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The ‘Americanization’ of Norwegian immigrants, Part II

The Scandinavian countries maintained official neutrality during World War I, though Sweden and Denmark favored the Germans and the Norwegians leaned towards the English cause.  There were reasons for that.  Norway’s Queen Maud was an English princess.  The Queen of Sweden was from German royalty.  The interesting thing is that the royal families were all related.

The Norwegians in America followed the lead of their homelands in backing neutrality.  A Gore-McLemore resolution in Congress advised Americans not to book passage on armed belligerent ships.  This was aimed against the British.  Administrative pressure and Republican influence defeated the measure.

However, all the Minnesotans in Congress, except one, backed it.  The New York Times angrily declared that the Minnesota delegation was composed of “eleven Kaiserists and one American, and a mighty fine one, Senator Knute Nelson, born in Norway.”  Nelson broke rank with most of the people who elected him.  They were for neutrality.  The German-Americans actively supported the neutralist position until America entered the war on the side of the Allies.

The United Norwegian Lutheran Church adopted a neutralist position at its 1915 convention and was severely criticized for it.  This added fuel to the fire in suspecting that Scandinavians had not severed their allegiances to their homelands.

When my grandfather, Ole Fiske, petitioned for naturalization at the courthouse in Wahpeton, N.D., on Feb. 7, 1910, he was required “to renounce absolutely and forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, and particularly Haakon VII King of Norway.”  This was 17 years after his arrival in America.

There were a few Norwegian-Americans, however, who became vocal in support of the Kaiser.  Peer Stromme was one of them.  He was said to have known more Norwegian-Americans than any other living American.  Stromme “stoutly defended Germany and with even more fervor denounced Great Britain.”  This didn’t sit well with the Anglo-Saxon spirit of America.  (I recently read an account by a Jewish rabbi who also wished the Kaiser had won.  He claimed there would then have been no Soviet Union or Holocaust).

Stromme’s weekly column in Normanden was suspended during 1917-1918.  In support of his position, he claimed that Great Britain was the only country of many he had visited where Americans were consistently treated with contempt and scorn.  By contrast, he claimed his experiences in Germany and with Germans on both sides of the Atlantic had been uniformly pleasant.  He particularly recalled his experience studying under German professors at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis who he said were “fine people.”

Anxiety among immigrants began in 1907 when a literacy test was proposed for immigrants.  Racism and religious discrimination showed itself especially against Catholics, Jews and Italians.  Such a law passed Congress in 1913, but was vetoed by President Taft.  It passed again in 1915 but was vetoed by President Wilson.  If this legislation had stood, most Scandinavians would have been denied entry into the country.

The war hysteria brought demands on the immigrants to show their undivided loyalty to the United States.  Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term “hyphenism,” saying, “the hyphen is incompatible with patriotism.”  This was a direct attack on the immigrants calling themselves “Norwegian-Americans,” “German-Americans,” and others.  Roosevelt was not against immigrants, but launched a strong campaign for military preparedness and a firmer stance toward Germany.  Wilson, opposed the literacy test, but reminded the immigrants that when coming to America, they “were leaving all countries behind.”

In 1915, a federal judge delivered a stern lecture to an Austrian immigrant against the hyphen: “Remember and remember well, that you are no longer an Austrian, nor an Auto-American, but wholly and solely an American.”  He charged the immigrant to be American “without hyphens either in front or back.”

The hyphenist question became a hot item among Norwegian immigrants.  They were agreed on loyalty to their new land, but insisted that the government could not dictate cultural orientation.  They were split, however, on the language issue.  By the early 1930s, the Norwegian language was a lost cause for the second and third generations in most places.

The Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, changed its name to Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1946.  There was more opposition by Norwegian-Americans who were not members of the denomination than from those who were.  Our family favored the change.

American emotions have cooled again since World War II.  The Germans are our friends again.  Since 1945 a large influx of new immigrants has entered our country, many of them political refugees.

By now the Scandinavians are fully accepted as part of the American scene and are even referred to as “white Anglo-Saxons.”  The pendulum of the war hysteria of hundred years ago has swung the other way.  Proof of this is the success of Scandinavian ethnic festivals.  They have become a symbol of pluralism and ethnic pride and enjoyment for many people, including non-Scandinavians.

An excellent book for further study is “Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I” by Carl H. Chrislock, published by the Norwegian American Historical Association in 1981.

Next week: The Swedes of Jamestown, N.Y.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Moorhead, is the author of nine books on Scandinavian themes.