Book Review – Homeland Insecurity: Dark Invasion

This book is subtitled 1915 – Germany’s Secret War by Howard Blum. It is a fascinating and very readable account of a corner of American history not very well explored lately; what happened in the early years of WWI, when the assassination of an Austrian arch-duke set Western Europe on fire – and America remained tenuously neutral. Very soon it became apparent to those in highest authority in Germany that the war would not be a walk in the park; that it would be a long and bloody war of attrition. In those circumstances, the United States could not be easily dismissed – even if it was considered such a backwater by the German general staff that it was lumped together with Mexico, to the disgust of Captain Franz von Papen. He was then assigned as military attaché to the German embassy in New York in 1913 – but in 1915 he was tasked with recruiting spies and saboteurs to wreak havoc.

Technically, the United States was a neutral, although quite a fair number of the wealthy social elite as well as the political leadership of the time were inclined to favor the British, and maintained strong cultural ties with England. Business and financial ties also favored the Allies – and considerable agricultural and industrial bounty flowed freely to England, France and Russia, to the indignation of the German government. This was fiendishly one-sided neutrality, to their way of thinking. Von Papen and his fellows dove into a covert war with considerable relish, although there was the danger (a real one, as it turned out) that German efforts to hamper aid to the Allies might backfire, and alienate the U.S. out of neutrality and into open war against Germany.

They did not lack potential recruits and allies, as was pointed out by the author, by the early 20th century, one in ten Americans had been born in Germany or had a German-born parent. There were five hundred German-language newspapers in circulation across the United States, and whole districts, counties and parts of cities who were proudly, patriotically German in language and culture. A small number of individuals chose loyalty to their country of origin rather than that of residence and eagerly took up the cause of covert war. Among them was an Ivy League professor who had murdered his first wife by poison, and who would eventually try to blow up the US Capitol building and assassinate John P. Morgan (much in the public eye for his wealth and support of the British war effort). There was a second-generation German-American doctor who propagated a dangerous virus intended to be spread among horses in holding corrals waiting shipment to Europe. There were also any number of resident German aliens, including the security superintendent of a subsidiary of the Hamburg-America Line, an elderly chemist and president of an agricultural chemical company and thousands of German Army reservists – all caught by the outbreak of war. In various port cities there were also the crews of interned German ships, prevented from returning home, although generally left at liberty. The German agents also found ready allies among Irish-Americans working on the docks, whose resentment against Great Britain remained unabated.

Captain von Papen and his comrades had no shortage of recruits, or even just those who would look the other way. A wave of state-sponsored and funded sabotage soon began – mysterious explosions and fires at sea on board ships carrying essential material to England, France and Germany. Matched against this covert offensive was a New York police captain, Thomas “Tom” Tunney, who was officially the head of the nascent NYPD’s bomb squad. He was a dedicated and single-minded professional, trusted by his superiors. Tunney had some experience in running undercover operations, most notably against a violent group of ethnic Italian anarchists. Now he was up against something even more sinister – violence funded by a foreign nation and led by ostensibly diplomatic personnel. Wisely, the first thing he did was to recruit three second-generation German-American police officers, fresh from the police academy, all fluent in German and comfortable in both cultures, all highly patriotic. The book plays out the resulting cat-and-mouse game rather like the best kind of espionage novel, weaving together various published accounts. Eventually the largest part of the sabotage effort unraveled, although some elements – such the use of the glanders virus as a bioweapon was not identified as such until much later. I had not heard of this kind of shenanigans going on in the U. S. when WWI started, but it certainly makes clear that the sinking of the Lusitania and interception of the Zimmerman telegram were just the culmination of a long series of hostile activities.

No wonder that American public needed little additional encouragement to see Imperial Germany as a foe by 1917. A few years ago at a book talk about the Adelsverein Trilogy in Beeville, an elderly gentleman of German descent told me that his parents made a decision sometime in the early 1920s to begin speaking English instead of their native German at home, with the result that he only had a smattering of the language, whereas his older brother remained completely fluent. Other elderly German-Americans have since told me the same. In a way, this book makes clear what likely led to that decision to loosen the ties which bound them to the country they had come from. The only criticism I would make is that I wish the author had included a final chapter, wrapping up what happened to the various participants. Since this was a very novel-like account, I did want to know what happened to the major as well as the minor characters in later years, and to know if any of various mysteries referred to had ever been resolved.

I have this book in an advanced reader’s edition through Amazon Vine – it is supposed to go on sale in February, but it is ready for pre-release orders on Amazon, where there are already reviews posted.

23 thoughts on “Book Review – Homeland Insecurity: Dark Invasion”

  1. My uncle told me that, in his school days in Chicago, there were portraits of the Kaiser in public schools. St Louis was a huge German-American center. Lincoln campaigned among German speaking residents of Missouri and appointed Edward Bates as Attorney General to reward those voters.

  2. The father a good friend of mine from Wisconsin was one of the merchant sailors stranded in New York harbor at the start of the war. He asked for and got permission to leave the ship and settle in the US, moving to Milwaukee and marrying a local girl in the 1920’s.

  3. I haven’t touched on all the different shenanigans going on, which were documented in the book. For a while, the Embassy had a forging operation going on, so that German reserve officers could get out of the USA and go back to Germany on a fake passport. There was also a fraudulent import-export firm which rooked the Russians out of a fortune, and then they struck a deal with former Mexican president Huerta … the Secret Service, and the British secret agency knew a lot of what was going on, through intercepted coded messages, but of course they couldn’t tell Captain Tunney everything.

    The Germans roped a good few Americans into doing their work, too; there was a reporter who carried messages back and forth between New York and Germany. It’s a good book – I just wish that the author had done a good round-up on what happened to a lot of the people involved.

    The rather sad thing is that up until WWI, Germans were very well thought of in the US, on the whole. Salt of the earth, backbone of the country, providers of culture and science … and good beer.

  4. “The rather sad thing is that up until WWI, Germans were very well thought of in the US, on the whole. ”

    That is very true. Florence Nightingale, for example, loved Germans who she considered to be romantics, and loathed the Prussians. The Germans adopted the policy of Schrecklichkeit , especially in Belgium and have yet to recover from it.

  5. Re: your comment above about Germans being well thought of, that was certainly not universal.

    My grandmother’s family was from Bohemia, and she always considered herself an Austrian. She despised the Germans as being less cultured, an attitude I would guess she got from her parents who emigrated here before she was born.

    My grandfather’s family emigrated here from Belgium after the war of 1870, and he was a young man during WW1, hearing all the atrocity stories about German actions there.

    He always said his parents had told them about the brutality of the Prussians during the 1870 war, and the subsequent events in the 20th century’s wars only reinforced and validated their opinion.

    My guess would be that the admirers of German high culture and philosophy, who were very numerous among the intellectual elites at the turn of the century, might have held the Germans in high regard, but a lot of common people who had lived through the endless conflicts in Europe were less impressed.

  6. VR, I think that Germany changed very radically, after unification – especially after going all militaristic. A fairly large component of German immigrants in the US had arrived and established themselves before then; in Texas there were two big waves of Germans arriving – the Verein-sponsered (with a small portion who had arrived before then) and the refugees from the failure of the various ’48 rebellions. They arrived, settled down, established community organizations (like the Turner Clubs and the Sons of Hermann) and prosperous businesses, and never quite realized over the decades how very much that the Germany they had left behind had changed.
    Three of my four grandparents immigrated from England and Northern Ireland, c.1910-1920. I believe that to the end of their days, they saw England through the prism of what they remembered of it at the time they left. I think that something of the same must have happened to the long-time German immigrants in America. They remembered very fondly the place they had left … and didn’t quite realize that it had changed, radically and for the worst as far as international relations goes.

  7. In 19th century Chicago there were also different waves of German immigration. Mid century they came from the southern territories and built clubs, businesses, and parishes among which a few still exist. Later they came from the northeast regions and among other things brought socialism.
    Before unification they were more likely to think of themselves as Bavarian or Prussian instead of identifying as German,
    bringing with them their political divisions.

  8. I was taught in school that German disloyalty and sabotage were a myth born of anti-German paranoia as manifested by the replacement of “sauerkraut” by “liberty cabbage” and the sudden social unacceptability of Bach and Beethoven. Of course, this may not have been entire due to the liberal-leaning teaching staff: The city had a large German population that presumably wanted everyone to forget what happened during WWI.

  9. “I was taught in school that German disloyalty and sabotage were a myth born of anti-German paranoia as manifested by the replacement of “sauerkraut” by “liberty cabbage”

    Like many myths, there is a basis in truth. 1914 was the 400th anniversary of the birth of Vesalius. There were plans for physicians from all over the world to celebrate his birth. In Belgium there was the only copy of his book, de Humani Corporis Fabrica on velum. It was a priceless relic. The Germans destroyed the copy in the library of the University of Louvain

    In 1914, during World War I, Leuven was looted by German troops. They set fire to a large part of the city, effectively destroying about half of it. The library was lost, as well as about 300,000 books, about 1000 incunabula;[6] and a huge collection of manuscripts, such as the Easter Island tablet bearing Rongorongo text E. In the early stages of the war, Allied propaganda capitalized on the German destruction as a reflection on German Kultur.

    It was part of the Schrecklichkeit. It has marked Germans the past 100 years.

  10. In Tuchman’s “Zimmerman Telegram”, there is a brief note about an American journalist — whose name escapes me — trying to save Zimmerman, by urging him to deny that he has sent the telegram, at a press conference. Zimmerman didn’t take the hint, but perhaps he should have because the journalist was being paid a very nice income (25K a year?) by the German government.

    Some very general thoughts on German immigrants: The first wave came mostly for religious reasons, coming here because they belonged to pacifist churches. The second wave came here after the failed 1848 revolutions, and came here mostly for political reasons. Many became strong supporters of Lincoln and the Republican Party. The third wave came here mostly for economic reasons, especially the free, or nearly free, land in the northern plains. Many of them emigrated from imperial Russia and brought with them the farming techniques that worked in places like North Dakota,

    As you can imagine, the three groups had — and probably still have — quite different attitudes toward political questions.

    Some of the differences were generational. Some time ago, I read an interesting observation about the difference between the Japanese immigrants in the United States and Brazil. The immigrants in Brazil came a generation later, and were far more nationalistic than the immigrants in the US, mostly because Japan, like Germany, had changed. (If I recall correctly, the Brazilian government actually had to suppress some revolts in the Japanese enclaves, during WW II.)

    (Full disclosure: My father’s family came in that third wave.)

  11. Re German-speaking Americans — Sometime in the late 80’s (that’s Nineteen-Eighties, mind you!) my wife and I visited a little congregation, previously unknown to us, in the no-mans-land between Tacoma and Puyallup, WA. In other words, Puget Sound country–plenty of Germans and everyone else around but absolutely no history of any German enclaves. Croatians, Finns, Scandinavians aplenty, but no real German concentrations so far as we know–and we both grew up here, me since birth and my wife since fifth grade.

    Little did we know.

    We happened upon this place because Leonardo Defilippis was doing a presentation there on one of his many tours through the area, and the date worked for us. So we wended our way through the backroad state “highways” and eventually found our way there.

    Being complete strangers and newcomers to the place, we were obvious outsiders, but everyone greeted us warmly in perfectly unaccented American English. (You folks from other parts of the country can just shut up about “unaccented”, ok? I’ve heard all the Big Names on the national TV networks and I know what the sound like! Me!!! ;-)

    Defillipis’s presentation took over the entire service, so whatever they did at a regular service remained unknown to us, until at some point I picked up a hymnal and started absent-mindedly leafing through it. It was in German. Whoa… so I discretely looked through the other books in the rack on the back of the pew–nothing at all in English, only German. Sure enough, upon enquiring afterward we confirmed that this little congregation was still keeping German-language services going and had no plans to change. Whoa.

  12. My family is mostly German of one flavor or another, my great-grandfather having emigrated around 1870 from Westphalia (his brother’s family still holds the family farm there – we had by now relatively distant cousins visit just after I graduated from college). In his case it was a combination of younger brother and religon (our family being Catholic, and rather unhappy with the Kulturkampf). Our family kept in touch with the German branch through both wars, but I would note that my grandfather served in the US Army in France. Which was my great-grandfather’s response to anyone who questioned his patriotism – not uncommon for German-Americans in 1917.

    That, by the way, is my personal standard for prospective immigrants. You want to come to the US? Fine – are you prepared to send your sons to fight in a war against your home country?

  13. There were a lot of 1st and 2nd generation German immigrants fighting in the US military in both world wars.

  14. I have a lot of friends in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where most of the Germans arrived in Pennsylvania between 1650 and 1800, then spread out across the land. Lutherans, Reformed, a lot of Anabaptists like the Mennonites, Amish, and Brethern, and just a few Moravians. They became a distinct but basically indigenous culture in much of the state, with the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect spoken in daily life, and many churches conducting services in high German, gradually becoming more English except for the Anabaptist sects. These folks over time had some Germanic characteristics, but very little connection with the Old Country, by and large.

    One family I knew had lived in the same rural area since it was settled by Europeans around the Revolution, typical PA Dutch becoming ever more assimilated and typically American. One of them married the orphan of a Bavarian couple who immigrated in the late 1880’s, their closest connection to the Old Country. During the Great War, her siblings in New York and Philadelphia were persecuted and harassed despite their Anglicized surname, to the point that they legally changed their Christian names, because Herman and Otto were not acceptable for these hard working, American raised men who had no contact with the country of their late parents’ origin. This ostracism caused amazement to their cousins who rarely traveled outside Pennsylvania.

    No doubt other communities having large German populations from the forty-eighters and other late 19th century migrations had different degrees of affinity to Germany, and were populated from other regions of Germany than the PA Dutch, who tended to be Rhineland/Palatinate, Swabian, or Swiss in their origins centuries ago. In fact, the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect is derived from the German spoken in Rhineland-Palatinate before the Saxon bible translations of Luther became the predominate influence on what became the modern German language as it was most widely spoken and written. The early migration occurred before that homogenization of the language had worked its way across the German kingdons.

  15. Like most Americans, my family tree includes a number of nationalities, including German and a German surname. The German ancestors of my father’s parents came to America before the Revolutionary War- including one who came in the 1640s- which meant that ties to the old country were rather distant by the time of World War I. However my grandparents felt sufficient cultural ties to Germany that my grandmother- primarily of
    English Quaker ancestry- gave me an album of the Obernkirchen Children’s Choir one Christmas- though neither of my grandparents spoke German.

    Though I doubt my grandparents were subjected to anti-Hun propaganda where they lived in the Midwest, due to the high proportion of German-ancestry people living there, I heard of it from a neighbor of mine in NE who was of German descent. Her parents had come over from Germany. She told me that she had dropped out of school during WW I because she couldn’t take the anti-Hun vitriol she was subjected to at school.

    My grandfather’s brother served in World War I in France. With such distant ties to Germany, there was never any doubt of affiliation. I inherited a bayonet from him.

  16. In both wars Germany made the horrendous mistake of treating the US as a potential enemy instead of trying to keep it out of the war. In both cases it was a strategic decision that lead to defeat. The British did a much better job of propagandizing the American people and bringing them into a war they were inclined to avoid. Likewise, German belligerancy played into the British hand.

  17. Exactly, Mrs. D – it was one of the things mentioned in the book – that the German ambassador did draw the line at a couple of suggested actions because they would utterly and finally anger the general American public. To be fair, they were in a cleft stick; American farmers and manufacturers were selling to the Allies right and left – and that was not a good thing for Germany’s war effort.

  18. In some ways the aspect of the First World War that has interested me most recently is the discovery that the tale historians sang for three generations – that the atrocity stories about the German army in 1914 were entirely fabricated – would seem to be untrue.

  19. On one of the groups I’m in we had a discussion on the Western Front – and I was surprised to learn in the 4 years – from Nieuport to the Swiss border – despite millions being killed, the front hardly changed.

    And a bit of canine trivia from that era – I have a dog called here an “American Eskimo” – but they are a white German spitz. During that time anything with a Germanic-sounding name was frowned upon; hence the name change.

    Would you say until Pearl Harbor WW2 had a similar huge German sympathy (and the reconciliation with the evils of the Nazis boggles the mind)

  20. Bill, I would say that although there was a rather noticeable German-American Bund organization which rather openly favored the Nazis – most Americans (of German heritage or otherwise) despised the Nazis. They weren’t much keen on going to war against Germany, but they despised the Nazis. There were so many German emigres in the US by then, who made no secret of how they had found it necessary to leave Germany. Look at how Charles Lindbergh nuked his popularity in 1941 with a speech blaming the war on the Jews. He was tarred as a Nazi sympathizer, or at least as someone who made every excuse for Hitler.

    One of my local historian friends in Fredericksburg told me that in the late 1930s, one of his mother’s school friends was an out and out Nazi sympathizer, and spent a lot of time trying to organize like-minded friends among the Fredericksburg Germans for a spot of light spying and sabotage, which universally horrified everyone he approached. They were all good and patriotic Americans by that time; they warned him over and over again. When the war began in earnest, he was packed off to the internment camp for enemy aliens at Chrystal City.

    As for WWI hard feelings, a while ago I read (but have never been able to confirm this) that the last white man lynched by the KKK in Texas was a German-American, and it happened around 1918-1920.

  21. Bill Brandt
    Would you say until Pearl Harbor WW2 had a similar huge German sympathy (and the reconciliation with the evils of the Nazis boggles the mind)

    I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I would estimate that by the 1930s, the proportion of people of German non-Jewish descent in the US who were immigrants or the children of immigrants was decidedly small- say 20% or less- more like 10% or less. The Nazi narrative of the “stab in the back” reason for having lost World War I would have had little resonance for those people who had gotten their WWI news from US sources, as would have been the case for the overwhelming number of US citizens of German descent. The treatment that Germany got from the Versailles treaty probably got some sympathy from US citizens of German descent, however.

    Certainly the descendants of Germans who had come to the US in the 18th century for religious reasons, or those who had come to the US after the failed 1848 revolution for political reasons, such as the Central Texas[Fredericksburg etc] Germans would have had little sympathy for the Nazis.

    What sympathy there was in the US for the Nazis was by no means confined to people of German ancestry. Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy Sr. come to mind.

  22. My maternal grandparents both immigrated from Germany early in the last century. When my mother was growing up in the 30s and 40s, her parents rule was that they were never to speak German outside of their home. For the rest of her 81 years, though my mother understood both spoken and written German quite well, she never spoke it.

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