The Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps
By Chris Oakley
When the United States declared war on Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in Germany in April of 1917, many of the men sent to the Western Front by President Woodrow Wilson to defend the Allied cause were, ironically, of German descent. In fact, even before Congress passed the official declaration of war a unique group of German-Americans was fighting on the Allies’ side in an effort to shatter the popular myth that all US citizens of German descent were fifth columnists for the Kaiser. This group was known as the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps ("German-American Volunteer Corps"), and their story represents a remarkable chapter in military history.
The seeds for the establishment of the DAF were planted in May of 1915, shortly after the British passenger ship Lusitania was torpedoed by Imperial German Navy U-boats. The loyalties of German-Americans, which had been in question almost from the moment the First World War began, were now being openly doubted and anyone who had the slightest trace of German blood in them was a target for what today might be deemed "hate crime" assaults by other Americans who detested Germany in general and Kaiser Wilhelm above all.
The question of what to do to counteract the negative perceptions of German-Americans was a topic of lively debate-- and the subject of a meeting held in Chicago on May 22nd, 1915 by an assembly of nearly 1500 German-American men. The keynote speaker at that meeting was a brewery owner who’d fled Germany during the Franco-Prussian War about four and a half decades earlier; he proposed the establishment of a special volunteer brigade to go over to the Western Front, a notion that even among some of those who hated the Kaiser sparked immediate controversy. Why, said one of the idea’s critics, should they take up arms to defend a country that hated them?
Because, the speaker answered, if they did not do so it would give the bigots among the American public further ammunition for their charges that German-Americans were all secretly in the Kaiser’s hip pocket. Another speaker, who supported the volunteer regiment concept, added that this idea represented a historic opportunity to end Wilhelm II’s autocratic regime and plant the seeds for a more democratic form of government in Germany. Eventually, it was decided that the question should be put to a vote before the men gathered at the assembly and improvised ballots were passed out among those in attendance at the meeting.
The voting took more than two and a half hours to complete, but when it was over a clear if narrow majority of those in attendance at the Chicago meeting had come out in favor of the volunteer regiment proposal. The organizers of the rally then set to work raising funds to purchase uniforms and rifles for the regiment, which was formally designated as the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps on May 26th.
Surprisingly, getting the rifles and the uniforms for the DAF turned out to be the easy part. The tough job was trying to sell the non-German public on the notion that men who shared the same ethnic background as Kaiser Wilhelm II would actually shed blood to fight in defense of the nations that were(or would be) his greatest enemies. A few cynical souls among the general public held the opinion that the new volunteer regiment was little more than a scam designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the American masses while agents of the Kaiser or German-American fifth columnists overthrew President Wilson.
One emphatic and highly prominent critic of this paranoid line of thinking was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who answered those who subscribed to it with a rather blistering editorial column in the New York Times about a month after the Chicago rally. In no uncertain terms he took the DAF’s opponents to task, darkly hinting that perhaps they were the ones who might be fifth columnists for Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s hard to guess how many minds were changed by Roosevelt’s article, but he certainly managed to shut quite a few bigoted mouths; after his op-ed piece was printed, there were no more anti-DAF articles in any mainstream US newspapers or magazines.
It wasn’t just faith in the patriotism of German-Americans that motivated TR to speak out-- a part of him frankly relished the notion of Kaiser Wilhelm’s fellow Teutons throwing a monkey wrench into the cogs of the Second Reich’s war machine. As Roosevelt himself quipped to a friend after the First World War ended, his only quarrel with the basic concept of the DAF was that he hadn’t thought of it first.
In mid-October of 1915, the men of the DAF began basic training at an old dairy farm in Wisconsin which the corps had purchased and converted into a combination military academy and dormitory complex. The DAF training school, located east of the city of Milwaukee, was close to being a city unto itself; it had its own library, churches, fire and police departments, hospital, newspaper, schools and parks and even fielded a quite respectable amateur baseball team. Over the next seven months, the DAF training camp would become a second home for the volunteers-- and a source of controversy for those who still questioned the sincerity of those volunteers’ commitment to fighting for the Allied cause.
Two months into their training, the DAF recruits were confronted with tragedy when one of their number was killed in an accident on the volunteer corps’ rifle range. The young recruit’s death shook the men of the DAF to their souls, and for a time some of them questioned the worth of what they were doing; that self-doubt, however, soon gave way to a renewed determination to fulfill the mission for which the corps had been established.
In January of 1916 a group of Belgian immigrants, impressed by what the DAF was seeking to accomplish, banded together to start their own volunteer corps, the 1st Belgian-American Infantry Brigade. By then, it was becoming increasingly clear that although President Wilson might be able to keep the American government out of the fighting in Europe, he couldn’t do much to prevent American citizens from getting involved in that fighting...
To Be Continued