German-Americans in World War I
By Nate Williams, Wittenberg University
The Intense Feelings on the American Homefront
Robert Prager moved to the United States from Dresden, Germany, in 1905 and felt a strong sense of loyalty to the United States when war was declared on his homeland in 1917. Working as a miner just outside of Collinsville, Illinois, Prager applied for membership into the local miners union, but was denied because he was suspected to be a German agent who was plotting to blow up the mine in which he worked. After reading a statement pleading Prager's case for membership into the union, a group of local miners forced Prager to show his patriotism by parading through the streets of Collinsville while kissing the American flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner. After being taken into police custody for safety purposes earlier that evening, Prager was found once again by the now drunken and hostile mob and forced back into the streets. The mob marched Prager just outside of town where he was to meet his fate in the early morning of April 5, 1918. The mob threw a rope over a tree branch and tightened the noose around Prager's neck. Over two hundred people watched the murder of this innocent German-American while not trying to stop the culprits. The police stopped following the mob once they reached the city limits because they had come to the edge of their jurisdiction. Upon learning of the incident, the local chief of police in Collinsville had this to say, "In one way I believe it is a good thing they got Prager. If he had been spirited away by the police I believe the mob would have vented its rage by hanging two or three Collinsville persons who have been suspected of Disloyalty." 
This was one of the most radical cases of anti-German sentiment during World War I in the United States, but was unfortunately not the only one. Fearful of German spies from within the national boundaries, the citizens of the United States suspected and persecuted many German-Americans for acts of "disloyalty." From the leaders of the nation down to the most ordinary citizen, they expressed their feelings of distrust toward all German-Americans and their culture. These feelings of distrust resulted in the loss of First Amendment rights for numerous German-Americans, and this discrimination was often sanctioned by the United States government.
Many of the ideas that citizens harbored about German-Americans came directly from the leader of the nation, President Woodrow Wilson. After the outbreak of war in April 1917, Wilson was quoted as saying "if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression." Wilson's implication of German-Americans in the category of "disloyal" is quite evident in many of his speeches. In his State of the Union address on December 7, 1915, he spoke on the issue:
There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags, but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt.. .necessary that we should promptly make use of processes of law by which we may be purged of their corrupt distempers... I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation... disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out... I need not suggest the terms in which they may be dealt with. 
One must remember that Wilson made this speech at a time when America was still neutral in World War I. This speech, heard by or read about by many citizens of the nation could be taken as a mandate to attack German ideas and beliefs. Being the leader of the free world, Wilson had the ability to affect thought processes and attitudes from coast to coast, and the citizens willingly followed their leader in his hunt for disloyalty.
President Wilson was the most influential leader of the search for disloyalty in America, but certainly not the only high profile figure to do so. Former president and military hero Theodore Roosevelt was popular for his "hyphen hunting" tactics during World War I. "Hyphenism", as defined by Mark Ellis, is "the persistent desire of immigrant groups such as ... German-Americans to identify with their countries of origin." By choosing to keep the hyphen in their names, foreigners who did not proclaim themselves simply as "Americans", but they chose to continue to identify with their native nation. If they desired to be 100 percent American, then they should lose the hyphen and be known as simply "American," according to Roosevelt. In a 1916 book, Fear of God and Take Your Own Part, written by Roosevelt himself, he addresses the issue of the hyphen and loyalty to the United States in great detail: "The German-American& who call themselves such and who have agitated as such during the past year, have shown that they are not Americans at all, but Germans in America. Their action has been hostile to the honor and interest of this country." While detesting the act of hyphenization, Roosevelt did not hate all Americans of German descent, "I stand for the American citizen of German birth or descent, precisely as I stand for any other American. But I do not stand at all for the German-American, or any other kind of hyphenated American." Roosevelt went on in the same book to offer his wishes upon those that he called hyphenated Americans, "The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land... He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the better it will be for every good American." The only people who could be trusted to be good Americans were the ones who identified solely with the United States.
It was Roosevelt himself who was largely responsible for the hyphen hunting that took place during The Great War. On a trip to the campus of Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, Roosevelt made many of the previously mentioned statements while calling for "100% Americanism" and the eradication of "diluted Americanism." It was all or nothing for Roosevelt. There was no such thing as having loyalty to two opposing nations in his mind. Once an immigrant reached the soil of the United States of America, then he should give his undivided loyalty to the nation and break all ties of allegiance with his homeland.
Former President Roosevelt
Other political leaders also expressed their views on German-Americans. California Congressman Julius Kahn weighed in with his thoughts just twelve days prior to the hanging of Robert Prager, "I hope that we shall have a few prompt hangings and the sooner the better. We have got to make an example of a few of these people, and we have got to do it quickly."  Newspaper headlines from the New York Times on April 6, 1918, read "Senators favor shooting traitors" and the Chicago Tribune on April 18, 1918, read "Cure treason and disloyalty by firing squad." With President Wilson's broad definition of "disloyalty" and the anti-German attitude of many other leaders of the nation, then how were ordinary citizens supposed to react? If attitude really does reflect leadership, then is it really such a mystery that German-Americans were treated with such little respect during World War I? The public was only carrying out the physical acts 'that were being advocated by the prominent political figures of the United States.
We know that German-Americans were suspected of disloyalty and treasonous acts during World War I, but just how many of these citizens fell into the category of "disloyal" as defined by the Federal Government and the Justice Department? When the United States entered the war in May 1917 there were 4.6 million people living within the national boundaries who were born in countries that were aligned with the Central Powers. By the last day of March 1917, of these 4.6 million people, 11,770 of them were on a list, compiled by the Justice Department, of those who had been suspected of violating neutrality laws. Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory had this to say about the names on the list: "There are a very large number of German citizens in this country who are dangerous and are plotting trouble, men from whom we must necessarily expect trouble promptly of a sinister sort." Comments like these prompted the arrests of sixty-three suspects immediately after war was declared. Under presidential warrant, a total of 6,300 German-Americans were arrested during the period of United States military involvement in World War I, of which most were paroled, but 2,300 of them were interned by military authorities.
The simple, often overlooked fact, that suspected enemy aliens could be denied their right of habeas corpus and arrested by presidential warrant, and not by warrant from a judge or justice of the peace allowed the Justice Department, which is a cabinet level office, to conduct searches and investigations of anyone whom they suspected of being disloyal, even with no real evidence of such activities. One such case involved a German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Karl Muck. Considered German by audiences and the Justice Department, Muck began to be harassed by onlookers to his concerts. Having been cleared of any doing wrong or 'suspicious activity in two Federal investigations, Muck was suddenly arrested on March 25, 1918, and placed in an internment camp and labeled as a "dangerous enemy alien."
As punishment for their disloyal acts, many German-Americans were not placed in internment camps. Instead, and possibly more disheartening for the accused, their citizenship was revoked. Frederick W. Wursterbarth, a naturalized United States citizen of thirty-six years, refused to subscribe to the Red Cross or YMCA fund drives. Wursterbarth claimed that his reason for not taking part in such drives was because he "did not want to injure Germany and did not want the United States to win the war." This statement, coupled with his failure to comply with the fund drives, resulted in cancellation of his certificate of United States citizenship. Another German-born man living near Emporia, Kansas, who defied food regulations by feeding wheat to his livestock and who made "disloyal" remarks had his citizenship taken away because according to the court, "he had not acted in good faith when swearing allegiance to the United States." 
Many other retaliatory acts, administered by ordinary citizens, were numerous across the United States. A Florida' citizen who had German origins was badly flogged by a citizens' vigilance committee. A tailor of German descent in Oakland, California, was hanged from a tree and let down while still alive by a group known as the Knights of Liberty. A man in San Jose, California, was tarred, feathered, and chained to a cannon for alleged pro-German sentiments. The Knights of Liberty struck once again in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when they tarred and feathered a German-American before giving him fifty lashes and making him promise to leave the city. A German Lutheran pastor was beaten for preaching in German after the city council had forbidden it, and another pastor was publicly flogged for negative comments about local war committees. Flag kissing, public
embarrassment, pledges of allegiance, and tarring/feathering incidents were common throughout the nation.
Representative US WWI Poster
When anything went wrong in any given area, German conspirators were automatically to blame. Dead horses belonging to a Kentucky judge were believed by the owner to have been poisoned and German-Americans were immediately linked to the killings, by the judge himself. Judge George C. Webb saw the accused in this light:
Men of this ilk, who sow the seeds of dissension or work against the United States Government and its people, should be prosecuted, imprisoned, and shot if necessary. There is not a state in the Union that is not infested with German spies, and they do not hesitate at anything to spread German propaganda, which is the most villainous, barbarous, and extensive menace that the country has to cope with. 
What makes this situation all the more frightening is that the person who made these comments was in a position to see that the actions that he advocated were carried out against whom he saw fit. Cases of arson were blamed on German-Americans and accusers even went so far as to claim that tiny pieces of glass that were found in bread could be linked back to enemy aliens. 
There were also more symbolic ways of linking German-Americans to the military counterparts of the United States across the Atlantic Ocean. For instance, in Ohio, some cities that had street names of German origin changed them to more patriotic names. In Cincinnati, Berlin, Bremen and German streets became Woodrow, Republic, and English streets. Members of the Cleveland YMCA covered the name "German" in the German Hospital's sign with an American flag. They argued that "the word affected [their] appetites." Many German-Americans changed their names to sound more English so that they would not appear to be suspicious. The teaching of the German language was forbidden in many high schools and colleges. All of these incidents and actions lumped together form one of the darkest periods for advocates of universal Constitutional rights. I am sure that Robert Prager wished in his last moments on earth that civil liberties were universally enforced during this time.
Collinsville City Hall
After three weeks of testimony, the twelve man jury of Robert Prager's peers deliberated for an entire forty-five minutes before delivering the verdict in the trial of the eleven defendants who were accused of his murder. They were all acquitted and set free. Despite the judge's best efforts to convince the jury that it was not the loyalty of Robert Prager to the United States that was on trial, the jury ignored the guilt of the eleven men who played a physical part in Prager's hanging. After the verdict was read, a member of the jury had this to say; "Well, I guess nobody can say we aren't loyal now... we've done justice of the right sort for Madison County.  This case and the subsequent trial are the most riveting instances in which German-Americans were undeservingly dropped to the status of enemy aliens.
Where Robert Prager Was Hid Before His Lynching
How is a nation to react in a time of war? What measures should be considered necessary and which cross the line into the realm of infringement upon civil liberties? The research suggests that the treatment of German-Americans during World War I ignores any line that was ever established in the United States Constitution with regards to civil liberties. The Federal Government and other high-profile political leaders paved the way in the persecution of German-Americans and justified their actions with the claim that they were doing what was best for national security. By stomping out the "disloyal", many ordinary citizens were merely doing what they believed the nation's leaders would do if they had the opportunity. An attempt to eradicate an entire culture was made because they were believed to be enemy aliens. There were over two thousand indictments obtained by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act, but not one involved a person who was actually accused of being a spy. This begs the question: who were the real enemies of the freedom that the United States was claiming to be fighting for in World War I? It is quite obvious that German-Americans during this time were treated far more unfairly than necessary by the very people who claimed to be the advocates of freedom.
1. Frederick C. Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans and World War I (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 3-10.
2. lbid., 11.
3. lbid., 208.
4. Arthur S. Link, et. al., eds., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 35, October 1, 1915-January 27, 1916 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 306.
5. Mark Ellis "German-Americans in World War I," in Enemy Images in American History, eds. Ragnhild Fiebig-von Hase and Ursula Lehnkuhl (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1997), 192.
6. Theodore Roosevelt, Fear of God and Take Your Own Part (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916), 279.
7. lbid., 280.
8. lbid 392.
9. The Sun (Springfield, Ohio), 26 May 1918.
10. Erik Kirschbaum, The Eradication of German Culture in the United States: 1917-1918 (Stuttgart: Academic Publishing House, 1986), 30.
11. Don H. Tolzmann, ed., German-Americans in the World Wars, vol. 1, The Anti-German Hysteria of World War One (New Providence: KG. Saur, 1995), 258, 278.
12. Ellis, 194.
13. Ibid., 195.
15. Joan M. Jensen, The Price of Vigilance (Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1968), 163.
16. Ibid., 168.
17. Ibid., 168-169.
18. Luebke, 272-280,
19. Kirschbaum, 29-30.
20. Ibid., 29.
21. Michael D. Thompson, "Liberty Loans, Loyalty Oaths, and the Street Name Swap: Anti-German Sentiment in Ohio, Spring 1918," Yearbook of German-American Studies - 33 (1998): 150.
22. Kirschbaum, 89.
23. Erik Kirschbaum, 31.
24. Jensen, 1-9.
- Ellis, Mark, "German-Americans in World War I." In Enemy Images in American History, eds. Ragnhild Fiebigvon-Hase and Ursula Lehnkuhl, 183-208. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1997.
- Jensen, Joan M. The Price of Vigilance. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1968.
- Kirschbaum, Erik. The Eradication of German Culture in the United States: 1917-1918. Stuttgart: Academic Publishing House, 1986.
- Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 35, October 1, 1915-January 27, 1916. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.
- Luebke, Frederick C. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.
- Roosevelt, Theodore. Fear God and Take Your Own Part. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916.
- Thompson, Michael D. "Liberty Loans, Loyalty Oaths, and the Street Name Swap: Anti-German Sentiment in Ohio, Spring 1918." Yearbook of German-American Studies 33 (1998)
- Tolzmann, Don H., ed. German-Americans in the World Wars. vol. 1, The Anti-German Hysteria of World War One. New Providence: K.G. Saur, 1995.
About the author: Nate Williams is a recent graduate of Wittenberg University and is currently attending the USAF Officers Training School. He originally produced this paper for Dr. Tammy Proctor's History 203 Course: The Historian's Craft: The Great War.
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