Americans in Berlin celebrate Independence Day (WWI)

This press photograph doesn’t have the year printed on it, but the caption on the back contains some clues:

National festival of the American colony at Berlin on the 4th of July, the day of the declaration of independence of America.  The festival was held in the garden-plot of the “Esplanade-Hotel” at Berlin.  Our photo shows the members of the American colony with the American ambassador Mr. Gerard (1) and his wife and the American consul-general Mr. Lay (2).

Fourth of July in Berlin (probably 1915) 12

James W. Gerard served as American Ambassador to Germany under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 until the cessation of diplomatic relations between the two countries on February 3, 1917.

Update:  In the original version of this post, I dated the photo to July 4, 1916, based on information about Consul General Julius G. Lay on Wikipedia, which says that he was in Berlin in 1916-17.  However, since then I’ve come across references in news reports to a party he hosted on July 4, 1915, at the Esplanade Hotel.  I’ve found no references to a party the following year (although it can’t be ruled out).  I therefore conclude that the photo was likely taken in 1915, not 1916.  (See one report from 1915 here.)

I have to admit that my first reaction to this photo was to feel appalled at the thought of any kind of celebration in the middle of such a terrible war.  That said, this was a period of intense diplomacy for the United States, which was still formally a neutral power, and a gathering like this one could have served as an opportunity for diplomatic interaction.  German and other guests were likely in attendance.  Ambassador Gerard’s Wikipedia page gives an idea of the complicated position of the American Mission:

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Gerard assumed the care of British interests in Germany, later visiting the camps where British prisoners were confined and doing much to alleviate their condition. His responsibilities were further increased by the fact that German interests in France, Great Britain, and Russia were placed in the care of the American embassies in those countries, the American embassy in Berlin thus becoming a sort of clearing house. […]

After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania with many United States residents on board, on May 7, 1915, Gerard’s position became more difficult.

I won’t try to show close-ups of everyone in the photograph, but you can see Gerard and Lay below.  Ambassador Gerard is on the left and Consul General Lay is on the right:

In the foreground, a couple is seated prominently in what might be interpreted as a position of honor.  The man looks very familiar, but I haven’t managed to identify him:

Fourth of July in Berlin (probably 1915) 4

At the left edge of the photo is a woman in a white hat and dress who also looks familiar, but again, I can’t figure out where I might have seen her:Fourth of July in Berlin (probably 1915) 6

Not many people are smiling, but two of them can be seen below, at the back of the group:Fourth of July in Berlin (probably 1915) 7


If you’d like to look at the rest of the photo in high resolution, I’ve divided it in half below, along with a large scan of the back.  To see an image in full size, click a thumbnail below and then select “View full size” in the lower right corner of your screen.  A stamp on the back identifies the photographer as American photojournalist Paul Thompson.


Post updated July 8, 2020.


31 thoughts on “Americans in Berlin celebrate Independence Day (WWI)

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    1. I think that was written later. I think the photo was in a newspaper archive and it was categorized that way. “War” seems vaguely appropriate, but certainly not “concentration camps.” The archive was being sold by a dealer in Worcester, Massachusetts. Maybe I can find out more.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree. It’s so intriguing trying to work out what was happening in all of the photos that you post. Stories begin to form in my mind that may or may not be what occurred. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Such an interesting photo! I love to look at all the different people and their expressions and wonder about each of their individual stories (and how I am sure many interconnected)!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point about interconnectedness, Robyn. Especially in those days, the “elites” were fewer and tended to know each other. People made new acquaintances through mutual friends or contacts, and networking was key to landing a job.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was especially caught by the one young girl in the center of the photo. She seems to be the only child there. I wonder who she was, and how she ended up there. Especially, I wonder what she thought of the occasion. I hope there were other youngsters in her life; perhaps she was with her parents during a school holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you mentioned her, Linda. I had planned to include a detail image of her in the post, but decided not to at the last moment because the post already contained a lot of images. She looks bored, which is understandable, surrounded by all those stuffy grownups! Diplomatic life could be hard for kids, moving to strange new places and leaving friends far behind. Here’s the detail I had planned to include, with the caption “Old and young”:


  3. Whoa – I’m amazed you spotted the Black man in the photo! What’s his story? His role at the gathering? Why is he laughing? So many questions!

    Also noticed in your close-up of the woman in white standing behind a white basket, that both she and the woman next to her seem to be wearing bits of cloth around their wrists. Also maybe the woman on the far right of the photo in a dark dress, toward the front of the group. It’s not a glove, nor part of their dress, so…what is it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m afraid I can’t be of any help with your questions, Rebecca. Regarding the women’s fashions, they seem conservative for the time. To me the whole scene has a fin-de-siècle aura, in the sense of the end of an era. In two years the map of Europe would be redrawn and the United States would emerge as a world power. I wonder if these people expected any of that to happen.


  4. As a Canadian, I often forget that the U.S. didn’t enter WWI until 1917, so I was initially surprised to see this celebration in Berlin in 1916.

    They are a good-looking bunch in the photo. It looks like this is an occasion where “someone who’s anyone” might be present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend to forget that Canada was in the fight from the beginning. And you’re such a peaceable lot! 😉 Public opinion in the US was overwhelmingly against entry into the war, at least for the first couple of years. It certainly wasn’t inevitable that the US would enter the war.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. While not during war, I do recall that celebrating the U.S. Bicentennial was a big deal to us Americans in Guatemala in 1976. Our celebration particulars were more relaxed than this crowd, but I can sense some parallels. Diplomats tend to be a rather patriotic bunch. Anyway, this is a fascinating image for the time and place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a foreign country while that country was at war. Some of these party-goers probably sympathized with Germany, while others undoubtedly sympathized with Britain and France and Russia. Remaining neutral would have been difficult. A patriotic display on the Fourth of July might serve to emphasize American independence from alliances and entanglements.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. A truly interesting photo! It seems they are all affected by the situation. I wonder if the few laughing people are laughing because of nervousness or because they thought it expected… I hope you find out about more about this time document.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was just commenting, directly above your comment, on the conflicting sympathies these people might have felt. I think the few smiles are probably a result of the awkwardness of the whole situation. Most people look serious. One woman in the back (left) is clearly in mourning dress. I suspect the overall mood of the party was a somber one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely fascinating photograph! And yes, their expressions are difficult to label definitively. American and British elites, during both world wars. funded via banks and supplied via industry armament infrastructure that would be turned against us. In some ways this photo does indeed reflect that wariness but also a hope the Allies will succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, Mary Jo. Most members of this group were probably hoping the US wouldn’t enter the war, at the very least because they’d be forced to leave Germany very quickly if that happened. Some were probably businessmen taking advantage of war-related opportunities in banking, trade, etc. If the photo was taken in 1915, as I now think it was, then the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7 would have been a major topic of conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

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