December 3, 2019


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When Democrat Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election as America’s president in 1916 – just over 100 years ago – his slogan was “he kept us out of war.” It worked…he was re-elected handily, if not easily.

The former Princeton University president and New Jersey Governor was referring to what journalists, politicians, and generals alike were calling and would for years call “The Great War,” being fought by the “great powers” of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan in the Entente against Central Powers, comprising the Germans, Turks, and Austro-Hungarians. This titanic struggle was being waged in the trenches of Flanders, the plains of Poland, the deserts of modern-day Iraq, and the jungles of East Africa. Millions of young men were dying in “daily wastage” or horrific battles like the Somme, where 60,000 British soldiers perished in a single day.

Gazing upon this slaughter from a safe distance, Americans sought to avoid this bitter conflict, despite or because of ethnic ties to their “old countries.” Irish-Americans and German-Americans had bitter anger with the British. Russian- and Polish-Americans hoped that an Allied victory could free their nations from German invasion and domination. Newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst denounced all forms of empire, particularly the British, except American imperialism. White southern Americans, remembering the support the Confederacy had received during the Civil War from Britain and France, rooted for them. And arms dealers, businessmen, and bankers who sold weapons and supplies and floated loans to the Allies sought profit from victory.

These sentiments were felt in Newark, too. The city’s German population dated back to the 1830s and dominated four neighborhoods: the lower Ironbound, High Street and Springfield Avenue, the area between Springfield and Central Avenue all the way to Clinton Avenue, and an area in North Newark that straddled the Erie Railroad. Clinton Hill was known as “Germantown,” full of German-English schools, mutual aid societies, German churches, and athletics and musical organizations. The latter groups won national-level awards and competitions in Germany. The 16th German Song Festival was held in 1891 in Newark, with 129 singing societies from 30 cities, totaling 4,000 singers competing. As host, Newark could not win that event. Next year, in Baltimore, a Newark group won first place and hauled home an enormous bust of the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn (best known for the familiar “Wedding March”), which stood in Branch Brook Park until 1967.

Newark’s Irish population had an even longer pedigree – they had started filling up the city as early as the 1760s, their immigration to the city peaking in the 1846 Potato Famine. Regarded by the Protestant ruling elite as little more than the blacks with which they competed for miserable laboring jobs, the Irish also faced the menace of cholera. Over time, they built political power, which translated into wealth.

Like their German brethren, they also had a great love of and employment in an increasingly powerful economic force in Newark and the nation: the beer industry. Names like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Ballantine became both major employers and sources of amusement in the city – in saloons, restaurants, and vaudeville theaters.

But beer was also seen by the increasingly powerful Anti-Saloon League as being a cause of crime and violence in America, and the Irish and German working and lower classes (along with blacks) a cause of that crime. It was a time when a determined woman named Carrie Nation, wearing black, leading an army of like-minded followers, would storm into saloons, brandishing a hatchet, and do her utmost to destroy the saloon, to both defeat “demon rum” and gain press attention for doig so.

One thing was certain – Americans did not want to fight in this extremely foreign war. The United States had no stake in this game of empires and kings. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II was the most preposterous of the bunch – he was three times a grand duke, 18 times an ordinary duke, 10 times a count, and three times something called a margrave. To him, Germany was not a nation, but an army, and he would prove the point at the annual maneuvers, when the exercises would climax with the Kaiser himself leading 30 squadrons of cavalry in a hell-for-leather charge across the training grounds.

However, this arrogant figure was now threatening America itself. Unable to break through on the Western Front to defeat the British on land, 15-year-olds were being sent to the trenches, and citizens back home were rioting for food. Germany’s military leaders convinced the Kaiser that victory could be won at sea. All it would take would be to unleash Germany’s U-Boats – their submarines – on Britain’s merchant shipping, and their torpedoes would turn the waters off the British Isles into a nautical graveyard, and starve Britain into submission.

There was only one problem with this theory – the Germans had tried it before in the war, in 1915, and sunk a British liner, RMS Lusitania, loaded with American passengers, headed for England, which infuriated Americans, who regarded “Freedom of the Seas” as a basic right. A furious Wilson batted out angry official Notes to Germany on his typewriter – which could print in English or Greek – and the Kaiser was forced to back down then, fearing that if he angered the Americans, he would add another powerful enemy to face.

But now, the Kaiser’s advisers had a solution to the problem of keeping Uncle Sam’s boys out of Europe – deploy the U-Boats and simultaneously offer an alliance with Mexico to join Germany as an ally, and also mediate the differences between Japan and the Kaiser, so that the Japanese would change sides, and ally with Germany. However, Mexico was in the middle of a bloody civil war, unable to fight or ally with anybody, but those facts didn’t seem to bother the Kaiser, or his Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, who had come up with the idea.

On January 16, 1917, Germany’s Foreign Minister sent radio-telegram that would be forever known as the “Zimmermann Telegram,” to their Ambassador in Washington, Count Johann-Heinrich von Bernstorff, to pass on to Mexico City, making the offer.

The German government told the Mexicans that they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, aiming to keep the United States neutral. If that failed, Germany offered an alliance to Mexico on the following basis:

“Make war together, make peace together, generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

Unfortunately for Germany’s leaders, the British intercepted the telegram, decoded and translated it, giving Britain the lever they needed to propel America out of its neutrality.

So events took their course. February 1, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare…February 3, Wilson reacted with appropriate fury, breaking diplomatic relations with Germany…February 5, British codebreakers showed the definitive decrypt of the telegram to their Foreign Office…February 22, after weeks of deliberation, the British presented the telegram to US Ambassador Walter Page, a major supporter of Britain and the Allies, who sent it to Washington, arriving on February 24. Wilson read the telegram, repeatedly saying over and over again his harshest comment: “Good Lord!”

The British and Americans revealed the telegram on February 28, to a divided reception in the United States. Anti-Britons, particularly Irish and Germans, denounced the telegram as a British plot, powered by the anti-British Hearst newspaper empire.

Neither Wilson nor the British government could explain how they decoded the telegram, but on March 3, Zimmermann and his immense mustache held a press conference, where a pro-German American reporter named Herbert Bayard Swope, offering the Foreign Minister a way out, said, “surely Your Excellency will deny it.”

“I cannot deny it,” Zimmermann responded. “It is true.” The reporters were stunned.

And just to add to the blunder, Zimmermann and his mustache declared the same on March 29, in the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament.

With the admission, America exploded. “THEY MEAN US!” American newspapers blared on their front pages, and even the isolationist Hearst press called for war with Germany. Wilson, infuriated by the German effrontery, switched gears from calling US entrance to the war a “crime against civilization” to saying that “the right is more precious than the peace” when he called upon Congress to declare war in the US Capitol on the rainy evening of April 2, to “make the world safe for democracy.” Congress approved the request with a roar.

Overnight, pro-German stances vanished, even among the German-American community, German-Americans found themselves facing a public lashing that would be repeated in 1941 against the Japanese and 2001 against Muslims after Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

American restaurants stopped serving Sauerkraut and instead offered “Liberty Cabbage.” German Measles became “Liberty Measles.” German Shepherds became “Liberty Shepherds.” Symphony orchestras dropped the works of Ludwig von Beethoven from their programs. A statue of “Germania” standing alongside allegorical figures of other major powers was lowered from its perch on top of the US Custom House in New York, turned into “Belgium” to honor the first victim of the Kaiser’s aggression in 1914, and restored to its place. It is “Belgium” to this day.

Germans were also blamed for the beer empire, and Prohibitionists denounced the beer trade as being an “enemy within.” Prohibition became patriotic, and it was foisted on America.

More importantly, German-Americans suffered abuse for violent acts they neither supported nor participated in. Super-patriotic mobs attacked German homes and businesses across the nation, hurling rocks through shop windows. Many Germans changed their names to something more Anglo-Saxon.

Newark, of course, reacted like the rest of the country. War women workers paraded in front of City Hall and an enormous sign supporting the war effort and a picture of the Kaiser depicting him as a figure to ridicule. Facing Prohibition, Newark’s brewers scrambled to stay in business – Ballantine produced “near-beer” and malt liquor, while Anheuser-Busch made yeast. All could be upgraded at home with a still into something alcoholic.

But those temporary measures did not equal a more permanent step taken on June 27, 1918, when the Board of Commissioners – Newark was under a Commissioner system at the time – voted 4-0 to change the name of eight Newark streets from Germanic names to pro-Allied identities.

No reason is given on the Ordinance, which is squeezed between a $2,684.24 appropriation for the Department of Public Affairs and the construction of a flat slab construction for the Bureau of Docks.

Nonetheless, for the rest of Newark’s history, these changes took place:

• Bismarck Avenue, from Pennsy Place to Devin Avenue, became Pershing Avenue, to honor Gen. John J. Pershing, who was commanding the US Army in France, fighting the Germans.

• Dresden Street, from Hamburg Place to St. Charles Street, was renamed London Street, for the British capital.

• Bremen Street, from Hamburg Place to Magazine Street, was changed to Marne Street, to honor the horrific 1914 battle near Paris that stopped the German advance.

• Berlin Street, from Hamburg Place to Magazine Street, was re-named Rome Street, to honor Italy, which was an Allied power in World War I, a fact often forgotten today.

• German Street, from South 10th Street, to South 11th Street, became Belgium Street, to honor the neutral nation that Germany invaded in 1914 to open World War I.

• Frankfort Street, from Hamburg Place to St. Charles Street, was re-named Paris Street, to honor France’s capital.

• Frederick Street, which recognized “Der Grosse König,” better known as “Frederick the Great,” was re-named Somme Street, recognizing a 1916 battle that took hundreds of thousands of British and French lives.

• And finally, Hamburg Place itself, running from Ferry Street to Delancey Street, was renamed Wilson Avenue, to honor the president and Commander-in-Chief at the time.

The Ordinance further directed Newark’s Chief Engineer of the Department of Streets and Public Improvements to give public notice to this change in the authorized daily newspaper published in Newark, and that within five days, residents be able to present their objections in writing.

The move seems to have been popular, because for 101 years, the names have stood over these arteries, outlasting the war that begat them, while the war itself has been forgotten. Maybe because it started and ended quickly for the Americans.

Mexico rejected Germany’s February 1917 overtures, and the alliance was stillborn. By July 1918, when the ordinance was passed, American and British troops were driving the Germans across France and Belgium. On November 9, the Kaiser gave up his many titles and fled to exile in the Netherlands, as Germany exploded into revolution. On November 11, the new German government signed the Armistice, and the day became a holiday in the United States as “Armistice Day.”

But the “War to End All Wars” was soon forgotten. President Wilson could not convince his own countrymen to support his creation, the League of Nations, a permanent international assembly designed to prevent future wars. Lacking America’s moral authority and power, the League could not prevent Hitler starting World War II. Back home, Americans ignored new strife overseas, being busy with Prohibition, the Jazz Age, and later, the Great Depression.

Twenty years after World War I, World War II took over as “history’s greatest war,” and remains so in the public imagination. Even the November 11 holiday was re-named “Veterans’ Day” as American conflicts accumulated in increasing fashion. But the re-named streets of Newark stand as silent memorials to an American commitment to fight for freedom that is now more than 100 years old.