Milwaukee Goes to War

Local author visits the Cream City of a century ago

Jun. 12, 2017
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In 1916, Milwaukee could have been mistaken for an outpost of German Mittel Europa in the American Midwest. But once war was declared in 1917, Milwaukee’s German culture began to melt away.

Kevin J. Abing from the Milwaukee County Historical Society recounts how the Cream City went to war against the heritage of many of its citizens in A Crowded Hour: Milwaukee During the Great War 1917-1918. He will give a Book Talk, 6 p.m., June 15 at the Historic Milwaukee Store, 235 E. Michigan St. Admission is $5 for Historic Milwaukee members, $10 for non-members. To RSVP, visit www.historicmilwaukee.org.

In his book, Abing picks out some fascinating details. Barely more than a year before the U.S. went to war, the Milwaukee Auditorium was the setting for an elaborate fundraiser for Germany and its Austrian ally complete with recreations of a Vienna café and the fabled town of Heidelberg. Mrs. Gustav Pabst sold frankfurters from a booth. Much beer was consumed.

But soon enough, the city did an about face. America’s 18-month intervention in World War I “reshaped Milwaukee’s—and America’s—social and political landscape.” U.S. superpatriots denounced Milwaukee not only for its German heritage but also for its socialist politics. With a rancid zeal identical in tone to the worst of Trump, right-wingers “trampled cherished traditions and Constitutional rights in a hysterical drive to promote 100 percent Americanism.”

A Crowded Hour is also enlightening for drawing a picture of Milwaukee from a century ago, a place of industry and parks where people “usually walked to and shopped in family-run grocery stores, bakeries and butcher shops that populated most neighborhoods.” Abing places Milwaukee in the context of the vast social changes engulfing America. By 1916 cars outnumbered horses within the city limits and movie houses sold more tickets than theaters.

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