I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club selection, Burning Beethoven by Erik Kirschbaum. The book is subtitled The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I, and it contains a multitude of scary echoes for 21st century America.
I recall, back in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, eating at a steak joint out on the Claude Highway near the Palo Duro Canyon. I ordered my New York Strip, but I hesitated about ordering fries. I simply couldn’t bring myself to say the words “freedom fries.”
In those days, after the French Government declined to support American efforts in Iraq, freedom fries became a big deal in certain regions of the country. The Congressional cafeteria in Washington even began serving freedom fries—as well as freedom toast, in lieu of french toast. As Erik Kirschbaum notes in Burning Beethoven, this renaming tendency is part of an old tradition in America.
The United States remained uninvolved during the early years of World War I. At that time—as now—German-Americans made up the biggest single ethnic group in America. Largely for this reason, the U.S. remained uninvolved during the early years of the Great War. At that time, there were many communities across the United States where German was more commonly spoken than English. However, upon America’s entry into the conflict, German-Americans began to be ostracized and villainized. Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and German measles became known as “liberty measles.”
As Kirschbaum recounts in Burning Beethoven, in the late years of the Great War, German-Americans across the U.S. were harassed and abused. In Maryville, MO, a young German drifter who’d come to town looking for work was stripped to his underwear and forced to march down Main Street wrapped in an American flag while singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The young German, whose name was Robert Paul Prager, insisted that he was a loyal American. He pleaded for his life. Nevertheless, he was hanged from a tree. Prager’s last words? “Wrap me in the flag when you bury me.”
The United States has a long and ugly history of persecuting “outsiders”—a term that should be virtually meaningless in a land founded by immigrants. In recent years, certain elements in this country have once again tried to define the term “American” according to their terms. The implication, when it’s not stated outright, is that there are shades of Americanness. A white male factory worker who speaks only English and was born on American soil is the most American. If his father was born in another country, he is somehow less American, and if he himself was brought to this country as a child through no choice of his own, he is even less American. If he is brown or black, he becomes less American still. If he worships a different God than the Christian God of the New Testament, then his status as an American is thrown into deep question. And suppose this hypothetical almost-American is not a man at all, but an immigrant gay woman. Well, in the views of some, this person can never be American. Never mind that she can work as hard in that factory as any white man born in Pampa or Peoria.
The lessons of Erik Kirschbaum’s book are clear. Dwight Eisenhower was born to German parents. So were John Steinbeck and Babe Ruth and Neil Armstrong and Walt Disney. Can we think of anyone more traditionally “American” than these people? Yet there was a time when they were viewed with the same kind of suspicion as Latinos and Muslims are today.
Being an American has nothing to do with skin color or language or ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or religion. It has only to do with a dedication to furthering the “self-evident” ideals put forth at the founding of this country. That everyone is equal here. And everyone is free.