Century-Old War Leaves Lasting Impact On St. Louis German Identity
World War I collared the spread of German culture and language across the globe. Though far from the front lines, St. Louis’s vibrant German community was no exception.
A hundred years ago, the growth of the city had largely been driven by thousands of Germanic immigrants who built and controlled large swaths of government, industry, education, and religion. The Great War tested and ultimately transformed that influence in many ways that linger today.
As war broke out among Eastern and European powers in August of 1914, St. Louis’ German population had many vested interests in the conflict: local German-language papers reported news from the front lines; members of the Busch family bought German war bonds; from Turnvereins to City Hall to a vast network of religious institutions, German was a common tongue and identity.
“Up until World War I, everything was done in German around here,” said Dennis Rathert, archivist and historian for Trinity Lutheran Church in Soulard, which today is the last church in St. Louis to hold regular services in German – the fourth Sunday of each month.
“The services were done in German. The school classes all day were done in German. Meetings were held in German. All the records were kept in German,” he said.
A hundred years ago, Trinity Lutheran was one of scores of German-language churches across the metro area in which roughly a quarter of the population considered Germany its homeland. That all changed as the U.S. entered the war in Europe in April of 1917 and Americans sought to distance themselves from German culture.
As soon as the war started, conducting church affairs in German got to be dangerous, said Rathert, whose family arrived in St. Louis in the 1850s.
“They had to change the name of the church in the stained glass above the front door which was ‘Die Dreieinigkeits Kirche’ in German but rocks started coming at the window. People were very anti-German,” he said.
Such was the case that most German churches in the region ended services and language classes altogether during the war.
Street Names and Places
Elsewhere, citizens in St. Louis lobbied to change a number of the city’s business and place names to sound more American, such as the small town of Luxemburg, which we know today as Lemay.
Perhaps the most permanent vestiges of St. Louis' backlash against Germans are the handful of street names which were changed to sound more American.
“There was, of course, Kaiser Ave. That had to go,” said Jim Merkel, a local historian and author of the book “Beer, Brats and Baseball,” which examines the history of German influence in St. Louis. By the end of 1918, at least six street names were changed, but according to Merkel, if the fighting lasted much longer, St. Louis would have had far fewer German streets today.
“I’ll guarantee you that if the war would’ve continued into, say, 1920-1921, all of the German street signs would’ve been gone. They’d just gotten started,” he said.
Today Merkel is leading an effort to re-designate some of the German street names in the area. 20th Ward Alderman Craig Schmid has introduced a bill on Merkel’s behalf to honor Providence Place in south St. Louis with signage of its original name, Knapstein Place. To Merkel, whose German lineage in St. Louis also predates the Civil War, the designation would be a small acknowledgement of how the community overreacted in a time of crisis.
Street Name Changes Due To WWI (courtesy of the St. Louis Public Library Streets Index)
PERSHING AVENUE: Originally appeared as Berlin Avenue between Taylor and Kingshighway in Nathan Coleman's 1871 subdivision. In 1910, it was named Berlin Avenue from Union to De Baliviere and from east of Laurel Street to the city limits until it was renamed Pershing to honor Missouri native Gen. John J. Pershing. Before 1910, this street was De Giverville Avenue from Union to DeBaliviere in the old Kingsbury tract.
PROVIDENCE PLACE: Known as Knapstein Place in Knapstein's Subdivision of 1916.
ENRIGHT AVENUE: Previously known along some of its sections as Morgan Street, Hogan Avenue and Von Versen Avenue, this street was named in honor of Alice Von Verson, a daughter of Mrs. Eliza Clemens, in her 1885 subdivision of Clemens Place. From Grand Boulevard west to the city limits, the street name was changed during the war to honor Jack Enright, one of the first Americans killed in World War I.
GRESHAM AVENUE: Began as Kaiser Street in the 1913 Von Drehle's Subdivision; received its present name in 1918 in honor of one of the first soldiers killed in World War I.
FOURTH STREET: Named Congress and Bismarck in various sections of the Soulard neighborhood until it was renamed by a 1918 ordinance.
CECIL PLACE: Originally Hapsburger Avenue in the 1906 subdivision of Austira Heights, the street was renamed in 1918 in Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, the British statesman who collaborated in drafting the League of Nations Covenant.
Budweiser Goes All-American
Another significant change in St. Louis due to the war took place on the label of America's most famous beer. Due to public outcry, Anheuser Busch replaced the German on its Budweiser beer label with English and removed from it what appeared to be an eagle perched atop a German war helmet and an Austrian coat of arms.
At its ugliest, anti-German sentiment in the area manifested itself in the lynching of German immigrant, Robert Prager, by a mob in Collinsville. But, the language and cultural restrictions placed on Germans in St. Louis at the time were largely voluntary. Most Germans were eager to cooperate and show their allegiance to the United States.
Nearly a century after World War One, shame is hard to find for German pride in St. Louis. A number German Cultural organizations, which pre-date the war, still operate today, although their memberships are greatly diminished.
Other recent showings of pride could be found this July Fourth at the Amsterdam Tavern in Tower Grove South, where nearly a hundred German soccer fans showed up to watch the World Cup match between Germany and France.
Even though it was Independence Day, St. Louis native Matt Strohmeyer and scores of others wore German soccer jerseys. His family here has always rooted for the team, he said.
“My grandparents on my father’s side were born in Germany. Since I was a kid, we’ve always rooted for the team. So, I guess I’ve inherited it,” he said.
Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter @joemikeleahy
John S. Forrester contributed in researching this story.