Beyond Friend or Foe. World War I American Immigrant Poetry: A Digital Humanities Project
Lorie A. Vanchena organizes the WWI American Immigrant Poetry project at the University of Kansas. It aims to create a single source for storing poems by American immigrant voices—for or against the war—to shed light on the historical, national, and ethnic contexts in which the poems were written and to demonstrate that this poetry can help us understand the way WWI continues to shape our world today. In this post, she discusses some of her findings. (photo above -"From the Old to the New World," showing German emigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, to New York. (Harper's Weekly, New York) November 7, 1874)
World War I poetry written by German immigrants in the United States reflects a range of perspectives on the global conflict, from strong support for Germans fighting against the Allied Powers to pro-American loyalty to the migrants’ new homeland. This poetry, written in both German and English, appeared in the German-American periodic press and in anthologies. It sheds light on different aspects of the immigrant experience, including ways poets sought to define their ethnic identity at a time when public perception of Germans was changing dramatically, as evidenced—to give just one example—by the government order in 1917 that non-naturalized males aged 14 and older register with the authorities as “enemy aliens.”
One way German immigrant poets conveyed pro-German sentiment was to draw on nineteenth-century patriotic poems. They took up German cultural material such as Max Schneckenburger’s “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine) and refashioned it to address new historical circumstances. Written in 1840 in response to the Rhine Crisis, France’s threat to reclaim territory west of the Rhine, Schneckenburger’s poem suggests a German national consciousness at a time when a unified German nation did not yet exist. The patriotic text, with its refrain “Lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein / Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein” (Dear Fatherland, no fear be thine / Firm and true stands the watch, the watch on the Rhine), surged in popularity during the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 and again during the First World War.
Numerous poems in our collection allude to “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Ludwig Lewisohn’s poem from 1915, for example, which depicts Germans defending their Fatherland’s western border, borrows the title “Die Wacht am Rhein” and cites part of the refrain to evoke recurring German-French hostilities (first two stanzas):
Grim, gaunt and stern, in shimmering grey,
The German lines advance,
A thousand comrades’ blood to-day
Has drenched the fields of France.
And though from barren haversack
The last dry crust be gone,
They wait upon their tireless track
The cannonade of dawn.
And from ten thousand throats ablaze
With bitter burning drouth,
The thunder of their hymn they raise
And hurl it to the South,
Unbroken stands the endless line,
Unshaken heart and hand,
“Lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein!”
For firm your armies stand.
German immigrants reading the periodical in which this poem appeared, George Sylvester Viereck’s pro-German English-language The Fatherland, were expected to recognize the German title and refrain. Lewisohn’s references to the earlier “Die Wacht am Rhein” also urged readers to recall the Prussian victory against France in 1871 when forming their views of fighting on the Western Front. Although written for an English-reading audience, the poem reaffirms immigrants’ German ethnic identity.
While the majority of the 300 poems currently in our collection were written by Germans living in the U.S., we have also identified poems by Mexican, Yiddish-speaking, and Caribbean immigrants, and we plan to expand the number of immigrant groups represented in the project. Fully annotated versions of the poems, with scans of the original texts, will be republished on the project website (currently under construction) for scholars, teachers, students, and the general public. Furthermore, we will employ computational methods of analysis to the poems, which undergraduate research assistants have encoded in XML. The project has been supported by a Seed Grant from the KU Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, and the Emerging Scholars Program coordinated by the Center for Undergraduate Research.
1. Ludwig Lewisohn, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” The Fatherland, May 9, 1915, 10.
Image 1. Poster created by the U.S. Food Administration, Educational Division, Advertising Section, by Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons "Die-Wacht-am- Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine)" - NARA - 512705.jpg, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%22Die-Wacht-am-_Rhein_(The_Watch_on_the_Rhine)%22_-_NARA_-_512705.jpg
Image 2. Lorenz Clasen painting, “Germania on Watch on the Rhine,” Lorenz Clasen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Lorenz Clasen - Germania auf der Wacht am Rhein (1860).jpg, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALorenz_Clasen_-_Germania_auf_der_Wacht_am_Rhein_(1860).jpg
Lorie A. Vanchena, associate professor of Germanic Languages & Literatures, University of Kansas, is author of a monograph and articles on 19th-century German political poetry. She also published Anton in America: A Novel from German-American Life, an annotated English translation of Reinhold Solger’s novel (1862). She teaches courses on the German transatlantic experience and contemporary German-speaking Europe. Vanchena serves as Academic Director of the European Studies Program and the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies. She has received the J. Michael Young Academic Advisor Award (2015) and the K. Barbara Schowen Undergraduate Research Mentor Award (2017).