In Milwaukee History

"A Crowded Hour" walks us through wartime Milwaukee.

Abing's book explores Milwaukee's World War I experience

In one of the most in-depth and engaging works of Milwaukee history this year, Milwaukee County Historical Society archivist Kevin Abing takes us deep into World War I-era Brew City via his new book, "A Crowded Hour: Milwaukee During the Great War, 1917-1918."

We asked him about the book in advance of this weekend's Milwaukee history mass book sale and signing event at Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St.

The event, which is free and open to the public, features a number of authors, including Abing, myself, John Gurda and others signing copies of their books, which will be on sale. It's the perfect way to stock up on some great Brew City-themed holiday gifts, like "A Crowded Hour."

OnMilwaukee: The book is exceptionally well-researched and written. How long did you spend writing and researching?

Kevin Abing: I started researching the topic when I was the assistant archivist at MCHS about 2003, but there was a lull of several years after I left MCHS in 2005. I finally ramped up the research in 2012 and finished writing in 2016.

You have the entire history of Milwaukee at your fingertips at MCHS, what led you to this subject specifically?

My interest in the WWI period was a departure from what I focused on in graduate school, which was 19th century U.S. history. But years ago I worked with the papers of Socialist Mayor Dan Hoan, and I came across numerous references to the anti-German and anti-Socialist hysteria that was so prevalent during those years.

The ferocity of that sentiment intrigued me, and I thought it would make an interesting story, so I did more digging in other sources. The more I dug, the more interesting the story got, and it snowballed into a full-fledged book.

In what ways was Milwaukee's WWI experience unlike other cities', if indeed it was?

For the most part, the Milwaukee experience mirrored that of other cities, but there was one factor that was unique to Milwaukee: the presence of a strong Socialist party, which opposed all wars as capitalistic conquests to dominate world markets. In fact, Milwaukee was the only major U.S. city governed by a Socialist mayor.

Coupled with Milwaukee's large German-American population, whose loyalties were suspect in the eyes of patriots, Socialist activity added an extra layer of hostility to patriots' efforts to redeem the city's reputation. That hostility never boiled over into mob violence – though there were a couple of close calls – but it did lead to calls to declare martial law in Milwaukee so that military tribunals could squash any perceived dissent. Fortunately, those goals never materialized.

And what were some of the commonalities; the things experienced here that were more universal to Americans?

The war effort dominated every aspect of Milwaukeeans' lives, just as it did for everyone in the U.S. They worried about and prayed for the safety of loved ones serving in the military. They coped with runaway inflation on staple goods as well as government-imposed meat-less, wheat-less, light-less and gasoline-less restrictions.

The federal government flooded the country with patriotic messages through posters, movies, pamphlets and speeches by 4-Minute Men, all designed to encourage – or pressure – Americans to "do their bit" in support of the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds, doing Red Cross work, conserving food, etc. Factories did a booming business because of the glut of government contracts; they were kept running at full capacity in large part by the thousands of women who filled vacant factory jobs left by men who joined the armed forces.

And German-Americans nationwide felt the wrath of hyper-patriots who questioned the former's loyalty and were determined to stamp out any vestige of German culture in the U.S.

Are there lessons we can still learn today from WWI?

Absolutely. A century later, the world is still dealing with the ramifications of WWI. Many of the problems in the Middle East, for example, stem from decisions made by the Allied powers during that time.

Closer to home, I think we could learn how not to act during a time of crisis. Patriotism is a truly noble sentiment, but it can easily get out of hand and be used to further a less-than-noble personal agenda.

Under the cloak of patriotism, many people settled personal, professional or political grudges by spying on one another and passing on gossip to government agents. Lastly, the unjust treatment of German-Americans should teach us to avoid rash judgments concerning immigrants today. Typically, more harm than good is done in these cases.

Surely there were things you learned about Milwaukee that surprised you while you were writing "A Crowded Hour," but what stands out most?

The one thing that really surprised me was the effort to clamp down on vice in Milwaukee as part of a nationwide campaign to protect the morality of our soldiers and halt the spread of venereal diseases. Shortly after the war ended, a government official claimed that 600 women in Milwaukee had been detained, tested for diseases and, if infected, were held, without bail or access to an attorney, until they were deemed cured.

Prostitutes were included among those rounded up, but the majority were women who were suspected of nothing more than loose morals. The government official asserted that this effort was done without the public's knowledge, which made me wonder how do you keep 600 arrests secret? But bottom line, it was another misguided suppression of individual liberties.

What are you working on next?

I'm still trying to recover from this project. Seriously, I don't have anything in mind right now, but I'm always on the lookout for a good story to tell.


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