The World War I draft rally held in New Ulm on July 25, 1917, was an exciting event; it featured a parade, music, a giant crowd, and compelling speakers. The speakers urged compliance with law, but challenged the justice of the war and the government’s authority to send draftees into combat overseas. In the end, people obeyed the draft law, while the state punished dissent. Three of the speakers lost their jobs; the fourth was charged with criminal sedition.
New Ulm, the seat of Brown County, was founded in 1854 by German immigrants. In 1917, the area remained heavily German, and many residents maintained close ties with the old country.
The United States’ entry into war with Germany, on April 6, 1917, troubled many in the area. The announcement in June of an imminent military draft raised the distressing prospect that young German American men from Brown County would be sent to fight against young German men in Europe.
Dr. Louis Fritsche was New Ulm’s three-term mayor and its leading physician. City attorney Albert Pfaender belonged to one of New Ulm’s founding families. He had served three terms in the state legislature and fifteen years in the National Guard that included active duty in Mexico. Adolph Ackerman was professor and president of Martin Luther College in New Ulm. Albert Steinhauser, a lawyer and army veteran, published two weeklies, the New Ulm Review and the German-language New Ulm Post.
All had opposed U.S. participation in the war, publicly and often. All had spoken at a well-attended anti-war rally in New Ulm on March 30; Fritsche and Steinhauser were in Washington, D.C., for an anti-war conference when war was declared.
The war provoked intense anti-German feeling, reflected in Minnesota by passage of the Public Safety Commission statute on April 16. This law gave full executive and legislative power to an appointed board of seven—the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS)—charged with protecting Minnesotans from treason and subversion. The MCPS put New Ulm under surveillance.
The July 25 meeting began with a color guard, two orchestras, and a parade of two thousand young men to Turner Park downtown. It drew a crowd estimated at eight thousand in a town of six thousand. Pfaender and Fritsche spoke guardedly. They urged compliance with the draft law, but held out hope that soldiers from New Ulm might not have to fight in Europe. Pfaender advanced a constitutional argument that the federal government lacked the lawful power to send Minnesota militiamen overseas. Ackerman praised the patriotism of the citizens of New Ulm, but said that people did not want to fight for Wall Street, England, or France.
Albert Steinhauser held nothing back. An army veteran, lawyer, newspaper publisher, and political radical, Steinhauser called the war a scheme of plutocrats for profit.
A few weeks later, the MCPS charged Fritsche and Pfaender with “promoting and participating in seditious public meetings.” Governor J. A. A. Burnquist suspended them from office on August 21.
The MCPS held hearings in New Ulm in September and October. Fritsche, Pfaender, Ackerman, and Steinhauser (among many others) testified. The proceedings made clear that the MCPS had, in effect, added to the oath of office of all Minnesota public officials a promise to support every war policy of the Wilson Administration. Pfaender and Fritsche had failed to do so. Both testified that they regretted the reaction to the July 25 meeting —it got wide attention and much condemnation—but neither backed down from what he had said. Steinhauser gave the most entertaining testimony; he called the Public Safety Commission a joke.
On December 1, Governor Burnquist removed Fritsche and Pfaender from office permanently. Fritsche was found not guilty of disloyalty by the Brown-Redwood County Medical Society; Pfaender was expelled from the Brown County Bar Association. Under pressure, the trustees of Martin Luther College forced Ackerman to resign. Steinhauser had already been arrested on a federal charge of sedition.
No draft refusal took place in Brown County. By 1920, calm had returned to New Ulm. Fritsche and Pfaender both returned to their old offices. After a period of intermittent employment, Ackerman became pastor of a church in Mankato, where he served for many years. Steinhauser was never prosecuted on the sedition charge.
“Big Crowd Hears Draft Discussion” New Ulm Review, August 1, 1917.
Chrislock, Carl. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1991.
“Don’t Want Draft Men Forced to go to Europe.” New Ulm Brown County Journal, July 28, 1917.
“Governor suspends three Officials.” New Ulm Brown County Journal, August 25, 1917.
Holbrook, Franklin F., and Livia Appel. Minnesota in the War With Germany. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1928.
“Mayor L. A. Fritsche sees Exoneration.” New Ulm Brown County Journal, August 25, 1917.
“New Ulm to Stage Protests Against U.S. Steps in War.” Minneapolis Journal, July 24, 1917.
“New Ulm Planning to Test Draft Law and Join Pacifists.” Minneapolis Journal, July 26, 1917.
“Patriotism Rings at Peace Meeting.” New Ulm Review, April 4, 1917.
“Peace Delegates tell of Journey.” New Ulm Review, April 11, 1917.
“Peace Delegation Goes to Washington.” New Ulm Brown County Journal, April 7, 1917.
Petitions and Transcripts of Testimony in Investigations, 1917–1918
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See especially the transcript of testimony of the hearing in New Ulm, in the file titled “In the matter of charges filed against L. A. Fritsche, Albert Pfaender, and Louis Vogel of New Ulm.”
In April 1917, the Minnesota legislature creates a Commission of Public Safety and gives it full legislative and executive authority.
Louis A. Fritsche and Albert Pfaender are re-elected, respectively, mayor and city attorney of New Ulm.
Fritsche, Pfaender, and Albert Steinhauser speak at a New Ulm rally urging peace with Germany.
Fritsche and Steinhauser travel to Washington, D.C., to rally against war with Germany.
The U.S. declares war on Germany.
Governor Burnquist signs the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) legislation into law.
Military draft notices go out in Brown County.
A mass draft rally is held in downtown New Ulm: Fritsche, Pfaender, Ackerman, and Steinhauser speak.
Pfaender visits the MCPS in St. Paul. Commissioner John McGee tells him he deserves to be shot. He is given a loyalty statement to be signed by him and Fritsche. Neither signs it.
Governor Burnquist suspends Fritsche and Pfaender from their public offices.
Steinhauser is arrested in St. Paul for violation of the Espionage Act.
Fritsche, Steinhauser, Ackerman, and Pfaender, among others, testify before the MCPS in New Ulm.
Fritsche, Pfaender, and County Auditor Vogel are removed from office by Governor Burnquist. Fritsche is found not guilty of disloyalty by the Brown County Medical Society.
Under pressure from the MCPS, the trustees of Martin Luther College seek and receive Adolph Ackerman’s resignation.
Pfaender is expelled from the Brown County Bar Association.
Fritsche and Pfaender return to their offices as respectively, mayor and city attorney of New Ulm.