A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Minnie Wilson and Jake Schomber, Issaquah residents and sweethearts. The couple corresponded during World War I, when Jake was serving in the Army. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.
There have been a number of times while reading through the Minnie and Jake letters that I have come across a term that is unknown to me. Upon further research, I discover that the term is a racial epithet that has probably gone out use for a variety of reasons. These are the moments that pop us out of the nostalgia of historical research and into the reality of what it was really like to live in that world.
Being as Minnie and Jake were apart during WWI, one derogatory term pops up again and again. Hun. As in “Damn the Kaiser, and kill a Hun for me while you’re over there.” The term “Hun” to reference a German soldier came into vogue during World War I and was derived from a speech in which the Kaiser compared the German soldiers to those that fought under the leadership of Attila the Hun. After that speech it was common for newspapers and people to use it as a generic name for and as an expression of hatred towards the Germans. A Washington State newspaper, The Palouse Republic, ran an article Jan 4, 1917 quoting a soldier as saying “we are now quite advanced along the lines of modern Hun killing.” A number of propaganda posters (the images in this post) came out showing German soldiers as violent, scary, and unforgiving and further spread the derogatory nature of the term Hun.
In essence, we forgive Minnie and Jake because the terminology that they use in their letters was so commonplace during the time, especially the word Hun. The interesting thing here is to look at their genealogy. Jake’s parents actually immigrated from Germany. Let me say it again, his mother and father were both born in Germany. According to the 1920 Census, Henry Schomber (Jake’s father) immigrated in 1871, making him about 11 at the time. Jake’s mother, Anna, in 1875, making her about 13 when she immigrated.
So while Jake’s parents weren’t adults when they came over, they weren’t infants either. It would be interesting to know their side of the story. How much of a connection with Germany did they feel? How did they feel about their son going off to fight against their home country? Did they throw the term Hun around just as much as Minnie and Jake? Unfortunately their letters to Jake are not in our collection or we may have a small glimpse into their thoughts.
Despite the use of innappropriate terminology, I appreciate these moments for all we can learn. Just when I start getting sappy about the epic love tale of Minnie and Jake and how it overcame all odds, one of them decides to throw a nice racist remark into the mix and bring me back down to reality. History, while we can look back upon with nostalgia, isn’t always pretty. It can be ugly and gritty and remind us of how far we’ve come and perhaps how far we need to go.