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To Hell with Kaiser Bill!

I’m reading, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin.

Rubin had this great idea to interview living American veterans of World War One. Frankly, it was a race against the clock since all survivors of the Great War were well over 100 years old by the time Rubin got  to interview them.

The book is about more than the elderly doughboys and really shows a by-gone time that was the US in 1917-18.

For instance, Rubin has a chapter on Tin-Pan Alley, a certain section in Manhattan where publishers cranked out music and I mean cranked out! Rubin maintains that back in WW1 days music was more than entertainment, although it certainly was that. Rubin says that music publishers were a lot like journalists because they documented events in their songs and they also editorialized in those same songs.

That’s where it got very interesting to me.

After the US entered the war (and somewhat before) the Tin Pan Alley publishers published a gazillion songs that were designed to pump up morale both at home and at the front. Rubin says most were junk but quite a few were quite good and serve to give a glimpse into that by-gone era that seems innocent (it wasn’t) compared to now.

One of the favorite themes of the songs was bashing Kaiser William II of Germany. The general idea was now that the US was in the war the doughboys would kick the Kaiser’s butt across the Rhine and naturally go all the way to Berlin.

Picture is scanned from Liberty's Victorious Conflict and under the heading, "The Guilty Lord's of War."

Picture is scanned from Liberty’s Victorious Conflict and under the heading, “The Guilty Lord’s of War.”

What is interesting about some of these songs is the characterization of Kaiser Bill. Here’s a sampling of song titles from Rubin’s book:

We’re Going to Hang the Kaiser Under the Linden Tree

The USA Will Lay the Kaiser Away

We’re Out for the Scalp of Mister Kaiser Man

The Kaiser Wanted More Territory so We Gave Him Hell

I’d Like to See the Kaiser with a Lily in His Hand

It’s useful in war to personify and demonize the enemy but I admit this took me a little by surprise until I thought about it for a while.

Why did Americans suddenly (it seems) vilify the Kaiser and Germans in general?

I’m not an expert but I think of some possible explanations that made the US so anti-Kaiser and anti-German.

1. I think Kaiser Bill was an easy guy for Americans to dislike. By and large Americans don’t like royalty (except for the fascination with the British Royals which strikes me as odd). The Kaiser just looks arrogant and just the kind of guy one would think would love to snatch up Europe-kind of  a Snidely Whiplash character with that thin mustache. The Kaiser just looks like the perfect villain.

2.  America was also pro-French back then. Perhaps it was the vague memory that the French saved our bacon during the War for Independence (simply because it weakened the British and certainly not because they were in love with American ideas of liberty). The pro-French attitude resulted in quite a few Americans volunteering to fight for France, some in the French Foreign Legion and others in the famous Lafayette Escadrille. Newspapers would have made a big deal out of our pre-war involvement on the side of the French. (See the movie Fly Boys, good flying scenes, poor history.)

3. This is where it gets a little tricky. Officially the US was neutral until April, 1917. However, being neutral didn’t mean unwilling to sell munitions to both sides. However, the British had the Germans bottled up in their ports tighter than a drum which meant selling to the Central Powers wasn’t going to happen. This led to the Germans sinking passenger liners (suspected of carrying munitions). Hence, the Lusitania incident in 1915 and what was called unrestricted submarine warfare. The Lusitania carried about 120 Americans and most went down with the ship. This created a huge out cry in the US and we nearly went to war then and there. The Kaiser, as head of state, naturally got the blame and that on top of the German invasion of little Belgium in 1914 seemed to sum up the impression that Kaiser Bill was indeed King of the German Huns.

4. Early in the war the British managed to cut  the cables on the ocean floor that led to communications with the Central Powers. This meant of course that the only news that got into American newspapers had a British\French spin to it thereby enabling the British  and French to easily win the propaganda war and create a strong pro-allied sentiment.

5. Britain was our largest trading partner anyway and since the east coast of the US benefited the most from that and that’s where all the big newspapers were it makes sense that the Kaiser and Germans in general would be easily demonized.

Whatever the reasons Kaiser Bill was the man Americans loved to hate in 1917-18.

Here’s a couple of personal stories regarding the Kaiser and WW1.

On my dad’s side I’m mostly Pommern (Pomeranian) German, an area that is now largely in Poland but back then a Prussian State within Germany.  My dad told me (without being able to verify) that as a little boy he remembers uncles who didn’t want to fight in WW1,  not because of loyalty to the Kaiser but because they felt strongly they’d be fighting relatives. From what I know my grand-father’s numerous brothers who were of draft age didn’t have to go. One was drafted but let go because of epilepsy. This contradicts my dad’s memory that he had at least one uncle who did serve and was gassed, dying in a V.A. Hospital in the 1930’s from the gas. On the other hand my dad grew up in “little Germany” on Milwaukee’s north side and was in a blended family. It’s possible he was remembering relatives from another side of his new family.

I would not be surprised in the least if the family didn’t think all that much of the Kaiser. After all, they left and had they stayed all would have served in the Prussian Army in some capacity-a fact that was undoubtedly unpopular and may have contributed to family immigrating in the 1870s as Bismarck unified the German States.

Om my mom’s side I’m German-Polish Pommern, again then part of Prussia. In fact, my Polish great-grandfather served two years in a Prussian Infantry Regiment in the 1890’s just prior to coming to the States. My mom told me more than once one of her memories is of her grand-mothers cursing the Kaiser. My mom was born in 1930 so the memory was probably 1940ish which is a long time after a war to curse a Kaiser. Clearly the guy was not popular even among German-Americans for quite a long time!

World War I changed America in general but German America in particular. But that’s a story for another time.



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