The onset of war in Europe in the summer of 1914 found the United States distantly observant but naturally pre-occupied with its own politics and predominant social issues of the day, amid a blossoming cultural ferment that would ultimately produce a unique 20th-Century American identity. As a true “nation of immigrants” America had ties to every corner of Europe going back to the first half of the 19th Century in which Irish and German immigration predominated, and continuing through a second wave of immigration in which, by 1900, southern and eastern Europeans were the most numerous.
Despite the changing demographics of American immigration in the first decade of the 20th Century, German descent was still among the most common ethnic heritages shared by Americans in 1914. As Europe went to war that summer, many of German background became increasingly sensitive to what they perceived as unbalanced pro-Allied reporting of the war in American newspapers – and they were right, since one of Britain’s first acts after the declaration of war was to cut Germany’s trans-Atlantic telegraph cables. As a result, Germany’s ability to disseminate war news in the neutral United States was extremely hampered. Indeed, the first official German account of the war’s outbreak did not reach American newspapers until September 8, 1914, and only then via courier through the neutral Netherlands to New York in order to bypass British censors.
Throughout the fall of 1914 and into 1915, German-American groups in various American cities organized public meetings and rallies the purposes of which were to urge unbiased reporting of the war in American newspapers, and strict neutrality on the part of the Federal government. In time, especially following the torpedoing of the RMS LUSITANIA by a German U-boat, public opinion began to shift and Americans of German descent faced increasingly trying times. Through 1916, pro-German sentiment was not necessarily unpatriotic. By the spring of 1917, however, all this would change; the expression of pro-German views would not only be unpopular in many circles, but would eventually become illegal following America’s entry into the war.
Among prominent Americans of German descent, one figure who cast himself into the public debate from the onset of the war was Baltimore’s Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken. An established newspaper columnist and editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken was on the ascent in 1914 to become one of the most important American literary figures of the first half of the 20th Century. That year, along with drama critic George Jean Nathan, he took on the editorship of The Smart Set, eventually transforming it into one of the country’s best literary magazines. Later, the two would found The American Mercury - in its day the most important literary periodical in the United States.
As editor for the Baltimore Evening Sun beginning in 1911, H.L. Mencken published a signed daily editorial column called “The Free Lance” in which he offered his views on current events, both local and national. According Terry Teachout, in his 2002 Mencken biography The Skeptic, “[t]hough his readers could not have known it, he was doing something far more original than is generally recognized. The newspaper column as an institution was still in its infancy in 1911, and the first ‘op-ed’ page, that of Herbert Bayard Swope’s New York Evening World, would not be launched for another decade. Many columnists were publishing daily miscellanies superficially similar to ‘The Free Lance,’ most of which were made up in part of contributions from their readers, but Mencken appears to have been one of the first modern American newspapermen to write a signed editorial-page column in which he commented on major issues of the day.”
Mencken’s “Free Lance” column would prove an ideal platform for expressing his support for Germany and Austria-Hungary once the war commenced in August 1914. From the outset of hostilities until the end of 1915 when he gave up the column, H.L. Mencken was the most consistent and strident champion of the Central Powers to be published in Baltimore, and among the outspoken in the country.
While Mencken’s identification with the land of his ancestors was, perhaps, predictable, biographer Fred Hobson argued in his 1994 book Mencken: A Life that his own peculiar nature was as much a factor in his outwardly pro-German stance. “… [T]he war gave him an intellectually defensible reason to do what, temperamentally, he was already inclined to do – detach himself even further from prevailing American values (which were largely Anglo-Saxon values, after all) and, culturally speaking, go to war with the majority of the American people.” According to Hobson, “[h]e embraced German culture absolutely and rejected ‘moralistic’ American culture….”
From the outset of the fighting in 1914, Mencken was quick to defend Germany’s actions against what he saw as France and England’s paranoid desire to crush an up-and-coming European rival. “For 44 long years the French have menaced [Germany’s] security with their melodramatic plans for revanche, and all the while the English have come closer and closer to an offensive and defensive alliance…. Germany has stood in imminent peril ever since the Agadir Crisis of 1911,” wrote Mencken on August 6, 1914. Continuing in the same August 6 column, “The Free Lance” was quick to poke fun at the French who had “quaked and sputtered every time a German dirigible has been sighted near the border, and everyone knows, too, what imbecile fictions about German ambitions and German plans have been printed in their newspapers.” England was no better, he charged for “no more than three years ago…the London papers devoted their chief news pages day after day to childish gabble about a ‘German invasion,’ and every strange light along the coast set the whole nation trembling….” England’s real purpose in fighting against Germany was “to gain a crushing advantage over a prospering and hated rival, a new feeling of national security, a release from constant uneasiness.”
During the first year of the war, “The Free Lance” rode roughshod over the Allied cause, championing what Mencken argued were the morally superior actions of the Central Powers. Side-by-side with his columns appeared a steady stream of irate letters by pro-Allied Evening Sun readers who found his boldly stated views intolerable. In a letter to the editor dated August 6, 1914 (and signed “A Former Friend of The Free Lance”), a reader took issue with Mencken’s jibes at France asking “how can he dare to make fun at the expense of a nation that will probably lose hundreds of thousands of her sons in a great war she has not desired?”
Other readers assailed Mencken on the grounds that the newspapers would best serve the public by avoiding controversial treatment of the war – though such arguments mirrored the complaints of German-Americans. “That the ‘Honorable’ Mr. Mencken should sympathize with the Germans is reasonable…but I do not believe it compatible with the policy of an American newspaper that even a Free Lance column should be used to air an individual’s private views,” complained one such reader in early August 1914. Another respondent cautioned, “Let’s all remember that there should only be Americans on this side of the pond and we should… forget the English, French and German animosities of our parents.”
Mencken’s consistently pro-German stance was undoubtedly influenced by his German heritage, but the root of his view was more complex. At the base of his affection for Germany’s cause in the First World War, and indeed the root of his dislike of “Puritanical” American culture, was his unbounded admiration for the writings of the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche. In 1907, Mencken had published The Philosophy of Friederich Nietzsche – the first book on Nietzsche written in English and which won him much critical acclaim. Nietzsche, according to Mencken, “believed that there was need in the world for a class freed from the handicap of law and morality, a class acutely adaptable and immoral; a class bent on achieving, not the equality of all men, but the production, at the top, of the superman.” According to biographer Terry Teachout, Mencken’s discovery of the German philosopher’s writings had a formative influence in establishing his own sense of self and purpose for, “it was in Nietzsche’s Übermensch that Mencken caught his first glimpse of the role he was preparing to play, the journalist with a hammer for who Judeo-Christian morality was ‘something to wield his sword upon – to fight, to wound, to hate.'” In a fall 1914 Atlantic Monthly essay titled “The Mailed Fist and It’s Prophet,” Mencken championed the “new Germany” which, in his view, had been challenged and transformed by the philosophy of Nietzsche. “I come to the war: the supreme manifestation of the new Germany, at last the great test of the gospel of strength, of great daring, of efficiency,” he wrote. “….Germany becomes Nietzsche, Nietzsche becomes Germany. Turn away from all the fruitless debates over the responsibility of this man or that, the witless straw splitting over non-essentials…. Not peace at any price, but war! Not virtue but efficiency!…. Barbarous? Ruthless? Unchristian? No doubt. But so is life itself. So is all progress worthy the name. Here at least is honesty to match the barbarity, and, what is more, courage, the willingness to face great hazards, the acceptance of defeat as well as victory.”
The sinking of the RMS LUSITANIA in May 1915 polarized American views on the war, and pushed public opinion further away from the Central Powers and closer to the Allied camp; the editorial pages of Mencken’s Evening Sun brimmed with sentiments that reflected the national mood. “The destruction of the LUSITANIA by the German Government with the murder of noncombatants, including many Americans, is one of the final acts of frenzied, frantic fanatics, drunk with murder lust…” declared one contributor on May 11, 1915. “Let all good citizens resolve to ostracize and boycott everything German,” proclaimed another. “How long…will our United States stand aside and submit to the incredible crime and outrage of German warfare?” asked yet another reader in a letter typical of those printed during the weeks after LUSITANIA went down.
Perhaps due to the presence of Mencken’s column, the Evening Sun typically featured an above-average share of pro-German letters to the editor during the LUSITANIA period. Many pro-German readers were quick to justify the sinking in terms of cargo and registry of the ship. “This liner was an auxiliary cruiser of the English Navy, fitted out as such, commanded by a commander of the naval reserve, and partly manned by a trained naval crew. Besides she carried all kinds of war material, ammunition, and other contraband…to be used against Germany,” cited one German-American reader. Other German-Americans blamed the US Government for its lackluster enforcement of neutrality. “The authorities in Washington were very well aware of the intentions of the German submarines, and the first thing the Government should have done was to make these facts public and warn its citizens of the danger awaiting them on British ships,” charged one reader. “You may call the Germans barbarians, baby killers and murderers,” the letter continued, “but remember that this country profits by receiving the blood-stained money in exchange for arms and ammunition. An open war waged on the Germans… would be far more honorable than this bogus ‘neutrality.’”
Predictably, Mencken’s “Free Lance” column burgeoned with justifications for the destruction of the LUSITANIA, on the same grounds as those put forth by many German-Americans. Additionally, Mencken equated the U-boat war with the British blockade intended to bring Germany down through economic deprivation. The British, Mencken wrote on May 8, the day following the LUSITANIA’s sinking, “are engaged….in a deliberate effort to starve out and murder all Germans, without regard to age or sex. The German reply to that threat is to have at England with exactly the same stick.”
The continued publication of “The Free Lance” column during the first year of the war inspired a sustained campaign of complaint and hate mail against the columnist. The campaign was fed by a mixture of anti-German feeling and a dislike for Mencken’s often bombastic style. The fact of the matter, in broad terms, was that by late 1915 public opinion in the United States had shifted to favor the Allied cause. By October 1915, H.L. Mencken decided to give up his “Free Lance” column, though he would always insist that he did so to free himself to pursue other projects. Considering his workload editing two national literary magazines as well as his newspaper work, his claim was not completely unconvincing.
Although the “The Free Lance” column had come to an end, Mencken continued to champion Germany’s cause. According to biographer Teachout in The Skeptic, “Two days after his last ‘Free Lance’ ran, he embarked on a series of editorial-page articles, starting with two sets of ‘notes for a proposed treatise upon the origin and nature of Puritanism’ in which he explored in greater detail the relationship between Christianity and democracy, taking every opportunity along the way to praise Germany and damn England: ‘At the bottom of Puritanism one always finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world. At the bottom of democracy one finds the same thing….England is the mother country of Puritanism, and will be its first victim.’”
Despite the continuing decline of support for the cause of the Central Powers by 1916, the expression of pro-German views was still not illegal or, necessarily unpatriotic, and thus it was in this spirit that the Baltimore Sun consented to Mencken’s idea of going to Europe as a war correspondent – in Germany. Departing in December of that year, Mencken commenced a short stint as a reporter where he briefly visited German positions on the Eastern Front in early 1917. “MENCKEN IS NOT NEUTRAL. He is pro-German,” declared the Sun’s advertisement for the assignment. “But this will not prevent him from giving you the real report of actual conditions in wartime Germany.”
The rapid pace of events in German-American diplomatic relations with the reintroduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in the spring of 1917 dramatically cut short Mencken’s reporting assignment overseas, and he rapidly made his way back to the United States. Writing to novelist Theodore Dreiser after returning to Baltimore on the eve of the US declaration of war, he commented that “Mobs are already afoot here….Last night they raided a pacifist meeting and raised hell. It is very likely there will be some smashing of windows and other delicate heroics when war is declared.” Fearing that his own home might be raided, Mencken buried the diary from his recent trip to Germany, along with other “sensitive materials” in his backyard where they remained until late the following year.
Once war was declared in April 1917, newspapers quietly steered clear of H.L. Mencken and his pro-German views, though he continued to work on assignments not related to the war, as well as his literary magazine editing. Pro-German views had become decidedly un-patriotic, and by 1918, with the passage of the Sedition Act additions to the Espionage Act of 1917, the public expression of such views was punishable with imprisonment.
The experience of German-Americans during America’s neutrality years, followed by the country’s participation in the First World War, forever transformed that group’s perception of self. Once proud, distinct and vibrant, the German-American communities in cities throughout the United States were compelled to re-assess their identity in the light of a new 20th Century concept of patriotism forged by the First World War. While proud of his German heritage, H.L. Mencken’s stance during the years of American neutrality was anything but typical of the German-American perspective – although he was among the most prominent of the pro-German commentators at that time. His motivations for the views he expressed were entirely rooted in his own particular intellectual point of view. He was an early combatant in what would later be referred to as “the culture wars” in America.