London in the early 20th century was already a global city. People from all over the world lived there, including over 27,000 born in Germany. London’s banks were increasingly involved in international transactions, and needed bilingual clerks to perform them. Foreign languages were not a strong point of the British workforce, so banks employed numerous German, French and Spanish clerks, particularly in their Foreign departments.
Britain’s relations with Germany deteriorated in 1913 and 1914, leading to anti-German public sentiment. The banks’ staff lists from this period show a dwindling number of German names, presumably as German-born clerks found it advisable to leave Britain.
Of course, many families with German names had been British for generations. Nevertheless, anti-German sentiment affected them, and some decided to anglicise their names. In our records from 1913-1915, we find Bauhof becoming Bowden; Schmeisser becoming Staunton; Weidemann becoming Vardy; and Schürer becoming Shirley.
Others kept their names, but felt obliged to prove their Britishness; one man’s staff card has been annotated ‘Although the name is German, the heads of the family came to England in 1750 and the grandfather was naturalised.'
Suspicion could affect even the most privileged in society. Sir Felix Schuster, chairman of Union of London & Smiths Bank, had lived in England since leaving Germany in his teens, and had been a British subject since the age of 21. From the outbreak of war he was an active and trusted government advisor on economic matters, and his only son was serving in the British army. Neverthless, he suffered months of gossip and press insinuation about suspect allegiances, and in May 1915 was forced to issue a public statement declaring his loyalty to Britain.
Write an essay in German (about 200 words) on one of the following subjects: a) should arbitration take the place of war?
Institute of Bankers German Language Diploma exam, October 1913
Hostility towards Germany worsened the state of German language learning among bank clerks. Even before the war, the Institute of Bankers’ German examinations had been significantly less popular than those in French and Spanish. Now, the numbers dropped still further. Just one candidate sat the 1917 Preliminary-level German paper, compared to 5 the previous year; 8 the year before; and 17 in 1914.
Numerous commentators were convinced the British weakness in languages was a real problem; it had harmed Britain before the war, and might prove catastrophic afterwards. In 1917 the prominent academic Michael Sadler reproached Britain’s linguistic failings, particularly in comparison with Germany. He said that the war had forced Britain to rediscover the fact that it was part of Europe, and urged it to develop an understanding of ‘the languages in which Europe expresses its thoughts, its aims and its outlook on the world.’
Sadler and others pointed out that international trade would surely be revived after the war. Assuming (as they certainly did) that Germany would have been defeated, they foresaw a dominant role for Britain in post-war global finance, provided its workforce was ready. Such readiness should include speaking foreign languages. Looking westwards, meanwhile, towards a still more fearsome competitor, Sadler was relieved to note that Americans were even worse at languages than the British. If Britain could just do a little better, he suggested, it would have a rare and precious advantage over its transatlantic competitors.
Despite the pleas, no clear improvement occurred. When the Institute of Bankers resumed its foreign language classes in 1919, it had to cancel the German course because only one student signed up.