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Patriotic Murder: A World War I Hate Crime for Uncle Sam

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Robert Prager, a lonely German immigrant searching for the American dream, was probably the most shameful U.S. casualty of World War I. From coast to coast, Americans had been whipped into a patriotic frenzy by a steady diet of government propaganda and hate-mongering. In Collinsville, Illinois, an enraged, drunken mob hung Prager from a tree just after midnight on April 5 Robert Prager, a lonely German immigrant searching for the American dream, was probably the most shameful U.S. casualty of World War I. From coast to coast, Americans had been whipped into a patriotic frenzy by a steady diet of government propaganda and hate-mongering. In Collinsville, Illinois, an enraged, drunken mob hung Prager from a tree just after midnight on April 5, 1918. Coal miners in the St. Louis suburb would show the nation they were doing their patriotic part—that they, too, were fighting the fight. And who would stop them anyway? Not the alderman or businessmen who watched silently. Not the four policemen who let Prager from their custody, without drawing a weapon. And who would hold the mob leaders accountable? Certainly not the jury that took just ten minutes to acquit them, all while a band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the courthouse lobby. Peter Stehman sheds light on the era’s hijacking of civil liberties and a forgotten crime some might say has fallen prey to “patriotic amnesia.” Unfortunately, the lessons from Patriotic Murder on intolerance and hate still resonate today as anti-immigration rhetoric and über-nationalism have resurfaced in American political discussion a century later. 


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Robert Prager, a lonely German immigrant searching for the American dream, was probably the most shameful U.S. casualty of World War I. From coast to coast, Americans had been whipped into a patriotic frenzy by a steady diet of government propaganda and hate-mongering. In Collinsville, Illinois, an enraged, drunken mob hung Prager from a tree just after midnight on April 5 Robert Prager, a lonely German immigrant searching for the American dream, was probably the most shameful U.S. casualty of World War I. From coast to coast, Americans had been whipped into a patriotic frenzy by a steady diet of government propaganda and hate-mongering. In Collinsville, Illinois, an enraged, drunken mob hung Prager from a tree just after midnight on April 5, 1918. Coal miners in the St. Louis suburb would show the nation they were doing their patriotic part—that they, too, were fighting the fight. And who would stop them anyway? Not the alderman or businessmen who watched silently. Not the four policemen who let Prager from their custody, without drawing a weapon. And who would hold the mob leaders accountable? Certainly not the jury that took just ten minutes to acquit them, all while a band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the courthouse lobby. Peter Stehman sheds light on the era’s hijacking of civil liberties and a forgotten crime some might say has fallen prey to “patriotic amnesia.” Unfortunately, the lessons from Patriotic Murder on intolerance and hate still resonate today as anti-immigration rhetoric and über-nationalism have resurfaced in American political discussion a century later. 

18 review for Patriotic Murder: A World War I Hate Crime for Uncle Sam

  1. 4 out of 5

    Heidi The Reader

    A well-researched and shocking account of the only (according to the author) German immigrant lynched on U.S. soil during World War I. This non-fiction work is important for a number of reasons. First, it reminds readers of the time period of the Great War. Very few, unless they were just born, are even alive from that period. We've forgotten the Committee of Public Information, a federal committee created by President Woodrow Wilson, and its purpose to educate but also manipulate the public in su A well-researched and shocking account of the only (according to the author) German immigrant lynched on U.S. soil during World War I. This non-fiction work is important for a number of reasons. First, it reminds readers of the time period of the Great War. Very few, unless they were just born, are even alive from that period. We've forgotten the Committee of Public Information, a federal committee created by President Woodrow Wilson, and its purpose to educate but also manipulate the public in support of an unpopular war. We've forgotten the Liberty Bond drives, a nation-wide push that raised billions of dollars to support the war effort. And we've also forgotten how a nation built largely of immigrants, of which Germans were the largest group at that time, were able to demonize an entire country and population to convince ourselves that the war was not only acceptable but just. After Congress approved war legislation, the task remained of how to convince a splintered nation that entering the conflict was necessary. More than a third of the population was either immigrant or had at least one parent who was. Germans had been the predominant immigrant group for decades, and they had mixed feelings at best about waging war against the Fatherland. pg 17 The propaganda posters, some of which Peter Stehman has included for readers, are chilling. In some, "the hun" is shown as a bloody-thirsty creature, covered in the blood of Americans. Prior to this period, the German immigrant was seen as hard working and industrious. It took image manipulation to make the public believe otherwise. Their patriotic themes promoted such things as buying war bonds, conserving food, or fuel or vilified Germany's leaders or its army. pg 43 Robert Paul Prager was a patriotic German immigrant who wanted to work in the mines of Southern Illinois. The miners union not only rejected him for his lack of experience, but also because of who he was, German. He spoke up against their rejection and posted notices on the mines and saloons all around town. A drunken mob formed, took umbrage to his objection, and killed him. They untied the line and let the body fall three times before jerking the rope to try to break his neck. "One for the red, one for the white, and one for the blue," someone said, proclaiming their patriotic work done for now. pg 9 Scholars talk a big line about remembering the past so we don't repeat it in the future, but sometimes I feel like humanity has learned very little. We are still formed of nations and large tribes, seeking the benefit of our members and creating rules to keep others out. We still create an "us vs. them" mentality, think violence is an acceptable solution to disagreements and occasionally bow to the terrible mindless vengeance of the mob. This book is a timely reminder, and also warning. It is a reminder of the dangers of nationalism and the mob. And, ultimately, the biggest danger of all, of convincing ourselves that others are not people like us, but something else and less valuable and sacred because of that. I interviewed the author, Peter Stehman, for my former job at the Belleville News-Democrat. Here's a link to the article I wrote from that hour and a half long interview, if you're interested: https://www.bnd.com/news/local/articl... The publisher kindly sent me a free copy of Stehman's book. I am not being paid for this review. He was, at least he was then, the president of the Collinsville Historical Museum and this book was a labor of love for him. Stehman was both fascinated and horrified by the fact that this event took place in his home town. For decades, no one wanted to talk about what happened on that April night. It was a matter of embarrassment and shame. But now, that so much time has passed, people are more willing to talk about it and examine its causes as well as its cost. The tree where they hanged Prager is gone, but the memory remains. Do we learn from it or run from it? The choice is ours. I'll end with a quotation by Stehman from his acknowledgments section which comes at the beginning of the book: "Like so much forgotten history, the story of Robert Prager's demise merits telling for the lessons it offers to today's world. Patriotism is a wonderful thing, but propaganda, nationalism, and xenophobia have no place in great societies. Sadly, a reminder of that message is as relevant today as it was in 1918." Sadly, indeed.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Stehman

  3. 4 out of 5

    Karin Schultz

  4. 4 out of 5

    John

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janet Hernandez

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kelle Green

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Gibson

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tara Mallick

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sam

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dawn

  12. 4 out of 5

    Chris Huntley

  13. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jim

  15. 4 out of 5

    Robert Meier

  16. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Anderson

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  18. 5 out of 5

    Erin LeBegue

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