The Germans had been among the earliest of America’s immigrants. Driven to the US by the political unrest that swept over Germany from 1832 onward, the initial trickle of immigration soon became a flood. By the beginning of the Civil War, there were German-speaking regiments in Lincoln’s army. German towns dotted the US. From the 1850s, Cincinnati became the heart and the capital of this German presence.
What set Germans apart from other ethnic groups was their large proportion of highly educated, politically sophisticated, liberal intellectuals in their midst. They brought their culture with them and their beer, together with a generation of men who knew how to make it and how to market it. As for many other immigrants’ cultures, drinking was a social activity, but Germans seemed to have the market-smart to take the highest possible advantage from it.
When the US Brewers Association was founded in 1862, it became one of the most visible manifestations of this community that had a very strong ethnic personality, pride and awareness and a strong drive to keep it alive (German was the official language of the Association’s meetings).
The Brewers Association connected with a large network of saloons, so it was only a matter of time before they would come in collision with the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition movement. It didn’t matter that they marketed beer as ‘liquid food’, something very different from the poisonous hard liquor.
The Association was a worthy opponent too, because it could count on many wealthy members who knew how to market an idea and weren’t afraid to use their money to support it. They also had powerful political connections, just like the League had.
It was a long, harsh battle.
But in the 1910s something happened that tipped the plate on the Anti-Saloon League’s side: WWI broke out in Europe and Germany became the enemy. The Brewers Association, with its ideal of furthering German kultur, started to be depicted as an instrument of German propaganda. There is no evidence the Association ever engaged in anti-patriotic activities, but it certainly worked to keep the US neutral. In that time of war, this attitude became an argument of loyalty that the Anti-Saloon League was fast to grab.
When the US finally entered the war in 1917 and rations on food started, the League protested against the brewers using grain to produce beer.
A strong anti-German sentiment bordering on hysteria swept over the United States. German books were burned in Wisconsin, playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston, and all through the country, foodstuff and street names of German origin turned into English, including in Cincinnati.
The Anti-Saloon League capitalised as much as it could on this, working with churches as their standing ground for political action and protesting over the waste of grain (food) to produce alcoholic beverages. The Brewers Association tried to counter using its political connections, its marketing savvy and its network of saloons, but it could hardly convince anybody that its profit didn’t come first.
So it was that WWI became one of the most powerful arguments of the Prohibition movement to push the Eighteenth Amendment thought Congress and one of the more effective weapons of the Anti-Saloon League against one of its oldest, more powerful opponents.
Prohibition in the United States: The German-American Experience 1919-1933 (pdf)
Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997
Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Da Capo Press, New York, 1973
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010