WWI altered the German accent of Allen County

A boy and his dog
A boy and his dog
A third-generation Fort Wayne German immigrant boy poses with the family dog. The name of the family is Kreuper.
By Cynthia Moothart O'Bannon of The News-Sentinel

For people in Fort Wayne, World War I was fought on two fronts: against Kaiser Germany in Europe and against themselves at home.

Between 60 and 70 percent of Allen County's population was of German descent during the war years of 1914 to 1919. But even strength in numbers couldn't protect them from the effects of wartime propaganda and pressures of Anglo-cultural conformity.

Before the war, German was the primary language in the homes, churches and parochial schools of these German-American settlers. Many street signs were in German. (Main Street, for instance, was Haupt Strasse.) A large portion of local industry and commercial enterprises had at its roots German tooling and emigres. (An entire German town was moved to Fort Wayne when Wayne Knitting Mills opened.) Mayors, judges, firefighters and other community leaders had strong German ties. Social and sporting clubs and Germania Park in St. Joseph Township provided outlets to engage in traditional German activities.

The cultural influences were so strong, in fact, that the Chicago Tribune in 1893 declared Fort Wayne a "most German town."

But all that changed, particularly after 1917 when the United States fully entered World War I.

"Patriotism, bigotry with a few zealots thrown in really changed the face of Fort Wayne," said Bill Decker, a historian and former director of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. "It went from being German to not being German. It was probably the greatest single cultural change the city went through."

Pressures to assimilate into Anglo culture had always been a reality for the newly immigrated and their descendants who sought to retain a portion of their heritage. But the war invigorated these efforts, and laws added teeth to ensure their success.

"Ethnic identity, expressed by language and the religious and cultural values it manifested, was of the very fabric of Fort Wayne-Allen County life," wrote Clifford Scott in a 1997 article in Old Fort News, published by the Historical Society. "And it was that ethnic identity which led to the cultural and civic trauma experienced by local German-Americans in World War I."

Within two weeks of the United States' entry into the war, the U.S. Department of Justice required German alien men to register at the local federal court if they hoped to retain freedom of movement. Substantial numbers of first-generation immigrants failed to complete the naturalization process, requiring that they file two applications with the federal government.

The first papers, or Declaration of Intent, required foreign-born men to register a disavowal of allegiance to their previous government. Once done, Indiana bestowed rights of citizenship, including the ability to vote. After a two-year probationary period, they then had to file second papers, or a Declaration of Naturalization, and be sworn in.

Whether a majority of immigrants didn't know of or simply overlooked the second step in the process isn't clear. But in May 1917 the Department of Justice required those who had failed to file second papers to register as aliens if they worked in or near or needed to pass by the Penn Central railroad tracks, the post office or industry tied to the war effort. Failure to do so could result in arrest, if not prison.

It appears no one was ever arrested, Scott wrote, but the person charged with carrying out this order was the Allen County Sheriff, a Scotch immigrant of 1882 who reportedly never filed his second papers.

In a related move, all German aliens had to turn in guns, aircraft, wireless codes and foreign flags to local police.

"It is doubtful if any potential saboteurs were quelled by the measure, but certainly a number of families were angered by the assumption of enemy status and the implicit attack on those people and symbols most German," Scott wrote.

Near the end of 1917, all German alien men were required by the U.S. attorney general to register at police headquarters, where they filled out a four-page form, supplied four photographs and were fingerprinted. In May 1918, alien women were added to the registration requirements.

Cultural pressures didn't stop there. Local churches were forced to discontinue sermons in German, schools were pressured to stop teaching in German, and the local library director was ordered to purchase no more books written in German. The library shelves also were purged of English-language materials deemed sympathetic to or neutral on Germany. Anti-German sentiment forced the renaming of several local institutions. Teutonia Building, Loan & Savings became Home Loan & Savings, and The German-American bank became Lincoln National Bank & Trust Co.

And in perhaps the most obvious bend to prevailing trends, Berghoff Brewery changed its motto from "A very German brew" to "A very good brew," according to "Fort Wayne: A Most German Town," a documentary produced by local public television station WFWA, Channel 39.

"(Use of their) language was already under fire," Scott said in an interview. "It was (considered) an unassimilated group that needed to accommodate more closely with American culture. Sermons in three prominent (Anglo) churches said that these folks needed to shape up or they would be put in prison."

To prove their allegiance to the United States, German Americans also were pressured -- often more intensely than their Anglo neighbors -- into buying bonds to finance the war. Nationwide, $22 billion of the $33 billion war was raised through these bond drives.

The News-Sentinel and Journal Gazette published lists of people and their contributions. Banks offered second mortgages so cash-strapped farmers could contribute. And bond drive posters further fueled anti-German sentiment with statements such as "Beat back the HUN with LIBERTY BONDS" and another showing George Washington and the Kaiser that read "The father of our country. Keep this from being the stepfather."

"You had to prove yourself -- prove how American you were by contributing larger amounts," Scott said. "The vast majority of German Americans worked hard, bought savings bonds. And all of a sudden you're being called unpatriotic and 'alien enemies.' "

Allen County German Americans volunteered for service at the same rate as their Anglo neighbors, and the first casualty from the area was a German American named Carl Winkelmeyer. But those facts didn't lessen anti-German sentiment.

"Most of the Germans were loyal to the United States, and they were proud to be here and make something of their lives. When we went to war, there were some who supported the fatherland, but most were loyal. The Germans were still looked on as being suspect and not trustworthy," said Judge Ken Scheibenberger, a founder of the local German Heritage Society.

And that distrust led to the cultural imperialism that destroyed Fort Wayne's most pronounced ethnic traditions, said Jim Sack, founder of Germanfest.

"What happened to the German Americans is the story of immigration in Fort Wayne," Sack said. "It's a story of oppression. And nearly every ethnic group that came to Fort Wayne felt the sting of intolerance."

The difference, said Sack, was the German immigrants' numbers. "The Germans fought their way into the system, overwhelmed the system by their numbers, but there was a lingering resentment. A lot of people took the opportunity to vent old grievances and take a shot at their neighbors. It gave people who wanted, an opportunity to oppress others."

Fort Wayne's rich cultural heritage is still evident in road signs -- such as Rudisill, named after one of Fort Wayne's earliest and most prominent Germans -- and some of its grand churches. But it is clear the wartime propaganda machine had its desired effect, Decker said.

"The propaganda did its job, to create the melting pot, (despite that) it was used to crush civil rights and violate the Constitution. Identification with the homeland died. It was probably one of our darkest moments," Decker said.

"But the long-term effects were probably pretty good. They didn't become a downtrodden group because there were too many of them. They became Americans."

Cultural hysteria

  • A woman wrote to the local Council of Defense charging that a local German-owned greenhouse was encouraging its deliverymen to leave their vehicles running while they delivered flowers. It was a clear example, she charged, of aiding the enemy by wasting gasoline needed by the military.
  • A janitor in an apartment house charged that he heard men speaking German in an apartment. He had listened but could not understand what was said, but he was fairly certain they were spies.
  • In December 1917, a number of citizens called police when they saw a man walking around the alleys of downtown Fort Wayne making sketches of buildings. The police arrested the man for being a German spy. A crowd gathered outside police headquarters demanding that the man be turned over to them for retribution. The mayor had the man brought to his office for a hearing. The bewildered and frightened man explained that he was employed by the Sanford Fire Map Co. of Chicago and was making sketches of several buildings for use by fire insurance companies in establishing premiums and coverage. The man was released, but the mayor praised the crowd for their patriotic action and encouraged them to continue to be on guard.
  • A German-American man was perceived to be making disrespectful remarks about the American flag in July 1917 while standing in a small crowd. He was cornered and police were called. The case was thrown out of court when it became apparent that the man, from a Polish area of Germany, could barely speak English and had been talking about the fact that Poland had no flag.
Source: "Fort Wayne German-Americans in World War I: A cultural flu epidemic," written by Clifford Scott, associate professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, published in Old Fort News, v. 40 No. 2, 1997.

unction(w,d,s,l,i){w[l]=w[l]||[];w[l].push({'gtm.start': new Date().getTime(),event:'gtm.js'});var f=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], j=d.createElement(s),dl=l!='dataLayer'?'&l='+l:'';j.async=true;j.src= 'https://www.googletagmanager.com/gtm.js?id='+i+dl;f.parentNode.insertBefore(j,f); })(window,document,'script','dataLayer','GTM-KVWHXLX'); Contact Us | FortWayne.com