The Wives of German-Americans

“They are war sufferers of whom, it seems, no one has thought. Yet much depends upon how they meet he test which has come to them.”

There must be a great many women in the United States besides myself whom the present war has involved in a terrible predicament. I refer to the American wives of German sympathizers; to the American mothers of children whose fathers’ hearts and convictions are with the Teutonic cause. The situation of these women is one which has a vital significance to the nation. And it is for this reason that I have decided to tell my own experience, in the hope that, by doing so, I may be able to give to my sisters the message I have for them. They are war sufferers of whom, it seems, no one has thought. Yet much depends upon how they meet he test which has come to them.

At the outset I wish to say that I believe the great majority of ‘German-Americans’ are loyal to the country they, or their fathers, have chosen for a home. Yet we all know that there are some whose allegiance has reverted, with an ardor which consumes reason, to Germany. Such is the case with my husband. And since this great trouble has befallen me I have become gradually aware of a wide comradeship with other women in the same cruel predicament. These also know the anguish of the severing of ties riveted through the years; these also have sat at table, unable to eat, while their children heard their own country discredited, and a policy of foreign ruthlessness upheld.

If these women love their country as I love it, they may well envy the suffering of the soldiers in the trenches, even of those wounded in battle. My ancestors were given grants of land in Colonial times; they cleared the land, founded homes in the wilderness, and fought in the Revolution. And in the Civil War my father sacrificed his personal interests to the service of the Union. There must be thousands of these wives who love America as I love her; whose homes mean to them all that my home meant to me. But there are no words to tell what a woman’s home means to her. I can only hope that, however difficult their position, whatever their sufferings, few of the wives of German sympathizers in America have lost their homes—as I have lost mine. But it may be that, through my experience, I can bring encouragement and strengthening of heart to the wives and mothers throughout this land who are terrified and bewildered by the thing which has come upon them.

Doubtless my own case is an extreme one, and it gives me, for that reason, the better right to speak. For I have had to travel all of the dark road through whose blackness my sisters are stumbling. I can say, ‘There is light—believe in it. Do not despair.’ For your main problem is really a very simple one—I might better have said, It is not a problem at all. There is in reality nothing complicated, nothing perplexing, about the decision you have to make. But I will tell my story.

My husband was born in the United States; he never saw Germany, he does not even speak German with fluency. His father, like so many of his countrymen, left his native country that he might have freedom of speech, of life. That freedom he found in the United States. He married a German woman here, made his home here, brought up his children here. And some years ago he died. The story of how his father came to this country was one that my husband used to love to tell. The restrictions enforced by the German government were, it seems, unbearable. And yet, despite this fact, despite the circumstances of his father’s coming to America, my husband always spoke of Germany as though it were the ideal nation. He would dwell upon its social legislation, its scientific attainments, its order, and the prosperity of its people. He also was given to criticisms of the United States. So this strange perversion of logic long antedates the war.

But all this did not greatly annoy me. Wives like to identify themselves with their husbands. I looked upon this pro-German feeling as not without its charm and its pathos; and though I realized the element of humor (not to say absurdity) involved, I did not take the matter seriously. I was even influenced in favor of Germany. I began to feel that, next to America, she was the nation I loved and admired. And this seemed as it should be. It made our home atmosphere the more harmonious. I liked to talk with my husband of Germany, of her people and her progressive ideas. There had been a great change there, it seemed; and now such restrictions as were imposed were for the public good. I took these opinions with a grain of salt, but I was impressed by them.

Thus, when the war broke out, I was ready to put the best possible interpretation upon Germany’s part in the rapid developments. Nor did I and our children lack guidance in forming our opinions. The two boys were at that time sixteen and fourteen years of age. Their father was particularly devoted and affectionate in his family relations, very dependent upon his home life, and very proud of his boys. Carl, the older, looked like him; Minot was more like me. Both resemblances pleased my husband equally. But I think he had a certain feeling for Carl that he had for no one else in the world. The boy was always particularly interested and responsive when his father talked about Germany; and after the war broke out he drank in the Teutonic side of the contest with avidity.

But Minot would be silent and reserved when his father argued for Germany. He would keep his eyes on his plate, and sometimes, when his father would make a particularly dogmatic or extreme statement, he would set his lips in a look that made him seem years older than he was. This look always startled my heart—perhaps with a premonition of disaster to come. For this attitude of unspoken opposition on the younger boy’s part was, I can now see, the first sign of the strain put upon our family relations. I was still struggling to be neutral. It was a struggle, but at that time the neutral attitude was an approved one; and I told myself that my patriotic and my family loyalties were one.

Of course I could not help realizing that my husband’s views were extreme and illogical, but I condoned them as the result of his German inheritance. The situation, either in its national or its family aspect, had not yet shown its true meaning. Yet there was an ever-growing tension, if not in our family relations, certainly in the atmosphere of our home. My husband grew increasingly dogmatic, even violent, in his denunciations of the Allies, of America’s veiled hostility to Germany and her lack of fairness, and in his partisanship of everything German. He became restless, moody, unlike himself. His suffering was so plain that it appealed to my sympathies, and made me more lenient toward his extreme views, and more tolerant of his lack of consideration for those that I myself as a loyal American naturally held.

Yet I winced more and more under the hurt of it all, and sometimes Minot raised flashing eyes from his plate, and those tight-shut, unboyish lips opened for a protest. Then his father would become very angry. I do not like to recall those scenes. Sometimes he sent the boy from the table. More than once, when I went to Minot afterward, he had flung himself on his bed and was crying bitterly. And I had often tears to swallow as I sat at table, and could scarcely speak the words meant to be soothing—but which never soothed.

They did not soothe because I was not really in sympathy with my husband; and he knew it. His manner toward me began to change. In his dire need, in this terrible disruption of his life, eh found no ease of pain in the accustomed home comradeship. More and more he poured out his heart to Carl; and I bitterly resented this new education forced upon my son. Then came the sinking of the Lusitania. Never shall I forget the moment when I picked up the paper and read the headlines. I could not see to read further. I sat down with the paper in my hands, staring into darkness. I now believe that this event marked a crisis in many a German-American home. I know of one man who, until that act, had upheld everything done by Germany, his native land. The day the news of the Lusitania’s sinking was published he came home stricken. His wife understood and spoke no word of the matter. Indeed, the word Lusitania was never mentioned in that house; and in two months this broken-hearted German-American lay dead. He could not survive the conviction that his native land had forfeited her right to his love and respect.

Perhaps that was the easier way. I am just beginning to realize what has been—what is—the state of mind of German sympathizers living in this country. They endure civil war within their own minds and hearts. It must be a bitterness, a disruption, greater than any other imaginable. There are two reasons why they are so extreme: they are forcing themselves to unnatural conclusions, and they are maddened by pain.

My husband came home that evening exhilarated by a dark passion. He defended the sinking of the Lusitania. The passengers should not have sailed, he said: they had been warned. It was their responsibility, and they must take the consequences. The war had been forced on Germany, and it was justifiable for her to do whatever would enable her to win it. England had arrogantly seized the seas; Germany must get her rights. I repeat the statements in brief; I shall not call them arguments. The strangest part of it all is this: my husband had, until this war, been a particularly kind and tender hearted man. He thus seems to represent in his own person a nation changed and obsessed by the false ideal held up before it.

From this time on there was poured out upon us a flood of bitterness against the Allies, of extreme partisanship of the German cause and the whole German policy. When an act like the sinking of the Lusitania could not be denied, it was upheld. Newspaper reports of barbarities—even the signed statement of Lord Bryce—were violently denied. The enemies of Germany, my husband declared, had embarked upon a systematized campaign of falsehood and slander—but I think it not necessary to go further into this phase of the situation.

I could no longer maintain neutrality. I cried out against such doctrines—against teaching our sons such things. It was horrible. Our family peace was gone. After eighteen years of dwelling with us love had fled—driven out by the ruthless hounds of cruelty, by the strange obsession of mind which would have made of them household familiars. And they seemed, indeed, to have invaded our home, to trail the blood of their innocent victims across our doorstep, and to lie down at our hearth.

Perhaps I dwelt upon the horror of it all too much; certainly I was not wise. But I do not think that, in this case, wisdom would have made much difference, for my husband was not really himself. He seemed under a sort of possession. He now talked about ‘our enemies,’ referring to the Allies. When he said ‘we,’ he always meant the Germans. Yet, as I have said, his father came here to obtain liberty; and my husband was American-born and had never even seen Germany.

Carl, poor boy, was miserable; even more so than Minot. For our older son was between two fires, he did not know which way to turn. Minot was quite clear in his own mind, and every day he became more alienated from his father. I think he ceased to love him during those months.

Such a state of things could not go on forever. I now protested openly against the doctrines that my husband tried to teach our sons. I reminded him of the reasons that had driven his father from Germany. I should have known it was useless to argue; yet I do not know what I ought to have done.

It was at about this time that my husband began to read Nietzsche. I would find him reading Thus Spake Zarathustra when I knocked at his door to bid him good-night. For he always sat alone in his own room now, unless he went out. Sometimes, when I thus went to him, he would read me passages from Zarathustra. They were always passages which extolled the triumph of force, which preached the disregard of sentiment, of the suffering of others, of any ties which withheld a man from the pursuit of his work or his purpose.

Nietzsche is said to be the apostle of the new Germany. I can well believe that this is true, for I think that my husband fortified his spirt, by reading Nietzsche, for the thing he was making ready to do. He had already forced himself, in upholding ruthless cruelty and the breaking of faith, to deny his true self. But he had a still further progress to make in the path he had chosen. He must give final proof of his discipleship; he must become, in his own person, an exponent of the doctrine of frightfulness; he must, in short, sacrifice those who were part of his very life, who had been the denizens of his heart.

It was all very strange. He had been so kind; he was now neglectful and rude. And his restlessness, his look as of a man driven and possessed, became more and more marked. He was a religious man; and several times he said to me, ‘“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”’ In his thought, evidently the German cause stood for what was right, what was holy. And to that cause he now made ready to sacrifice his wife and children. I suppose I cannot even imagine what he endured; for he seemed sunk in a port of blackness. I know only my own part, my children’s. For he left us. And we do not even know where he is or what he is doing.

He left us with no means of support. He disappeared. What was the goal he aimed at when he swept us thus from his path, I do not know. But I have my Carl again. He no longer hears his own dear country maligned, a foreign foe upheld.

I have told this story only that I might give my message—the message I have for all American wives of German sympathizers; for all American mothers whose husbands would teach their children disloyalty to their own country. And my hope is that it may prove a message of encouragement and of strengthening of heart.

It is not because I myself was wise during this terrible experience that I can give my message; nor is it because at the time my vision was clear and true. All was confusion and darkness. But I can speak now because that confusion and darkness have passed away. I see the situation as I could not possibly see it when involved in its cruel meshes. I simply struggled blindly in those meshes. My loyalty to my country was a mere impulse—as instinctive as breathing. My efforts to preserve my home, the family unity, were the inevitable struggle of a woman caught in a great horror of fear. After all that chaos and confusion, that instinctive outcry and that self-repression as instinctive, it is a very wonderful thing to see the situation as it really was—as I fear it still is in many an American home to-day. For though my own case is doubtless an extreme one, it may the better serve to illumine the darkness about other American wives and mothers. Above all, it is very wonderful to realize how simple is the fundamental problem these wives and mothers have to meet, the question they must answer. I have thought that I might help them, perhaps, by telling what I realize.

For the question raised by such a family situation as this is not really one between loyalty to one’s country and loyalty to one’s husband—not even between the duty of patriotism and the duty of preserving the family unity. No, it goes much deeper than that. It is well, it is merciful, that it is not asked of us wives and mothers to make any such decision as that. The question raised is simply that of holding to whatever is, for you, inevitably the inner choice. If you can sincerely say, as Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Thy people shall be my people,’ so be it. You have chosen according to the inner impulse; it is the choice of your heart. Only be sure that it is the choice of your heart, with no alloy of expediency, or fear, or other base admixture. Otherwise you will surely be selling your soul—and it may be, the souls of your children.

It is a very simple thing to know where your heart is. Did you approve when Belgium was invaded, when the Lusitania was sunk—or did these events fill you with horror? Does your heart beat with sympathetic fervor when you hear your own country derided, Germany extolled, the Allies denounced? Does your reason assent when you hear the Prussian acts and polices of this war justified and defended? Do you rejoice, rather than shrink, when your children’s ideas and characters are moulded by these teachings? If so, though American by birth and inheritance, yet are you really German. There is no cause for dissension in your home.

But if, as is far more probably the case, your very spirit cries and bleeds to hear your country defamed; if your motherhood is outraged when your children are taught such doctrines; if your humanity revolts at evidences o outrage and cruelty, then you are American! Then you must indeed choose whom you will serve—the spirit that is within you, or the spirit that is without you.

You will choose, of course, to follow the instinct of your soul, the impulse of your heart, the dictates of your reason. And what then? Now your course is not so simple; you have a difficult road to travel. Must you play the martyr? Must you feel it your mission to tear open, day after day, the wounds which are torturing your husband’s spirit? Must you, hitherto the comforter, become now the tormentor?

Certainly you will not play the martyr unless that rôle is forced upon you. It is pleasant only in the imagination. Nor will you wound your husband more than honest adherence to your conviction forces you to wound him. You may even, through your wisdom, — your patience and understanding and love, — be able to preserve at once the family unity and the approval of your own conscience. But it cannot be denied that your path is beset with difficulties and dangers. You cannot hope to see very far ahead; you must be content to follow that inner light which illumines, as a rule, but one step at a time. Only be sure that it will illumine that one step: then you have nothing to fear.

You will, necessarily, do what you can to save your children from the influence of ideas and teachings which you believe to be disastrous to patriotism, and to the proper development of character. No rule for thus saving them can possibly be laid down; like every other great test, or great crisis, this one cannot be compassed by mere generalities. It calls for every attribute of character, every atom of courage, every ray of wisdom, that you may possess or can achieve. Doubtless, in most cases, unswerving patience and sympathy, combined with unswerving loyalty to the inner conviction, would avert the uttermost disaster—which, be assured, is not that which has befallen me and my children. No: that is the undermining of patriotism and sense of right in the sons and daughters of America.

And whether you oppose your husband’s teachings in his presence or in his absence, with wise moderation or with flashing impulse, he will realize and resent your opposition. That is inevitable. His sympathetic counselor has become his critic, his opponent. There is no situation more bitter to a husband.

In this guarding of your children’s ideas you must, whatever the result, strive unceasingly for what you hold to be the right. As far as your home is concerned, your husband’s love, you may win—or you may lose. But even for you who lose there is a great consolation. It is the same consolation as that of the fallen soldier on the field of battle. Your struggle has been as hard as his, your wounds are more anguished and more enduring; there waits for you the healing of no quiet hospital—nor oblivion. But you have done your bit. And—a thought to assuage all pain and rejoice the heart—you may even have served your country.

For your sons and daughters are the sons and daughters are the sons and daughters of America—never, for a single moment, forget that. Whichever way the battle goes for you, they will feel your innermost loyalty, your fealty to the right. They cannot fail to be influenced. When they are with you, they are with these things. You are helping to weld this dear country into an indissoluble entity; you are constantly knitting together the raveled edges of her vesture.

So be of good cheer. You have saved your soul alive; that is worth all you have endured or shall endure. Remember, when Mr. Britling sees it through, he comes out to God. And you, also, will come out to God.