Who, Exactly, Were the “Huns”?

Discussions of Minneapolis during World War I in a recent post have pointed to another factor that may have reinforced the willingness of the park board to sell the first Longfellow Field to Minneapolis Steel and Machinery as the company expanded to fulfill military contracts: Theodore Wirth, the superintendent of Minneapolis parks was a German speaker and, based on newspaper accounts from early in his tenure as parks superintendent in Minneapolis, he spoke English with a German accent.

Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis parks superintendent, 1906-1935.

Not only did the president of the park board, Francis Gross, have close ties to German immigrants and descendants as president of the German-American Bank, and, presumably spoke German, based on accounts of his speeches, but the park board’s top administrator, Wirth, who was from Winterthur, Switzerland, only several miles from the German border, also spoke German. Seems suspicious, nein?

Even though Wirth had immigrated to the U.S. thirty years earlier, was not from Germany, and Switzerland was neutral during the war, I don’t know if those distinctions were known or made by most people. Could someone like Wirth have felt pressure to profess or demonstrate his “loyalty” to the U.S.—perhaps by agreeing to the sale of park land to a growing munitions maker?

Remember those were days of loyalty oaths, “Americanization” meetings, and arrests of “enemy aliens.” I recently read that the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, German-born Karl Muck, was arrested as an enemy alien in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March, 1918. He was accused of nefariously featuring too many German composers in his programs—damn that Beethoven!—and was suspected of using his score markings as a secret code. His claim that he was a naturalized citizen of Switzerland proved true, but didn’t keep him from being locked up in a prison camp in rural Georgia for 17  months. He had been offered a conducting job once by Kaiser Wilhelm. He was kept in prison for ten months after the end of the war that made the world safe for democracy, perhaps to ensure that he wouldn’t detonate a lethal Eroica in a crowded concert hall.

Wirth’s native tongue and the proximity to Germany of his hometown may have had no bearing on his standing in Minneapolis or on park board actions during WWI, but in a world where musicians could be locked up for their taste in fugues, it is not out of the question that it crossed someone’s mind. Especially when you read of speeches like those of former President Theodore Roosevelt on a stop in Minneapolis in October 1918. Minneapolis Tribune reporter George E Akerson wrote on October 8:

Theodore Roosevelt, American’s foremost private citizen, yesterday preached his gospel of thorough-going Americanism, to more than 15,000 persons in Minneapolis. At five different meetings, the former president, exhibiting all of his old time aggressiveness, delivered his message, never missing an opportunity to pillory the “Huns within our gates” along with the “Huns without.”

Theodore Roosevelt addressing more than 5,000 workers at Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, October 7, 1918. As WWI neared its end, Roosevelt urged vigilance against the “Huns within.” His black armband signified that he had lost a son in the war. (Minnesota Historical Society.)

Roosevelt was not referring specifically to Germans as much as to those he perceived as enemies of the U.S government, but that would have been a fine distinction to those reading the lead quoted above. The taint of all Germans, past and present, could easily be inferred. One of Roosevelt’s five speeches in his one-day stop in Minneapolis was at the munitions factory of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, pictured above.

The derogatory “Hun” to describe Germans was derived from the Huns of Attila fame and equated with “barbarian.” Germans and Huns had little in common historically, but the term was a staple of Allied propaganda during the war. Some older warriors, such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, stuck with the term in WWII, but “Krauts” became the more popular alternative.

David C. Smith


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