In 1911, by the time baby Joseph was held in the arms of his adoptive parents in Dodge, Nebraska, Europe was on the brink of war. The Great Powers in Europe were Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. The Ottoman (Turkish) Empire had a foothold in Greece and some parts of the Balkans — an area of southeastern Europe encompassing Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzgovinia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
In 1912 and 1913, wars broke out in the Balkans. Bulgaria, Montenegro, Greece and Serbia formed the Balkan League to oust the Ottomans. In the U.S., recent emigrants from the Balkans returned to their native lands to bear arms in support.
In the end, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Greece and Serbia conquered the Ottoman-held lands of Macedonia, Albania and Thrace. While nation-state lines had been redrawn; ethnic identities and affiliations had not changed. Tensions simmered and flared, between the Balkan states, and with the Great Powers, especially between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.
The antipathy between the neighboring countries was longstanding. Prior to the Balkan Wars, Serbia, which had been dependent economically upon Austria-Hungary, was beginning to build its own economic channels across Europe. When Austria-Hungary banned imports of Serbian pork in 1906, the Serbs continued to sell its pork to France but rerouted the meat through Bosnia. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia from the Ottomans, and consequently shut down Serbian shipments of pork. The Serbs appealed to Russia for support, but Czar Nicholas refused to go to war with Austria-Hungary.
Approximately five years later, after the Serbian success against Turkey in the Balkan Wars, the Serbian prime minister apparently declared, “The first round is won. Now for the second round – against Austria.” In his book, scholar Richard C. Hall refers to the Balkan Wars as the Prelude to World War I.
On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed by a young Serbian nationalist. The assassination is cited as the event that started World War I but obviously it was the spark that fell upon a lot of pre-existing kindling. Diplomatic relations between many of the European nations was strained and alliances had become complicated. With Germany’s support, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with some strict demands in reparations. While Serbia made efforts to meet the demands, in the end, Austria-Hungary broke off diplomatic relations and began preparing for war. Russia, Serbia’s ally, began military mobilization against Austria-Hungary. Britain and France expressed concern if Russia were to intervene in such a conflict. Attempts at peaceful negotiations were brushed aside. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Fighting began. By August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. Others joined the fray and soon every major Western power except for the United States was embroiled in war.
The majority of Americans, while aware of what was taking place in Europe, wanted to remain neutral. Based on newspaper headlines and articles from the period,donations of every kind were collected and sent in support of allies like Great Britain, France and others. The Red Cross Mercy Ship sailed to Europe with medical staff. American children were encouraged to donate toys for the Christmas Ship, a vessel charged with delivering gifts by Christmas Day to needy European children. The headlines also highlight the literal and figurative gulf separating Americans from the European conflict. The U.S. was struggling with its own social, economic and political issues. Even so the war was making an impression.
At the 1914 Southern States Suffrage Conference held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont of New York was questioned about men in Belgium receiving the vote but not the women. She replied: “With men waging war on the earth, in the air, on the sea and beneath the waters … shelling cities and destroying everything before them, leaving women and children without a place to lay their heads, it is somewhat illogical to talk of woman’s sphere as the home. In my opinion, the men who deliberately make war on women and children as has been done in Belgium, are not fit to be intrusted with the ballot for it was created as the weapon of civilization and Christianity, not of wholesale butchery.”
At the conclusion of her address, Ms. Belmont was asked if she thought the vote for women in the South should include the vote being given to Negro women, as well. She replied that should be a decision left to the men of the South to decide. “We seek for women political rights equal to those of men. Negro women could share the rights of Negro men. If they are disenfranchised let the women share the same treatment. Our campaign is to eliminate the discrimination against women and secure for them a parity with men in the matter of the right to vote.” (New York Times, November 11, 1914)
For several years, for many reasons, including a strong German American presence within the country, the United States pursued a policy of non-intervention. One of the most vocal anti-war proponents was President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. He wanted the U.S. to maintain a neutral position and serve as mediator in the conflict. “It is not likely that either side will win so complete a victory as to be able to dictate terms, and if either side does win such a victory it will probably mean preparation for another war. It would seem better to look for a more rational basis for peace.” At odds with his President’s policies, Bryan would resign in 1915.
In 1917, after a series of events including the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland with Americans on board (1915) and discovery of the Zimmerman telegram in which Germany proposed a military alliance with Mexico against the U.S. (1917), President Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives were able to promote the concept that the U.S. had to help make the world safe for democracy. On April 1, 1917 the U.S. officially declared war on Germany. On December 7, 1917 war would be declared on Austria-Hungary. In the end, the war would pit the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire against the Allied forces of Great Britain, the United States, France, Russia, Italy and Japan. A national call for volunteers was made to join the military services.
The rate of enlistment for the volunteer army was too low, leading Wilson to sign the Selective Service Act of 1917. Over time, millions would be drafted into service. Enlistment was even used as enticement to garner citizenship. Tens of thousands of American men, of every race and background, began leaving daily for the battlefields of Europe.
At the same time, the formerly vast waves of immigration into the U.S. were effectively cut off. A dearth of labor was created across the country just as industries were seeking to ramp up their production. As a result, as one author phrased it, “an exodus ensued” as Northern and Midwestern manufacturers began recruiting for labor from the American South, especially for African Americans. By 1919, nearly 500,000 African Americans had emigrated up north and out west. It would be a migration, A Great Migration, that would continue into the 1940s.
Jobs and unexpected opportunities were created in an attempt to meet the demands of a nation and a world at war. Wars do end, however, with WWI officially ceasing on November 18, 1918. New opportunities arose as soldiers returned to the States, but tensions were heightened and prejudices magnified as well.
The summer and early fall of 1919, when Joseph would have been 8 years old, is known as Red Summer, a term coined by Joseph Weldon Johnson of the NAACP. Race riots broke out in over two dozen cities across the U.S including in Omaha, NE, about an hour away from Dodge. A black man was accused of assaulting a white woman and regardless of evidence a mob gathered and eventually the man was forcibly taken from police custody and brutally killed. Actor Henry Fonda was a 14-year old boy in Omaha at the time. He saw some of the events. He later wrote that all he could think of was that black man dangling from a rope.
Hundreds died that summer. Many thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. Seeds were sown for future conflicts. And, no doubt, bonds were strengthened for future civil rights efforts. A particular focus during the period, and for some decades to come, were campaigns against lynching. Lynching is a particularly color-blind act. African Americans, while killed in large numbers, were not the only ones dying or being threatened with death in this horrific manner in the post-war period. Drawn to the U.S. in the late 1800s, German-speaking people from many different nations had emigrated seeking new lives. Like little Joseph’s family, they especially migrated to the midwestern states to take advantage of the Homestead Acts. The first act was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves and women), was 21 years or older, or the head of a family, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. There was also a residency requirement. In Nebraska, the land being homesteaded had once been considered “Indian Country” but as the U.S. sought to expand its territory the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1954 opened the land to settlement. The subsequent Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of this land to any head of household promising to live there for five years.
By 1910, approximately 200,000 residents of German heritage lived within the state of Nebraska. Dozens of German language newspapers and other publications were regularly printed and distributed. Cultural events conducted in German were the norm, not the exception. All of this would change with U.S. entry into World War I in 1917.
In Joseph’s adopted home, he spoke German, though he would have been challenged in speaking German in grade school. Language has always been viewed as key to ethnic identity. With anti-German sentiment at a fever pitch, the suppression of German language and culture was viewed as paramount to ensure that all those people of German-speaking heritage became thoroughly Americanized. President Wilson signed a bill restricting German newspapers. Clergy in primarily-German speaking communities were informed they could only deliver sermons in English even if people spoke only German.
On April 9, 1919, Nebraska enacted a statute that would become known as the Siman Act, imposing restrictions on both the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction and on foreign languages as a subject of study. Essentially no person in any public or private school could teach in any other language than English, and with respect to foreign language instruction, no child could be taught a foreign language until high school.
On May 25, 1920, instructor Robert T. Meyer broke the rules in his one-room schoolhouse in Zion Parochial School in Hampton, Nebraska by teaching to a 4th grader using a book of German bible stories. He would be charged with violating the Siman Act and convicted at the state level. Similar laws were being enacted across the country. Meyer would fight his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the ruling would take on a national significance. In 1923, the Court would hold that the Nebraska statute violated the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment. While respecting the state’s desire to “foster a homogenous people,” the court found that the state had gone too far with the statute. With its ruling, the court made clear that “the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected.”
By the time that ruling was made, Joseph was twelve years old. Over the next five years, he would complete his grade school education. In 1928, as a seventeen-year old, he would leave the family farm and Great Plains to travel eastward to study in a theological setting. To become a seminarian as his path suggests? If so, something happens along that path. He comes to a fork in the road. It is clear that at some point in the late 1920s or early 1930s, young Horne picks up a camera. He will become adept at its use and he will begin to photograph the world around him.
Sources/Additional Reading …
Racial Tensions in Omaha September 28, 1919