Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Burning Beethoven": Erik Kirschbaum in America

Erik Kirschbaum. the author of Burning Beethoven. The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I was on a book tour in the United States. Here are his impressions:

The U.S. Presidential election primary campaigns might be the most incredible in my lifetime. The Republican primary is especially unpredictable with two candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, not ashamed of their Cuban heritage running against another candidate, Donald Trump, who long concealed his German origins. Why?

That’s one of the questions I’ve been talking about at a series of talks about my book “Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I” in recent week. Curious and enthusiastic groups of Americans in Minnesota, Indiana and Massachusetts have come to the talks about the book and about the tragic history of German-Americans and the ordeal they were forced to go through before and during World War I. There are two more stops on the two-week tour, sponsored by the American Council on Germany, in Seattle on Thursday and Friday.

Not only Americans of German origin but also Germans living in the United States and other Americans have been coming to the talks and asking great questions. They are almost universally surprised to learn about the proud and flourishing German culture in the United States before World War I. There were some 488 German-language newspapers in America in 1910 with some 4 million readers and the German language was taught in schools in 35 states. But World War I changed all that and a surge of anti-German hysteria wiped almost all that away within just a few short years. There were even public book burnings in towns and cities across the United States, where groups ranging from the Boy Scouts to civic leaders piled up German textbooks and books that they had pulled out of school and public libraries – and set them on fire.

The trip began in Minneapolis with a riveting talk at the University of Minnesota’s Center for German and European Studies and then went on to another ACG-sponsored talk at The Athenaeum Foundation in the heart of Indianapolis – a fantastic building once known as “Das Deutsche Haus” that had to change its name in 1918. I could almost literally “feel the pain” even 98 years ago of what the creators of that wonderful community center must have gone through during the era of anti-German hysteria from 1914 to 1918.

This week the Goethe Institute in Boston hosted a talk on my book as well and there was another great discussion about how large, creative, productive and influential the German culture once was in the United States. A lot of the people said “I never knew any of that” and seemed pleased to learn why there are so many Americans with German roots yet there is no effort for any candidates to win over the “German-American” vote the way Hispanic and black voters playing such a pivotal role in the primaries.

It’s been a great tour and I’d like to thank the American Council on Germany in New York and the Eric M. Warburg Chapters that have hosted talks in Indianapolis, Boston and Seattle. Also a warm thanks to the University of Minnesota, the Athenaeum Foundation in Indianapolis, the Goethe Institute in Boston, the Mill Creek School in Seattle, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University for making it all happen. And thanks to the German consulates across the United States for their support and interest in the book and the tour.

- Erik Kirschbaum

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