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Perspective: World War I's legacy as the Great War (w/video)

In January 1917, amid the horrors of trench warfare, a British officer penned a prosaic sentence, "Two oranges this morning were hard as cricket balls."

The orange must have conjured memories of sun-drenched climes, a dream-lit past contrasted sharply with the hellish present.

A century ago, "the guns of August" commenced, the fighting that contemporaries called simply the Great War. The Aug. 3, 1914, headline of the St. Petersburg Daily Times read ominously, "Deluge of Blood About Ready to Break." The war's repercussions reverberated across Tampa Bay, shaking small towns, fishing villages and groves.

As European monarchs, czars and sultans mobilized, St. Petersburg was as far removed as one could imagine from the conflict. Census takers in 1915 counted 7,186 St. Petersburg residents, while Pinellas County numbered only 18,184.

War in Europe enriched American bankers, manufacturers and farmers. But St. Petersburg produced no engines or arms of war — a June 16, 1918, headline reinforced the point: "Pinellas County's One War Industry Working 24 Hours Daily To Make Jam For The U.S. Soldiers." Largo claimed the prized factory.

St. Petersburg profited from increasing numbers of newly rich tourists until "gasless Sundays" in 1918 curbed the traffic. Pinellas County grove owners benefited handsomely because of new consumers; indeed, many farmers sold their mules and purchased Ford trucks.

African-Americans, horrified by St. Petersburg's first lynching in November 1914, voted with their feet, many moving north, part of the Great Migration in which they sought industrial jobs and a better future. By 1917, a reporter concluded that St. Petersburg "has lost many of its most reliable negroes."

When, in April 1917, the United States declared war against Germany, American patriotism spiked. "St. Petersburg's first big demonstration of loyalty will take place in Williams Park," reported the Times. "The air will ring with patriotic music."

Nothing unifies a nation more than a popular war. Or so we want to believe. The poet T.S. Eliot, witnessing the war from the vantage point of London, wrote his mother in St. Louis that Americans "will be having all the excitement and bustle of war with none of the horrors and despairs."

The Great War unleashed ancient and modern forces: the love of homeland and the power of mass communication; ethnic and tribal hatreds and the harnessing of the industrial revolution. The war, with its powerful moral overtones, resembled a religious revival. Nations that mastered mass mobilization could easily apply the techniques of the mass production to public opinion. Washington created the Orwellian-sounding Committee of Public Information.

War anxieties fed a virulent nativism, generating a fierce debate over "undesirable" immigrants, immigration restriction and subversives. Theodore Roosevelt demanded that America could no longer tolerate a hyphenated America; Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans must become "100 percent Americans."

Total wars demand demons and scapegoats. In 1913, Americans viewed German immigrants as model citizens. Provident and patriotic, industrious and literate, Germans were the ideal immigrants. But beginning in 1914, attitudes toward Germans changed as Americans read exaggerated accounts of German Huns tossing Belgian babies on to bayonets. Prohibitionists denounced German beer barons and saloon keepers as archenemies of decency.

St. Petersburg harbored no classic immigrant enclaves, such as Tampa's Ybor City or New York's Yorkville. Public opinion turned against all-things-German, and politicians responded with draconian diktats. The federal government demanded that all German aliens (immigrants who had not yet begun paperwork to become U.S. citizens) register at the post office where they would be photographed and fingerprinted.

St. Petersburg established the Committee of Twelve "to handle persons who may be charged with disloyalty and seditions," in response to the congressional Espionage and Sedition Acts.

A fear of foreign agents threatening American liberties gripped St. Petersburg. On Central Avenue in 1917, a reporter observed that a Philadelphia tourist "seemed to be taking the side of Germany in a war argument." The paper noted that W.F. Hopkinson "narrowly missed being roughly handled by a crowd of winter tourists who overheard his allegedly disloyal remarks."

The cases of F.W. Ramm and Charles Maurer offer poignant illustrations of the American Dream colliding with the mercurial winds of war. Ramm and his family were born in Germany and had lived and prospered in St. Petersburg for decades. As a young man Ramm had returned to Germany, only to be impressed into the Imperial Navy for a year. Accused of disloyalty in St. Petersburg, he pledged to his fellow citizens, "Although we are German-Americans, we are not only ready to turn over our property, but we are ready to shed our life's blood in defense of this country."

Charles Maurer became a pillar of St. Petersburg. Arriving in 1913, he had left his native St. Louis, home to his German parents and tens of thousands of German immigrants. A lawyer and judge, he spoke frequently on the theme, "The Duties of German-Americans."

The Committee of Twelve heard the case of Mrs. M.P. Phillips, a school teacher in Lealman who was accused of "pro-Germanism." A petition, "signed by practically every citizen of Lealman," was presented to the school board demanding that she not return.

German language teachers became convenient targets. Miss Hedwig Schaeffer (formerly Schäeffer), a Radcliffe graduate, taught German at St. Petersburg High until students overheard "disloyal sentiments." Cleared by the committee, she was nonetheless dismissed from her teaching post.

Florida legislators addressed the issue of Fifth Columns inculcating dangerous views by prohibiting the teaching of German in Florida schools. The State Board of Control banned German books at Florida universities.

The Florida Grower, a popular magazine, asked readers to take "The Oath."

"I will not drink from a German cup, or eat from a German plate. ...

I'll use no drug with a German name that's made on German land,

I'll eat no food or drink no beer if made by a German hand."

The specter of black insurrection, a resurrection of slavery-era nightmares, resurfaced during the war. Rumors circulated that German agents were fomenting a race war in the American South by promising new freedoms and reparations.

A perverse logic maintained that if Germany threatened our freedom, German words should be purged. Thus, hot dogs supplanted frankfurters, Salisbury steak replaced hamburger, and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.

In rhetoric as silly as "freedom fries" triumphing over French fries in 2003, the German shepherd hund of 1917 was rebranded as an Alsatian. Owners of dachshunds trembled upon hearing that mobs in some cities attacked the misfortunately named dogs.

In one of the war's greatest ironies, a German dog became an American icon. An American doughboy fighting in France stumbled upon a destroyed German encampment that included a bombed kennel. Inside, Gunnery Cpl. Leland Duncan discovered amid the carnage a German shepherd mother with week-old puppies. He adopted two of them. One of them became the silent screen star Rin Tin Tin.

The Great War's legacy is profound. The enduring tragedies cost millions of lives, leveled three empires, redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East, gave rise to Bolshevik Russia, destabilized Germany and set the stage for fascism and totalitarianism. America's financial standing in the world ascended. Buoyed by victory but disillusioned by the war's aftermath, Americans escaped to the dizzying decade of the Twenties.

The decade following the war transformed St. Petersburg from a small town into a city four times as large, a city synonymous with spring training, a city famous for the first bridge spanning Tampa Bay, Snell Isle and the Snell Arcade, ornate hotels and a million-dollar pier. A new architecture symbolized the Sunshine City and its palace as the American Mediterranean.

But for all the optimism and giddiness of the early 1920s, the real estate bubble burst in 1926, a cautionary reminder to future generations. Ironically, Charles Maurer, the defender of and spokesman for German Americans in the Great War, became mayor of St. Petersburg in 1927.

In 1939, Europeans once again went to war. When the United States declared war against Japan in 1941, no one was quite sure what to call the new conflict. The name World War II won out over many suggestions, including the Greatest War. When the war ended in 1945, Americans once again flocked to St. Petersburg, part of a new Florida dream. Memories of the Great War began to fade.

Gary R. Mormino, scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council, is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus of Florida history at USF St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Perspective: World War I's legacy as the Great War (w/video) 08/08/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2014 6:01pm]
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