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The enormous German community in Chicago included people from many different regions, of different classes, and with greatly varying political and religious beliefs. They organized themselves into numerous separate and often overlapping social, political, athletic, and cultural organizations that in some instances celebrated their shared ancestry, and in others revealed their divisions. The Lehr- & Wehr-Verein (Education and Defense Association) was incorporated on April 21, 1875, by mostly working-class Germans with socialist sympathies in response to economic difficulties, police hostility to labor groups, and political frauds against their candidates.
The group's announced object was "the physical and intellectual advancement of its members," but it was to a significant extent a social and political organization. All members had to be able-bodied men of good repute who had at least declared their intention of becoming citizens. Initiation cost fifteen cents, dues ten cents a month, with a ten-cent fine for missing meetings. All of these rules and many others are stated in the constitution and by-laws adopted December 30, 1878.
The Lehr- & Wehr-Verein was also a paramilitary organization. Partly because of the timeless appeal of such activities, but also because of a belief that it was important to appear to be ready to stand up to the forces of "order," the members of the Lehr- & Wehr-Verein met in various halls and parks to drill. They codified their military exercises in the German-English Tactics of the Lehr- & Wehr-Verein (1879). To view the cover, click on the middle small image; an individual page is accessible by clicking on the bottom image. (The entire text of both volumes, and many other publications noted on this site, is available in the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection.)
Dressed in their blue linen blouses and black Sheridan hats, members proudly marched at numerous parades and celebrations through the 1870s. The Lehr- & Wehr-Verein was only one of several different ethnically-based groups of its kind, others included the Jagerverein, the Bohemian Sharpshooters, and the Irish Labor Guards. Still other such ethnic organizations, by contrast, attached themselves to the national guard.
Not surprisingly, the membership of the Lehr- & Wehr-Verein increased after the railroad strike and the strengthening of the Illinois National Guard, so that its rolls reached about five hundred by the end of the 1870s. Political divisions within the German socialist community and public alarm at this armed presence slowed the organization's growth, especially after the Illinois state legislature effectively banned such groups in 1879 and the courts upheld this legislation two years later.
It is difficult to assess the precise importance of the Lehr- & Wehr-Verein in relation to Haymarket. Several of the defendants were members. During the trial, the prosecution and the popular press maintained that there was a vast network of armed revolutionaries who drilled in secret preparation of the day they would launch their attack on order and decency. The defense summoned witnesses who claimed that such groups, despite their bold names, had few weapons and posed no threat.
The elaborate exercises described in Tactics seem to reflect men playing at being soldiers (they talk of battalion drills, picket duty, and skirmishing in the field in carefully arranged formations) and have little apparent relation to the kind of terrorism, mob action, and urban guerilla warfare the Haymarket defendants were accused of planning. But it is clear that the group was a source of pride and personal empowerment to its members and admirers, and a frightening presence to those concerned about class revolution.