The First World War was arguably the most significant conflict in the last century, setting the stage for geopolitics that still affect our world today. Despite having ended nearly a century ago, its legacy is far-reaching. Many historically and politically significant events have their roots squarely in the so called “Great War”: The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the subsequent Western paranoia toward communism, the advent of Western intervention in the Middle East and the creation of its modern borders, the rise of Nazism throughout Europe, the considerable strengthening and organization of the American military, and increased English-American cooperation. Yet, in spite of its global impact, the conflict tends to be overshadowed by its louder, more charismatic younger brother, World War Two.
So where was Cleveland during all of this? Well, geographically, it was right where it has always been, but it looked a lot different. Skyscrapers did not yet dominate the skyline as construction of our iconic Terminal Tower would not commence for nearly a decade after the war ended, but the city still boasted the status of the sixth largest city in the United States at the time with a population of well over half a million. Cleveland had already established itself as an industrial city, a characteristic that was visibly evident at the time. “If you look at panoramic views of the Flats, which was the sort of industrial heart of the city, there’s just a pall of smoke over it,” said John Grabowski, a historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society, “and if one got down to the street level, you would find that it was very much an international, polyglot community, with workers from around the world.”
When the war in Europe began in 1914, the then non-interventionist United States was loath to inject itself into a conflict taking place an ocean away. Germany was not yet a genocidal fascist war machine, England and the U.S. did not yet fully trust each other, and nobody in the country really gave a shit about what happened to the struggling French, Russian, or Austro-Hungarian empires. Instead of picking a side, the U.S. elected to benefit economically from its neutrality, taking the opportunity to manufacture and sell equipment, uniforms, munitions, and other goods to both the Central (chiefly Germany and Austro-Hungary) and Entente (chiefly France and England) powers, although British naval blockades did limit dealings with Germany. Cleveland, ever the industrial boom town, was at the forefront of this effort.
“The war really cannibalized the city’s industry,” explained Grabowski, who added, “Cleveland had a direct pipeline to Washington, because Cleveland’s reform mayor, Newton D. Baker, ends up becoming the Secretary of War.” Longtime friends with President Woodrow Wilson, Baker contracted out many of the European demands for military supplies to Cleveland industrialists, who happily obliged them. According to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “by the fall of 1918, it was estimated that the city had produced $750 million worth of munitions in the 4 years since the war had begun.”
Things got interesting when the United States decided to enter the war. While the United States’ military effect upon the outcome of the war bordered upon negligible—most of the killing and dying had already been taken care of by the European powers—many Americans nonetheless fought and died in the last year of the conflict. According to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “almost 41,000 Clevelanders had joined the services; 1,023 of them were killed in the conflict.” That doesn’t include wounded—injuries in the First World War often left soldiers horrifically disfigured—or psychological casualties—the term “shell-shock” was coined during the conflict to describe the completely-debilitating mental breakdowns exhibited by many soldiers after spending too much time in the front—so it’s not a stretch to say that virtually everyone in the city had a friend or family member who was directly affected by the war.
The most profound effect the war had upon the city, however, was demographic. Cleveland’s population at the start of the war was more than a quarter German. So significant was their presence in the city that German was a required language in the Cleveland public school system. To this day, you can see German names atop old brick buildings in some of the more historic parts of the city. Sauerkraut, sausage, and potato pancakes are staples of Cleveland cuisine to this day, not to mention the city’s longtime love affair with beer. At the end of the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s, German Clevelanders even erected a triumphal arch in public square in celebration of their homeland’s victory over the French.
That all changed when the United States declared war on the Central powers. German-Americans, once a proud and civically active part of the city’s populace, were suddenly regarded with suspicion and contempt; they were now the enemy. Some changed their names and went into hiding, withdrawing from the public sphere. Others simply fled. Germans who tried to maintain a sense of national pride for their homeland were ostracized and condemned as traitors, like the German president of Baldwin-Wallace College, who, according to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “aroused the patriotic indignation of his students and faculty at the 1917 Christmas service by attempting to lead them in the singing of the German-language version of ‘Silent Night.’” Public outrage regarding the incident led to his permanent removal from his position.
The smaller, but certainly not insignificant, Hungarian population in Cleveland, numbering around 10,000, had a much different experience, largely due to the nature of their residence. Hungary was a largely agricultural nation, and many migrants lived and worked in Cleveland during the offseason, returning to Hungary with their earnings when it was time to work the fields. When the United States declared war upon their home country, most simply chose to remain in Hungary.
Those who stayed in the U.S. were few enough in number to avoid the public hostility that the Germans faced.
Lastly, the history of sordid treatment of Cleveland’s African-American population begins at the end of the war. The war all but curtailed European immigration, and labor shortages caused by increased wartime industrial demands provided a wealth of opportunity in Cleveland for the nation’s black population, who were still just beginning the struggle to find a place in free society. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, however, black migrants were treated with contempt by white Clevelanders, the city tragically succumbing to America’s historically racist tendencies. Ghettos formed and segregation was institutionalized, setting the stage for Cleveland’s long and ugly history of racial tension. The effects proved to be long-lasting: according to a recent study by Alexander Kent and Thomas C. Frohlich of news and commentary site 24/7 Wall St., Cleveland bears the embarrassing status as the most segregated city in the country.
All in all, Cleveland’s role in the First World War serves as a major reminder of the divisive and hateful nature of violent conflict. Remembering the stories of our fellow Clevelanders and countrymen turning on one another underscores an oft-neglected effect of war: the homefront is the stage of many tragedies as well, oftentimes with far-reaching and painful consequences. It is important to keep this in mind, especially in a day and age where saber-rattling seems to be growing louder and louder throughout the world.
Special thanks to the Western Reserve Historical Society, whose help and resources were invaluable in writing this article.