Surveillance of German–Americans During World War I and After

The Missouri Council of Defense in Hermann, Missouri
By Andrew Bisto, ABD in Sociology, University of Missouri, a former teaching assistant for Peace Studies 1050

While conducting research for my master’s thesis, I came across several newspaper articles in the Hermann, Mo., Advertiser–Courier regarding the Missouri Council of Defense, which was created as part of the National Council of Defense in 1917. The articles described how the Council of Defense specifically targeted the German–American population.

Mandatory registration of all German–American aliens who had not applied for naturalization was strictly enforced, and those failing to register were subject to imprisonment. German–American women were under strict surveillance through fingerprinting, identification by photographs, as well as being required to keep a registrant card on hand, and they were required to obtain a permit before they could change their residence. The majority of the women who registered through this process were born in the United States.

The degree of this meticulous surveillance in the small town of Hermann, Mo., piqued my interest, and I have since spent some time investigating the files on record at the State Historical Society of Missouri. The degree of nationalism communicated through the correspondence was telling, as anything considered German were deemed un-American or disloyal to the United States during the war.

One of the major campaigns undertaken by the National Council of Defense was an “Americanization” program to address the problem of German language use. This program was established in spring 1918 through the Department of the Interior and was designed to mandate the teaching of English in conjunction with the abolishment of German throughout the schools and churches across the country. Americanization was seen as a war measure. Problems instructing men who did not speak English were constantly emphasized as a hurdle for the war effort, both militarily as well as within the production processes of industry.

The most significant aspect of the Americanization program was the explicit reference to the concept of race during this project, focusing on the construction of a homogenous white race from the various “civilized” races of European origin. The interplay between race and nation has fostered fear and hatred toward certain groups throughout the history of the United States. During periods of war, the nation directly targeted those considered outside or on the fringe of the white race, demanding that suspects prove their allegiance and loyalty. References to the Anglo-Saxon race as compared with other European racial groups marked German–Americans as outside or at least on the fringe of whiteness.

Those unwilling to comply or attend patriotic speeches or donate to the various war programs were monitored, harassed, fined, and even imprisoned. I bring my dissertation research to the attention of the scholarly community at MU and beyond, so that we may reflect upon the impact of the history of social control, ethnicity, and race on our own times.