Wisconsin in World War I

–submitted by Moses Altsech; photo by Dennis Cooley

Richard Pifer 11 8 17When the US entered World War 1 in 1917, the war came to dominate the daily life of citizens in Wisconsin. There were initially concerns about our state since 38% of the population had been born in Germany or had a parent born in Germany. Riots were expected on the first day of the draft, yet they did not materialize. Instead 218,000 people (106% of the estimated eligible number) registered, and 5% of the state’s population served in the military. Families were urged to conserve food, grow a garden and avoid eating wheat, sugar, meat, and fat, all of which were critical to the war effort. There was not just social pressure, but aggressive action to ensure that people bought war bonds, and volunteers told those who bought fewer than their means allowed that they would be reported to the County Council on Defense. Dozens were indicted under the Espionage Act for criticizing the war, insulting the flag, opposing war bonds, and other “unpatriotic” remarks. Vigilante groups like the Knights of Liberty took the law into their own hands against “disloyal” citizens, and German language school books were burned.

As Governor Emmanuel Philipp pointed out, however, “self-asserted patriots” were the real threat. We can relate a lot of what our speaker, Richard Pifer, author of “The Great War Comes to Wisconsin,” said, to the challenges we face today: Patriotism can be noble or it can be a tool to marginalize, demonize, and even persecute those we disagree with by questioning their loyalty and forcing them to live in fear. Hopefully 100 years later we can learn from the lessons of the past.

If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.

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