The Perils of Pacifism During World War I

June 15, 2004

By Dennis Haas

It is not difficult to trace the roots of Edward A. Steiner's pacifism. Born into a Jewish family in the Slovakia area of Austria, Edward "grew up in a staunchly anti-militaristic family and lost both his father and an older brother in wars of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." After receiving his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg where he nurtured convictions against both nationalism and war and now fearful that he might be conscripted into the Austrian imperial army, the twenty-year old Steiner immigrated to America in 1886.

All of this made Steiner very receptive to the writings of Leo Tolstoy whom he met on a number of occasions. Tolstoy was, says Steiner, "the maker of my life," "my prophet," the first prophesying he had heard. Steiner became a disciple of this "most famous peace apostle of our times." Tolstoy "opened the door to his home and to his soul, revealing to me the essence of the gospel story." This Gospel according to Tolstoy challenged Steiner to hate all shams, to love all persons no matter how unlovely they are, even your enemies, and be at peace with all. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was a central feature of this pacifist Gospel, especially the fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel where peacemakers are blessed (v. 9) and commanded, "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." (v. 39) This great impact of his men tor was a prelude to Steiner's conversion to Christianity, Tolstoy's kind of radical Christianity.

After his conversion Steiner entered the Oberlin College Seminary, receiving a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1891. He was ordained a Congregational minister, married, then served several churches as pastor. Following a chance meeting with Professor John Main, acting president of Grinnell College, Steiner was offered the Rand Chair of Applied Christianity and accepted, commencing his tenure at the college in 1903.

Steiner developed and spread his "social gospel" of justice for immigrants in this country and peace throughout the world. As Neal Klausner writes, "For thirty-eight years he served the college and spread its name and influence throughout the nation. No man before or since has lifted the college into such national prominence. He was so much in demand as a lecturer that the administration and trustees frequently gave him a semester's leave of absence so that he could accept the invitations. In this way he brought honor and fame to Grinnell" (Rededication of the Y Building, now Steiner Hall, Oct. 1959)

However, all did not go well for this honorable famous person. Steiner tells us, "When my vision of a new day was so clear that I believed I saw the dawn; when I believed the world was ready for a universal embrace; when I saw an ascending civilization and America at its highest pinnacle; when I had the faith and courage to condemn war as wholly inhuman and out of keeping with Christian standards and ideals, a pistol shot was fired in Serajevo which plunged the world into war, and my orderly pageant became a stampede."

"I do not believe in war," Steiner proclaimed, "not until every resource to settle the difficulty without it has been exhausted." However, when President Woodrow Wilson called for Congress to declare war on Germany, Steiner did, with a heavy heart, endorse what he considered to be a defensive war. Soon thereafter Steiner began to experience the perils of his pacifism, facing the greatest trial of his life.

During the summer of 1917 Steiner spoke frequently and forcefully to various groups throughout Iowa. He consistently challenged his audiences not to hate the enemy, not to blame all the German people for what the current German government did and was still doing and not to engage in or even condone vigilante activity occurring in Iowa against German-Americans. He refused in any way to increase the hate in the world. He would not amend his patriotism in any way that would nullify his Christianity.

One leading Des Moines newspaper, the Capital, in an editorial titled, "Dr. Steiner Must Amend His Patriotism," (11/29/17) agreed that Dr. Steiner is a well known and effective orator, yet his so-called patriotism is patriotic in name only, a halfbreed patriotism which could lead his hearers astray. In another editorial titled, "Is Dr. Steiner Doing The United States Any Good?," the Capital said, "No!" He makes too many apologies for Germans in his most dangerous speeches. Some hate is good directed towards our enemies. "Our advice to Dr. Steiner, in a patriotic sense, is to 'Go and sin no more.'"

The Des Moines Register, the Capital's Rival, defended Steiner as one of America's most loyal citizens, a person of foreign birth "who has done more to popularize the American ideal in Europe and among the foreign born immigrants here at home" than any other person. (12/15/17) And contrary to the Capital, the Register, in support of Steiner, defended the teaching of the German language in the public schools and reminded its readers of many very good things that are German.

All of this led to numerous letters to the editor in each newspaper. Agreeing with the Capital's editor, one man discusses Steiner's unpatriotic address at Marengo and sees him as a dangerous enemy who calls for peace when there is no peace; "we want war until the devilish German government is wiped off the face of the earth." Another man in his letter directed against "the Steiner drivel" ends by writing, "Treason must be made odious and the pro-German miscreant must be eliminated." (12/21/17) Agreeing with the Register's editor one man is astounded that the patriotism of a staunch dyed-in-the-wool American like Steiner who is one of the brightest lights in Iowa is being questioned. Every informed Iowan should be proud of him. Another man writes that one who criticizes Dr. Steiner's patriotism confesses by that criticism that he simply does not know Dr. Steiner.

Steiner responded to his many critics by writing a column, which appeared opposite a Register editorial on December 3, 1917, titled,"Wanted: a New Strategy," an extended defense of his pacifism. He began by discussing the suffering he was experiencing, reluctantly supporting the war, yet with a very heavy heart. From the beginning his peace strategy was to be a mediator between the alien born and the American born, exclaiming to the latter the problems of these foreigners called upon to fight for their adopted country against their own people. However, Steiner's admits the failure of this strategy in Iowa where his own patriotism was first challenged. "I could not remain silent when ill-advised or bewildered men were dragged out of their beds and brought before a self-appointed court, and after being whipped, compelled to kiss the flag." He tries to stem the wave of hate in his beloved state, but feels personally betrayed by this war against the German people in Iowa He concludes by pleading for a revival of the old American spirit of fair play, hopefully not pleading in vain. The Register hoped that this essay "will lead to a more discriminating valuation of the Americanism that has been fostered by Americans of alien birth." This did not appear to happen throughout the war.

Sadly, Steiner experienced suffering in his hometown of Grinnell. He was shunned by many townspeople and some faculty; a few old friends would cross the street to avoid meeting him; his house was splashed with yellow paint one night. The Grinnell chapter of the American Defense Society, a most patriotic organization, began an investigation of Steiner. This Grinnell Vigilance Corps, headed by one of Steiner's college colleagues John P. Ryan, found him disloyal to his country. The Grinnell chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution disagreed, praising his patriotism. As Professor Joseph Wall writes. "Not even an appeal from former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was himself the honorary president of the American Defense Society, was enough to clear his name. Only after the Federal Bureau of Investigation declared that it could find no evidence of treasonable activity did the local Vigilance Corps reluctantly give him clearance." The two local biweekly newspapers were both Republican in t heir political orientation; yet the Grinnell Register supported Steiner, the Grinnell Herald did not.

Grinnell College, thankfully, as an institution fully supported Dr. Steiner. Because of the statewide attacks directed at his integrity and therefore his new notoriety, Steiner submitted his resignation to President Main who refused to accept it, telling the Des Moines Register (12/3/17) that "Dr. Steiner is as loyal an American as ever walked the face of the earth." The college faculty overwhelmingly concurred. Even Professor Steiner's Applied Christianity class fully agreed in their "Letter of Confidence." (12/14/17) Later when Steiner seriously contemplated leaving the college to teach elsewhere, the Board of Trustees expressed "its full confidence in his loyalty and unanimously voted to ask him to continue his relations with Grinnell." He did until his retirement in 1941.

Steiner's books written during and after this period give us further insight into his pacifism and his trials. THE CONFESSION OF A HYPHENATED AMERICAN (1916) was based on an address he delivered before The League for Political Education in New York City. As David W. Jordan explains, "Most 'hyphenated Americans,' as recent immigrants and their children were often called, were powerless to defend themselves against this emotional pro-war propaganda and its consequences; even prominent Americans of recent immigrant origins found themselves the victims of a war hysteria which demanded a so-called 100% American." Steiner proclaims that he is proud to be a person who is united by hyphens and sees himself as thoroughly an American. Furthermore, immigrants, in his opinion, provide great possibilities for realizing democratic ideals in the United States. They enrich this country. But now it is a bad thing to be a hyphenated American; now it is an "inflamed hyphen." Yet Steiner refuses to engage in this growing hatred of non-100% Americans, this "patriotism of hate."

In NATIONALIZING AMERICA (1916) Steiner continues to affirm his faith in America and at the same time sets forth his pacifist stance. He discusses the wave of anti-immigrant in the United States, including persons criticizing him for being too much pro-immigrant. Yet, he concludes, "I continue to love America."

In UNCLE JOE'S LINCOLN (1918), an autobiographical narrative, we learn that Joe fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, then returned to Hungary to live in a back room of young Ed's house. Thanks to Uncle Joe, Ed's hero becomes Abraham Lincoln; he repeats Joe's favorite words, "With charity toward all, with malice toward none." The Magyar rulers in Ed's country, we are told, decreed that everyone must speak only their language, clearly Steiner's allusion to the present time in Iowa when many people were calling for "English only" in the schools. Uncle Joe taught Ed the importance of tolerance of all people, saying, "It does not matter about a man's creed or his language; the question is, how does he live and what does he say." At the end of this book Steiner, now an immigrant in America, delivers a speech outlining immigrants' great contributions to their new country.

Again the theme of tolerance and its absence is central in SANCTUS SPIRITUS AND COMPANY (1919) This book of fiction with numerous autobiographical references enabled the author to work through his grief and sense of alienation. The main character is John Hruby who is born in Hungry, then immigrates to the United State where he becomes a minister, like Steiner. As a youth John was greatly influenced by three older men in the community, a Jew, a Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant minister who were close friends, a holy spirit company, supporting one another when they were criticized by many for having "such friends." It was this kind of ethnic and racial prejudice that led Hruby to immigrate to America where all would be better. He became the minister of an ethnic church in a small college town. Later his wife joined him from the Old World. Now things were fine. But then World War I began. Because Rev. Hruby defended local hyphenated Americans, he himself became a target of suspicion. Like in t he case of Steiner in Grinnell, one local newspaper attacked Hruby, the other defended him. And like Steiner, a vigilance group strongly questioned his loyalty to his new country. As a result our hero lost his faith in America. Nevertheless, the book ends on a note of some hope. He finds solace in a letter received from relatives in Europe who write that in the aftermath of this terrible war a new sanctus spiritus and company has arisen, Jews, Protestants and Catholics working cooperatively to rebuild and to appeal for toleration and mutual respect. It is time to revive "the good old time when men of different races and faith could live together like brothers." It is noteworthy that an Iowa newspaper review of this book states that though Steiner is a gifted writer of an enjoyable read, "the Doctor's views are quite at variance with the generally accepted views of Americans and we are surprised that he should permit himself to incorparate into an otherwise really interesting volume, criticism of so l arge a body of our patriotic citizens...who deserve praise and not censure."

After World War I in 1917 Steiner, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, returned to a "dull gray" Europe to travel widely and record his impressions of war-torn countries there. These impressions are set forth in his book, OLD TRAILS AND NEW BORDERS (1921). When he observes the plight of the children amidst so much devastation and pain and hunger, Steiner knows once again why he is anti-war. In his opinion World War I settled nothing. He concludes this book with these words, "I have grown suddenly old and not a little disillusioned. I know the odds against those of us who see the Kingdom of God afar, and who want to bring it near. Nations do not care to be saved by teachers and preachers, but by politicians and soldiers; theirs is as yet the way of the sword and not of the cross. I would be a poor patriot, however, if I would not cast my life into the balance, make war upon war, and oppose the Pagan state which has room only for a tribal god and for tribal morality."

In his book THE ETERNAL HUNGER (1925) with its autobiographical subtitle, "Vivid Moments in Personal Experiences," Steiner recounts once again the effects of the war upon his life. When the news arrives that his older brother has been severely wounded, his mother goes to comfort him. "Amid the wastes of war she sought him, and there never was a drearier search. Among bruised, trampled, crushed bodies she found her son--dead." He recalls his return to his native country in Europe after World War I where he saw "the empty barracks, the war-machines piled mountain-high on the parade grounds, being pounded into scrap iron....war, wasting its national wealth, slowly eating up its manhood's courage and crushing its womanhood....'For they that take up the sword shall perish by the sword.'" At the close of this book he recalls his sufferings, the result of being called disloyal. "For a long time I nursed the grief of having to walk alone, when I was hungry for the touch of a friendly hand, for the reassuring wo rd from understanding hearts, when I was an alien in my own country and anathema to my Christian brothers." Yet he confirms that they are still his brothers; "In a close embrace I held them all in my arms and hated none. I could not hate them. . . even the unlovely became lovely as I saw them glorified in the vision of my great Elder Brother, Jesus of Nazareth," "the great Elder Brother walking by my side, bearing His cross and helping me bear mine."

The primary issue for Steiner concerning so many of his Christian brothers was "patriotism vs. Christianity." Patriotism does not care "a fig for the Kingdom of God, an applied Christianity, a practical brotherhood or a genuine internationalism." It wants power rather than peace and good will. "Organized religion failed to fulfill its claims as a bringer of peace. The hopes mankind placed in it were not realized, for the churches failed to function, except as an amen! to the reactionary, Pagan state. The Church gave its all to Caesar; even that which was God's, the folds of the flags obscured the cross, and the great sacrifice of Calvary seemed in vain." Steiner acknowledges that between wars sermons aver the futility of military force in settling quarrels between nations, that war is indeed unchristian and impractical. "They are saying it between wars, however, when it is safe to say it. During the war, the majority of ministers invoked the war God to grant victory. They harnessed the lowly Na zarene to the cannon and put Him into the trenches to help in the killing and the maiming." During the war the church becomes "a concubine of Caesar." Steiner believes that "If the Church or its ministry were faithful to the Spirit and teachings of Jesus during one war; if the state knew it could not use the Church as a recruiting station, and as a laboratory for the culture of fighting morale, it might be less willing to rush into war. Of course the Church would suffer martyrdom; but is it not time that it should be willing to assume the Apostolic function of suffering for truth's sake?" Then he concludes: "I am not a pessimist who believes that all is vanity, and that effort is vain, and that the world is going to its chosen doom. Nor am I an optimist, who thinks that to 'keep smiling' will rejuvenate an old and wrinkled continent. I am an idealist, who believes that a better world is possible, that a better world will come."

In the years after World War I Steiner pursued his idealism, placing more emphasis on personal action instead of on the political structure of America. He continued to share with his students at Grinnell College for twenty more years his ecumenical vision of world brotherhood. And he continued to battle for toleration and internationalism through his ongoing lectures and writings. "When he retired from teaching in 1941, on the eve of America's entry into another world war, newspapers around the state again gave particular attention to this striking man. His deepest regret and most bitter memory in that spring of 1941 remained the harsh treatment he had received from many townspeople and other Iowans in the hate-filled days of World War I." In a Des Moines Register interview (3/22/41) Steiner with deep sadness admitted that he felt differently about this war because "Nazism is contrary to all I feel, believe or have lived for." But "I do not permit myself hatred."

In the Winter 2004 issue of The Fellowship of Reconciliation newsletter, the lead article commemorating FOR's 90th anniversary recalls that shot fired in 1914, how a man was killed and the world went mad. "But back on that day when it all started, TWO SAID NO. Everyone else with them at an ecumenical peacemaking conference gave up the idea when the shot was fired and the war began. Some enthusiastically, some reluctantly, but they all returned to their homelands to support their respective versions of the war effort. Except that a Quaker from England and a Lutheran from Germany said 'No' to the world right then and there." And if he had been there, a third would have said 'No', a Jew turned Congregational Christian from the United States of America. Edward A. Steiner did say 'No' in spite of the perils of pacifism.

Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2004f

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