“A Folk Divided”: Swedish-Americans and WWI

The Swedes have always been considered desirable additions to American citizenry, perhaps for the reason that they leave a less noticeable trace in the fabric of our society than any other non-English-speaking stock. Their spirit, if not their costume and language, is American before they bid farewell to their friends at home. While their love for America does not crowd out the sentimental attachment to their native land, the vast difference between their condition in Sweden and in the land of freedom and opportunity is always green in their memory. They have been trained to industry, frugality, and manly self-reliance by the free institutions and scant resources of their native land.

George Stephenson, University of Minnesota (1919)

How did Swedish-Americans experience World War I? If the model immigrants that Stephenson made them out to be for his colleagues in the Mississippi Valley Historical Society, were they immune from the nativism I described briefly in the first post of this series?

Swedish pioneers in North Dakota, 1888

Swedish immigrants in North Dakota, 1888 – Library of Congress

To be sure, Swedish-Americans never experienced more than a fraction of the suspicion and even persecution directed at German-Americans in 1917-1918. (Or the Eastern European, especially Jewish, immigrants whose participation in radical politics made them the targets of persecution, especially during the Red Scare of 1918-1921.) But “hyphenates” who persisted in speaking a Germanic language ran headlong into a first in American history: an official, organized opposition to the use of any language other than English. During the war about twenty states moved to limit the public use of German — and other languages.

Iowa’s ban even extended to church services. “People weep,” grieved one Mission Covenant pastor, “because the Word of God has been taken from them and we are not able to communicate the Gospel in English.” Stephenson lamented that “…the patriotic zeal of the governor, who on his own responsibility issued a proclamation forbidding public worship in a foreign tongue, defeated its purpose by arousing a spirit of opposition to the government. Its effect was purely negative: it united the various racial groups, regardless of previous sympathies, in a determination to withstand the assault on what they believed to be their rights.”

Just to the north, meanwhile, the people of Bethel Academy and Seminary found themselves inhabiting a state where

all foreign-language newspapers were required to submit to official scrutiny all materials related to American foreign policy, until it could be established that they followed the “patriotic” line. The stance of the Swedish-American governor of the state, Joseph A.A. Burnquist, and his Committee of Public Safety [which I’ve previously noted as having harassed the German faculty at the University of Minnesota]  probably had a chilling effect on many who had previously used the immigrant languages both privately and publicly — including members of his own ethnic group. (Nils Hasselmo, “The Language Question,” Perspectives on Swedish Immigration, p. 240)

"Danger!! To Pro-Germans. Loyal Americans Welcome to Edison Park" - 1917 sign

From the Edison Park community in Chicago, 1917 – Library of Congress

But easy as it is, as Stephenson warned, “to brand all measures indorsed [sic] by the foreign-born, of whatever nationality, un-American and even disloyal,” it is also easy to forget this fact: before April 1917 (and even after, in a few cases), Swedish-Americans overwhelmingly opposed American entry into the war and were far more likely to sympathize with Germany than with its opponents.

“This was hardly surprising,” points out Arnold Barton in A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840-1940:

Swedes were accustomed to regard the Germans as a closely kindred people and Germany as the home of Martin Luther and the true Evangelical faith, of poets and philosophers, musicians and scientists. Army officers and engineers, scholars and artists, industrialists and labor union leaders could all find inspiration in Germany. All could agree, moreover, that a strong Germany was Europe’s bastion against Sweden’s ancient enemy, the empire of the Russian tsars, oppressor of Sweden’s former domains in the Baltic Provinces and Finland. In Swedish eyes, the war appeared—initially at least—above all as the crusade of Europe’s civilized heartland against the forces of Eastern barbarism. (p. 245)

An August 12, 1914 editorial in Minnesota’s largest Swedish newspaper, Minnesota Stats Tidning (I’m quoting here from Stephenson’s translation), illustrates Barton’s assessment nicely :

Russia is Sweden’s traditional enemy, the most treacherous and deceitful of all nations. If our Fatherland cannot remain neutral, an alliance with Germany is the most natural thing, since Sweden has so much in common with her — religion and culture, science and religion… For this reason Germany is a friend of Sweden; while history testifies to the fact that Russia has never been friendly except when her selfish interests could be advanced. It would be better to form an alliance with Germany than with Russia, with the knout or Siberia as possibilities for the future.

Statements like this led Swedish papers on the other side of the 49th parallel, whose government had quickly joined Britain in declaring war, to call for boycotts of the “German-crazed” Swedish press of Minneapolis.

(Sweden itself remained neutral, though pro-German sentiment was strong among many elites — King Gustav V being the most famous example. It did a healthy business trading with Germany, and even allowed the Germans to use Swedish ciphers to communicate with their embassies, to the irritation of the British.)

Germanophile (but not Russophobe) sentiments waned after the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, but that event also caused the Swedish immigrant press to argue ever more strongly for American neutrality. When Theodore Roosevelt called for war, another Minneapolis paper, Svenska Folkets Tidning, resorted to English to make clear its horror:

As long as Roosevelt was president we stood by him and even admired him, but since he became dictator and agitator, we have no regard for him. We thank God that he is not president now, during these troublesome times. If a poor foreigner had written such articles as Roosevelt has written lately in the magazines, then Roosevelt himself would declare war against such foreigner…

Despite what Stephenson called “the almost incurable inclination of the Swedes to vote” Republican, Roosevelt’s warmongering led a majority to support Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 election.

Even when the Germans’ resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare (and the fall of the tsarist autocracy in Russia) led Wilson to opt for war in spring 1917, Swedes continued to argue for neutrality. As late as the end of March 1917, Missionsvännen, the Mission Covenant paper, asked, “Why should our boys… be sent out to battlefields for the sake of European intrigues and for the protection of greedy militarists’ interests?” One day after Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, twelve Mission Covenant pastors sent a joint telegram to Washington: “Humanity can not be helped nor our rights and honor vindicated by dragging our country into the war in order to help one violator of international law and American rights punish the other.” In the debate in the House of Representatives, Ernest Lundeen claimed that Minneapolis voters opposed the war ten to one. In voting no to the declaration of war, Lundeen was joined by three colleagues representing largely German-American districts in Minnesota; six in the delegation voted yes.

Charles Lindbergh, Sr. and Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in 1917

From his July 1917 book Why Is Your Country at War?, Rep. Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. – with Charles, Jr. (ten years away from his famous flight)

(Another possible factor here… Alongside economic opportunity and religious freedom, one of the main causes of Swedish emigration was the desire to avoid the kingdom’s system of compulsory military service. That was the case for my great-great-grandpa Larson, who signed over the family farm to his son in order to secure him a draft deferment in 1917 — only for his daughter Mabel, my great-grandmother, to join the Red Cross, work at a naval hospital, and nearly die of influenza. She did meet John Philip Sousa… But perhaps I digress.)

One of Minnesota’s most famous Swedes, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., continued to argue against American involvement in the war even after April 1917. That Lindbergh only narrowly lost the state’s gubernatorial election to the vociferously pro-war Burnquist in 1918 suggests to Barton “That many [Swedish Americans], if not most, kept their heads throughout the wartime hysteria…” (A Folk Divided, p. 248).

But we’ll give the last word to Stephenson:

The Swedes in common with the majority of their fellow citizens opposed the declaration of war, but the mere fact that their government had made the momentous decision was the signal for submission to its sovereign will; and when the issues at stake were explained to them, as they were by a systematic campaign of education, the response to the call of duty was as whole-souled and hearty as it was from those whose ancestors came from England.

Just how “whole-souled and hearty” was the response from students and faculty at Bethel Academy? We’ll find out in the last post of this series…

<<Read the first post in this series                         Read the final post in this series>>

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