Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The dreaded Hun and Montana's Sedition Project

Today's Chicago Tribune has a front page spread devoted to Montana's Sedition Project to obtain pardons for German-Americans convicted of sedition during the First World War.

Most people today don't realize how dominate German-American culture was in America in the years prior to 1917. Chicago schools were bilingual in German and English. The Trib article tells us 40% of Montana's population in 1917 spoke German as their first language. We modeled our Universities after the Germans.

Check the link to today's story and you'll see it presented as a timely topic given all the talk about NSA spying and the Patriot Act.

But there is a bigger story underneath here about German Americanism and what became of it in the US.

When I was protesting the Vietnam War my Dad would half-jokingly tell me to remember when ...the dreaded Huns twice threatened Europe, both my Grandfathers, my Uncle and my Dad all served.

For one of my Grandfathers, service meant opposing one of his cousins who served in the German Army. Here's that cousins picture: Alfred Streccius; with his wife, in 1918. I bought it last year off the internet from an antiquarian.

He's a fascinating guy with service from Africa to military advisor to the Red Air Force in the 1920s, and the Nationalists Chinese in their war against Japan in the 1930s.

Two branches of my family: one leaves and comes to Chicago to avoid the draft in the 1880s, and the other stays in Germany and produces a line of Officers.

I wrote the Israeli Historian of the German Army, Omer Bartov telling him I thought I had the seeds for a story about the power of America. How the same families, grounded in the same religion and culture, could spiral off on such different trajectories. The difference was America and Chicago.

He wrote back encouraging me but it's one of those things on the back burner. This is the closest I've come to writing something. I've collected records but not enough to write anything.

Anyways, as a guy who can trace some roots back to Germany and knows a bit of history, I say don't pardon these countrymen and women in Montana. Montana's law was harsh. We wouldn't want to repeat it today, but these German-Americans supported, in word and heart, the wrong side.

The 20th century is a history of disasters wrought by Germans. Their convictions should stand and the we German Americans should be thankful our cousins did not win.

4 comments:

smijer said...

Bill: "***I say don't pardon these countrymen and women in Montana. Montana's law was harsh. We wouldn't want to repeat it today, but these German-Americans supported, in word and heart, the wrong side.***"

The German's side was "wrong" (I agree)... but why was Montana's law only "harsh"? Why isn't the idea of "thought crimes" wrong, too? That's besides unAmerican and unconstitutional?

And, if you agree with the old saw that says two wrongs don't make a right, then why do you think these countrymen shouldn't be pardoned now? Does that go back to any of your fundamental values, and if so, which ones?

Just curious.

Bill Baar said...

These aren't thought crimes. All of these people went to jail for doing something.

I knew two people who went to prison for advocacy of an idea for purposes of incitement aginst wars. Fred Thompson who went to prison in 1918 for speaking out against the first World War. And Virgil Thompson who went to prison for speaking out against the second World War.

There are very familiar names if you're familiar with the Radical Left in Chicago. Both of these guys would have told you they did more than think these were Imperialist Wars. They were proud inciters.

Their stories and the stories of other leftists are pretty well known. What I find interesting is the stories of the larger bulk of people went to prison because they wanted Germany to win. Their story hasn't been told much because it's a part of the anti war movement most would prefer to overlook today.

Anyways, Montana's law was harsh but constitutional. That's why these Law students are seeking pardons. It's tough to argue no crime was committed here.

The language on incitment I quotes above comes from Yates v. United States which overturned the Communists Party USA leaderships convictions under the Smith Act.

Fred and Virgil looked down on the Communists from the 50's too. Partly because the Communists were such virulent supporters of the Smith Act in the 1940's to jail leftists opposed to the second war. And also because they thought the Communists cowardly for splitting hairs over thought and action which is what Yates does.

A Radical who's thoughts doesn't push them to incite and take the consequences wasn't much of a Radical in their book.

These German's in Montana did time for inciting people to support the Kaiser. Unless these law students can make a case the convictions unconstitutional, and that doesn't seem to be the route their going, I'd say no pardons. There are is only one wrong here and these folks punished.

Maybe in hind sight the punishment too much for the crime because the risks of inciting a German American rebellion pretty slim... but that's hindsight.

My fundamental value? The 20th century was the greatest disaster in human history. Germans and Germany bear much of the blame. I'm careful using hindsight to second guess how we should have waged those wars. I'm sure not granting any pardons to those who thought the Kaiser or Hitler should have been running things in the United States.

smijer said...

*** These aren't thought crimes. All of these people went to jail for doing something. ***

Besides expressing their political views? What? The linked articles didn't mention any actual crimes - they mentioned things like saying Germany was better than the U.S.

*** I knew two people who went to prison for advocacy of an idea for purposes of incitement aginst wars. ***

How do you incite against a war? The word "incite" means to encourage a specific (usually violent) action. What action did they incite?

*** Anyways, Montana's law was harsh but constitutional. That's why these Law students are seeking pardons. It's tough to argue no crime was committed here. ***

I don't think it's tough at all... have a look at the objectionable language in the statute, italicized:

"Whenever the United States shall be engaged in war, any person or persons who shall utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the constitution of the United States, or the soldiers or sailors of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the army or navy of the United States…or shall utter, print, write or publish any language calculated to incite or inflame resistance to any duly constituted Federal or State authority in connection with the prosecution of the War…shall be guilty of sedition."

How can you not see that this is a clear violation of the first amendment? Heck - protecting political speech and dissent is the main purpose of the first amendment.

I'm still not clear on the fundamental value that leads you to oppose clemency for those convicted. For instance, the reason I think it's a good idea is the value that freedom of conscience is a necessity for truly moral behavior. Your statement combines a brief history lesson, with a suggestion that we not second guess how WWI & II were fought, and then a restatement of your reluctance to see clemency in these cases... The words you chose were: "I'm sure not granting any pardons to those who thought the Kaiser or Hitler should have been running things in the United States."

By this, I'm guessing the fundamental value that underscores all of this is that freedom of conscience belongs only to those whose beliefs meet your approval. Am I close?

Bill Baar said...

No, not at all. Look at these trials and these folks were convicted of inciting others to support of Germany.

That was a crime then, and as far as I can tell constitutional.

Has nothing at all to do with what I believe.

What I do believe is it shows how much better the Patriot Act is at balancing Civil Liberities and National Security. It's a much better approach.

That's what I believe.

And I believe I would not pardon these guys.