A Question of Loyalty


(For some three-quarters of a century, ethnic Germans had stood at the forefront of malt beverage production and consumption in Cincinnati, indeed across the United States, as Prohibition became an increasing threat during the 1910s. In one of the great ironies of American history, the very people who revolutionized beer production in the United States - German immigrants - unwittingly contributed to its downfall, as the target of an anti-German hysteria brought on by a World War that took place a continent away. As this excerpt from Over the Barrel, Volume One shows us, anti-alcohol forces skillfully exploited wartime passions to question the loyalty of America's largest immigrant group, and turn popular sentiment toward Prohibition, in one fell swoop.

  More than any other issue, World War I and the role of the United States in it polarized the debate on Prohibition, and provided its supporters with the emotional element needed to undermine the arguments of the brewing industry. Initially many Americans saw the conflict as a war fought on European soil, without direct concern to the United States and its citizens. But after a series of incidents which labeled Germany as an enemy of American interests, greater emphasis was placed upon demonstrations of loyalty and patriotism to the United States. In few areas was this tendency as pronounced as in the brewing industry, dominated by the German-American element, and particularly in Cincinnati as a center of German-American culture. Aided significantly by the anti-German hysteria which spread rapidly upon American entry into the war, dry forces gained an immeasurable advantage in the wartime debate on the Prohibition question, and through impassioned rhetoric exploited the strong anti-German sentiment in the campaign to enact anti-alcohol legislation.
Covington Brewing Company workers in front of the brewery, early 1900s

Mid- to late nineteenth century statistical data showed that ethnic Germans constituted the majority of brewery employees in Cincinnati. In 1870 there were 488 persons employed as brewers and maltsters in Cincinnati, of whom 330 were natives of Germany and only 119 native-born Americans. The trend held true for other regions of Ohio with a large German population; in 1870 Ohio brewers and maltsters employed 1,342 workers, 927 of whom were born in Germany compared with 261 in America. In contrast, American-born workers outnumbered the German-born by more than a two-to-one ratio-29,519 to 12,660-in all manufacturing classes in Cincinnati by the 1880s. On a national level the story was much the same: by 1870 German-born brewers outnumbered the American-born by almost three-to-one, at 6,780 to 2,715,30 a gap which had narrowed only marginally by 1880 at 9,925 to 4,057. Since Ohio at the time employed the second largest number of brewery workers (1,744) of all states, the welfare of its brewing industry remained of obvious importance to the German-American element, and in subsequent years became a particularly sensitive issue.

During the first decade of the twentieth century the Cincinnati German-American community began a campaign to counter the rapid rise in prohibition sentiment. In word the movement was opposed by a series of publications and lectures designed to enlighten citizens to the impending threat, while in deed the organized demonstration became a favorite means of protest. One such event took place in Cincinnati on July 21, 1907, when the German-American Alliance held a public gathering at Coney Island dubbed "Puritanism against Liberalism." In the view of local Germans, the issue was a simple matter of freedom, one of particular importance to immigrants who had left behind an oppressive homeland:

Whether one set of men shall prescribe to another what they shall eat or drink, and how they shall find their amusements is the question of the day.

Our forefathers came to this country for freedom in religious and social practices and now the New Englander wishes to delegate to himself the right to establish his standard as the standard for all. To this not only the Germans but all lovers of freedom object.
Wiedemann's German Village, a Newport landmark circa 1905

Into the early 1910s Cincinnati brewers and German-American societies combined to demonstrate the extent to which Prohibition would harm the industry, not to mention the national economy. An October 1910 publication of the Deutsche Schutzen-Gesellschaft of Covington noted that the government received approximately $80,000,000 in taxes from beer sales the year before, and showed that the Wiedemann Brewing Company bottled enough beer in the course of a day to cover an acre of ground, an amount which, combined with the output of other Cincinnati breweries, amounted to about one-fortieth of the national production of bottled beer. In an appeal to labor interests the Deutsche Schutzen-Gesellschaft also stressed that American brewery workers received from two to three times as much in wages per day as their counterparts in Germany; and that breweries employed more workers and salesmen, used more raw ingredients, supported more related industries, and occupied more real estate than other businesses. The clear implication was that the termination of such vital activity, involving over 1,500 breweries and 50,000 employees in the case of national prohibition, would have dire consequences for all involved.

The beginning of World War I in Europe in 1914 occasioned partisan sentiment on both sides of the struggle, and led to a polarization of attitudes in areas of strong multiethnic concentration. Despite the lack of direct American involvement in the conflict, overt demonstrations of support for the German war effort within the Cincinnati German-American community led to a simmering anti-German sentiment. Local German-language newspapers such as the Volksblatt and the Freie Presse heralded German victories on the battlefield, and openly complained of a "pro-English bias" in the Cincinnati Times-Star-a move which hardly endeared the German-American community to Times-Star publisher Charles P. Taft, of the influential political family and the half-brother of former President William Howard Taft. During 1914-1915 Cincinnati German-American organizations raised over $140,000 for German war victims, through private donations and the sale of German war bonds. Public demonstrations in support of the German war effort further linked the German-American community to the Fatherland, such as an August 1914 rally attended by the mayor of Cincinnati, Frederick Spiegel-subsequently described by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a "loyal German"-and held in the German language.
Questioning the loyalty of German-American brewers, 1917

Such activities were not soon forgotten by the many Americans of non-German descent, contributing to an intense anti-German hysteria which boiled over upon American entry into the war in 1917. Since the American brewing industry was predominantly German in nature, and maintained close ties with German-American societies, brewing activity received considerable attention with regard to the possibility of disloyalty to the American war cause. The Anti-Saloon League and other dry organizations recognized the unique opportunity presented to them by the anti-German sentiment, and quickly mobilized to attack the vulnerable position of native German brewers in American society. With increased frequency the Anti-Saloon League played on public opinion to question the loyalties of German brewers, shrewdly linking breweries to a list of institutions whose right to exist had been called into question in the midst of the growing anti-German hysteria:

Everything in this country that is pro-German is Anti-American. Everything that is pro-German must go. The German press. The teaching of German in the elementary schools, at least. German Alliances and the whole German propaganda must be abolished. A great American patriotism is essential to national existence. Any alliance that weakens it, is an enemy and should be treated as such. The brewers and allied liquor trades that back such an alliance should suffer the same penalty.

Mindful of American distrust of the German element, the ASL exhibited a strongly nativist attitude toward German immigrants with a taste for lager beer, inviting them to leave the country if they were unwilling to support the "patriotic" cause of Prohibition:

If Prohibition is so obnoxious to this class of Germans as ... statements indicate, they will either be compelled to change their habits and adjust themselves to the new environment, or else find some beer-soaked, Bacchus-dominated spot in the fatherland and go there. Americans are too patriotic to harbor an enemy of the public good within her borders, when by prohibiting it they can better carry out the purpose of government and promote the general welfare.

In a virtual repeat of the nativist sentiment of the 1850s, ASL proponents targeted the drinking immigrant as a primary source of crime and immoral behavior, and packaged the message in an effective mix of statistical information and impassioned rhetoric sustained by the anti-German climate of World War I. But Anti-Saloon League supporters were far from the only commentators to invoke ethnicity in considering the drink question. Representatives of the German element within the brewing industry moved to shift the blame for lawless behavior to other peoples-and other beverages-in their quest to vindicate the German-American community:

It is easy to prove that in America, for example, it is not the beer-drinking Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians who commit the most crimes, but instead the hard liquor- and alcohol-rich patent medicine drinking Americans and, in part, the Slavs. [It is they who] commit the worst transgressions, when they are drunk on spirits. Good beer and pure wines are not harmful, but rather are highly useful beverages.
Dry propaganda in Cincinnati, 1918

Most visible among the anti-German targets during the 1910s was the National German-American Alliance, which had maintained close bonds with the brewing community over a period of years. When the Alliance fell under suspicion of disloyalty upon American entry into the war, the longtime association quickly became a political liability and provided the ASL with an unmistakable target in Ohio and other states with a high concentration of ethnic Germans. During the 1917 campaign for a statewide prohibition amendment, the Ohio Dry Federation distributed brochures which implicitly questioned the loyalties of German-American brewing interests, particularly those with close ties to the National German-American Alliance. In one notable example made available throughout Cincinnati, the Federation greatly simplified the complexities of the amendment vote, and in tone appealed to "loyal citizens" to approach the election as a referendum on patriotism:

Will any voter with an ounce of patriotism in his make-up, cast his ballot November 6 for a traffic which entertains and proclaims ... disloyal views? A dry vote in Ohio this year is a vote of allegiance to Uncle Sam in this war crisis, and it is a vote of condemnation of the disloyal tactics practiced by the pro-German brewers. ...

Beer has made Germany into what she is today. Beer in this country is pro-German. The German-American Alliance has for its chief object the perpetuation of beer. Let Ohio and the country get rid of this brutalizing un-American beverage.

The ASL likewise exhibited no small amount of disingenuousness when it linked American brewing interests to several of the most emotional events of World War I. Again through an appeal to "loyal citizens," the organization stressed that brewing industry funds were tied to the sinking of the Lusitania-despite a lack of evidence to establish a connection-and other hostile German acts. Invariably the ASL and its indefatigable leader, Wayne Wheeler, exploited the wartime emotions of the public and called upon the American people to take a stand against the German element-and by extension the brewing industry-through an "all-or-nothing" commitment to exclusively American interests and principles, and with an intensity of rhetoric that became a trademark of the organization:

No patriot can defend the brewers and allied trades in this unpatriotic act. How can any loyal citizen, be he wet or dry, help or vote for a trade that is aiding a pro-German alliance? The time is here for a division between unquestioned and undiluted American patriots, and slackers and enemy sympathizers. A German Alliance that carries on a propaganda for Germany or a brewers' association that backs it, has no claim on a patriot. The challenge to every 100 per cent American is to strike the hyphen from the German-American Alliance and make it an American alliance or destroy it. That task cannot be completed as long as its partners in disloyalty, the pro-German brewers and their allies, are allowed to gather money from the people to betray the government. The most patriotic act that the Congress or any Legislature or the people can do ... is to abolish the un-American, pro-German, crime-producing, food-wasting, youth-corrupting, home-wrecking, treasonable liquor traffic.
Stereotyping the German-Americans in a University of Cincinnati songbook, 1907

Brewing industry leaders found it difficult to counter the anti-German mood in light of prevailing wartime sentiments, but did not hesitate to lash out at the prohibitionists. Cincinnati-based brewery labor representatives frequently implied that supporters of prohibition legislation in fact were the disloyal Americans, and that the issue represented a divisive topic at a moment of required national unity:

Confiscation of hundreds of millions of dollars of property, elimination of millions of dollars in revenues [comes] at a time when every voice of the Government is heard in appeal to its citizens to come forward and do their share.

Why is the Government not making an investigation into the ramifications of these traitors who have never contributed one cent towards the maintenance of the Government and its institutions? Is it not time to stop looking for the enemies amongst the foreign-born, loyal, tax-paying Americans, who only ask for the privilege of life and the pursuit of happiness as guaranteed in the Constitution?

Brewers took particular exception to Anti-Saloon League charges of disloyalty, especially that German-American brewers provided financial backing for the German war machine. In fact the United States Brewers' Association passed a resolution on April 4, 1917-two days before an American declaration of war against Germany-which offered complete support of the United States and its armed forces, and thus formalized its commitment to the host nation regardless of ethnic considerations:

At this critical juncture, the United States Brewers' Association places itself unreservedly at the service of the President of the United States and pledges him its unqualified support in any measure he may take in behalf of our beloved country.

We further pledge ourselves individually and collectively to any service that may be deemed necessary in order that the honor of our flag, the integrity of our nation and the spirit of our institutions may be preserved.

The Association backed up its words with deeds, through voluntary conservation of raw materials and the sale of Liberty Bonds which ultimately raised $75,000,000 for the government. Among Cincinnati brewers the Bruckmann Brewing Company purchased $14,093 in Liberty Bonds during fiscal 1919, an indication of its support for the United States war cause even during demobilization. Area brewery workers also belied rumors of disloyalty by enlisting in the United States Army shortly after American entry into the war; in one case ten of the "most promising bottlers" at the Wiedemann Brewing Company enlisted in July 1917, while some seventy-five percent of the 125 total bottling room employees stood within the selective service draft age. Yet although brewing industry representatives made important gestures of support for the American war effort, and more often than not took the high road in comparison with the ASL, it soon became evident that the patriotic message and impassioned rhetoric of the dry forces attracted significantly more attention in the battle for public support, particularly among voters already aroused by the anti-German sentiment engendered by the war.

A curious footnote was added to the wartime experience of the German-American community with the beginning of Prohibition. Long known as a primary immigrant group in the United States, native Germans increasingly contemplated a return emigration to Germany, despite its difficult postwar situation, due in large part to the ethnicity-based attacks of the prohibition movement. In particular brewery labor unions-which represented no small number of Germans in the workplace-foresaw a mass exodus of good workers tired of oppressive treatment:

Among the Germans who will leave the country (and there will be quite a number) will be many who will never be able to accommodate themselves to prohibition and who will never submit to this tyrannical yoke. Many Germans will also return to Europe because they are continually treated here as undesirable citizens and are regarded as intruders, being sick and tired of being hounded and insulted, for what has all been pulled off here since the war began in the line of baiting and nagging the Germans is beyond belief.

The Cincinnati-based International Brewery Workers' Union, which continued to represent brewery workers during Prohibition, also issued a belated defense of the German immigrants, summarizing the contradiction between traditional American respect for the German element and its wartime perception:

When we recall how the Germans were esteemed here before the war, how their praise was sung at every suitable and unsuitable occasion, we can't explain the present attitude. The politicians raised the Germans up into the seventh heaven; the clergymen preached their virtues from the pulpit; the American employers agreed that the German workers were the best and most reliable of all, and the authorities said that they were the best, most loyal, thrifty, orderly and law-abiding citizens of the country.

Now, is it possible that since the outbreak of the war the character of the Germans here in America has undergone such a change for the worse? Certainly not! The Germans here are the same as they always were. But who will blame one born and raised in Germany if he still has a warm spot in his heart for his old home, for those of his relatives and friends still living there? Are the Germans in America to be held responsible for the acts and crimes of an autocratic, despotic junker gang of rulers, whom we detest as much as anybody else? Never! Such a responsibility must be emphatically rejected.

Ultimately the union speculation of a wholesale emigration of Germans proved unfounded, as most remained in their adopted nation and put the wartime experience behind them. Yet in the long run a high price was paid by the German element, particularly in a cultural sense: the German presence in America was driven underground, and never again assumed the prominence it had attained before World War I. The brewing industry felt the same loss during future generations, when the latent Germanness which had become its hallmark found little expression after Prohibition. Beer would continue to be associated with the German element, but as it turned out, the Germans themselves became increasingly harder to find.

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© 2001 Timothy J. Holian, Sudhaus Press