“I, Joseph Berger hereby register as an alien enemy at Police District No. 9, San Francisco California and make the following statements and answers under oath.” Thus begins the detailed four-page affidavit containing Berger’s immigration status, employment history, family, background, photograph, and fingerprints that he submitted to the neutrality squad of the San Francisco Police on February 4, 1918. For nearly two weeks that February, police departments across the nation were inundated with German nationals who, like Berger, had done nothing to bring suspicion upon themselves other than failing to secure citizenship in their new home. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the German-American community came under instant suspicion, and in November, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation requiring all male German nationals residing in the United States to formalize the government’s suspicions by registering. Although initially exempt, their wives and daughters would be forced to register in June 1918. Presumed disloyal and potentially dangerous simply by virtue of their citizenship, these men and women were forced to swear under oath that they were “alien enemies” and provide detailed information to facilitate surveillance of their activities.
Housed in libraries, community archives, and genealogy websites these forms have been largely untapped in the historiography of the German-American experience during the First World War, which focuses primarily on outbreaks of mass-hysteria or the increase of vigilante surveillance practiced by groups like the American Protective League. It can be challenging to read meaning into forms that required primarily factual answers and left little room for protest, but these registration affidavits are valuable sources. Documenting an encounter between Germans living in the United States and the federal government, the forms are both a record of the government’s attempt to formalize presumed disloyalty and snapshots of a traumatic experience that reveal the slippage between the government’s assumptions and the way these people regarded themselves. Though a century has passed, the struggles over definitions of loyalty and belonging inscribed in their old-fashioned cursive evoke current headlines, powerfully reminding us of the enduring presence of these debates. Several examples drawn from my work on the registration affidavits submitted by San Francisco’s German-American community suggest the ways in which these forms and accompanying police correspondence can provide insights into this encounter between bureaucratic power and individuals.
In August 1918, Leonhard Bauer was accosted and arrested for failing to register. The documentation of his arrest and the affidavit he was forced to submit highlight the absurdity of trying to pinpoint loyalty and identity based on citizenship and the stakes involved for those who registered. Leonhard and his brother George did not register in February because they had been born in England where they lived until 1913 when their family immigrated to the United States. According to a police report, Leonhard argued that “he had never at any time resided in Germany, and considered himself an English subject.” Aside from the question of loyalty and national identity that made registering anathema for Leonhard and George, there were practical reasons motivating their avoidance as well. Although it was possible to apply for a permit to enter forbidden areas, many alien enemies lost their jobs because, as the San Francisco Chronicle explained on February 10, 1918, “under no circumstances are enemy aliens to be permitted near warehouses and docks.” Leonhard, who was employed at the Crowley Steam Launch Company on the waterfront, discovered this for himself when a Coast Guard officer grew suspicious and arrested him for failing to register and being found within a protected area. He avoided internment, but the U.S. Marshal registered him and forbade him from returning to his job. George avoided arrest by voluntarily going to the Department of Justice office in San Francisco to inquire whether it would be necessary for him to register. As the policy stated that children of German immigrants were to be considered German aliens regardless of the location of their birth unless their parents had naturalized in the United States, the U.S. Marshal registered George as well. George worked at the Globe Grain and Milling Company, which was near the waterfront as well, and it is likely that he and Leonhard had avoided registration deliberately rather than out of ignorance. Their sister, Eva, who had also been born in England and lived with them and their parents had registered in June during the prescribed registration period.
Like the Bauer brothers, women like Neida Huling Adler balked at the assumption that their citizenship reflected their loyalty or national identity. Under the 1907 Expatriation Act, women who married foreign nationals lost their American citizenship. American-born women affected by this law vehemently protested their registration and used the forms to make statements about their identity. Born in Virginia City, Nevada, Neida Adler wrote “Born U.S.” in large letters where information about immigration dates was requested. Under the question about which languages she spoke, she simply wrote “American.” Subtle statements of identification as an American like these show up repeatedly on American-born women’s forms, along with emphasis on their parents’ citizenship or on relatives who were fighting for the United States.
Registration could have economic consequences for those employed in protected areas and it frequently contradicted the identity of the registrants. Beyond the ideological issue of loyalty and national identity, it also carried strong connotations of criminality and subjected the registrants to police surveillance of their every move. The sense that they were being booked as criminals came most forcefully through the photographs and fingerprints submitted on the final pages of the affidavit. Most registrants were able to provide their own photographs, controlling the image they presented as they thronged the photography studios of San Francisco. The photographs taken by the police of German residents at the city’s Relief Home for Aged and Infirm, like John Jonkosky, stand out from the rest. In these photographs, the subjects often look dejected or angry. Most significantly, the police placed numbered placards on each person’s chest, probably to assist in matching photographs with the correct paperwork. While most of the photographs in the registration files look like portraits, these images are a stark reminder that in effect they were really mug shots, documenting suspects and preserving their image in case of future investigations.
Unlike their photographs, over which most registrants had a degree of control, no one could avoid the indignity of being fingerprinted, and the association of fingerprinting with criminal procedures was clear. Newspapers published articles about the new techniques of fingerprinting and its use in identifying German alien enemies. For the registrants, the full page of fingerprints they had to provide was surely tangible confirmation that they were suspects and registration was not a mere formality. Taking finger prints made such an impression during the first round of registration in February that the expanded instructions on the top of the forms used to register “alien females” in June included a caveat explaining that “The finger printing is a method of identification and the taking of the finger prints is not to be deemed an imputation that the registrant is not a law-abiding person.”
One hundred years later, the snippets of thousands of lives dutifully inscribed on alien enemy registration affidavits in police stations across the nation continue to speak eloquently. Collectively, these forms offer demographic information about entire communities of German immigrants, offering insight into immigration, occupation, housing, and family trends. As the examples presented here suggest, they also offer insights into the way individuals push back against the rigid boundaries of bureaucratic formalities and address questions of identity and power that remain all too relevant in today’s America.
Jillaine Cook received her bachelor’s degree in History from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. She joined the History PhD program at USC in 2016. Her interests include questions of immigration, citizenship, and empire in late 19th-early 20th century America and the Pacific.