A Magnificent Victory Monument for a Rational Outlook on Life

November 4, 2009

In his book, Fifty Years of Unrelenting German Aspirations in Indianapolis , Theodore Stempfel hails Das Dutsches Haus as “a magnificent victory monument for a rational outlook on life.”  Das Deutsche Haus was built as a German American Turnverein, clubhouse & community center between 1894 and 1898.  It is a great Indianapolis landmark with three listings in the National Register of Historic Places . Bernard Vonnegut , Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s grandfather, was principal architect and builder.

The so-called “Forty-Eighters,” political activists who were forced out of Germany after the failed revolution of 1848, brought a liberal mindset and political zeal to the Midwest and to Indianapolis. They founded  the Turnverein, a gymnastics society that embodied the motto of Friedrich Jahn , the founder of the Turner movement in Germany: “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” Along with another motto inscribed on the building’s East Tower, “Frisch, Frei, Stark und Treu “ (vibrant, free, strong and loyal),these words are lasting tributes to this influential group of liberal thinkers which included the Vonnegut family and other prominent German-Americans such as the Liebers.

 The founding principles included:
    • Liberty against all oppression
    • Tolerance against all fanaticism
    • Reason against all superstition
    • Justice against all exploitation
    • Free speech, free press and free assembly for the discussion of all questions so that men and women may think unfettered and order their lives by the dictates of conscious.  Such is our ideal, which we strive to attain through a “sound mind in a sound body.”

 In 1870, several of them founded the Freethinkers Society which met regularly on Sundays at the Athenaeum to discuss political, social, and philosophical topics in an open forum.  A freethinking Sunday School taught the German language, art, history, ethics, and music to children. The organization lasted about twenty years and contributed much to the intellectual life of the city. In the spirit of German enlightenment, the mission of Das Deutsche Haus was to become a place for “goodness, beauty, and truth.”

Clemens Vonnegut

The first president of the society was Clemens Vonnegut , great-grandfather of author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Clemens Vonnegut translated a book by Robert Ingersoll into German and wrote his own pamphlet, A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals: From the Standpoint of a Freethinker: For Adult Persons, Offered by a Dilettante .  In it he emphasizes education and rebuffs Christianity for attempting to substitute superstition and assumption for knowledge and truth.  He defines the creed of a Freethinker: "We believe all that science teaches until it is superseded by new discoveries and knowledge…Our belief is built on reason, observation of nature, history and experience. We believe in the brotherhood of man…We believe in virtue, in perfectibility, in progress, in stability of laws of nature, in the necessity of improving the social condition and relations." (1890)

When America entered World War I in 1917, this German-American community fell victim to the very attitudes they opposed.  There was a wave of anti-German sentiment. The leaders of Das Deutsches Haus voluntarily changed the building’s name to Athenaeum–meaning a gathering place for culture and learning…. stemming from the Greek goddess Athena …goddess of wisdom and the arts.

On Sunday, November 8, 2009, Center for Inquiry Indiana will be cohosting an event at the Athenaeum as part of the 14th community wide Spirit and Place Festival . This is the 6th year that CFI Indiana has participated in the festival.  The theme of this year’s festival is "Inspiring Places."   So it is fitting to spotlight the Athenaeum. CFI Indiana is partnering with the Athenaeum Foundation , the Max Kade German American Center , and IUPUI Freethinkers to put on this event.   At 2:00 pm there will be a presentation by a panel made up of Cassie Stockamp, President of the Athenaeum Foundation, Claudia Grossmann, Director of the Max Kade German American Center, and myself.    There will be tours of the building an hour before and an hour after the program. An exhibit organized by Claudia and Craig Gosling of CFI Indiana will be on display throughout the week long festival. Cassie will be talking about the building itself, Claudia will be spotlighting the German American connection, and I will be talking about the history of freethinkers here in Indianapolis including our own center which continues that legacy.   CFI Indiana holds many of its major events at the Athenaeum and in the Rathskeller Restaurant which is located on the lower floor of the Athenaeum.