Historic Records Reveal Dark Days in Fort Wayne

By Eric Olson

November 9, 2012 Updated Nov 9, 2012 at 12:17 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Indiana--Deep in the archives of the Fort Wayne History Center is clear evidence of how easily neighbor can turn on neighbor. This is the Fort Wayne Alien Register compiled during World War One…once America declared war on Germany in 1917 all German non-citizens were required to register with the government.

“This was in an era when the government was an intimidating factor, much more than it is now,” says historian Jim Sack, “so these people were scared.”

And there were a lot of them in a predominantly German town like Fort Wayne. 1700 Germans were hauled into the city police station. They were photographed, fingerprinted and a dossier compiled of all their personal information. Even German nuns had to comply. This is the dossier on Sister Bartholomaea, 78 years old, a nurse at St. Joe Hospital who’d been in America for 44 years. And not just German aliens but American born citizens married to Germans had to register and carry photo id’s at all times. Edith Alt was born Edith Brocking in Fort Wayne but married John Alt, a German born immigrant. Edith was photographed, fingerprinted, her movements tracked by the government. Meanwhile a group of super patriots called the ‘Council of Defense’ spied on local Germans, sniffing out so-called unpatriotic activity among local citizens…even wrote letters to local German schools and churches ordering them to stop conducting services and classes in German.

“That’s when German culture, in its outward manifestations of German spoken on the street, German spoken in the churches and German taught in the schools, changed, ended,” says Jim Sack.

There was some resistance, some Germans and non-Germans who stood up to the Council of Defense and their tactics. But most stayed quiet, waited for the war to end and the hysteria to pass.

“The lesson is that this happens all over the world,” says Sack, “and for high flying ideas and high blown ideas like we have in the United States, we still can find ourselves turning toward ignorance and discrimination if we don’t watch out.”

Eric Olson reporting, out in Your Country.

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