He was a correspondent of two American presidents, at least one of whom he met and advised personally. He was also an advisor to cabinet officials, a key figure in the Republican party, a media mogul, a wealthy businessman, a union leader and a Polish senator. He used bribery, extortion and intimidation to pressure his wide network of foreign-language newspapers to print whatever the highest bidder asked him to. He was arguably the most influential immigrant leader in America in the early 20th century, and probably the most fascinating Polish-American you have never heard of.
Louis Hammerling – born Ludwik Mikołaj Hammerling into a poor Jewish family in Austria-controlled southern Poland in the 1870s – faced grim prospects as a child. But he moved to the United States, toiled in Hawaiian sugar fields and then in Pennsylvania coal mines, working up the union ranks until he was leading strikes and negotiating with the most powerful mining magnates in the country.
He organised his immigrant community, converted to Catholicism and got involved in newspapers and politics. The Republican party paid him to sway immigrant votes and by 1910 he was meeting personally with President William Howard Taft.
Nevertheless, Hammerling’s moral compass was too often pulled in the direction of money. In the initial years of World War I – before the US had entered the conflict – his connections with German steamship and beer advertisers led him to force the many newspapers under his control to write pro-German editorials or print canned propaganda pieces.
‘This wonderfully tangled and bizarre story is one that deserved to be told’
It is questionable how effective these articles were, but when America finally did enter the war, a fear of German spies gripped the country, and he was questioned before Congress. He was eventually denounced as a German “agent” and lost most of his influence.
He moved back to Poland and began a political career there as a native son who had made it big in America. His time in Poland’s Senate was unsuccessful though, and he returned to New York where he died – either by accident or suicide – as the result of a fall from the 19th-story window of his apartment.
This wonderfully tangled and bizarre story is one that deserved to be told and Dr MBB Biskupski, in his new book ‘The Most Dangerous German Agent in America – The Many Lives of Louis N. Hammerling’, does so with grace, humour and enthusiasm. The book is a quick read and one that, hopefully, will lead to more study of – and popular familiarity with – this most enigmatic character.
Biskupski is a professor of history, not a novelist, and his academic instincts come through in the story. It is meticulously researched, fact-checked and end-noted. The reader can be confident that Biskupski gets the details right. At times however, the narrative suffers. Biskupski does his best to piece together Hammerling’s “many lives”, but the story’s time line can remain confusing, no less because so much remains unclear or undocumented. Biskupski’s tendency for using ten-dollar words when simple vocabulary would do can add to the frustration.
Overall, however, this is an excellent beginning to popularising the story of one of Poland’s most complex and captivating sons. In the preface, Biskupski informs us that those who hear Hammerling’s story usually respond that it should be made into a film. Here’s to hoping that one day, it is.