A Question of Loyalty: Controversies Surrounding All Things German at Indiana University during World War I

“President Bryan made a statement to the Board concerning the German situation at the university”—Board of Trustee Minutes, April 17, 1918.

For the past several months, I’ve been working to slowly transcribe the WWI-era hand-written minutes of the Board of Trustees for inclusion in this searchable online portal and one question has continued to weigh on me. What exactly was “the German situation”?

While the Great War raged in Europe, anti-German feelings ran high state-side and Indiana University was not exempt from coming under fire for associations with the enemy. After some investigation, the exact “German situation” is still a little vague; however, there are still some fascinating stories from the era.

C286 War Mothers letter, June 1, 1918

One of these controversies involved  the teaching of the German language. By mid-1918 enrollment in German language courses at Indiana University had declined and only two professors, Bert J. Vos and Carl Osthaus, remained on the faculty. Across the country, teaching German in the schools (including universities) became a contentious issue. In June 1918, IU President William Lowe Bryan received a letter from the War Mothers of Monroe County which argued that “one of the most fruitful sources for dissemination of insidious enemy propaganda has been through the contact of things German with our schools.” They further stated that “it is therefore RESOLVED: — That no good purpose can be served by the continuation of the teaching of German in Indiana University, that much harm may come therefrom.” President Bryan coolly responded that the teaching of German would remain  “as a means of fighting Germany.” When further questions poured in from individuals such as  Dr. Perry Dickie of the American Defense Society, President Bryan responded that “German is not required for entrance” but that “we provide a few classes in German for students who desire it.” Additionally, by the fall of 1918 students enlisted in the Student Army Training Corps were learning German for military purposes.

James McDonald portrait painting P0056332
James McDonald portrait painting

While controversy surrounded the teaching of German, two professors also found themselves at the center of the debate. History professor James McDonald found himself the subject of a Senate investigation when a German by the name of Dr. Karl A. Fuehr included him in his “important list of names” which the the Department of Justice stated were all pro-Germans.  McDonald, however, demonstrated to the Senate Investigation Committee that the accusation was erroneous and that he was a loyal American citizen, stating that “Ever since the sinking of the Lusitania I have not merely privately but also publicly both in class and in the press strongly advocated the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany, as my students and associates can readily testify” (from a letter to the Chairman of Senate Investigating Committee, December 11, 1918). McDonald would go on to work first for the League of Nations and then for President Roosevelt’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees in Europe. He recognized early on the danger the Jewish people faced from Hitler. McDonald would also become the first US Ambassador to Israel.

Zeuch002
Hopkinton Iowa Leader, November 8, 1917

The second and most controversial case was that of Professor William Zeuch. A young Iowan, Zeuch was hired in 1917 to teach economics at Indiana University. In November of 1917, Zeuch had replied to an Iowan newspaper’s anti-German statements, stating that the newspaper was printing propaganda and because the recent German atrocities were not unique to Germans as a race, the newspaper was thus offending German-Americans.

Newspaper's reply
Newspaper’s reply

The newspaper replied by thoroughly denouncing Zeuch. News spread to Bloomington, where Zeuch found himself under investigation by the Monroe County Council of Defense and a committee of professors at the University. The Bloomington Indiana Daily Student on November 14 reported: “Mr. Zeuch affirms that he had no intention of being disloyal or unpatriotic when he wrote the letter to the Hopkinson Leader. He said to a representative of The Student that he had been incensed at the attempts which have been made to arouse hatred against the German race, but that he wished to condemn its autocracy.” Newspapers across the state reported on the scandal and Zeuch was asked to resign from his position. He did and joined the Army, from which he was honorably discharged in 1918. After the war, Zeuch co-founded a short-lived college in Arkansas, Commonwealth College, with a program that reflected his sentiments for socio-economic reform.  He was also a Guggenheim fellow in the 1930s and worked for the Department of the Interior.

Zeuch co-founded a short-lived college in Arkansas, the Commonwealth College, with a program that reflected his sentiments for socio-economic reform.

To learn more about either of these incidents or more about Indiana University during WWI, contact the IU Archives.

Dispatches from a remote wedding table

A few years ago, I was sitting at a wedding reception table that felt like it was a quarter mile from the bride and groom. Most receptions seem to have a few tables like this: co-workers, college roommates, and longtime babysitters who are special enough to have warranted an invitation, but who are probably seated too far away to tell whether the best man is having chicken or steak. The people at these tables often don’t know one another, making the conditions ideal for small talk. This was our case.

The guy next to me said he was an engineer. Dutifully, the rest of us asked about the details of his work. I forget what they were. What I remember, however, is this: When I later said I was a folklorist, the engineer went into hysterics. For a moment, I thought to be offended. Then I realized he was laughing because he had legitimately never heard the word before. He probably thought I was making it up. So I swallowed this particular grain of salt and ruminated for the umpteenth time on the smallness and relative obscurity of the discipline of folklore studies. (For the record, the word “engineer” isn’t exactly a model of linguistic normalcy. It’s pretty close to “mouseketeer,” as far as I’m concerned.)

The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)
The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)

If I had the engineer in front of me today, I would tell him that he probably knows the names of two famous folklorists, and that he has probably known them since childhood. “Who?” he would ask incredulously. And with particularly Germanic aplomb, I would answer: “Have you ever heard of Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm?” The conversation would proceed from there, as I explain that the Brothers Grimm provided a template for the sort of work that many folklorists still do today. They identified traditional art in their own culture, sought out its experts, and collected material directly from them.

The point of this anecdote is to highlight a new resource for explaining the history of folklore studies in the United States and Germany.  IU’s University Archives and Records Management now makes available the archive of the German American Conference, which is shorthand for Folklore and Social Transformation: A Dialogue of German and American Folklorists, held November 1-3, 1988, at Indiana University. Organized by the Folklore Institute, the conference was an attempt to build a connection between scholars in the United States, where academic folklore studies are comparatively young, and scholars from Germany, where the discipline’s roots are deeper.

The conference accomplished two things. First, as any academic meeting does, it gave scholars a chance to present new research. Second, and more importantly in this case, it provided a venue to discuss the international folklore studies community. When scholars from different countries come together to discuss what they’re up to every day, the vibrancy and visibility of a given discipline are likely to increase. A practical result of this sort of collaboration is a more globally conscious academic. When armed with an international perspective, scholars get better at explaining their work within the academy–to colleagues in other disciplines, for example–and outside of it–say, to engineers who think the word “folklorist” is the neologism of the year.

The archive of the German American Conference is a direct line into what German and U.S. folklorists thought of their discipline in the late 1980s. Their presentations addressed the nature of folklore studies in a variety of social contexts. Anthropologist and folklorist Christoph Daxelmüller traced the history of German-Jewish folklore studies in the decades leading to the rise of the Third Reich. Folklorist Marta Weigle explained the role of folklore in creating and marketing images of the Southwestern United States during the years of westward expansion. Folklorist Elliott Oring examined the implication of folk expression in journalism, where objectivity, not creativity, is the common standard of success.

For three days in 1988, folklorists from two nations gathered to discuss these ideas. Conference organizers, mindful that the event should be collaborative, organized cross-cultural respondents for each paper. U.S. presenters got respondents from Germany, and German presenters got respondents from the U.S. This was an ultimately successful bid to ensure that international discourse would drive the meeting. As IU folklorist Richard Bauman summed up in a later piece of correspondence, everyone involved had “done gut.”

In fairness to the engineer from the wedding reception, a single conference held at Indiana University in 1988 does not change the visibility of folklore studies in any way that he or most people can see. But events like this go a long way in developing academic community. And when communities crystallize, inter-community connections become easier to develop. In other words, before we attempt to explain ourselves to others, we must first take steps to understand ourselves alone. Who are we? Where do we fit? What histories do we inhabit? These are heady questions, but perhaps they’re necessary for the group that wishes to establish a sense of identity, either locally or internationally.

The finding aid can be found in Archives Online. To view the archive of the German American Conference, email or call us at (812) 855-1127. We would be happy to assist!