History is often painted with blurred lines, but it's not always presented that way. Textbooks attempt to correct our vision of the past, but sometimes, their prescription isn’t always correct.
According to most textbooks, clear lines were drawn in the sand during World War II. It was the Allies vs. the Axis powers, and Americans had common enemies, one of them being Germany.
How did German-Americans grapple with the fact that the United States was at war with Germany, the land their ancestors came from no more than 100 years earlier?
The answer is twofold: German Americans proved their loyalty by showing an unwavering support for the United States. At the same time, they still recognized the humanity of ordinary Germans who were caught up in the war.
During World War II, over 200 men and women from Frankenmuth served in the military. Per capita, Frankenmuth purchased the most amount of war bonds of any city in the country. Residents gave portions of their paychecks to the war effort, and five men lost their lives during the war. These feats were noticed by national magazines, such as The Detroit Free Press, which noted that Hitler’s ideas and Nazism “Didn’t Happen Here.” Frankenmuthers showed an unwavering support for the United States. They proved their loyalty time and time again.
With so many Americans serving in the military, American farms needed help. They couldn’t possibly provide the country with enough food to feed Americans at home and overseas. To address the issue, the federal government brought German Prisoners of War from European battlefields to work on American farms. Frankenmuthers could then “rent” the POWs for a day. And they did. Often.
By all accounts, Frankenmuthers treated the POWs with respect. They fed them, sipped beer with them, and spoke to them in German. One study even called the POWs “the befriended enemy.”
Why did Frankenmuthers treat the enemy this way? At some level, Frankenmuthers were confronted with the reality on the ground. In front of them were human beings, some of whom claimed that they were forced into the army, and most of them claimed they did not believe in the Nazi Party’s ideals. Looking into their eyes, it was difficult not to recognize their humanity.
At the same time, Frankenmuthers still may have had cousins or distant relatives in Germany. Their fathers, grandfathers, or great grandfathers may have come from Germany. These not-so-distant connections made it easier for them to relate to German POWs.
According to textbooks, there were clear divisions during the War. But that interpretation doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell how Frankenmuthers responded. It doesn’t show how the lines between enemy and friend were often blurred.
"He who has not searched the past has no authority to present proposals for the present or the future." - Wilhem Loehe
Nathan is the Director of Education, Events, & Exhibits at the FHA.
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