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« Discussing Public Policy and Understanding Issues Facing the Nation | Main

The Persecution of German Americans During World War I

By Angelo Lopez
April 20, 2017

This week I watched a wonderful PBS documentary on World War I titled The Great War. It talks about the war from the point of view of African Americans, Native Americans, women suffragists and the diverse spectrum of American society. One of the things that I learned from watching the documentary was the extent of the prejudice that German Americans faced during World War I. Wartime propaganda depicted Germans as inhuman Huns, and this led to mutual suspicion of the large German American population in the U.S. This type of anti-German hysteria is sadly a darker part of human nature where a whole group is stereotyped based on the bad actions of a few individuals within the group. In World War II, Japanese Americans were victims of a similar type of war-time hysteria. Today Muslim Americans and undocumented immigrants are facing a similar type of unfair prejudice.

The article War Hysteria & the Persecution of German-Americans gives a good description of anti-German hysteria during World War I. The article states:

...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...

...As the propaganda machine was cranked up, public rhetoric soon took on a distinctly anti-German-American tone. Literature began to directly attack German-American churches, schools, societies, and newspapers as agents of Imperial German conspiracy..

...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...

...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.

Among the most tragic of these acts of 'patriotism' was the mob lynching of Robert Prager on April 5, 1918, in Collinsville, Illinois.

The Digital History website also described the prejudice faced by German Americans:

When the US entered World War I, approximately one-third of the nation (32 million people) were either foreign-born or the children of immigrants, and more than 10 million Americans were derived from the nations of the Central Powers....

...Once the United States entered the war, a search for spies and saboteurs escalated into efforts to suppress German culture. Many German-language newspapers were closed down. Public schools stopped teaching German. Lutheran churches dropped services that were spoken in German.

Germans were called 'Huns.' In the name of patriotism, musicians no longer played Bach and Beethoven, and schools stopped teaching the German language. Americans renamed sauerkraut 'liberty cabbage'; dachshunds 'liberty hounds'; and German measles 'liberty measles.' Cincinnati, with its large German American population, even removed pretzels from the free lunch counters in saloons. More alarming, vigilante groups attacked anyone suspected of being unpatriotic. Workers who refused to buy war bonds often suffered harsh retribution, and attacks on labor protesters were nothing short of brutal. The legal system backed the suppression. Juries routinely released defendants accused of violence against individuals or groups critical of the war.

...Perhaps the most horrendous anti-German act was the lynching in April 1918 of 29-year-old Robert Paul Prager, a German-born bakery employee, who was accused of making 'disloyal utterances.' A mob took him from the basement of the Collinsville, Illinois jail, dragged him outside of town, and hanged him from a tree.

Sewanee, the University of the South, has an article titled Anti-German Sentiment and Propaganda. It describes the shock of many German Americans who saw former friends shun them and questioned their patriotism.

...with the increasing number of war-related incidents, anti-German sentiment steadily grew. Nothing fuelled anti-German sentiment as much as the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, an event which British and American propagandists pointed to as incontrovertible proof of German brutality. The incident caused a huge uproar in the U.S. and solidified anti-German sentiment in the public...

... An extensive propaganda attack, including posters, pamphlets, articles, and books, targeted German Americans and German citizens, labeling them a threat to European civilization and the American values of peace, democracy, and liberty. The media often referred to the Germans as 'Huns,' after the barbaric hoards of Asian warriors who had ravaged the Roman Empire. Germans were portrayed as aggressive, materialistic, savage and uncivilized, and Germans living in the U.S. were frequently accused of creating an extensive propaganda machine and an elaborate espionage system.

The Germans never fully understood that the effective propaganda against them capitalized on emotions, immediately understood terms, and vague ideas. Through this mechanism, the German voice was silenced for the rest of the war and, to a certain extent, beyond. The concert halls stopped playing the music of German composers. German language programs were banned in high schools, along with German-language church services and publications. Books were burned, German dogs were slaughtered, and many food items were rechristened (for instance, sauerkraut was officially re-dubbed 'liberty cabbage'). Germans and German Americans also felt the change in small, personal incidents. In some instances, 'hand-shakes became less friendly than they used to be,' but many were publicly assaulted, tarred and feathered, or even lynched.

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