|Over Here: World War I on the Home Front
|Digital History ID 3478|
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. Furthermore, millions of Irish Americans sided with the Central Powers because they hated the English.
Because of this perceived conflict of loyalties, the Wilson administration was convinced that it had to mobilize public opinion in support of the war. To influence public opinion, the federal government embarked on its first ever domestic propaganda campaign. Wilson chose muckraking journalist George Creel to head the government agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI placed pro-war advertisements in magazines and distributed 75 million copies of pamphlets defending America's role in the war. Creel also launched a massive advertising campaign for war bonds and sent some 75,000 "Four-Minute Men" to whip up enthusiasm for the war by rallying audiences in theaters. The CPI also encouraged filmmakers to produce movies, like The Kaiser: the Beast of Berlin, that played up alleged German atrocities. For the first time, the federal government had demonstrated the power of propaganda.
German American and Irish American communities had come out strongly in favor of neutrality. The groups condemned massive loans and arms sales to the allies as they saw the acts as violations of neutrality. Theodore Roosevelt raised the issue of whether these communities were loyal to their mother country or to the United States:
Those hyphenated Americans who terrorize American politicians by threats of the foreign vote are engaged in treason to the American Republic.
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.
A St. Louis newspaper campaigned to "wipe out everything German in this city," even though St. Louis had a large German American population. Luxembourg, Missouri became Lemay; Berlin Avenue was renamed Pershing; Bismark Street became Fourth Street; Kaiser Street was changed to Gresham.
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. Before the lynching, he was allowed to write a last note to his parents in Dresden, Germany:
Dear Parents: I must on this, the 4th day of April, 1918, die. Please pray for me, my dear parents.
In the trial that followed, the defendants wore red, white, and blue ribbons, while a band in the court house played patriotic songs. It took the jury 25 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. The German government lodged a protest and offered to pay Prager's funeral expenses.
Copyright 2021 Digital History