Lynching Of Robert Prager Underlined Anti-German Sentiment During World War I

Apr 6, 2017
Originally published on April 6, 2017 5:14 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Something else changed when the U.S. entered World War I. It became dangerous to be German here. There were millions of German Americans - immigrants, children of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants. And going to war aroused hostility against them. The use of the German language was discouraged, and German names were changed.

The demonization of German Americans took its ugliest turn in Collinsville, Ill. It's now a suburb of St. Louis. There on April 4, 1918, nearly a year after the U.S. entered World War I, a German immigrant named Robert Prager met with a violent end. He was lynched.

ROBERT STEPHENS: OK, we're in the museum.

SIEGEL: For years, the story of that shameful night, the night Robert Prager died, was not something people wanted to talk about. Today it's on display at the Collinsville Historical Museum, and it's a brutal story.

STEPHENS: This is the actual jail cell where the man was held.

SIEGEL: Robert Stephens is vice president of the museum. He says Prager's nationality wasn't the only thing that led to his murder. He was a socialist who worked at a local coal mine and had gotten on the wrong side of the miners' union. But that April night, Prager got on the wrong side of a drunken mob that accused him of spying for Imperial Germany.

STEPHENS: And they stripped him totally naked, and they put a rope around his neck, and they paraded him down Main Street, making him sing patriotic songs. And they would take their beer bottles and break them in front of him so he had to step on the broken beer bottles, cut his feet really badly.

SIEGEL: Prager professed his love of America and kissed the flag that his tormentors wrapped him in. Even so, he was taken to the edge of town to a hanging tree.

STEPHENS: And the group lowered him down quickly and, you know, break his neck. And they hollered, once for the red, and they lowered it again - once for the white and once for the blue.

SIEGEL: I took a walk down Collinsville's main street, the same path Prager was forced to take on his last night alive. Pete Stehman was with me. He grew up here and over the years became fascinated with the mob's crime and the town's silence. He's written a book about it. When 11 men were put on trial for the lynching, they were all acquitted. Stehman read to me what J. O. Monroe, the local newspaper editor at the time, wrote about the verdict.

PETE STEHMAN: (Reading) The community is well convinced he was disloyal. The city does not miss him. The lesson of his death has had a wholesome effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation. In this day and age when human life is being sacrificed by the thousands for principle, Prager's death may be regarded as a cheap price to pay for the silencing of Germanic tongues.

SIEGEL: Years later in his memoir, the same editor called the trial a farcical patriotic orgy. Jeffrey Manuel was also on our walk. He teaches history at nearby Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The lynching, he says, was reported worldwide. It was the worst moment of anti-German American violence during the war, even if the motive for the crime was muddled.

JEFFREY MANUEL: There was for a long time a belief and a lot of accusations that he was in fact a spy or was disloyal. So my guess is that the takeaway that many German American families or German immigrants themselves had was, I should keep my mouth shut; I should keep any beliefs I have to myself or sort of be outwardly patriotic, that anything that might even be interpreted as even a hint of disloyalty could transition in a very quick and violent way into something like what happened to Robert Prager.

SIEGEL: Prager's death was notorious, but it happened against a backdrop of wartime hysteria that victimized German Americans in many ways. We'll hear more about that tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POSTAL SERVICE SONG, "WE WILL BECOME SILHOUETTES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.