Immigration has been a regular theme to date during US President Donald Trump’s administration, but it has played a role throughout American history. Here, we follow on from past articles (on strained 19thcentury politics here and Chinese immigration here) and look at the use of anti-German propaganda in America during World War One.  Jonathan Hennika explains (his site here).

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

For political observers, the use of the migrant caravan working its way north to the United States border by President Trump and his supporters as a mid-term election scare tactic came as nosurprise. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.” Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016, at the Old Post Office Pavilion, Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C.[i] Such words were never spoken by the Chief Executive of the United Statesbeforethe era of President Trump. While addressing the delegates of the United Nationsin September 2018, President Trump proudly declared: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”[ii]

President Trump had been laying the groundwork for his imagined bogeyman for some time.  Reporting on a pre-election speech given by the President, The New York Times concluded, “President Trump’s closing argument is now clear: Build tent cities for migrants. End birthright citizenship. Fear the caravan. Send active-duty troops to the border. Refuse asylum. Immigration has been the animating issue of the Trump Presidency, and now…the president has fully embraced a dark, anti-immigrant message in the hope that stoking fear will motivate voters to reject Democrats.”[iii]

A tactic used in any campaign of fear of the foreigner is the labeling of the other as a threat to the American public or national security. Characterizing the caravan, the President declared at a White House Press conference, that it was made up of “a lot of young men…and a lot of men we maybe don’t want in our country…they have injured; they have killed.”[iv]While this type of scare tactic has been used before in American politics, nonehadachieved the level of an unassuming newspapermanfrom Colorado in 1916.


George Creel and the Committee on Public Information

On the eve of America’s entry into World War One, President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “It is not an army that we must shape and train for war. It is a nation… The whole nation must be a team.” Tounite the nation into the team needed to fight Nationalism and militarism that was at the heart of the First World War, President Wilson leaned heavily on the former muckraking journalist George Creel. Creel, an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1916, wrote a brief that came to the attention of the scholarly Wilson. The author/historian Jon Dos Pasos wrote the Creel brief, “summed up the arguments for and against official wartime censorship and suggested that what was needed was not suppression, but expression; in other words, a publicity campaign to sell the war to the nation.”[v]Early in the creation, Creeland the Committee for Public Information (CPI) decided the United States was fighting to save democracy for the world. If the United States was the hero, a villain was needed. After the sinking of the cruise ship Lusitania, the Kaiser and unrestricted submarine warfare made it easy for Germany to play theroleof the villain. 

By 1910 the Library of Congress estimated the German-bornpopulation in America to be 2.3 million.[vi]As with all ethnic groups that came to America, the German community was close-knit, often reading newspapers or attending church services that were primarily in German. At the onset of the United States entry into the war in 1917, Americanization came to German sounding street or city names by renaming them in honor of the General in charge of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing or honoringthe innocent victim of German militarism, neutral Belgium.

As Creel and his propagandists poured out an anti-German message soon there appearedsubtle changes in the German influence on the melting pot of American culture.  The German staple sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage. The banning of Germanlanguage instruction in public schools and colleges was commonplace. The ban was the central point of discussion in the 1919 case before the Supreme Court Meyer v Nebraska. 

Esteemed German composers and conductors confronted the face of the fear campaign. KarlMuck, the conductor of the Boston SymphonyOrchestra,faced ostracization as a result of anti-German sentiment. After receiving a request by political clubs and civic organizations,out of Providence, Rhode Island Muckwas instructed by the founder and manager of the BSO to not open the October 30, 1916 performance with the star-spangled banner. Later performances had to be canceleddue to the anti-German backlash. Even the music of Wagner did not escape criticism, “the Wagner cult in music has naturally spread, together with the Kaiser cult in politics.”[vii]


Let the Images Speak for Themselves

Some of the most chilling anti-German themes came from the propaganda posters. In images that served as inspiration for the anti-Japanese campaign of World War Two, the German, or Hun, was portrayed as a hulking beast, raping and pillaging across Europe (see the above/below images).

The world recently celebrated the centennial of the Armistice.  Shortly after the war ended, America turned inward, shunning it’s new found place on the world stage. The world was changing; the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia; Germany fellinto a gripping economic depression as a result of the cost of the peace; and the militarism the world had fought against would see a resurgence in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Tojo’s Japan. While the world changed, the United States imposed even harsher immigration controls in the 1920s. The use of fear of the other, so easily demonstrated by George Creel, had a lasting impact and informedUnited States immigration policy into the 21stcentury, as evidencedby President Trump'srhetoric.


What do you think of the use of anti-German propaganda during World War One? Let us know below.

[i]Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), Kindle Edition.

[ii]UPI, Full text: President Donald Trump's Speech to United Nations, September 25, 2018.

[iii]Michel D. Shear and Julie Hirschefiled Davis, “As Midterm Vote Nears, Trump Reprises a Favorite Message: Fear Immigrants,” New York Times, November 1, 2018.


[v]John Dos Pasos, Mr. Wilson’s War(New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1962), 300.

[vi]The Germans in America, Library of Congress,

[vii]J.E. Vacha, “When Wagner was Verboten: The Campaign against German Music in World War I,” New York History64 (1983): 173-4.

Further American anti-German Propaganda from World War One

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.