German Enemy of US Hanged by Mob Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Published during the height of anti-German and anti-radical sentiment that swept the United States during World War I, this article recounts the lynching of a German immigrant and presumed socialist near St. Louis, Missouri (home to a large number of German Americans and German immigrants at the time). The victim, Robert Prager, was a German immigrant and noncitizen who fell under suspicion of being “disloyal” to his adopted country and experienced vigilante justice despite his protestations of innocence. Local police briefly imprisoned Prager, in order to protect him from a growing mob. But the mob forcibly removed Prager from the jail, chased him out of town, and executed him by hanging.

Summary Overview

Published during the height of anti-German and anti-radical sentiment that swept the United States during World War I, this article recounts the lynching of a German immigrant and presumed socialist near St. Louis, Missouri (home to a large number of German Americans and German immigrants at the time). The victim, Robert Prager, was a German immigrant and noncitizen who fell under suspicion of being “disloyal” to his adopted country and experienced vigilante justice despite his protestations of innocence. Local police briefly imprisoned Prager, in order to protect him from a growing mob. But the mob forcibly removed Prager from the jail, chased him out of town, and executed him by hanging.

Although violent attacks of this kind were relatively uncommon, and Prager’s lynching the only well-documented death, widespread anti-German sentiment existed in the city at the time. Prager’s death reflected a national mood that, in the name of patriotism, led to the decline of German-language publications and schools, German place names, and even the popularity of German foods.

Defining Moment

As Europe fell into chaos with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral on the conflict in both outward action and inward opinion. Americans clung to what increasingly became an illusion of neutrality over the next few years, with public opinion mostly shifting in favor of the Allies because of events, such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the publication of British propaganda. By the time the United States declared war on Germany and its allies, known as the Central Powers, in April of 1917, US opinion was inflamed against Germans and their leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II. US government propaganda and policy over the months that followed the declaration of war only encouraged these sentiments. By the spring of 1918, when Prager was murdered, the United States was at a fever pitch.

Early in the war, many German Americans had quietly supported the Central Powers or simply held no strong opinion in favor of either warring party. Some German Americans maintained familial and cultural ties with their ancestral land, and others had invested money in the German cause. Although the overwhelming majority of first- and second-generation Americans pledged their primary allegiance to their adopted country, suspicions of German Americans in particular ran high. Americans feared that this group continued to support the kaiser, and prejudice against Germans and their culture skyrocketed. The US federal government required many German-born immigrants who had not attained US citizenship to carry special registration cards and report certain actions to the government. A small number were interned.

At the same time, not all Americans supported the war. Labor activists, socialists, and other radicals in particular loudly voiced their opposition to US involvement. Members of these groups saw the war as beneficial to the politically and economically powerful only and detrimental to the lives and livelihoods of the citizens asked either to fight on the front or sacrifice at home. Worried that public opposition would impede the war effort, the US government passed the Espionage Act in June of 1917. This law restricted civil liberties by making it illegal not only to take actions that directly aided the enemy, but also to make speeches or publish pamphlets that might generate “disloyalty.” As a veritable army of public speakers around the country made short, pro-war presentations and propaganda newsreels and posters urged viewers to support the war, opposition voices were firmly quashed.

Document Analysis

In recounting the events surrounding Prager’s lynching and murder, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reveals the anti-German and anti-radical hysteria of its time. The article opens dramatically, stating that some hundreds of local residents banded together to overcome police and hang Prager for the presumed crime of being “disloyal” to the United States. The article states that Prager was believed to have made disloyal statements at a socialist meeting held a few hours before the lynching. Upon hearing about these statements, the large and ferocious crowd publicly humiliated Prager by forcing him to march through town wrapped in an American flag. When police arrested Prager and jailed him, supposedly for his own safety, the mob easily removed its victim and continued its march.

Based on the article, Prager’s actions in the hours leading up to his death do not bear the signs of fervent anti-Americanism. Notably absent are any direct quotations from him of disloyal language or abuse of his captors. Instead, the article notes that Prager affirmed his loyalty to the United States; begged for his life; and, at last, wrote a letter simply informing his parents of his death without any claims of remorse or support for his German homeland.

Although the author presents the account of Prager’s lynching in a relatively straightforward manner, the inclusion of key language reflects the prejudices of the time. According to the article, Prager’s main crime was “making disloyal utterances,” reminiscent of acts barred under the Espionage Act. The article characterizes Prager not as an immigrant but as “an enemy alien,” a suggestion that he was, in fact, guilty of acting in opposition to the United States. Though the article recounts what Prager supposedly said–that he was “loyal” to the United States and in the process of becoming a citizen–the author notes that he “admitted” to having been born in Germany, which seems to construe Prager’s guilt. The article also characterizes violent and illegal actions, such as tarring and feathering, as “loyalty demonstrations” rather than discriminatory crimes; the demonstrations, the article implies, had the positive goal of removing disloyalty from the community rather than the negative goal of harming others.

Essential Themes

Resonant in the account of Prager’s death is the national dedication to the government’s policies that Americans believed were demanded of them during World War I. Only one voice, Collinsville’s mayor, seems to oppose the mob’s actions, and his objection is fueled more by his concern for the town’s reputation than by the legal and moral implications of the lynching. During this time, the need to promote “loyalty” and fight opposition seemingly justified the suspension of constitutional rights and the law itself; none of the men who lynched Prager were ever convicted of a crime.

The suspicion of German Americans, resulting in actions such as the lynching of Prager, and the US policies that built on these fears exemplify the discriminatory policies long enacted against immigrant populations in the United States. For example, the US government enacted similar federal policies during the World War II era, placing special registration requirements on German and Italian nationals in the United States and interning Japanese immigrants and even native-born Japanese Americans.

Worries over disloyalty and the criminalization of opposition to the war bound the German cause with that of anti-war radicals and socialists, contributing to the rise of focused anti-radical and anti-immigrant raids by the US federal government, as well as a general hysteria that became known as the first Red Scare. The anti-radical sentiment that swept the United States during this time contributed to the overall decline of what had been a relatively small but influential radical labor movement in the preceding decades. Anti-immigrant sentiment was also present in the passage of an immigration act in the mid-1920s that restricted immigration from countries whose people were considered undesirable. Support for tangible definitions of “Americanism” helped revive the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan after decades of dormancy. Thus, the extreme patriotism that led to the death of Prager is one instance of a prevalent sentiment expressed by many Americans to immigrants and people of color during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Capozzola, Christopher. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • DeWitt, Petra. Degrees of Allegiance: Harassment and Loyalty in Missouri’s German-American Community during World War I. Athens: Ohio UP, 2012. Print.
  • Ellis, Mark. “German Americans in World War I.” Enemy Images in American History. Ed. Ragnhild Fiebig-von Hase and Ursula Lehmkuhl. Providence: Berghahn, 1998. Print.
  • Luebke, Frederick C. Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans and World War I. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1974. Print.
  • Weinberg, Carl R. Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.
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