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War Critics Pardoned, Nearly 9 Decades Later

`Neighbor informing on neighbor -- this isn't the American way,' says Montana's governor, clearing 78 names provided by researchers.

May 04, 2006|John M. Barrows and Lynn Marshall | Special to The Times

HELENA, Mont. — Farida Briner remembers her mother talking about the day a committee of fellow Montanans confronted her German-born father on the family farm near Billings. "We should hang him from his own apple tree!" one of them yelled.

Herman Bausch's crime? He spoke his opposition to the war being fought in Europe in 1918, and to the Liberty bonds and stamp drives that supported it.

Briner's mother, 19 and with a newborn in arms, went and stood defiantly in front of the tree.

On Wednesday, Briner, 75, stood in the rotunda of the Montana State Capitol and watched Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer sign a pardon of Bausch and 77 other Montanans convicted of sedition during and after World War I.

The pardons were the result of research by a University of Montana professor that inspired a group of law and journalism students to help clear the names of men and women who spoke out against the government in a time of war.

Montana's sedition laws served as a model for the federal sedition laws also passed in 1918. Other states had such laws, but none was more vigorous in pressing them than Montana.

Remarks that were labeled seditious -- in one case, the observation, "This is a rich man's war" in a saloon -- carried fines approaching $20,000 and sentences of up to 20 years in jail.

Martin Wehinger told a group of Teamsters, "We had no business sticking our nose in there, and we should get licked for doing so." He served 18 months in Deer Lodge State Penitentiary.

A hundred fifty people were charged under the laws in 1918 and 1919. Forty men and one woman served time in state prison. One man was pardoned in the 1920s after it was discovered that witnesses had lied at his trial.

For Schweitzer, the descendant of ethnic Germans who emigrated from Russia, the issue had both personal and patriotic resonance.

"I want to send a message," said Schweitzer. "Neighbor informing on neighbor -- this isn't the American way, it isn't the Montana way, it isn't the cowboy way. We weren't the only state to have this kind of hysteria, but we will be the first state to say, 'We had it wrong.' "

Clemens P. Work, a University of Montana journalism professor and author of a book about the sedition cases, "Darkest Before Dawn," researched the subject for more than four years.

Work directs the Montana Sedition Project, a group of law and journalism students from the university who, on behalf of the families of those convicted, petitioned the governor for the pardons. Jeff Renz of the law school also worked with the group.

During Wednesday's ceremony, Bausch's prison photograph, enlarged and grouped with several others, was displayed on the podium. Briner's son, Drew, who is from the Lake Tahoe area, read an impassioned excerpt from letters his grandfather had written years before.

Recounting the trouble he had encountered speaking his mind as a German American, Bausch wrote that despite all he had gone through, "perhaps I have been the gainer. I have not lost faith in the good, the holy and the true."

Ten members of Fred Rodewald's family came to see him pardoned, including Alvina Erickson of Atwood, Minn.

Erickson said she cried as her grandfather's name was read. Her grandparents, immigrants from Norway, took up a homestead in eastern Montana, 12 miles from the nearest town. But after Rodewald was sentenced to prison, her pregnant grandmother struggled to take care of the other children.

Schweitzer said he felt a personal connection to those caught up in the hysteria of the time. His grandparents came to Montana in 1909.

"They worked hard and kept their heads down. My grandmother never did learn to speak English," Schweitzer said. "It was a time when Germans were forced out of their houses and onto the streets, made to kiss the American flag and sing the national anthem in English."

Schweitzer said that in his family, those years were not talked about. His father, born in 1921, still prefers not to discuss it. "He'd rather let it lie," Schweitzer said.

"I wish my grandmother were here," Schweitzer added.

Peter Lachy, a third-year law student from DuBois, Pa., said the students "did a lot of legal research, to determine if the governor could grant the pardons, and if we had the standing to ask for the pardons."

The Sedition Project sent the governor a letter at the end of March asking for the pardons. The letter was signed by 39 people, mostly lawyers and historians, including 1st Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere.

Corn-Revere, who worked on comedian Lenny Bruce's 2003 posthumous pardon for a 1964 New York state obscenity conviction, said he thought Montana's pardons mattered for more than just correcting history.

"It is of particular importance right now," said Corn-Revere, "as we are constantly bartering our rights away in return for more security.

"It is the same deal with the devil that we made in 1918."

*

Special correspondent Barrows reported from Helena, Times staff writer Marshall from Seattle.

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