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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

Conclusion: Disappearing Acts

Seasoned by decades' worth of daily comic strips as well as their newspaper's promotion of vaudeville's Dutch Act, anti-German films, and its generally assimilationist thrust, readers of the Journal were uniquely positioned among wartime patrons of the German press to take this final step of ethnic disavowal and become full-fledged Americans: to disappear fully, that is, into the fabric of American life. Certainly, the tumultuous events of the months following 1916's Civilization and The Fall of a Nation would have encouraged such a step. The break of diplomatic relations between Germany and the United States in February of 1917, the publication of the notorious Zimmermann Telegram in March, and the American Declaration of war in April caused a frantic realignment of loyalty among the German ethnic press and its readership. No longer were displays of pro-Germanism as those formerly practiced by the Staats-Zeitung and Viereck's weekly Fatherland permissible. In fact, the passage of the Espionage Act in June of 1917 ruled the expression of such sentiments illegal and Viereck, for one, found himself justifying his former utterances before a Grand Jury. Even though no disloyalty was proven, he emerged from the episode with his reputation tarnished, an object lesson to other German-language editors and publications. [34]

Even the divided loyalties of the Hearst-owned Journal, which, despite its pro-German political leanings had always displayed a profoundly American cultural predisposition, would no longer do in these trying times: "100% Americanism" became the order of the day following the United States' entry into the war, an objective best reached among immigrants by "Erasing the Hyphen," according to the New York City Mayor's Committee on National Defense (129). On March 2, the Journal began printing miniature American flags along the top border of its editorial page in visual indication of its loyalty. Not long thereafter, it changed its name from the Deutsches Journal ("America's Greatest German Newspaper," according to its masthead) to New Yorker deutsches Journal (note lowercase "d") — "An American Paper printed in German in behalf of American Unity and Universal Democracy."

In keeping with the pattern established during the years of American neutrality — only more so, now — the Journal continued promoting films that featured anti-German stereotypes: late 1917's The Spy, for example, which "attempted to lay bare the German government's spy network in this country," according to Isenberg, and "came complete with false whiskers . . . and other indispensable apparatus" (183). In a particularly pathetic display of patriotism, Hans und Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids, became Mike and Aleck, the "Shenanigan Kids," claiming Dutch ancestry for the remainder of the war and only reverting back to their German selves in 1920 — an event the Journal itself was not to witness (Horn 164). For in its most drastic display of patriotism, the newspaper on April 21, 1918 placed an English-language notice on its front page. "In a supreme sacrifice in behalf of American unity," the Journal wrote, it was suspending publication with immediate effect. Thus, in the first of several disappearing acts, the Hearst-owned newspaper simply ceased to exist. [35]

Interestingly, the Staats-Zeitung, which had formerly referred to its rival as an anti-German "sensational rag of cheese cloth," immediately cast itself in the role of the Journal's heir apparent. [36] On the very day the latter publication folded, the Staats-Zeitung, as hyper-American now as it had once been pro-German, ran the following bilingual front-page message: "To the Newsdealers. The Deutsches Journal having suspended publication, we would appreciate your recommendation of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung to the former readers of the Deutsches Journal." The German-language version of this plea added a note to Staats-Zeitung readers assuring them of the newspaper's continued "efforts to be both an outstanding advertising medium, and also a mediator for the understanding of American institutions." [36] If, among those American institutions, the Staats-Zeitung meant to include film, however — the medium it had once denigrated as "the lowliest of all" — it was unable to bring itself to wholeheartedly embrace this formerly despised stepchild of the arts. "The film industry's products remain what they always have been: a trivial pastime for overgrown children," the newspaper sniffed in 1918: "entertainment for the masses — for the less educated who are not inclined to engage in serious thought." [37]

Former readers of the Journal who turned to the Staats-Zeitung in hopes of finding coverage of the film industry's staple fare of war movies were thus to be disappointed. Released within days of the Journal's folding in April 1918, D.W. Griffith's epic Hearts of the World , for example, the most famous of America's wartime anti-German films, ran for weeks in New York without so much as a single mention in the Staats-Zeitung. Perhaps the newspaper, notwithstanding its newfound American patriotism, could simply not stomach the extreme anti-German imagery to which the film stooped, including its scenes of "violence, violation, and blood-letting," and "girls harassed by German officers who had trapped them in an underground dugout" (Nasaw, Going Out 217). It was precisely the kind of film whose spectacular action sequences — all "impressively realistic," according to the New York Times — would have justified its obnoxious Hun-baiting in the pages of the former Journal. [38] Despite a professed desire to attract its erstwhile rival's readership, however, the Staats-Zeitung ignored the film.

Not that there is any evidence of the Staats-Zeitung having succeeded in its effort to win over the readers of the now defunct Journal in the first place. On the contrary, the Staats-Zeitung experienced a precipitous decline in circulation following America's entry into the war, even after its 1919 merger with a lesser German daily, the New Yorker Herold. [39] It is unlikely, therefore, that the Staats-Zeitung absorbed the Journal's fifty thousand readers, whose own mysterious disappearance represents the second vanishing act of this story. For those wondering, an insight once offered by sociologist Robert E. Park suggests where the readers left homeless by the folding of the German Journal may have gone. Writing in 1925, Park noted "that the most successful of the Hearst papers, the New York Evening Journal, gains a new body of subscribers every six years. Apparently it gets its readers mainly from immigrants. They graduate into Mr. Hearst's press from the foreign-language press" (96). In fact, judging from available circulation figures, it seems quite possible that Hearst's German-language readers went directly from the Journal . . . to the Journal — to Hearst's English-language Evening Journal, that is, whose circulation swelled by tens of thousands from 1918-1920, as well as to its morning edition (and the German Journal's longtime English-language sister publication), now called the New York American, whose Sunday circulation increased by 200,000 during the same time period. Even though it is impossible to ascertain the identity of those included in these anonymous figures, it is probable — indeed, likely — that former readers of the German Journal numbered somewhere within their ranks. [40] After all, what more logical place to go, after years of patronizing a Hearst-owned German-language tabloid, than to the English-language press of the publisher whose paper had for years been a force in shaping their worldview and cultural inclination and, in so doing, had readied them for this decisive step toward their full Americanization.

If one accepts the hypothesis that the increased circulations of the American and the Evening Journal were at least partially the result of new readers gained from immigrant and, more specifically, from German-American ranks, the large increase of the Sunday circulation of the American is of particular relevance. It helps explain how even German readers not yet proficient in the use of the English language may have made the transition. For a lavishly illustrated Sunday paper like the American was, Park noted, one "a man would buy even if he could not read it. He went in for the pictures, first in black and white and then in colors . . . then followed the comic section and all the other devices with which we are familiar for compelling a dull-minded and reluctant audience to read" (Park 96). Certainly, former readers of the German Journal would have re-encountered in the American all their favorite comic strip characters, and enjoyed anew the mischief of the Katzenjammer — now Shenanigan — Kids, no longer translated into straight German but instead speaking in their original, and ridiculous, "Dutch"-English pidgin. Here, too, they would have found ads and reviews promoting Weber and Fields, still performing their Dutch Act to packed houses and, of course, coverage of Griffith's Hearts of the World , which the Staats-Zeitung ignored, but which the American called "a monster success" and "the greatest motion picture of them all." No longer compelled to rationalize the anti-German bias of mean-spirited ethnic stereotypes, Hearst's no-longer-German readers of the American — "An American Paper for American People" — would have shuddered along with all others at the newspaper's description of the film's portrayal of life under "the iron heel of the invader" and its depiction of "German officers . . . holding a wild orgy" and "attacking French girls . . . with harrowing consequences." Perhaps, too, they would have joined in "the wild cheers from the audience" at the sight of "the newly arriving American soldiers . . . shown marching with . . . the Allies [as they] retake the village." [41] If so, such a response would at last have heralded their irreversible disavowal of all former German national loyalty, and would have signaled once and for all their arrival as full-fledged Americans.

"Since assimilation was an ultimate goal," sociologist Morris Janowitz once noted, "the success of the immigrant press could in some part be measured by its ability to destroy itself" (19). Judged by this measure, Hearst's German Journal was certainly a success, as was the assimilation of its formerly German ethnic readership, whose members in a manner of speaking also "destroyed," or at least re-invented themselves as American. Ultimately, even the Staats-Zeitung and its readers could not but follow suit. Within a generation of the war, by the early 1950s, the newspaper's circulation was down to just 25,000, at which time the once defiantly ethnocentric Staats-Zeitung was reduced to "present[ing] its readers a crossword puzzle, book reviews, letters from readers, gossip about Hollywood, radio, and television," all "according to the standard [American] pattern." The once proud flagship of the German-language press in America — itself now effectively a thing of the past — had become, in the words of Carl Wittke, historian of German ethnic journalism, a publication "like any other American city daily" (290-91).

Finally, along with the German-language press and its readers, the German ethnic stereotype too gradually disappeared from the post-war American socio-cultural landscape. Looking back, Erich von Stroheim, who had himself portrayed one of Griffith's pillaging Huns in 1918's Hearts of the World , noted that the stereotype had always been "exaggerated in the extreme. The typical German officer [during World War I]," he wrote, exchanging one stereotype for another, "was tall, blond, blue-eyed and generally handsome, but you couldn't arouse the hatred of the audience against a chap like that." In order to achieve such hatred, the stereotype had therefore borrowed from earlier, nineteenth century conceptions of the German as a crew-cut, beer-swilling, mustachioed buffoon and added elements taken from his more vicious, bomb-throwing incarnation during the anarchist scare of the eighteen eighties. Thus was created the "fearsome monstrosity" of the wartime Hun. Some twenty years later, however, with Germans once again positioned to be America's enemy abroad, the old stereotype was not resurrected. "Today," von Stroheim observed in 1941, "we abstain from our former exaggeration." Contemporary films vilifying the Nazis "use[d] good-looking men for German officers," he wrote, who were "by no means the types we remember from the good old days" (X4).

Anecdotal as von Stroheim's assessment was, its overall thrust is verified by a review of World War II-era propaganda. Gone were the beer-bellied, hairy-faced Huns of yesteryear: though as evil as ever, the Nazis of Hollywood and American print culture's war posters, and fifth columnists too, were generally trim and clean shaven, physically indistinguishable from Americans. [41] In a way, it made perfect sense. Having helped German-Americans during World War I recognize their ethnic traits, habits, and appearance as markers of otherness and therefore as potential liabilities, and having thereby facilitated their embrace of a self-consciously American identity instead, the former ethnic stereotype had fulfilled and, in consequence, outlived its purpose. After all, ethnic parody only works if its target is identifiable. Yet in postwar America, bumbling Germans and marauding Huns had become signifiers without a referent. In terms of their political influence, historian Austin App observes, Germans "had been eliminated" (36). Similarly, in terms of ethnicity, they had contracted "a sort of cultural amnesia," according to Frederick Luebke: "They spoke almost no German and knew little of German culture. Few participated in ethnic associational activities of any kind. Their ethnic heritage had almost no importance for their daily lives" (295). They had, in a word, vanished as a recognizable ethnic group in American culture and society, and along with them their caricature had too. Facilitating the community's vanishing act, the present essay has argued, had been one of the caricature's tacit objectives all along. In this respect, the post-World War I disappearance of the stereotype — which had evolved for more than a century but was now finally laid to rest — represents the best evidence of its own success.

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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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