The local anti-German sentiment of World War I

As mentioned in this column several weeks ago, for those who have not been following along with Teena Kracht’s “100 Years Ago” column that accompanies this feature each week, you are really missing out on some fascinating history.

A 1917 anti-German poster for the sale of war bonds.

A 1917 anti-German poster for the sale of war bonds.

While the events surrounding World War I as they were unfolding in Europe each and every day is engrossing unto itself, the impact of the war and how it affected Manistee, is just as involving, particularly the anti-German sentiment that forced local, pioneer families and those with different views, to be looked down upon. While we can always chalk the past up to the old saying, “It was a different day and age…”, often times the parallels to history are eerily similar to how the world is today.

Upon her coverage of everything 100 Years Ago, the following articles were compiled by Teena Kracht who brought them to my attention by her keen eye and research prowess. It must be stated that these are just a small portion of what was taking place in Manistee during that tumultuous time.

With the United States declaring war on Germany in April of 1917, many local boys and men were either drafted into service or quick to volunteer to go off and fight. Along with this call of duty, came an overwhelming sense of patriotism and (eventually) along with this patriotism came things like the conservation for the “war effort” of not only food, but sugar, flour, coal, wool, electricity, etc. It was ingrained in the people of the time that if you did not conserve, you were not considered to be patriotic.

In addition, citizens were expected (and just about demanded) to donate money to the Red Cross as well as purchase war bonds.

Keeping in mind that Manistee was (and is) a melting pot of many ethnic groups including French, Polish, Irish, Scandinavian, and German, by the summer and fall of 1917, paranoia had set in and the German populace of Manistee were suspect. An article published in the Manistee News Advocate on September 6, 1917 reminds readers that spies could be lurking anywhere:

“German spies!

“That was the expression on many lips when the fire department received a call at 10:30 this morning to the Manistee Shipbuilding company, which began operations this week.

“However, the alarm was caused by nothing more sinister than some burning grass on the Manistee Iron Works property behind the Pere Marquette depot. It required 20 minutes to snuff out the blaze, because it had worked down to a depth of two feet into the accumulation of bark beneath the grass.”

Roughly one week later, a fight broke out between a drafted soldier of German heritage (whose family had been a partner in the local brewery) and an Irish citizen. Details on the fight, in which fisticuffs were brandished, were published on Sept. 14, 1917 in the Manistee News Advocate:

“Charged with expressing sympathy for the Germans and with fighting on the public streets, Joseph Gambs, Jr., 24, this morning was sentenced by Justice Erb to pay the costs of the case amounting to $11.55, or to be confined in the county jail until the same was paid, not to exceed 20 days. Gambs paid.

“Gambs and James Sherlock became embroiled when the former made some uncomplimentary remarks concerning the Irish and further statements that he was a German but would probably have to fight for the Irish. The fracas occurred near the Pabst Café on River street about 11:30 last night.

“Testimony of several witnesses was that Gambs had acted in a manner plainly demonstrating his favorable attitude with the kaiser’s policies. Recruiting Officer Leech testified that Gambs had proven that he was in sympathy with Germany. Chief of Police Tom Grady made a statement pertaining to several remarks Gambs had made in a saloon recently. Other witnesses testified both for and against him.

“Motorcycle Officer Olk, who made the arrests, stated that Gambs had struck Sherlock after he had taken the latter into custody and after he was defenseless. One or two other witnesses made the same statement.

“The case against Sherlock was dismissed, after testimony had proven he was attempting to defend the name of his country. Gambs freely admitted he was of German ancestry and that he was proud of it, but declared that he would willingly fight for the United States if Sherlock would.

“Gambs is among the drafted men from this county, and may be called into service. He has a brother in the officers’ reserve training camp at Ft. Sheridan.”

An article published in the Nov. 8, 1917 issue of the Manistee News Advocate describes the point of the view of the Red Cross workers who, in going door-to-door, met several people disagreeable to the war effort:

“Here in Manistee last week, when a band of devoted women went from house to house soliciting support of the food conservation campaign, they encountered open hostility in a number of homes. A few women freely told them their sympathies were with the Germans. One woman said she intended to use more meat, more wheat bread and more sugar than usual if she could get it.

“Another, with a son eligible to selective service in the National Army, but who has not yet been called, calmly informed her visitors that her son was much too good a German to fight ‘his own countrymen.’ Yet he was born in America. If he is called, she said, ‘he would use his gun to shoot his own officers rather than to shoot against the Germans.’

“We do not believe the woman meant all this. But if she did, we not believe her son would do this. But isn’t it time to take the Germ out of Germans of this type?

“Beside hostility of this kind, the women encountered discourtesies and quite a few evidences of a malicious propaganda, insidiously spread against the conservation of food, similar to that which has recently been circulated of alleged misappropriation of gifts to the Red Cross. They met Socialists, who ranted at random being against everything and for nothing. But they did a splendid work and they have a record of some treasonable remarks as interesting souvenirs of their campaign.

“These are truly troublous times. American men are already spilling their life blood in defense of American ideals. But the most dangerous foe is not the one in front of them, with gun in hand, but the one behind, in their own home cities, with the weapon of slander, the poisoned tongue.”

Next week, we will continue to take a look at the anti-German sentiment during World War I as laws against German-born citizens are put into place and anti-war sympathizers are dealt with.

Read Teena Kracht’s full “100 Years Ago” column at:


Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531

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