German-Americans and World War I: A cautionary tale

Dec 26, 2018 by

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My great uncle, Henry A. Reimer, was nearly lynched during World War I.

He was a German-speaking immigrant from Russia living in Collinsville, Okla., and had been arrested and jailed on suspicions he was pro-Germany in the war.

On the night of April 19, 1918, a mob of some 50 men stormed the jail, overpowering the assistant chief and two patrolmen. What then happened was reported the following day by the New York Times: “Dragging the prisoner to the second floor of the City Hall, into the Home Guard Armory, the men stood him on a chair, wrapped a doubled electric light cord twice around his neck, attached the other end to the supports of a basketball goal and commanded him to kiss every star in the flag,” which he reportedly did while apologizing “for whatever disloyal statement he may have made.”

Fortunately, after the chair on which he was standing was kicked from under him and “the body swung twice past the goal post,” the mob was persuaded to let him down and “give the man a chance” to receive a “real hearing.” A federal investigation followed, leading in the end to his exoneration.

Only two months after the near-lynching, Henry’s son, who had been drafted, was court martialed in a military camp for disobeying orders that violated his religious convictions. He was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with a sentence of 25 years. A nephew was likewise court martialed and sent to Leavenworth.

A few months still later, two younger brothers of Henry A. Reimer became eligible for the draft, as it was extended to the age of 45.

Considering all that the family had experienced in the preceding months, a few days before the national registration day of Sept. 12, 1918, they uprooted their Oklahoma families and fled to the distant, frontier town of Vanderhoof in the geographical center of British Columbia.

One of those brothers was my paternal grandfather. My father turned 8 on that national registration day of 1918, but by then he, together with his parents and five siblings, along with my grandfather’s brother and family, had experienced the adventure of a long train journey from Oklahoma to Winnipeg, Man., and then across western Canada to Vanderhoof.

This story, as I now have retold it in the larger context of the anti-German environment of World War I, appears in the fall issue of The Chronicles of Oklahoma, the journal of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The article, “German-American Immigrants Encounter World War I: A Cautionary Tale,” appears on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November. It remains a cautionary tale predating the experience of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Muslim and other immigrants in our time.

Dalton Reimer is professor emeritus and co-founder of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University. He is author of Story-Formed Pathways to Peace, available at daltonreimer.com.


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