An immigrant and socialist, Prager was lynched by a mob of "patriots" in Illinois. They were all acquittedby Greg Bailey / August 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Across the river from St. Louis is a region scarred by its past. The jagged scars of old strip mines tear across the land. Sealed underground mines, long abandoned, from time to time announce their forgotten existence by the collapse of their tunnels, and the breaking of any house or building above on the surface. But there is a deeper scar, nearly a century old, in this once-thriving coal country. In the anti-German hysteria during the Great War, whipped up by a national figure’s Trumpian-like call to root out traitors, a mob in Collinsville, Illinois did just that—lynching a German immigrant named Robert Prager.
More than a century ago, both sides of the metro area had strong German communities. German was the first language of many. School lessons and church services were given in German, and newspapers written in the language. On the Illinois side of the river socialism—another German import—took root in the area’s small towns. One town, called O’Fallon, elected a socialist mayor and four other socialist municipal officers. A weekly socialist newspaper named the Belleville Alarm was widely read.
Then came the “War to End All Wars.” America, which had been neutral even after the sinking of the Lusitania, changed its stance almost overnight in 1917. Germany, and all things German, became the enemy. Streets in St. Louis were renamed; Dachshunds became “liberty hounds”; sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”; children stopped getting the German measles. In the towns of Illinois, German disappeared from the schools, churches and newspaper pages.
James Gerard, a former ambassador newly returned from a diplomatic post in pre-war Germany, would soon write a best-selling book, My Four Years in Germany, based on his experiences in Berlin, which was made into a popular silent film—the first success of the fledgeling Warner Brothers studio. Speaking before the Ladies Aid Society in November, 1917 the ambassador said that “the time has come when every citizen must declare himself American or traitor.” He conceded that most German-Americans were loyal, but said he told the Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, who had warned that 500,000 Germans reservists would rise up in America if it entered the war, that “we had 500,001 lamp posts” and that they would be “hanging the day after they tried to rise.”
The anti-German fever quickly spread, with scattered reports…