When America entered World War I on April 6, 1917, by declaring war against Germany, Minnesotans of German descent constituted the largest ethnic group in the state.
Suddenly, many good citizens were regarded as, if not the enemy, then certainly as a potential security threat. Attacking The Other is an American habit in times of conflict, but the repression of German-ness had to come as a shock to the Minnesotans of German heritage who had been here for decades and had assimilated quite easily into American life.
Now, though, all were under suspicion. “ ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ is U.S. Advice to Aliens,” a Post Bulletin headline blared. Speaking German in public was obviously verboten. But being tight-lipped was not always enough.
— Albert Ochs, a Faribault merchant, was ill and being treated in the Colonial Hospital in Rochester when war was declared. Thus indisposed, he was unable to defend himself against rumors in Faribault that he was engaged in pro-Germany activities. It was, reported the Post Bulletin, “the same sort of malicious gossip that has been circulated about so many prominent men of German ancestry.” Only when physicians treating Albert vouched for his character did the campaign of innuendo die down.
— In Wabasha County, teacher Irene Bremer lost her teaching certificate after being accused of making pro-Germany comments.
— In Stewartville, a businessman of Austrian descent (Austria-Hungary was an ally of Germany in the war) narrowly escaped a severe beating at the hands of “patriotic citizens,” according to the Post Bulletin, when he tore down an American flag that had been put up on his place of business. It could be argued that the merchant was exercising his right to dissent from popular opinion, but popular opinion didn’t see it that way.
Similar incidents were reported in Rochester, even as the Post Bulletin editorialized that “The American people are good-natured and easy to a certain degree.”
Meanwhile, the newly formed Minnesota Commission of Public Safety put public pressure on anyone who questioned the need for the war, including religious pacifists, and distributed a list of supposedly subversive textbooks that should be removed from public schools.
Against this backdrop, a patriotic mass meeting was scheduled for April 19 in Rochester. “Everybody is expected to do his or her share in making it the biggest evidence of Rochester’s loyalty to the flag ever held,” the Post Bulletin said.
Schools and businesses would be closed for the day, a parade would be held, and a patriotic program would be held in the armory. Mayor Julius Reiter, himself of German heritage, would preside.
On the big day, an April rain failed to dampen the festivities, including what the Post Bulletin described as “the finest procession the city ever witnessed.” Five hundred Rochester public school students marched in the parade. As part of the day’s events, Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech was recited.
The armory was decorated with large pictures of Lincoln and Washington alongside numerous American flags. Two thousand people packed the building for the rally, which included a speech by Dr. Charles Mayo.
By the end of the day, Rochester had demonstrated its unbridled patriotism and support for the American war effort. Its dedication to the American ideals of freedom of thought and free speech was still to be determined.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.