"Perils of prussianism": Main street German America, local autonomy, and the great war

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Scholars have recognized World War I as a time of crisis for German Americans. The government's campaign against the "hyphen" and for 100 percent Americanism threatened all ethnic Americans but especially those of German descent. This essay examines the wartime events in two rural German Catholic communities in central Minnesota and asserts the power of local culture to shape the communities' response to the nativism unleashed by the war. More specifically, the war exacerbated pre-existing conflict between area farmers and members of the village merchant class. This played out politically. Merchants were supportive of the loyalty campaign and tried to control its impact, while area farmers broke from a tradition of antipathy to populist politics and rushed to join the newly established Nonpartisan League. These differences expressed conflicting material interests, but they also reflected a growing community-wide debate over the meaning of local identity and the content of local culture. That the merchant class failed during the war to challenge significantly the communities' island status-indeed the merchants' own interests precluded a closer alliance with the larger national community-speaks to the tenacity of ethnic culture in the countryside and its ability to support resistance to larger hegemonic forces.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-116
Number of pages39
JournalAgricultural History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2004


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