Germania Club Library

The Germania Club building, circa 1894. G 8962 .149
The Germania Club building, circa 1894. G 8962 .149

This essay, written by John A. Hawgood, was originally published in The Newberry Library Bulletin volume 4, number 7 (1957), under the title “A German-American Library of the Wilhelminische Zeit.” 

The term Wilhelminisch applies, in its broadest sense, to anything peculiar to the Germany of the Hohenzollern Empire (1871-1918), or characteristic of it. Quite generally the term was one of deprecation or even of abuse during the brief heyday of the Weimar Republic; it connoted then an “old-fashionedness” which was absurd at best and viciously reactionary at worst. Later there were Germans to whom Wilhelminisch carried with it a happier connotation, though burdened with an ache of nostalgia for a culture and political system which seemed infinitely preferable to Hitler’s Germany.

Whatever its connotation, Wilhelminisch certainly applied accurately to the Germania Club of Chicago, whose library was recently acquired by the Newberry. For one thing, the club’s period of rising prosperity and influence coincided almost precisely with that of Imperial Germany. For another, the club was an almost perfect expression of the changing mood or spirit of Germany under the two Wilhelms. Moreover, the historic event which destroyed the Hohenzollern Empire and from which a new Germany emerged also destroy the Germania Club as it had been, imposing upon it, as the price of its survival, a change in its name and nature. Never since 1917 has the club reflected the contemporary Fatherland as it did early in this century.

Originally known as the Germania Männerchor, the organization began as a singing society in 1865, but it was also from the beginning a leading social club for the Germans of Chicago’s near north side. The fact is attested to by records of a beer fund found in the minute book for 1873, the earliest of such books to survive. In that year, that organization had 211 members, and, like most of the rest of Chicago, was struggling to rise from the ashes of the great fire of 1871 which had destroyed its old home, the Deutsches Haus, and all its records. It was then temporarily housed in Orpheus Hall at Lake and Peoria and would subsequently occupy a number of different locations on North Clark Street until, in 1888, it purchased land for a permanent headquarters at North Clark and Germania Place. The building erected at that location was both spacious and solid, as anyone who visits the premises today can see, and its opening on April 8, 1889, was a great ceremonial day for Chicago’s German element.

Thereafter the organization prospered hugely until World War I, by which it was nearly overwhelmed. In 1917, it was reincarnated as the Lincoln Club; in 1928, it became officially the Germania Club; and it was by then prosperous again (though not as prosperous as it had been in the 1890s), remaining so until the Great Depression brought it for a second time near to death in the early 1930s. In 1934, there were only sixty-three members, not more than a dozen of them active. The club managed to survive, however, through a drastic reorganization, acquiring renewed prosperity in the 1940s and 1950s. It is now within a decade of its centennial [note 1].

Even prior to the opening of its new building in 1889, the club had had a library of sorts, fed by a trickle of donations, many of them from proud authors and editors. But this trickle became a veritable flood in the early 1890s, for the new building provided plenty of room for the library of German-Americana which several club members had long wished to establish, and the collection of books now became an organized effort.

The Yearbook of the Germania Männerchor for 1892 [note 2] describes in some detail the founding of this “Deutsche-Amerikanische Bibliothek” and contains a full list of the books in the library as of April in that year. On April 15, 1891, the president of the club, Mr. Harry Rubens, had addressed a letter to three members who had been appointed to its library committee. He explained that the decision had been made, the preceding year, to fill a gap in American library collections by assembling at the headquarters a comprehensive collection of German-Americana. The history of the German element (des Deutschthums) in the United States, he pointed out, had produced “many pearls of German cultural achievement” (viele Perlen deutsche Geistesthätigkeit) which, if not collected and cared for, would soon be lost and forgotten. He proposed a collection, as complete as possible, of books in German about America and of works by German-Americans published “from the first days of German immigration up to the present.” The collection would not only have great historical significance, said Mr. Rubens; it would also help the German-Americans in their “cultural struggle” with other national elements among the peoples of the United States. This last remark characterized an attitude generally prevalent among German-Americans between 1848 and 1914.

Mr. Joseph Brucker, one of the library committee members addressed by President Rubens, replied within twenty-four hours. On April 16, 1891, he wrote that he and the others addressed would undertake the task Mr. Rubens had outlined, for “German-America understands far too little the importance of its past history and of its present-day cultural and political mission.” No attempt has been made in the western part of the United States to assemble a German-American library comparable to those of the Historical Societies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, Mr. Brucker continued, and the Germania Männerchor should supply this deficiency. He supported his argument, as German-Americans were then wont to do, with a quotation from Karl Schurz, before going on to stress the importance of collecting 17th and 18th Century imprints which remained in private hands and which were therefore not generally accessible. The help of the German-American press and of German-American leaders such as Schurz, Gustave Koerner, and H. A. Ratterman should be sought in publicizing the project, and second-hand booksellers should be asked to send their catalogues and to keep the committee informed concerning any important purchases.

The president and the committee then issued an “Appeal to German-America” on behalf of the new library wherein “everything will be collected and for the future repose safely and permanently which, since the landing of the Mayflower, up to our own days, has been written by German-Americans and printed here in book or pamphlet form.” Included was the paragraph beginning, “Karl Schurz sagt…,” without which no German-American manifesto of that period would have been considered complete, or even wholly respectable. The “Appeal” ended with a request for donations of money or books or both, and for advice as to where useful material could be found.

All this occurred in April, 1891. By April, 1892, the library’s book list contained nearly 300 titles, though only 14 of these bore 18th Century dates and none was a 17th Century imprint. Nearly a third of the books were volumes of poems or plays (many of the plays being in verse) by Germans and German-Americans whose fame, if any, was ephemeral; one suspects that many if not most of these were the gifts of authors. Typical titles in this category are Waldveilchen, by M. J. Joerger (Baltimore, 1872); Morgenlocken: Gedichte, by C. H. Rohe (Columbus, Ohio, 1884); and Prairie-Rosen: Gedichte und Prose, by Alex. Berghold (New Ulm, Minn.,1880). A small number of German translations of American poets, such as Longfellow’s Evangeline; uebersetzt von Frank Siller (Milwaukee, 1879), are also to be found, but late 19th Century German-American poets and would-be poets dominate the list. Only a sprinkling of books in English was included.

There are a few reference books—encyclopaedias such as Meyer’s Konversations Lexikon (in the 16-volume Leipzig edition of 1889-90) and dictionaries—and a considerable number of travel books and descriptions of life in German-American communities. Some, but by no means all, of the classics of German America are there. For instance, Gustav Koerner’s Das Deutsche Element in den Vereinigten Staaten, 1818-1848, (Cincinnati, 1880) is to be found, but the works of Gottfried Duden are not. As was appropriate for a club which was basically a Männerchor, a number of song-books, a few with 18th Century imprints, are on the list. There are a few books about contemporary Germany, Britain and the United States, and only a handful, such as George C. Stiebeling’s Socialismus and Darwinismus, (New York, 1879) and Heinrich Tiedemann’s Four Essays concerning Spiritism, (Chicago, n.d.), deal with current problems. Gustav Struve’s Weltgeschichte (7 volumes, New York 1856-60) is included, and so (somewhat surprisingly) is Theologische Werke by Thomas Paine in a German translation published in Philadelphia in 1851.

The library, after its first year of systematic building-up, was thus a rather haphazard collection falling short of the high aims defined by the President of the Club and his committeemen in April 1891. Nevertheless, several items of value and significance, and a few rare ones, had been collected to leaven those scores of slim volumes of author-published lyrics and ballads and not-so-slim verse-epics.

A “First Supplement” to the original catalog of 1892 was printed in the Club’s Yearbook for 1896 [note 3]. This contains some 250 additional items and within it the lyric fire burns somewhat less brightly or, at least, persistently, there being only fourteen volumes of poetry or verse-drama, excluding translations. But the number of additional 18th Century imprints had also declined; there were just four of these, and there are still none of the 17th Century items which the library’s founders had hoped to acquire. (There were, of course, no German language presses in the North American colonies during the 17th Century. The first German-language newspaper was brought out much later by an enterprising journalist and printer named Benjamin Franklin).

A much more successful attempt had been made between 1892 and 1896 to collect the really well-known German-American authors. Karl Heinzen, represented only by Erlebtes: nach mein Exilirung (Boston, 1874) in 1892, has sixteen of his works on the 1896 list, a number of them being short published addresses. Heinzen had died in 1880 and a new generation of German Americans, too young before that date to incur his anger and scorn, was perhaps beginning to forgive or at least to forget the bitterness of his tongue and pen. A now-forgotten author named Karl Knortz is represented on the supplementary list by no fewer than thirty-six items of poetry, biography, history, pedagogy, literary criticism, philosophy, economics, and translation. He and Heinzen thus account for more than one-fifth of the list, which is again somewhat top-heavy with ephemera. One book by Gottfried Duden is there, his Europa und Deutschland von Nordamerika aus betrachet (Bonn, 1833), but it was not one of his most famous or influential works.

The club membership, which has numbered around 680 in 1892, has fallen to some 570 in 1896, possibly owing to the depression of 1893 and the slackening off of immigration from Germany as the decade proceeded. The German-American library therefore contained by 1896 almost exactly the same number of titles as the club had members and was hardly the comprehensive collection that the optimistic plans of 1891 had envisaged.

Probably, however, the library was as large as the club and its reading habits justified by that time, for as the century drew toward its close the Weltanschauung of the German-Americans—their intellectual and cultural interests—were considerably changed. The old generation of political exiles, and of those whose motives for emigrations were purely economic but who had rationalized these into a political exile, was disappearing from the scene. With it departed much of the liberalism, the intense interest in everything cultural and literary, which had so strongly characterized it. Its place was being taken by first and second-generation German-Americans whose outlook was much less idealistic, much more materialistic. These younger people were “go-getters,” and they had a strong admiration for the growing physical power and glory of the Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Indeed, by 1898 the political attitudes and cultural outlook of the German-Americans had so far changed that when Bismarck died, his obituaries in America’s German language publications could assert, apparently without being seriously challenged, that he had achieved for Germany that for which the men of 1848 had striven, a view perverted enough to make both Karl Heinzen and Freidrich Hecker turn in their graves and the Iron Chancellor himself to rise again in righteous indignation.

At about this time, sentimental and heroic poetry went out of fashion in the Germania library. Few such items were added. Instead the library acquired books published in the Germany of Wilhelm II, including historical novels and the plays of Gerhardt Hauptmann—an innovation in that relatively little interest had hitherto been shown in the contemporary cultural products of the Fatherland. Through the early years of the present century, up to 1914, the library continued to grow, but at a slower and slower rate.

A few ephemeral wartime books were acquired between 1914 and 1917, but the crisis which produced the change of name to “Lincoln Club” in 1917 ended the dream of the manifesto of 1891 for good and all. Americans who had been Germans were busy selling liberty bonds to prove their loyalty, and doing their best to forget that hyphenated concept of German-America which they and their fathers had struggled so hard and for so long to keep alive [note 4].  Their children adopted the attitudes of the other 200 percent of Americans and refused to speak the German language at home even with elderly aunts and grandparents who knew no English or, stubbornly, refused to use what little they did know. Only slowly, in the ’20s and ’30s, were the pieces picked up by yet another generation, many of whose members were World War veterans and thus of unimpeachable loyalty. It was this new generation which revived the name “Germania” (the “Männerchor” was dropped) as the designation of the club in a year (1928) when Locarno dominated the international mood, the Kellogg Peace Pact was under discussion, and Stresemann was the Foreign Minister of a liberal, democratic, and federal German republic which sought to sweep into the discard everything Wilhelminisch. The impressive vestibule and massive halls of the club building, which had echoed emptily during and immediately after the war (though the club had never closed), were again relatively lively places until the great depression came.

That the club managed to survive the depression is due in large part of the active and energetic stimulus of Major A. F. W. Siebel [note 5], who was executive vice-president after the club, having filed a voluntary petition of bankruptcy in 1935 and been reorganized under section 77-B, began in 1937 to emerge from the shadow of death. The paid-up memberships, which had sunk to 63 in 1934, had risen to 780 by 1940. Since then, divorced entirely from its old traditions and self-imposed mission of preserving a distinctive German-American culture and crusading for Deutschtum against all comers, the Germania Club has remained prosperous as almost exclusively a social club where good German-style food and imported German beer can be consumed in a congenial atmosphere unmistakably Germanic but not aggressively so, and where German-type festivals and celebrations are held on appropriate occasions.

This revised and revived Germania Club had small use for the library which had been developed. For years the collection reposed in the building’s cellars alongside other properties in which the members were somewhat more interested, almost wholly neglected until, in November of 1954, it was purchased in its entirety by the Newberry. It then consisted of some thousand volumes, exclusive of unbound magazine and other periodicals [note 6]. The evidence is that many of the volumes originally in the library had been lost or mislaid over the years. Of the 550 titles listed in 1896, many had referred to multi-volume sets—enough to bring the number of actual volumes to, perhaps, 750—and there were acquisitions after that. Moreover, not all the titles on the list for 1892 and 1896 came into the possession of the Newberry, though most of them did. For instance, many of the works of Heinzen once possessed by the Germania were missing and so (mercifully) were many of those by Knortz. On the other hand, nearly all the 18th Century imprints were still there as also were nearly all the hundred-odd volumes of German-American verse.

The Newberry had expected to find that it had already on its shelves a great many of the titles in the Germania library, and this expectation proved valid. There were, however, at least 420 titles in the Germania collection which the Newberry had not possessed. Some 30 were early prints—books published in or before 1830—most of them bearing Pennsylvania imprints: Philadelphia, Lancaster, Reading, Ephrata, and so on. Particularly valuable were the collections of German-American periodical literature, enabling the Newberry to complete broken runs of these.

The writer was privileged to examine this Germania library before the duplicates had been disposed of by the Newberry and before the retained volumes were all catalogued and shelved. Thus he was enabled to judge what the library must have been in its heyday, measuring it against the ideals set out by Mr. Harry Rubens and his associates when the systematic collection was begun.

In its undispersed form the Germania Club library provided much food for thought both to the historians and to the sociologist, and also posed certain problems to the student of literature and taste. It reflected a whole epoch and way of life which now belong to the past. The German-American communities of Chicago and other cities and regions of the United States fought hard and long to maintain their cultural integrity, and the foundation of this library was avowedly a most important element of their strategy. The student of the assimilation—and resistance to assimilation—of immigrant groups should find the story of the German-American Library on North Clark Street a fascinating and enlightening one, now that the books it contained are accessible in a great library open to the public, and repose alongside many other volumes and reference books, essential for the study of the material concerned, that the Germania Club did not and could not possess.

The more famous literary figures of German-America were all well-represented in the Germania Club Library, though rather better in the Newberry Library, but the lesser poets and versifiers were mostly not in the Newberry Library at all. The value of the latter’s works, except to the sociologist and the student of taste and style, is problematical, but they were of course more characteristic of the average German-American literary aspirant than was the lone wolf, Karl Heinzen.

Heinzen, in his Gedichte, which were in the Germania Library, had no sentimental “Ode on the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence” nor “On First Gazing at the Mighty Niagara Falls,” such as appear in many of the German-American verse volumes. He presented instead, cruel epigrams and satires, like the famous six-line stanza in which he asserted that “to become Americanized is to lose oneself” and that it is better to be an Indian than an German-American. Contrast this with the concluding poem in Kraft und Stoff by Emil Dietsch (Chicago, 1884), a production more typical of the style and sentiments of German-American versifiers. Dietsch asserted that, even if America were a paradise “with all its pleasures” which might cause many to forget the sadness of their farewell to the Fatherland, he himself remained a German in his heart and would love Germany “until my dying day.”

You can take your choice. The Germania Club library had, and the Newberry Library now possess, both of them.

Notes

  1. The Germania Club Year Book and Historical Review for 1940-41 contains much valuable historical data, compiled by A. F. W. Siebel, which has been drawn on here. This has been brought up-to-date from time to time in the pages of the Germania Club News, which appears monthly and is distributed free to members. The issue for December 1956 was Volume XVII, No. 7. See especially the issues for May 1942, for November 1953 and (the 90th Anniversary number) for October 1955. The Chicago Historical Society possesses a file of the Germania Club Anniversary number) for October 1955. The Chicago Historical Society possesses a file of the Germania Club News. The Newberry Library does not.
  2. Jahrbuch für 1892. Germania Männerchor (Chicago 1892), p. 13 ff.
  3. Jahrbuch für 1896. Germania Männerchor (Chicago 1896). The Newberry Library possesses only a very incomplete file of the Jahrbuch but the Chicago Historical Society has the issues for 1892, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1899, 1901, 1903-4, 1906-7 and 1940-41. The Club itself may possess copies of the remaining issues.
  4. For a full presentation of the writer’s views concerning the hyphenated period in the history of German-America, see his work on The Tragedy of German-America (Putnam, 1940), especially chapters VIII-X.

  5. In the Germania Club Year Book and Historical Review, 1940-1941, there appears (p.9) a full-page portrait and biographical note of Major Siebel, who was then President of the Club. He had by that time become its unofficial historian. He had joined the Club in 1919 and had acted as the Secretary from 1922 to 1926. A Spanish-American War and World War I veteran, he served in the Illinois National Guard from 1896 to 1934.

  6. The writer is indebted to Miss Edith G. H. Lenel, now of the New York University Library for classified lists made of books in the Germania Club Library shortly before its purchase by the Newberry Library, and also for her replies to his specific questions.

Further Information

The Newberry also holds the Germania Club scrap book, 1921-1931.

Call our reference desk at (312) 255-3506 with questions on our holdings, or contact a librarian with research questions.