A Gorilla in the Gallery

German Society Building - Northwest Corner - Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (
German Society Building – Northwest Corner – Marshall and Spring Garden Streets, ca. 1890 (

There’s a lovely little installation about the German Society of Pennsylvania at the Philadelphia History Museum. In addition to books and manuscripts and steins and photographs and Revolutionary War pistols and Civil War swords, there’s an 800-pound gorilla. Unlike the other artifacts, the giant gorilla has no label.

The German Society of Pennsylvania has been around for 250 years, which means there’s plenty to say and to show—and plenty more that must be left out. But some chapters in history just can’t be left unwritten.

Sure, we must hear about the founding in 1764, when German settlers, feeling a need to circle the wagons, met for the first time in a charming Lutheran schoolhouse at 4th and Cherry Streets. (See the picture, below.) In the 19th century, Philadelphia’s German community built a serviceable place on 7th Street, just across from the Philadelphia History Museum. In 1888, a day after Christmas, the Society moved into the three-story palatial clubhouse by architect William Gette at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. The hope was to get closer to the heart of the booming Philadelphia-German community. After all, in 1890, 28 percent of the foreign-born Philadelphians were German. How German they would remain was the question.

Participation didn’t take off; in fact, membership would never again surpass 1,000, where it stood in the late 1870s. For the balance of the 19th century, the numbers would fall to as few as 700. By 1914, at the start of World War I, it dwindled to 624. By 1940 there were 411 members and in 1945, only 350. “With reduced membership contributions and low investment returns,” by the mid-20th century, according to Birte Pfleger in Ethnicity Matters: A History of the German Society of Pennsylvania, “the GSP was more or less ruined financially.”

Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. ( Company of Philadelphia)
Zion Lutheran School, 325 Cherry Street, May 1, 1859. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. ( Company of Philadelphia)

Decimated membership was only a symptom. But of what? The story of the Society’s near demise was about something other than money.

What was it about? World War I. The rise of the Third Reich. World War II. Conflicted loyalties. Diplomatic disasters. Bombs thrown; board members attacked, detained, tried and even imprisoned. This was as toxic a stretch of time as an organization might ever encounter. It’s the 800-pound gorilla, essentially left untouched since 1944 when Harry W. Pfund’s History of the German Society of Pennsylvania referred to this time as the  organization’s “most tragic.” But instead of facing it head on, Pfund advocated a collective willingness “to bear this grief in silence.”

Except silence and history aren’t compatible. About sixty years after Pfund, Pfleger finally took a step to shed the long silence in a chapter entitled: “Hitler’s Shadow In Philadelphia: The GSP From The 1930s Through the 1960s.” (Download a pdf here.)

As mentioned last time, the 250th anniversary of German settlement Philadelphia coincided with Hitler’s rise in 1933. The society took five more years to publicly disavowal its Nazi sympathies and join with other German-American associations in Philadelphia to create the anti-Nazi German-American League of Culture.

In February 1938, only one month after the anti-Nazi declaration, the Society displayed a swastika flag at the Society’s annual charity ball. And a month after that, according to Pfleger, “as many as 1,500 German Americans gathered” at the Society’s building…to celebrate Hitler’s annexation of Austria.” Sigmund von Bosse, “a Lutheran pastor and prominent GSP leader, gave a rousing speech, and almost everyone in the audience gave him the Hitler salute at its conclusion.”

Old habits die hard. Old loyalties die harder.

For its library, the GSP had bought copies of Hitler’s speeches as early as 1924. They added Mein Kampf in 1930 and ordered “books by Joseph Goebbels and subscribed to pro-Nazi periodicals.” They acquired Julius Streicher’s “notoriously anti-Semitic weekly Der Sturmer,” and the SS publication Das Schwarze Korps. Nazi propaganda arrived “through the Volksbund fur das Deutschtum in Ausland (League for Germandom Abroad) and  whatever the Nazis published and sent abroad to their Volksdeutsche, ‘Germans outside of the Reich.’” All of it, and much more, was available in the reading room of the library at 7th and Spring Garden.

After the war, the Society finally became less German and more American. Meetings and programs were held in English, then the Society’s “official language.” As years passed, the scholarly range and value of the GSP’s library—more than 60,000 books—became increasingly apparent. After all, many books made rarer by wartime losses in Europe were here and accessible in Philadelphia. Something to be proud of.

What would become of the cache of Nazi literature?

In the post-war period, according to Pfleger, the German Society “decided to keep all Nazi periodicals and books in a dark and dirty storage room on the third floor of the building.” This closet, known as the “Giftschrank” or “poison cabinet” was a way to “bestow a general amnesia on the organization.”

An amnesia that, even as the Society presents its history, continues to this day.

One reply on “A Gorilla in the Gallery”

Your interesting post here is largely based on Birte Pfleger’s 2006 book, Ethnicity Matters, which offers a fairly full accounting of the activities at the German Society during the Nazi period. You fail to mention, however, that Pfleger’s book was co-published by the German Society itself. The previous “general amnesia [of] the organization” about this period was, in fact, rejected by the Society when it supported the publication of Pfleger’s account.

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