War Hysteria & the Persecution of German-Americans
|Ever since the Colonial Era, America had welcomed German immigrants and regarded them highly. Yet when war broke out with Germany in 1917, a wave of anti-German hysteria, fueled by propaganda-infused superpatriotism, resulted in open hostility toward all things German and the persecution of German-Americans.|
|Superpatriotism soon reached ridiculous levels. The names of German food were purged from restaurant menus; sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, hamburger became liberty steak. Even German measles was renamed liberty measles by a Massachusetts physician. Superpatriots felt the need to protect the American public from contamination via disloyal music by pushing to eliminate classic German composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart from the programs of community orchestras. Some states banned the teaching of the German language in private and public schools alike. In July 1918, South Dakota prohibited the use of German over the telephone, and in public assemblies of three or more persons.|
|anything printed about the government. Any newspaper that was operating on a tight budget was effectively killed off. Those that continued to print were continually harassed. Trainmen threw off bundles of German-language newspapers at the wrong stations; Boy Scouts burned stolen bundles; and school teachers discouraged students from delivering “disloyal” newspapers. Several thousand German-Americans were interned in concentration camps when their minor infractions were exaggerated into major offenses.|
|Harassment of German-Americans became commonplace. Employers would receive telephone calls asking if they still had “that German spy” on the payroll. Persons reading German-language newspapers on public trains were verbally insulted and spat on. Just having a German name was cause enough for the American Protective League to launch an investigation into a person’s private affairs. When one German-American, having grown tired of the constant Liberty Loan drives, dismissed a salesman with “to Hell with Liberty bonds,” he was charged with disorderly conduct and fined. When a northern German-American vacationing in Florida was caught unprepared for a cold snap and exclaimed, “damn such a country as this,” he was arrested for having violated the Espionage Act.|
|Eventually, the anti-German-American rhetoric reached dangerous levels. Elihu Root, a distinguished American statesman, remarked that there were men walking our streets “who ought to be taken out at sunrise and shot for treason.” John F. McGee, head of the Minnesota Safety Commission, urged the use of firing squads to wipe out “the disloyal element” of his state. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels intoned that “we will put the fear of God into the hearts of those who live among us, and fatten upon us, and are not Americans.” California Representative Julius Kahn more bluntly stated that the nation would benefit from “a few prompt hangings.”|
Not surprisingly, acts of violence increased dramatically during the winter months and reached a climax in the spring of 1918. In Pensacola Florida, a German-American was severely flogged by a citizens group. He was forced to shout, “To hell with the Kaiser,” and then ordered to leave the state. In Avoca, Pennsylvania, an Austrian-American was accused of criticizing the Red Cross. A group of superpatriots tied him up, hoisted him thirty feet in the air, and blasted him with water from a fire hose for a full hour. In Oakland, California, a German-American tailor was nearly lynched by a local organization called the Knights of Liberty. In San Jose, a German American named George Koetzer was tarred and feathered, and then chained to a cannon in the local park. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a German-American was tarred and feathered, lashed fifty times, and forced to leave the city. Several Lutheran pastors were whipped for having delivered sermons in German. In Jefferson City, Missouri, a German-American named Fritz Monat was seized by a vigilante mob, stripped, beaten, and taken to the local movie theater, where the show in progress was interrupted in other for the audience to watch as Monat was forced to kneel and kiss the flag amid rousing rhetoric against disloyalists. In dozens of communities mobs disguised as patriotic organizations invaded homes and dragged suspects from their beds in order to interrogate, threaten, beat, and sometimes deport them.
|German spy and told him to leave town. Several union leaders who were tasked with determining whether or not Prager should be allowed to join the union were concerned enough about Prager’s safety that they made various plans to have him taken into protective custody by the police. But Prager refused, and instead posted around town copies of a statement he had typed up, declaring his loyalty, but also attacking the union for denying him the opportunity to make a living. After reading his statement, a group of about seventy-five miners souped up their patriotism at a local tavern, and then went to find Prager and teach him a lesson. After Prager agreed to leave town, the crowd began to disperse. But some fun-loving members of the group felt that things had ended too abruptly, and they began to urge that Prager be forced to kiss the American flag. Someone produced one, and Prager complied. Then he was told to demonstrate his loyalty by coming with them. Terrified, Prager agreed. The German-American was then dragged into the street. He was stripped down to his underwear and draped in the American flag, and then forced, barefoot, to stumble through the streets of Collinsville. At the center of town, the mob demanded that he sing the national anthem. Prager didn’t know the words, but he willingly sang another patriotic tune.|
At this point, some level-headed citizen called the police, who then took Prager into protective custody. They closed down all the local bars in an effort to quell the mob spirit. Instead, the mob swelled, and went to the police station where they demanded to be admitted. The police hid Prager in the basement, told the mob that he was no longer there, and opened the door to allow an Army veteran named Joseph Riegel inside to confirm the claim. When they opened the door, however, the mob swarmed in. They found Prager and took him back outside, where the mob had now reached several hundred persons. The parade continued, and the mob stopped passing cars and forced Prager to kiss the flag and sing patriotic songs to their occupants. The police followed the mob at a distance, but did nothing to stop the procession. When the mob crossed the city line, the police simply stopped following. Someone suggested Prager be tarred and feathered, and the procession halted while a fruitless search was conducted for the necessary materials. When that failed, Prager was dragged to a tree, illuminated by the headlights of three automobiles. Someone made a noose out of a tow rope. Riegel, who had a lot of pull with the crowd because of his status as a veteran, did not have enough to hoist Pragel alone. “Come on fellows, we’re all in on this, let’s not have any slackers here,” he called out. As many as fifteen grabbed the rope as someone else in the crowd suggested that everyone else at least touch the rope. Prager was pulled into the air. When their amateur efforts failed to kill him, someone suggested Prager be allowed to say something if he wanted to. After being let to the ground Prager was granted permission to write a letter. He wrote a quick goodbye to his parents. He asked for and was granted permission to pray. After asking forgiveness for his sins and once again stating his loyalty, he walked unassisted back to the tree and the rope. As the more than 200 persons looked on, Prager spoke his last words, “All right boys, go ahead and kill me, but wrap me in the flag when you bury me.” Prager was yanked back into the air and hanged.
Although many in America denounced the lynching, local opinion in communities with large German-American populations defended the action. In their minds, the problem was that mobs were being forced to take action because Congress had failed to adequately punish disloyalty. The Espionage Act did not in fact cover casual “disloyal” utterances by individuals. Bowing to the ensuing pressure, the Attorney General asked for changes to the law. Congress responded by amending the Espionage Act via the Sedition Act, the most restrictive limitations on the rights of free speech and free press in the country’s history.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
WWI and German Americans