Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, Michigan was the destination for many migrants seeking to make a new life for themselves. This legacy of immigration led to thirty-seven ethnic groups establishing more than 650 papers in the state. A 1978 survey counted found the 127 publications devoted to Germans the largest single group of ethnic newspapers in the state. Other groups with more than ten papers included:
- Afro-American, 92
- Dutch, 73
- Polish, 64
- Finnish, 62
- Swedish, 43
- French, 36
- Ukrainian, 18
- Native American 17
- Arab, 16
- Hungarian, 14
- Jewish, 12
- Romanian, 12
The German press demonstrates the typical cycle of foreign language publications. As German immigrants began to arrive in Michigan enterprising printers soon found a ready-market for German language publications. In the fall of 1844 Michigan’s first German language publication, Allgemeine Zeitung von Michigan appeared in the streets of Detroit. Like so much of the English-language press, this first German paper was intensely partisan, vigorously defending the interests of Michigan’s Democrats. One paper, however, was hardly enough for the rapidly expanding German population, that also had a strong Republican element. In 1866 it was estimated that about twenty percent of the state’s population had been born in Germany (200,000 out of 1 million). With such a large audience the number of German papers expanded rapidly. Between 1875 and 1900 German language newspapers peaked, with over 40 new newspapers founded in 15 communities. Detroit and Saginaw were particularly important as homes for the German press.
World War I proved a turning point from which the German press in Michigan never recovered. Unsurprisingly, at the war’s outset most of the German press favored the cause of Germany. In August 1914 The Germania of Grand Rapids proudly proclaimed “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles.” As the war dragged on, German papers complained more and more bitterly about “English propaganda” printed in the mainstream press. The general public, however, tended to believe as true what the German press labeled as propaganda. As a result, German papers grew increasingly isolated and also began to lose advertising. By the time the war began, the number of German papers had already begun to decline for financial reasons from their peak years, but the war greatly accelerated this trend. Grand Rapids Germania printed its last issue in March 1916. The final financial blow came in an Act of Congress passed in 1917 that required that foreign language papers supply exact translations of their war coverage to the local postmaster, until such time as the postmaster was convinced of the paper’s loyalty. The additional cost of filing English translations with the post office soon drove most of the remaining German papers into bankruptcy. By 1919, except for a few religious publications, only three German language newspapers continued to be printed in Michigan.
Amerikaansche Soom Post. Grand Rapids, Michigan : J. Quintus, v.
Although the German press was the state’s largest foreign language presence, the Dutch press of western Michigan offers a good example of how the ethnic press was different, yet the same, as the English language press. Beside the obvious difference of printing in a language other than English, the Dutch press included large sections of news about “the old country.” These sections were often filled with long passages reprinted from papers published in the homeland, coupled with nostalgic local writing. Both strongly suggested an ongoing connection to the old land and the “the old ways.” Dutch papers were more likely than English publications to censor advertising found inconsistent with community values. Ads for circuses, plays, or movies are conspicuously absent from Michigan’s Dutch language papers before 1916, when one paper finally began to print ads for movies. Ads for alcohol were treated carefully, with the advertisement often noting the product was for “medicinal use.”
Despite these important differences, the Dutch press in many ways reflected its non-Immigrant rivals. The Dutch press in the late nineteenth century tended to follow the lead of the American press, particularly in a predilection for sensationalism. There was also in some of the papers, particularly those that served smaller communities, an intense focus on local news that mirrored the concerns of small town local newspapers throughout the state. In general American politics were well reported and the papers and, like their English counterparts, during elections the papers featured lengthy, partisan opinions about the parties and the candidates. As in the non-ethnic press, Dutch editors engaged in vicious feuds, although in the Dutch community these were as often about religion as politics. Indeed the Republican De Grondwet (1860-1938) and the Democratic De Hollander (1850-1895),the colony’s first newspaper, spent most of the nineteenth century engaged in perpetual editorial warfare about politics, religion, and virtually anything else the two papers wrote about.
Although politics were on the agenda of both Dutch and “English” papers, ethnic communities like the Dutch often emphasized political issues that were different than those that divided the American community. For example, although most of the American public had only a passing interest in the Boer War, West Michigan’s Dutch community reacted strongly and negatively to the ultimately successful attempt by Britain between 1899 and 1902 to fully annex politically independent, Dutch-settled colonies in what would become South Africa. The bitterness engendered toward Britain lingered long, and led many of Michigan’s Dutch papers to adopt a pro-German position at the outbreak of World War I. Some Dutch papers continued to support Germany even after America entered the War as an ally of Britain. However, unlike the German press, all of west Michigan’s Dutch newspapers eventually supported the United States war effort and, perhaps because the Dutch press eventually came to reflect the majority view, none suffered the kind of fatal prejudice leveled against German language publications.