What Anti-Immigrant Hysteria Looked Like 100 Years Ago [24 PHOTOS]

Published October 7, 2017
Updated February 26, 2024

Has "America First" violence changed all that much over the last century?

Danger To Pro Germans
Deported Germans Lining Up
John Meintz Tar And Feather
John Meintz Back Feathers
What Anti-Immigrant Hysteria Looked Like 100 Years Ago [24 PHOTOS]
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As World War I spread across Europe, the people of the United States started to worry. They were afraid of the massive German-led threat growing on the other side of the world. And with no way to lash out against it, a lot of them just took their fear out on the German-Americans who lived right next door.

It's not a part of history that Americans like to talk about, but the country was completely changed by the fear and paranoia that swept from coast to coast during the so-called Great War.

Before the war broke out, however, German was the second most widely spoken language in America. There were more than 100 million first and second-generation German-Americans living in the United States, with many of them involved in the thousands of German organizations across the country. They spoke German in their churches and sent their children to German-language schools.

And their neighbors embraced them. In 1915, 25 percent of all American high school students were happily studying the German language. They accepted their neighbors — until the war began and Germany was the enemy of the Allies abroad. And, soon, even the American government was calling on its people to reject their German-American neighbors.

German-Americans, President Woodrow Wilson declared, were to be treated as "alien-enemies." If they wanted to be accepted in American society, they would have to throw their German identity away.

"Any man who carries a hyphen about with him," the president told the nation, "carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready."

This change in public opinion was terrifying. People didn't even want to mention Germany anymore. Restaurants started selling hamburgers as "liberty sandwiches" and sauerkraut as "liberty cabbage." Thousands lost their jobs and countless more stopped speaking German. One group even demanded that every American school stop teaching the language, declaring that German was "not a fit language to teach clean and pure American boys and girls."

Worse yet, violence broke out — violence egged on by the government. The American ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, told the public that, if any German-American didn't support the war movement, "there is only one thing to do with them. And that is to hog-tie them, give them back the wooden shoes and the rags they landed in, and ship them back to the Fatherland."

People took his advice. A mob in Minnesota, for example, tarred and feathered a German-American man named John Meints in August 1918 on the grounds that he hadn't bought war bonds. And another mob in Illinois attacked a man named Robert Prager in April 1918 because they were convinced that he was a German spy — and took things much further.

The mob stripped Robert Prager naked, tied a rope around his neck, and paraded down the main street of Collinsville, Illinois. As Prager walked, they smashed beer bottles before his bare feet and forced him to sing as he walked on shards of broken glass.

Prager begged for his life, insisting he was a proud American — but they killed him anyway. The mob hung him three times. "Once for the red," they chanted, "once for the white," and "once for the blue."

A court tried to convict the mob for Prager's murder, but all were acquitted and the town felt no pity. "The city does not miss him," the Collinsville newspaper wrote after Prager's death. "The lesson of his death has had a wholesome effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation."

While some German-Americans were attacked, thousands more were sent to internment camps. President Wilson barred all German-Americans from living near military facilities, airports, port towns, or the capitol. He forced every German-American to get fingerprinted and registered and sent them into camps across the country, locked in like prisoners of war.

Even when the fighting ended in late 1918, many weren't sent free. Some camps were still full of people until 1920.

The impact was tremendous. By the end of the war, less than one percent of American high schools still taught the German language. Countless people had stopped speaking their native language, with many changing their names to keep from standing out as German-Americans.

A unique hybrid culture was almost entirely stamped out — purely out of fear of a threat that was thousands of miles away.

Next, see what life was like inside the Japanese internment camps of World War II. Then, see some of the most powerful World War I photos ever taken.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.