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Casting Teutonic Types from the Nineteenth Century to World War I: German Ethnic Stereotypes in Print, on Stage, and Screen

Peter Conolly-Smith

"When the war started," actor-director Erich von Stroheim wrote in 1941, looking back on World War I, "the enemy, of course, became the arch-villains, and quite naturally their appearances and actions had to be exaggerated in their extreme." While wartime screen-Germans' actions included "every heinous crime from throwing babies through a window to rape," von Stroheim recalled, their appearance conformed to the established visual stereotype of Germans that had existed in America since the nineteenth century — beer-bellied, crew cut, and mustachioed — now updated for war with spiked helmets, jackboots, monocles and riding crops. "I clicked my heels so that the spurs tinkled," von Stroheim wrote, "and bowed with a snap from the waist." As America's favorite screen "Hun" — he traced his ancestry to Prussia and "possessed all the physical and facial requirements" — von Stroheim built his early career playing villainous German officers in films such as The Unbeliever, The Hun Within, and D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (von Stroheim X4).

For the "man you love to hate," as von Stroheim was billed, to enact what was in effect a vicious parody of his own ethnic heritage indicates the difficulties Germans faced in America during World War I. Descended from an ethnic culture formerly held in high esteem, Germans during the war found their home country demonized in American mass culture. On wartime propaganda posters, in political cartoons, and in film, German soldiers were portrayed as sadistic killers. How German-American immigrants understood such images is uncertain, but one may assume they recognized the Huns displayed in the popular culture — their transatlantic kin by blood and language, after all — to be a mere hyphen removed from themselves, at least to American eyes. One way for German immigrants to prove their American-ness, ironically, was to confirm — but not conform to — the stereotype; that is, to accept its claim that Germans were rapists and babykillers, but then take pains to establish that they, German-Americans, were not. To prove their worthiness, in other words, Germans were forced to participate in the national pastime of Hun-baiting, to demonize their country of origin and, thereby, disown their heritage.

This unenviable tension — which Japanese-Americans and Muslim Americans too have experienced at different moments in American history — contributed to a collective gesture of ethnic disavowal among Germans that led ultimately to their complete absorption into the mainstream of American culture, and hence their literal disappearance as a recognizable group in American society. Thus, although more Americans in the nineteen sixties traced their ancestry to Germany than to any other country, Germans "as a group, [had] vanished," according to Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan's 1963 study Beyond the Melting Pot (311; emphasis in original). This essay examines the role of ethnic stereotypes in German-Americans' post-World War I disappearing act, beginning with the stage and cartoon caricatures of the nineteenth century and culminating with the films of World War I. As for other ethnic groups, Germans' popular stereotype had always wielded a double-edged blade. Protesting it as offensive served only as a tacit admission that there was something sufficiently accurate about the caricature that it hit home; yet accepting, or shrugging it off in hopes of disarming the stereotype, signaled a willingness to distance oneself from one's core characteristics that led ultimately to ethnic erasure.

These conflicting attitudes — acceptance of and resistance to the anti-German stereotype — met head-on at the turn of the century as established, culturally conservative Germans of several generations' standing by the late nineteenth century were joined by a more recent wave of urbane early twentieth-century arrivals, many from major cities like Berlin and Hamburg. Older Germans' outlook was, to some degree, based on their having left Germany at a time when the mass media that later perpetuated anti-German stereotypes in America — in particular comic strips and film — had not yet come into existence in Germany. While such early to mid-nineteenth century arrivals were perhaps willing to accept ethnic stereotypes on stage — after all, in the "Volksstück" (the people's play) Germany had its own stage tradition that poked fun at country bumpkins and the backward ways of the German hinterland — these same Germans later took offense at seeing themselves mocked, then demonized, in comics and film. [1] To members of this older generation, the mass media that disseminated anti-German imagery after the turn of the century became associated with America, and their rejection of such imagery was as much a repudiation of the stereotypes themselves, as it was of American culture.

To more recent immigrants, however, whose experience in Germany prior to leaving had already exposed them to mass-circulating dailies and film, American culture seemed less foreign, and its offerings, less offensive. Indeed, they recognized that what their already-established fellow Germans rejected as American was, in fact, modern. Having grown up experiencing modernity in Germany, these new arrivals consequently more easily assimilated its offerings in America. This embrace of the modern, expressed not only through an appreciation for film and comics but also in one's choice of newspaper, as we shall see, should not be thought of as anti-German, however. On the contrary, in times of war — throughout the period of American neutrality during the early years of World War I, for example, from 1914 - April 1917, recent German immigrants displayed as pronounced a pro-German nationalism as their more established countrymen. Their German patriotism tempered by their early willingness to accept the bumbling German stereotypes of American mass culture, these same Germans later took the lead in the process of ethnic disavowal that, corroborating Glazer and Moynihan, resulted ultimately in their community "vanishing." The role played by the German ethnic stereotype in this process, as it was contested, consumed, even perpetuated within the community and chronicled in the pages of its ethnic press, lies at the core of this essay.

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Peter Conolly-Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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