During WWI, US government propaganda erased German culture: NPR

This week marks the centenary of the United States’ entry into World War I, a conflict that shattered empires and claimed millions of lives. On the American home front, this made this country less culturally German.

Today, as the issue of immigrant loyalty has become controversial again, what happened a century ago is of particular significance. World War I inspired an outbreak of nativism and xenophobia that targeted German immigrants, Americans of German descent and even the German language.

Robert Prager, born in Germany, was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois, in 1918. Some Germans and German-Americans were attacked during World War I.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Manuel


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Courtesy of Jeffrey Manuel


Robert Prager, born in Germany, was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois, in 1918. Some Germans and German-Americans were attacked during World War I.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Manuel

It was a remarkable reversal of fortune. The Germans were the largest non-English speaking minority group in the United States at the time. The 1910 census counted over 8 million first and second generation German Americans out of a population of 92 million.

There were even more German-American families who had been in the country for longer, many since colonial times. They were Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Mennonites, Jews and free thinkers without any religion.

“During the 1850s 900,000 – nearly a million – Germans went to the United States,” says historian Kenneth Ledford of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “It was at a time when the German population was only around 40 million.”

German-Americans often worshiped in churches where German was used. They could live on the city streets or in towns with German names. And while many immigrants assimilated into the English-speaking mainstream, many more sent their children to German-speaking public schools.

Ledford says cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago have given parents the opportunity for their children in elementary school to receive their education in German as well as English.

“German was the lingua franca of the literary scene, of the entertainment scene, of theaters,” explains Richard Schade of the University of Cincinnati. He says many towns were also home to German-language newspapers and clubs where German was spoken.

Inside the vacant caverns of the other beer baron of Saint-Louis

The social life of the community was lubricated by the drinks the Germans brought from the old country. Lager beer was drunk cold in breweries. Beer put the Germans on a collision course with the growing temperance movement. But the biggest collision to come was about the tongue. Before World War I, German was not just an ethnic minority language; it was the most studied modern foreign language in America.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman says that in 1915 about 25% of all American high school students were studying German. But by the end of World War I, that had changed dramatically. German had become so stigmatized that only 1% of high schools taught it.

“During the war, there is an argument that if you learn German you will become the ‘Hun’,” says Finkelman, using the derogatory term to refer to anyone from Germany. “And there was this notion that the language was somehow organic to your soul. So if you spoke German you would think like a German, you would become a totalitarian in favor of Kaiser.”

During the first three years of the war, the American people were divided on the implication. When members of minority groups spoke out against going to war in support of Britain, including some, but not all German-Americans, their patriotism was called into question. They have been denigrated as “Americans cut off by a hyphen”.

After President Woodrow Wilson brought the country into war, he declared: “Any man who hyphenates him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vital organs of this Republic when he prepares himself.

Schade says this anti-German sentiment extended to the internment.

“Hans Kuhnwald, the concertmeister of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, has been interned; the German language was banned; the German-American press has been heavily censored; libraries had to remove German books from the shelves; German-American organizations were targeted, “says Schade,” and what happened, of course, was that German-Americans saw themselves as good Americans of German descent, several generations removed from the old. country.”

The demonization of German-Americans took its ugliest turn in Collinsville, Illinois, which is now a suburb of St. Louis. On April 4, 1918, a German immigrant, Robert Prager, was lynched.

Robert Stevens, vice-president of the Collinsville Historical Museum, said Prager’s nationality was not the only thing that led to his assassination. He was a socialist who worked in a local coal mine and he was on the wrong side of the miners’ union. But that April night, Prager fell on the wrong side of a drunken mob who accused him of spying for Imperial Germany.

“They stripped him completely naked, and they put a rope around his neck, and they paraded him down Main Street, making him sing patriotic songs,” Stevens says. “And they would take their beer bottles and smash them in front of him. So he had to step on the broken beer bottles, cut his feet badly.”

Robert Prager’s lynching underscored anti-German sentiment during WWI

Prager professed his love for America and kissed the flag his tormentors wrapped him in. Despite this, he was taken to the outskirts of town to a hanging tree.

“The band brought him down quickly and, you know, broke his neck,” Stevens says. “They screamed ‘once for red’ and they brought it down again, ‘once for white’ and ‘once for blue’.”

Pete Stehman, who grew up in Collinsville, says townspeople haven’t talked about Prager for decades, but over the years he’s become fascinated by mob crime and the silence of the city. He wrote a book about it.

He says when 11 men were tried for the lynching, they were all acquitted. And he points out that the local newspaper wrote about the verdict.

“The community is convinced he was disloyal,” the newspaper article read. “There is no shortage of him in the city. The lesson of his death had a salutary effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation.

Years later, in his memoirs, the editor who wrote this article called the trial a “grotesque patriotic orgy”.

While historians differ on the effect this had on German-Americans, Frederick Luebke, author of Loyalty ties: the German-Americans and the First World War, says “some have reacted by affirming their Germanity with new vigor”. But he adds that “others have sought to shed their ethnicity as easily as possible.”

In the anti-German hysteria of World War I, the assimilation of German-Americans accelerated. And to be a hyphenated American would mean being suspect in the eyes of nativists for decades to come.