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The Alien Enemies Act of 1917
A disturbing chapter in the history of Allen County nearly wiped out the city’s rich German heritage
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
Spies in churches, demands for membership lists, subversive books pulled from library shelves, businesses harassed, mobs attacking strangers, ID required to walk across town, intimidation and coercion, that was Fort Wayne.
One hundred years ago, as World War One entered its second ghastly year, Fort Wayne was on edge. At the time, America was not in the war, but President Woodrow Wilson was leaning hard toward joining on the side of the British and French. Fort Wayne was majority German, first and second generations who had come here from Bavaria, East Prussia, Hannover and Alsace. For most local German-Americans it was an uncomfortable situation, for many their brothers and cousins were fighting for Germany on the Western Front. In homes in the city it was not so unusual to find a map on a wall of the battle zones with pins that would mark the progress of Bavarian, Hessian or Prussian units in Flanders or the Masurian Lakes. Photos from the era show children dressed in pretend German uniforms.
But those same Germans were proudly American. They had come here to get away from the wars that had scorched their homeland for the previous three hundred years, and they had come here for freedom and economic prosperity. Until unification in 1871, Germania was the doormat of European Powers, the intersection of great powers where wars were fought.
Fort Wayners had come from all of those states, often as refugees, many to Fort Wayne, thanks to the legacy of Henry Rudisill who had advertised for “hard-working,” low-wage Germans to come to this wilderness dorf. The Germans had come to Fort Wayne in such large numbers and so constantly that the earlier settlers, the English, harbored resentment. Beer and the ubiquitous German clubs were the point of conflict.
By 1916, Fort Wayne was thoroughly German in diet, language, religion, education and social norms — by some counts two-thirds of the population was first or second generation German. Fort Wayne was crowded with German organizations, foremost among them the various singing societies, business associations, and war veteran clubs that celebrated Sedan Day every year with events highlighted by bands, singing, and expansive stories of bravery stemming from that Franco-Prussian War victory. And, of course, there was Turnverein Vorwärts, now called the Turners’ Club, an erstwhile bastion of revolutionary thinking that still thrives in Fort Wayne just south of the Coliseum, albeit a bit less revolutionary.
Fort Wayne was also crowded with German churches. There was the mother ship, St. Paul’s on Barr Street, where the German Synod in America was constituted. Its daughters included Emmaus at Creighton and Broadway and Emmanuel on Jefferson. There were German Methodists, Anabaptists, Dunkards, Catholics in the soaring Marienkirche, and German Jews at the temple. Nearly all held services in German. The “English” in Trinity English Lutheran suggests how unusual it was.
The center for German recreation was the expansive Germania Park along the St. Joe River. On Sunday afternoons, when the more pious Fort Wayne Anglos were still in church, the Germans were drinking beer, listening to brass band music and singing. The leading Germans were all there, the Berghoffs, the Moellerings, and Bueschings, Trier, Eckrich, Foellinger, Hagerman, and Coony Bayer passing out his prize winning cigars made in that factory still standing on Edgewater. Colonel David Foster was a regular; he was one of the founders of the landmark German-American Bank on Berry Street. He had business to conduct, as did Theodore Theime, whose knitting mills on West Main employed a couple thousand young German men and women turning out the newly industrialized product of the day, socks. German preachers were there, school teachers and baby-kissing politicians. Fort Wayne was, as a Chicago newspaper wrote, “That Most German Town.”
But the city was on edge in 1915-16. The German blitz on France had stalled. Millions of young men has already died on the Somme and in trenches that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps. Entire villages in Germany, England and France were bled dry of young men between 18 and 36. Millions more were on crutches, had lost faces or would never leave a hospital again. Shell shock was the precursor of PTSD and the machine gun the grim reaper. And there was no end in sight to the war.
Germany was also losing the PR war. Not only had they done vile things during the attack on France, such as the shelling of Reims Cathedral, but they also had committed a blunder of the greatest proportion by promising Mexico return of the Southwest US if Mexico would take up arms against the US. That, combined with unrestricted submarine warfare and English control of the transatlantic cable, meant the Kaiser was reviled.
Never mind that the English blockade of German ports caused widespread starvation, and that Germany had warned the
US that British waters were a war zone — control of the transatlantic cable, the only way for Americans to get news from
the war, was censored by the English to the benefit of London. Germany was losing the PR battle and German-Americans in Fort Wayne felt it.
Fort Wayne at the time was an industrial giant, a railroading mecca with our large carriage and engine factories and our massive roundhouse that sat where the post office now operates. Railroading was the pinnacle of industrialization in those years. Hundreds of young German craftsmen were drawn to the work there, and at the GE, in the wire plants, at Bowser Pump, and the many foundries. They worked, too, at the Rolling Mills on Taylor and in tool and die shops doting the city. It was said that to work in a retail shop required a clerk first fluent in German. Rurode Dry Goods was king of
local retail, but young German-American Samuel Wolf was well along in building Wolf and Dessauer into the premier local retailer.
Anxious 1916 was an election year and the war was an issue. Incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned on the slogan, “He kept us out of War,” needed the massive German vote to win re-election. At the time, most Fort Wayne German-Americans were solidly Democrat and inclined to vote Wilson back in office, but through their papers — such as the Fort Wayne Freie-Presse Staat-Zeitung published by Hermann Mackwitz and Anselm Fuelber — they demanded a promise to keep the US out of that European War. Wilson was not convincing. Indiana, Fort Wayne, and the German upper Midwest went for Republican Charles Evans Hughes who lost the White House narrowly in November.
Four months into his second term, Wilson broke his promise and asked Congress for a declaration of war against Berlin. War was declared on April 6, 1917, and Fort Wayne German-Americans felt betrayed; certainly their lives would never, ever be the same, nor would Fort Wayne.
The crack down on German-Americans began almost immediately. The local point of the spear was the Council of Defense, a quasi-governmental organization that had earlier been included in an authorization by Congress to mobilize the home front in the case of war. Locally, the Allen County chapter had been active in encouraging self-reliance through gardening and materials conservation, such as fuel rationing. After the US entered war they took on tasks that ranged from raising money for war bonds to the identification and registration of “alien enemies.” They approached both tasks with verve and a certain authoritarian gusto.
The Alien Enemies Act of 1917 required any German-American who was not a citizen to register with local police. Notice was printed in the local papers and many people complied, if only reluctantly. The naturalization process was very simple in those days: sign a paper at the port of entry to the US indicating citizenship intentions and then after five years take the second step at one’s county court house. No tests, not $1,000 application fee, nothing except two signatures and an oath. Thousands had forgotten to take the second step and were technically still German citizens in 1917. One old geezer faced with arrest noted that he had been in Fort Wayne since the 1850s, had voted in every election since then and owned a large farm, thus attesting to his loyalty and Americaness. He ended up in prison for talking back to the Council of Defense.
You might think of the Council of Defense as bullying super patriots led by a German-American who was intent on proving his own patriotism and advancing his career — Charles Niezer. Himself a German-American, Niezer focused on wiping out all vestiges of German culture in Allen County.
Niezer and company encouraged spies who would sit in church pews of the many local German congregations and take notes; sometimes they would interrupt a pastor who might use German phrases or words in a sermon. Niezer sent out an edict demanding that no German be spoken in schools, churches, hospitals or businesses. Some pastors reminded Niezer that elderly congregants knew only German and suffered psychologically when they couldn’t hear sermons, the word of the Lord, in their native language which had only months before been welcome and beloved. The Council stood
The Council demanded lists of all young men from the scores of local German churches from Concordia to Zion as necessary to ferret out on potential saboteurs, to make sure there were no draft dodgers, but equally to control local Germans through coercion.
Schools were forbidden to use German in instruction, which all of the Catholic and Lutheran schools had for most of a century. German was frowned upon as a second language despite the intercession of the leader of St. Mary’s Catholic’s Monsenior Johann Oechtering, a polyglot of national renown, that America would need more linguists as she assumed leadership on the world stage. Niezer’s Council of Defense brushed his comments aside.
The Council instructed the head of the public library, Margaret Collerick, to remove German books from the shelves and not to buy any further. She did.
Citizens were encouraged to keep an eye on their German neighbors should one plant a bomb or waste gas. A small mob surrounded a scared deliveryman for the German-American company. They charged he was covertly adding the Kaiser by idling his truck during deliveries. Police were called to ease tensions. Around Indiana men had been killed for about as little.
A pass system was set up in Fort Wayne that required anyone crossing from one sector to another to show a pass. It turned into a mess of lines and delays, of men who couldn’t get to work on time because of the many hitches. A German name meant extra scrutiny.
Over time the pressure led to the Americanization of names: Schmidt became Smith, Braun became Brown and sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage. All things German were shunned or bullied to change.
As is often the case, things got more than a bit absurd. Weddings were pushed to substitute German elements with those more appropriately American. “Turkey-in-the-Straw” was reported to have replaced Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at one ceremony.
The bullies also turned violent. The Council of Defense had taken the lead in raising money for the various war efforts. WWI, if you didn’t know, was greatly financed by citizen contributions through bonds and fund drives. The Council sent out teams to knock on doors and demand donations with the German-Americans as easy targets. In Washington Township they ran into a farmer who said he was tapped out, they pushed him harder, he said he didn’t have the money,
had already taken a mortgage to make previous contributions. The Council men pushed harder and the farmer exploded. He pushed them out of his house and uttered a few choice words while they drove off in a cloud of dust. A few days later he received a summons to appear before the Council of Defense self-proclaimed court to defend his actions.
The same happened in Lafayette Township where two women cursed the solicitors and were later summoned before a real court on charges that bordered on treason. They were exonerated, as was the Washington Township farmer, but intimidation worked and was applied many times over, especially against German-Americans, by the Council of Defense.
It was so pervasive that it became a topic of ridicule. All three local newspapers printed cartoons that lampooned the Council, Niezer, and solicitors.
Meanwhile the registration continued in fits and starts. First, it was noted with prolonged snickers that the official responsible for registration, the Allen County sheriff, was himself an alien — he also hadn’t bothered to take that second step. His government cronies rushed his second papers through, but that courtesy was denied the thousand Germans who sought the same consideration.
When registration was first decreed about a third of “alien enemies” showed up. A second and third call, each a bit more aggressive, resulted in some 1,500 people registering, mostly working class men, nuns from St. Joe Hospital, and elderly
Then, the decreed was amended to require wives of enemy aliens to also register, whether they were born in Wittenburg or Lutheran Hospital. Indignation grew. Teens came to register beside octogenarians. Dossier pictures show a range of moods from proud to anxious to sullen. Still, fully a third of “enemy aliens” never made it to the police station to complete the four-page form, to provide the photos and leave their finger prints behind. Ironically, the humiliating process left a superb record of where our German forefathers and mothers came from, their occupations, addresses, family connections and faces photographed mostly by “enemy alien” Felix Schanz, a resident of Fort Wayne for 30 years, and the city’s pre-eminent photographer. The photos are a superb look at Fort Wayne in 1917.
As the war continued the repression stepped up to the point where Freie-Presse men Mackwitz and Fuelber mounted a defense for local Germans caught in Niezer’s super-patriotism. Fuelber not only protected scores of individuals from Council harassment, but also pointed out with effect that Niezer’s court had no standing, was simply a tool of
Politically, in1916, most Germans in Allen County were staunch Democrats. It was the party that helped immigrants with a hand up, jobs, and connections into the general community. In 1916, another Niezer, Maurice, declared his candidacy for mayor. Democrats had held that office and council for most of a generation, but Maurice Niezer was soundly defeated by a novice Republican. Shock of shocks. The Germans slowly began migrating away from Wilson’s pro-war party to the Republican Party.
By the end of the war in 1918, over 100 young Allen Countians had died in uniform, among the first was Carl Winkelmeyer, killed in France. The most renowned Great War hero from Allen County was Paul Baer, after whom our airport was long named. It was obvious the local Germans had rallied to American colors.
What had started as an effort by the government to rally the homeland to the war effort became an assault led by Anglos on German culture from language to beer.
It was not long after Armistice that Prohibition was voted in. It was widely believed to be the moralist wing of the Republican Party’s effort to curb German clubs, German beer gardens and their lack of attendance at church on Sunday. Drunkeness certainly was an issue, still is, but the target was German culture, as was the effort to ban German books, German language, in short, all things German. It was tremendously successful to the point where German church services all but disappeared, the Freie-Presse Staat-Zeitung folded in 1927, the various German clubs either closed or went intra-mural, and German in schools became a rare second language; Fort Wayne’s street language quickly went from a mix of German and English to exclusively English.
One-hundred years later Allen County is still predominantly Germanic and celebrates her strong German heritage with a festival, through four German clubs, and with a sister city relationship. Every now and then someone will say their grandmother spoke German at home, or bring papers for translation that are in the old script, or bring up the name of Henry Hilbrecht who was a member of the “Germans” who morphed into the Fort Wayne Fire Department where he served 35 years as chief. Then there is the name of Henry Rudisill who more than anyone made Fort Wayne a German colony, and Theodore Thieme who brought thousands of young Germans here in the 1880s, or sport figures from Wambsganns to Doerfler, and politicians from Baals to Tom Henry, and business leaders from Berghoff to Latz. Nearly everywhere you turn in Allen County you will see the blue-eyed ghosts of German settlers who gave us our city. And, when someone sneezes the response, “gesundheit,” reminds us of how recently we were that Most German City.