Professor Emeritus Wins Award For Research On The Response To WWI-Era German Language Restrictions

Published: 3 April 2024

By Judith Zwolak
via the University of South Dakota website


The front page of the December 2017 edition of the Deutscher Herold, a German weekly printed in Sioux Falls. Istvan Gombocz spent time researching The Herold as well as other German weeklies to find responses to the German language restrictions during WWI.

During World War I, South Dakota joined other U.S. states by enacting measures that banned speaking the German language in public spaces. Istvan Gombocz, Ph.D., professor emeritus of German at the University of South Dakota, documented the reactions from German speaking residents of the state in a research article that won a prestigious award from the South Dakota Historical Society.

Gombocz’s article, “‘A Menace to Peace and Progress’ Unexplored Newspaper Reports and Testimonials Pertaining to the Ban of the German Language in 1918,” won this year’s Herbert S. Schell Award for the best article in South Dakota History, the State Historical Society’s quarterly journal. The award is named for Herbert S. Schell, an historian and long-time USD professor.

While previous research had relied on English language sources in their study of the language bans, Gombocz’s work focuses on the response from German speakers.

István Gombocz, Ph.D.

“My contribution to this research concerns the reaction to these measures,” he said.

South Dakotan German speakers faced several discriminatory restrictions as the U.S. joined the fighting in Europe during WWI. In a 1918 decree with wide-ranging effect, the state’s Council of Defense ordered that no single academic subject could be taught in German at any educational level and banned the speaking of German in any public or semi-public meetings, including sermons or public worship. At the time, primarily German-speaking South Dakotans made up about 22% of the state’s population of nearly 584,000 residents.

In the state’s archives, Gombocz found letters and petitions from clergy expressing their alarm at the restrictions.

“Church in this country, and even more in Europe, is a very important way of preserving one’s identity,” he said. “Banning services in the target language jeopardized the long-term survival of those ethnic communities and it also discriminated against the elderly in those congregations who knew very little or no English at all.”

A few months after the first order, the Council of Defense passed an altered order removing the language about public worship but now prohibiting the use of the German language in assemblages of three or more people in public places and over the telephone.

Gombocz also pored over the dominant German language weeklies that existed during this time – Eureka Rundschau (McPherson County), Dakota Freie Presse (Aberdeen) and Deutscher Herold (Sioux Falls) – to document responses to the restrictions.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the newspapers made declarations of unconditional support for the American government, even issuing bilingual oaths of allegiance. Once bans on teaching and speaking their language arose, the German language newspapers began criticizing these edicts.

Read the entire article on the University of South Dakota website here:

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