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Anti-German hysteria in Iowa during World War I, already manifest in 1917, reached a linguistic crescendo in the spring of 1918, and resulted in an unprecedented assault on German identity, constitutional liberties, and ultimately the extraordinary measures taken by a German-American Lutheran congregation in far northern Iowa. Wartime zealotry, countenancing no form of German identity, culminated in an edict by the governor of Iowa restricting spoken language and consequently, for some, the free exercise of their religion. In response, the parishioners of St. Peter Lutheran in rural Mitchell County gave up the use of their church and moved Gottesdienst, German worship services, a few miles north, into Minnesota, meeting in a member’s farm grove—at night! Thomas Jefferson once observed, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it.” On which side of Jefferson’s alternatives shall Americans in the twenty-first century choose to stand?
Based on extensive research in century-old German congregational manuscripts, period documents, and oral history gathered decades ago, “The War Within” details a largely forgotten chapter in the history of Iowa and the life of a faithful congregation, one still capable of eliciting strong emotion and providing a sobering thought-provoking lesson on which to reflect.
About the speaker:
As a youth, Russell Baldner’s early affection for the German language and history led to B.A. and M.A. degrees in History, undergraduate and graduate study in German, and a career in education, teaching in those and related fields. The presenter first conducted serious primary source historical research in the original nineteenth-century German manuscripts of his family’s ancestral German–Lutheran congregation, of which his immigrant great-great-grandfather was a founding member. Four years later, on the first of nine sojourns in ancestral Germany, Russell lived in his ancestor’s birthplace. Baldner specializes in the history of Germany, ethnic German history and genealogy; historical documents written in Kurrentschrift, an archaic, long-abandoned and seldom-read German cursive script; and Late Prehistoric Native American archaeology. A frequent public speaker, historian and writer, Baldner’s recent publications include several nineteenth-century German Lutheran historical and manuscript studies; a three-part Introduction to the Reformation and Protestantism; and a four-part research series on the Late Prehistoric to Early Historic Native American petroglyphs and pictographs of northeast Iowa.
In September 2022, Russell and wife Cathryn co-hosted “Medieval to Modern Hearts of Germany,” a two-week group tour in northeastern Germany proposed and largely designed by Baldner in conjunction with and sponsored by the University of Northern Iowa, his alma mater. Included were pre-departure orientations by Russell focusing on Germany’s history, language, and social-cultural landscape; historical lectures and commentaries while on tour in Germany; and a renewed and welcome opportunity daily to converse in the language of his heritage.
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