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“Get the Rope!” Anti-German Violence in World War I-era Wisconsin

In the early 20th century, German Americans were the nation’s largest immigrant group. Although they were regarded as a model of successful assimilation, they faced vicious—and sometimes violent—attacks on their loyalty when the United States went to war against Germany in 1917. The most notorious incident was the lynching of German-born Robert Prager in Colinsville, Illinois, in April 1918. Other incidents stopped just short of murder. In a statement made on October 22, 1918, John Deml, a farmer in Outagamie County, a heavily German and Scandinavian area of Wisconsin, described the nativist mob that had visited him two days earlier. Suspected of not strongly enough supporting the war effort, he was narrowly saved from lynching.

A Statement made by John Deml of Outagamie County, Wisconsin, at Madison, Wisconsin, Tuesday, October 22, 1918.

About half-past twelve (continuing for more than an hour) Sunday morning October 20th, my wife awaked me, saying, that there were a large number of men on the front porch, pounding and rapping on the door, besides talking in a loud tone of voice. I was upstairs; then I came downstairs and went to the front door, where they were, and I asked them, who was there! Several answered at once, “The Council of Defense.” I then asked them, “What do you want?” and they replied, “We want you to sign up.” I replied, “I have done my share.”And they asked me when, and I replied, “I did my share in the spring.”(That is, I meant to say I had done my share in the third loan, when I subscribed for $450 in bonds.) To make it plain, on the 28th of September, at the opening of the fourth drive, I was notified by letter that my bond assessment would be $800. When Henry Baumann came to see me, I told him I could not possibly take $500 now but would take some, meaning a substantial amount, that is all I could afford; and he replied, “My orders are you must take $500 or nothing.”

After I had replied that I had done my share in the spring, they demanded that I open the door and let them in. I told them I didn’t have to open the door; then they undertook to force the door open, and went so far as to tear the screen door open; then they threatened to break down the door, and I said, “Come on then, boys.” Then they appeared to be planning, and while they were doing that, I took the time to put my shoes on. By that time they were at the kitchen door, and they made a demand that I let them in through that door; then I went to the kitchen door and opened it and found a crowd of men (much larger than I expected) around the door, and then reaching out two by two around towards the front of the house. I left the door and walked to the front porch to see if they had done any painting (as they had previously painted a neighbor’s mail-box); I walked to the road to see if they had painted my mail-box. And then I turned around to return to the house when they all at one time closed in on me like a vise; some grabbing my fingers or wrist, others my legs, and several of them were shouting, holding a paper before me, “Sign up.” I said, “I will not sign up at this time of night.” Then a man shouted, “Get the rope!” The first I knew was when the rope was about my neck and around my body under my arms. Someone then gave a sharp jerk at the rope and forced me to my knees and hands; at the same time some of them jumped on my back, and while bent over someone struck me in the face, making me bleed; then a man (whom I recognized) said, “Boys, you are going to far”; and then, as they got me away from them a little, I heard a man say, “You can’t scare him.” I answered,“I am not afraid of the entire city of Appleton.” Then a man (whom I knew) got me to one side, and he said, “Let’s go into the house and talk between ourselves.” Then two men (whom I knew) went with me into the house, and we sat or stood around the table, and they still demanded that I sign up. I said, “I will not sign up for any man after being abused like this.” Then a man (whom I knew) told me I would have to go with them, or, if I didn’t go with them, would have to come to town that Sunday morning at 10 o’clock to see Mr. Keller. I told them that I would be there; they left; as they left, I noticed, and so did my family and neighbors, that they rode away in seven automobiles. I did not go to see Mr. Keller. Signed, JOHN DEML.

Source: “Prussianizing Wisconsin,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 11, January 1919, No.1 pp. 101–102.

See Also:"Nobody Would Eat Kraut": Lola Gamble Clyde on Anti-German Sentiment in Idaho During World War I
"We Had to Be So Careful"A German Farmer's Recollections of Anti-German Sentiment in World War I