Uprooting the Tree: WWI

Regents' Board Hearing Charges of State Council

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, anti-German sentiment was almost non-existent, particularly in the state of Nebraska.  Over the next year, anti-German sentiment began to rise due to increased hostility by German U-boats towards American vessels, and was cemented into place by the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7th, 1915.  By the time America entered the war on April 6th, 1917, domestic hostility towards Germans and German culture had reached a fever pitch.  Within a month of America entering the war in Europe, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill which created the Nebraska State Council of Defense. (Manley)

The Nebraska State Council of Defense was created to ensure that the state would be the most effective at serving the nations objective of victory in Europe.  The primary objective that the council stressed to enforce was a state loyalty to the national agenda.  The Nebraska Council of Defense targeted various organizations, including churches and schools, to eliminate the use of the German language. (Manley) While these acts are now seen as inexcusable abuse of power, the Nebraska Council of Defense would be known for the infamous loyalty trials that it demanded at the University of Nebraska. 

Regents of University of Nebraska Hearing Cases of Accused Professors

Disagreement over America's involvement in the war existed on the University of Nebraska campus from the outset.  Within several days of America joining the war, two petitions were circulating through the university staff.  One stressed patriotism and loyalty to the nation to help achieve victory in Europe, the other petition stated that peace and neutrality were the methods most imperative for America to prosper.  Many of the professors that signed the second petition, including Professors Caldwell, Wolfe, Persinger, and Mary Fossler, daughter of Laurence Fossler,  would later be put on trial on charges of disloyalty.  Professor Laurence Fossler met with the Nebraska Council of Defense as early as November, 1917, but was not initially put on trial, due to how well he handled initial questions from the council about his views of Germany and German culture. (Manley)

Demanded by the Nebraska Council of Defense and executed by the University Board of Regents, the loyalty trials took place from May 28th through June 19th, 1918.  There was no restriction on the evidence that was presented in the trials, so hearsay constituted almost all of the evidence presented against the accused.  In the end, the Board of Regents acquitted almost all of the professors on the grounds that there was no concrete evidence to prove they harbored any disloyalty to the United States.  Only several of the accused professors were directed to turn in their resignations, and this was more for their lack of discretion and professionalism rather than disloyalty.  Professors Fling and England, the two professors who primarily started the on-campus feud within the faculty, were also directed to resign, although they were allowed to appeal this decision at a later time. (Manley)

Though in the end relatively little ever became of these trials, the damage was done to the University of Nebraska’s reputation.  Over the course of time this era was generally forgotten by the university and the public.  Though America would go to war with Germany again within the next twenty-five years, anti-German sentiment was nowhere near as prevalent as it was during World War I.

The loyalty trials and the propaganda pushed forward by the state and nation caused anti-German sentiment to boil over on the campus.  The Schiller-Linden tree became the symbolic victim to the wrath of the anti-German sentiment.  As an observer later noted, "one morning during the war anyone who passed by was surprised to find in place of the small iron tablet a placard containing some ribald statement or two and winding up the statement that the tablet was interred for the period of the war.  At the top of the tree was a small fluttering American flag."  Despite the pledge that the tree and its plaque would be restored before the end of the war, it was not even noticed for the most part until numerous inquiries were made about it in the 1930's.  The original plaque was never recovered. (Knoll)