representing the Kaiser was run out of town on a rail.

Although Dudley Holmes and his brother Howard were only four years old that day, they remembered watching Civil War veterans leading a parade through Chelsea to the cemetery, where speeches were made and guns were fired. “Then we all adjourned to a community picnic set up all along Main St.,” Dudley reminisced. “We were a German town, and those homemakers were fine cooks. Food tasted particularly good that day.”

War casualties deeply affected Washtenaw’s towns and villages. Sixty-three men employed by Chelsea’s Hollier automobile factory marched to war; six were killed in action. Clark Potter of Ann Arbor lost his right foot on the western front. His neighbor Emil Schlenker lost his right hand. Carl Sweet, Ross Stoflett, and Harris Russell of Ann Arbor ended the war in English hospitals. During one week in October, four Washtenaw recruits died of influenza at Fort Custer, while Herbert McKune of Chelsea was killed in Champagne, France. John Keusch recalled him as “an excellent athlete and a handsome man.” McKune’s schoolmates Arthur Boyd, Lester Hall, Ruben Fenner, Burt Snyder, and Harold Carpenter also died in action. The Purple Heart was awarded to Edmund J. Miller, John O’Hara, and C.J. Clinton, among many other Washtenaw men. No one knows how many returned home suffering from the effects of being gassed or from shell shock–what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I remember watching soldiers returning from war, climbing off the train,” John Keusch said. “Some, who had no visible wounds, suffered for the rest of their lives. I knew quite a few men who headed to remote farms and never, ever came into town or watched Fourth of July fireworks. Many of them died early deaths–several at their own hands. Those were terrible tragedies.”

Most of Washtenaw’s soldiers, however, resumed their interrupted lives. Some would gather at American Legion Post No. 31, named for Herbert McKune, to share war stories. George Lindauer, a member of the famed Rainbow Division, returned to the family farm on Old Highway 12 with shrapnel souvenirs and a diary chronicling his eighteen months overseas. In 1921, when his cousin immigrated here from Germany, Lindauer learned that they had fought against each other in the Argonne Forest.

George Lindauer was so disillusioned with “the war to end all wars” that in 1942, he worked hard–unsuccessfully–to keep his son home with an agricultural exemption. Arthur Lindauer, however, had other ideas. He served as a Marine Corps pilot from 1942 to 1945 and again during the Korean War. The Lindauer family is proud of a picture of father and son standing side by side in uniform. Today, Arthur’s son, Jason, is mayor of Chelsea.

The Great War also had far-reaching effects on Michigan politics. Washtenaw County voted solidly Republican in presidential elections for the next half-century. “In part, it was because the German population held the war against Woodrow Wilson, who had been re-elected with the promise that he would keep us out of war,” Keusch said. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt never carried Washtenaw County once in four elections.”

Armistice Day is still celebrated, now as Veterans Day. Though the last survivor of the trenches died in 2009, the Veterans of Foreign Wars don’t forget the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought and died in the war that began a century ago. On November 11, they will once again sell red paper poppies made by disabled veterans outside post offices and government facilities, reminding Americans of the blood shed by millions of soldiers around the world.


 In the November, 2014 issue of Ann Arbor Observer