Milwaukee has long been known as the most German city in the United States, and with cause. German immigrants and their descendants were the dominant ethnic group for much of Milwaukee’s history. The last full-time office staff of Local 8, who retired several decades ago, was a gentleman by the name of Al Goetz who spoke with a marked German accent. (I interviewed him for a history of Local 8 in honor of the 100th anniversary of our founding in 1895, and he was a wealth of information – all in a German accent of course. He remembered Liberace coming to the Local by streetcar to pay his work dues when he was starting out; he would apparently then go across the street for ice cream. “A very nice young man,” was Mr. Goetz’s description; a view shared by much of America during Liberace’s prime.)
German street names, and building names, still abound in Milwaukee, including in the arts. We have the Pabst Theater, and Uihlein Hall, and the Pfister Hotel, and what used to be the Germania Building, not to mention the Pabst brewery, and the Schlitz brewery, and the Blatz brewery, and the Müller brewery, and now the Sprecher brewery (founded in the 1980s by a former brewmaster for Pabst by the name of Randy Sprecher). Deutschtum still surrounds us in Milwaukee.
So it was with great pleasure that I came across the following passage in John Gurda’s classic history, The Making of Milwaukee:
Although it took years for their strategy and structure to jell, the Socialists were ready to enter the political arena in 1898. They fielded a full slate of candidates in the spring mayoral race, all running on a platform that promised slum clearance, more public natatoria, free medical care, jobs for the unemployed, free schoolbooks, and monthly symphony concerts at popular prices.
They didn’t win in 1898, but they had a local landslide in 1910, including the election of America’s first Socialist mayor and Socialist congressman (technically, they ran under the label “Social Democrats,” which was how the socialist party was also known in German at the time). I don’t think they ever got around to “monthly symphony concerts at popular prices” – but it says a lot about Milwaukee at the turn of the last century that anyone would have believed that to be a winning political position. They did get around to a great deal of public improvement, though; in fact, they were referred to by the rest of the socialist movement as “sewer socialists,” because, rather than take over the means of production, they focused on such things as sewers and parks and libraries and schools.
Of course, Milwaukee does now have “monthly symphony concerts at popular prices,” but not because of the government. My orchestra gets very little public funding; less, in fact, than we return to the state in the form of sales tax (not to mention income tax on musicians and staff). But I suspect Milwaukee’s German socialists would have been pleased anyway to see that portion of their platform realized, even if not exactly on their terms.