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German Nationals


At the beginning of the war, German nationals in the US without citizenship were monitored. In North Dakota there wasn’t any wide-spread mistreatment, but US District Attorney Melvin Hildreth, of Fargo, advised German nationals to “obey the law and keep your mouth shut.”

Facing harsh censorship, some German newspapers elected to cease publication. However, the Emmons County Record a full section in German in August of 1917.

German aliens were required to sign up for the draft, but even if their number was drawn, they weren’t required to serve. Other resident aliens were also exempt, like the many young Canadian men subject to the draft in Canada, who sought refuge in the United States.

German nationals in North Dakota were tolerated as long as they were quick to buy bonds, pledge their allegiance to the United States, and otherwise support the war. Those who failed, could find their name in the newspaper and be shunned by the local community, or worse.

Full protection under the law was not afforded to aliens. Although not charged with anything, Harry Merrick, working with a threshing crew in North Dakota, was detained at Portal and placed in the Ward County jail for over a month simply for being a German national. Even those who had homesteaded in the state and had filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen, found that citizenship was not guaranteed.

On this date in 1917, a naturalization hearing was about to be held in District Court in Fargo to grant citizenship for twenty men from a number of European countries. However, an 1802 law prohibited naturalization for immigrants from enemy nations during times of war. That meant citizenship was denied for four of the men -- German nationals Josias Baasch, Otto Olm, Albert Roethke and Charles Miller. All but one would have to wait until the end of hostilities. A change in the law in May of 1918 opened the door for Albert Roethke. Upon submitting a letter declaring that he would spend a considerable portion of time studying to become a loyal and useful citizen, he was granted citizenship on November 6, 1918, only five days before the war ended.

Three from Austria were naturalized even though Austria fought on the side of Germany. The lack of a formal declaration of war against Austria made it possible for the men to become citizens.

While no widespread mistreatment of Germans here was initially evident, it should be noted that as North Dakota soldiers began dying on the battlefields of France, tensions did mount, and expressing pro-German sympathies was risky.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


New York Tribune, November 26, 1918 p 7

Grand Forks Herald, September 5,, 1917 p 4

Ward County Independent October 11, 1917 p 1

Cass County Naturalization Records, Petition 29, Page 47, North Dakota State Archives