Words can be dangerous. You know, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and all that. But entire languages? During World War I, plenty of people thought speaking German was anti-American. Many states, including South Dakota, thought it so unpatriotic that they banned the language.
As I noted previously, the South Dakota Council of Defense started out with no real legal authority; it relied on voluntary cooperation. But it was concerned about German. In February 1918, “after carefully considering all the various phases,” the Council adopted a resolution that teaching German in public schools, colleges and universities was “detrimental to the best interests of the nation in this time of war with the German government, and should be discontinued.” It sent an “earnest request for cooperation” asking school boards and administrators to stop teaching German at the close of the school’s current term or semester.
The Council’s post-war report said there was “[m]uch opposition” to the order in many parts of the state and it received “[e]arnest pleas” that teaching German in the state’s colleges and universities was necessary. That didn’t sway the Council. It said its investigations found German teachers who hadn’t become become naturalized U.S. citizens. The Council recognized there was value to learning a foreign language but “in times of war or peace where the teaching or use of a language carries with it any suggestion of allegiance to or greater admiration and devotion for a country other than America, it at once becomes a National menace.”
In April 1918, the Legislature gave the Council legal authority. In May, the Council adopted “Order No. 4,” banning all German language teaching in public or private schools or private lessons as of June 1. The only exception was for already organized “classes of religious instruction,” where it would be prohibited starting October 1, 1918. The order didn’t stop there. It said German had the “tendency to, and often does excite disturbance of the public peace, and in some instances has produced violence; [and] has a tendency to and does interfere with the public safety[.]” As a result, it also banned using German in “all public and quasi-public meetings, including sermons or public worship,” unless the speaker obtained a permit from the Council. The permit required showing that using German “is necessary and is not detrimental to the best interests of the state and nation.” In other words, a minister had to ask the Council’s permission to perform services or deliver a sermon in German.
In its post-war report, the Council said the order “received more consideration” than anything else it did and it was “besieged by many delegations of prominent pastors of German speaking churches” asking Order No. 4 not apply to religious functions. The report expanded on the Council’s reasoning:
As the Conscription Act went into effect and thousands of our young men were called to the colors[,] an intense feeling toward anything German became manifest among the loyal people, who were bending every energy to win the war, and the use of the enemy’s language became increasingly an offense in many communities in the state. To conserve the public safety, allay suspicion and to afford protection to the loyal citizens of German birth and extraction [the order] prohibiting the use of the enemy’s language in public and quasi-public places was adopted.
And the Council wasn’t done. In July 1918, “Order No. 13” banned the use of German by three or more people on “any public street, in depots, upon trains, in public places of business and other public or semi-public places within the State.” It was also illegal to use German on any telephone in the state except in “extreme emergency.” Violating the order was punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 (more than $15,000 today). Again, the Council said speaking German disturbed “the public peace and in some instances has produced violence and is likely to produce future violence.” After the war, the Council said, “The necessity for [the] restrictions named in this order was confined to but a few of the counties, who were benefited by the observance of same.”
Opposition, particularly from churches and the ministry, eventually yielded some results. On August 15, 1918, the Council announced there would be “no modification” of the two orders — and then modified Order No. 4. If the entirety of a church service was in English, the person conducting it “may give a fifteen minute resume of his sermon in the German language so that he may interpret the same for the benefit of the old people who are unable to fully understand the English language.” To help those “old people,” though, required signing a pledge to “faithfully continue to observe in every particular, South Dakota Council Orders Numbers Four and Thirteen … and to actively use my influence as a citizen in supporting all activities which are endorsed by the State and Nation to win the war.”
Both orders were vacated by Gov. Peter Norbeck a month after the Armistice and they have largely faded from memory. And, as noted at the outset, South Dakota wasn’t alone in taking such actions; it occurred nationwide. In fact, Nebraska passed a law in 1919 requiring school be taught in English and forbidding teaching a foreign language to anyone until they’d completed the eighth grade. When it held the law unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme observed, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful.”
Yet the fact so many states took such steps illustrates how quickly and easily Americans will, nationwide, disregard or abrogate two of the freedoms we claim to value most — freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
The Church and State should be one in their efforts to Americanize all of our citizenship. “One language, One Flag, One Country,” should be the ideal and aim of all True Americans, regardless of birth and religious training.