Poisoned fruit of patriotism

Issue: 111

Andy Strouthous

A review of Carl R Weinberg, Labor, Loyalty, Rebellion: Southwestern IllinoisCoal Miners and World War I (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), £20.95

On 15 April 1918 a ‘patriotic’ lynching took place near Collinsville, Illinois. Robert Prager, a 30 year old German immigrant, was accused of spying and sabotage by his own mining comrades. This awful mob action throws a spotlight on issues far broader than a local event in small town America.

For Collinsville miners were part of District 12—one of the most militant areas of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Not only had miners in this area struck in spite of wartime regulations, they also played a major role in the militancy of late 1919. Nor was this class solidarity expressed in purely industrial terms—in 1916, before the US entered the First World War, 22 percent of Collinsville voted for the Socialist Party of America. In the First Ward the vote was over 40 percent. After the war miners’ locals in the area heavily supported the Farmer Labor Party, and Collinsville elected a Labor mayor.

Yet Collinsville and some of its miners were implicated in this anti-German, superpatriotic lynching. How could this act be reconciled with the tradition of solidarity that existed in the area before, during most of and after the war?

Can this event simply be explained by patriotism? Was it really true that the Stars and Stripes became more important than class solidarity? Weinberg discovers a far more complex explanation for an outburst of flag waving that resulted in a lynching. It was true that District 12 miners were militant, but they were also, even before the war, riven by factionalism, nationalism and even conservatism. The Socialist Party organised around different national groups. The influential Germans opposed the war, but the Italian Federation and the Serbians supported the war. True, other socialists opposed the war on clearly principled lines, but then many of the UMWA leaders supported the war on a pro-American basis, claiming it was a war for democracy.

Coal was central to the war effort—it powered electricity, fuelled warships, and made steel. Secretary of labour William B Wilson went as far as to claim that any worker opposing the war was a scab, as a victorious Kaiser would take away the benefits of US citizenship. Many of the top union leaders, including John Walker, president of District 12, to all intents and purposes supported that argument. Any strike in the coalfields was considered by W B Wilson to be scabbing on ‘this great National Union’. By that he meant the US, not the UMWA. In his version of working class Americanism, those who crossed the picket line were loyal, and those who struck were scabs. Weinberg observes that the fact that Wilson talked in this distorted class language demonstrated how deep antipathy to the war was among miners. As the war effort devoured all the coal that could be produced, full employment returned to the mines, but war profiteering saw inflation rise.

In spite of Wilson’s call not to scab on the war effort, in the six months following the declaration of war on 6 April 1917 thousands of miners did just that, striking for cost of living rises. Government policy now encouraged trade unions, but opposed strikes.

The government, and other patriotic organisations, created a close identity between disloyal workers, Germans and those against the war. A strike was an act of sabotage, led by pro-German spies or provocateurs. As conscription began to take effect workers, including miners, were sent to the European front. This created even more tension inside the mining communities, as news of deaths trickled home.

Many local officials in the UMWA began to openly oppose strikes, fine strikers and sell war bonds. Union members were fined for not purchasing bonds. There were even strikes against mine owners who did not fly the Stars and Stripes. The strikers were fined for their trouble. Some miners, even individuals who had been militant in the past, began to settle factional scores by demanding that others showed their loyalty by kissing the flag. Those who refused could find themselves accused of being a spy or saboteur. Rituals of marching those suspected of disloyalty up and down the high street, forced to sing patriotic songs and kiss the flag, were not uncommon. Weinberg finds it remarkable that there were not more lynchings.

However, it is important to note that Weinberg sees this activity as emanating from the top down. It was the government, nationally and locally, the press, plus industrialists and other organisations, that had created the atmosphere in which such hysteria had grown.

The onset of the Russian Revolution and the treaty of Brest Litovsk saw a German offensive push the Allies back. Now Bolsheviks, socialists and anarchists were added to the alleged pro-German enemy within. This resulted in the passing of sedition laws, including bans on free speech. News of deaths at the front, including miners from Collinsville, was now increasingly reported.

For some, a need to develop a distance from their own militant past, or even German origins, began to intensify. It was hardly surprising that the militancy of miners began to diminish. This was the background to the lynching of Robert Prager.

Prager considered himself a patriot. He had been refused entry to the navy on health grounds. He also considered himself a socialist and a loyal union man. Whether the reason was his socialism or his German accent, local officials refused him union membership. His attempt to get a union card led him into direct conflict with these officials. Rumours were circulated that he was pro-German and was planning to blow up the mine to disrupt the war effort. A group of miners visited him at home instructing him to leave Collinsville. Instead he produced leaflets protesting his innocence, confirming his loyalty to flag and union, and denouncing the local union leaders.

This courageous stand led to his lynching by a gang of vigilantes. Over 500 miners worked at the same mine as Prager, but no more than 29 people were at the actual lynching. No women were present; 15 of the 29 had an average age of 19. Only 20 percent of the known lynchers were miners, although more had been involved in the mob scenes in town. Of 16 known occupations only three were miners. The others included two newspaper editors, an auto mechanic, a stockyard worker, a barber, a cobbler, a saloon keeper, a druggist, a horseshoer, a soldier and a garage owner. Thirteen were of German origin! Nonetheless, miners had initiated the events, and Prager was accused of intending to blow up the Maryville mine. However, this was more a community lynching than a working class one.

Eleven men were put on trial, seven of whom were miners. One of the defendants had been accused of pro-Germanism a few weeks earlier due to his support of militant action. None of the accused were found guilty. Some of the press and national union officials denounced the lynching, but not on the grounds of Prager’s innocence. Instead they denounced those who dragged their feet in bringing spies and saboteurs to justice. If saboteurs were dealt with more quickly, such actions would not occur. Those who dared to criticise the lynching were accused of not condemning acts of sabotage.

Weinberg states that the lynchers had brought the war home to Collinsville.

‘In doing so, they provided powerful evidence against the idea that a working class version of patriotism could somehow serve as a vehicle for advancing the interests of working people’ (p152).

Patriotism and wartime legislation were increasingly used to stop the miners from fighting their increasing privation. Even as the war ended the use of anti-strike legislation continued.

The belief that class solidarity and patriotism can be combined is erroneous. This well researched and beautifully crafted story demonstrates that they are opposed. The attempt to be patriotic and loyal to the union at the same time put miners under extreme pressure and had disastrous consequences. The need to prove loyalty collectively to the nation destroyed, albeit temporarily, class solidarity. In giving in to the ideas of patriotism miners made massive sacrifices to those who profited from the war.

As the mine owners made super-profits, influenza, poor wages accompanied by inflation, and news of war deaths continued to oppress the miners.
But as Weinberg argues, if southwestern Illinois miners paid an unexpected and heavy political price for their patriotism and consequent disunity, it also cost their class adversaries dearly (p153). The enforced sacrifices in the war for democracy would lead to a working class upsurge in 1919. Collinsville miners who had taken part in murderous patriotism in April 1918 would once again take part in class solidarity.

The lid could not be kept on the miners’ anger any longer, and on 1 November 1919 a national miners’ strike broke out. Miners from District 12, and in particular those from Collinsville, played a major role in
leading that strike, against the wishes of national officials.