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The purpose of registering alien enemies is to give the government a chance to evaluate the German-American population and determine whether they are threats to the state. In other words, a uniform registration process, created by the government and overseen by state authorities creates a legible alien enemy population. James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State presents multiple examples of the state’s attempts to control its population through systematic organization. This standardization seen in the dataset is a strategy to improve government efficiency. For example, Scott describes 19th-century Prussian states, which focused much of its information collection on the age and sexes of the immigrants rather than other factors such as religion or race. This practice was because the state wanted to keep track of possible draft dodgers and a list of military-age men. The state intakes the information it needs to be efficient. This concept is the same in the case of the enemy alien affidavits. The questions on the forms revolve around affiliations and the war, which helps the government better understand the likelihood of an immigrant conspiring with the German military and their loyalty to America.

Scott’s book was a critique of the state’s standardization and uniformism. He discusses the concept of fiscal forestry, in which scientists not only standardized counting and yielding techniques but completely reinvented the layout of the forest to standardize the industry. Scott’s main argument is that through state control, the industry was transformed to become uniform and profitable. However, this new practice did not come without its consequences, the productivity declined, and the industry suffered. Scott states, “if the natural world, however shaped by human use, is too unwieldy in its ‘raw’ form for administrative manipulation, so too are the actual social patterns of human interaction with nature bureaucratically indigestible in their raw form” (22).[7] The affidavits are a counterexample to the failure of fiscal forestry. In this case, the trees are German-Americans. The state succeeds because they eliminate the struggle between local and federal authorities. By ordering all of them to come forward and testify their loyalty to America in front of a local authority, a uniform method of control has been imposed. Not only that, but as shown in the figure below, the amount of information that the government collects on these enemy aliens is incredibly extensive. The requirement of fingerprints and photographs adds yet another level of surveillance; German-Americans are bound to feel watched, and any anti-American sentiments extinguished.

Currently, the collection can be found on the National Archives website. Each entry is an individual’s affidavit, which are digital scans of the original forms. The information provided by each registrant is relatively simple to digitize. Their addresses, naturalization history, marital and familial information can easily be organized into a grid-like digital spreadsheet. However, the biggest challenge this archive faces if it were to be transformed into text data is the loss of the photographs and fingerprint records. The loss of this information is more than just omitting data; the audience will lose a significant amount of context. One of the main themes of this collection is American surveillance of German immigrants during World War I. As shown above in the affidavit of Johanna Weik, the government collects a substantial amount of information on each enemy alien. Beyond just detailed description of their appearance, there is a requirement of biometric information; instilling in them a fear factor that will prevent them from colluding with the German military. Therefore, to preserve the sentiments and emotions felt by German-Americans during this transformative period, digitization of this data set should preserve the photos as well as the fingerprints. The only text that has been digitized is the names of all the registrants. A portion of the forms was filled out via typewriter, and will be easy to digitize. However, most were filled out by individuals in cursive handwriting. This creates another obstacle: as cursive becomes less prevalent, finding people to digitize cursive data will also become increasingly challenging. Ultimately, it is crucial to preserve these affidavits as they show a darker side of President Wilson’s legacy, in which he mobilized the state against German-Americans in a way that prefigures Japanese-American internment two decades later.

[1] Lehr, Dick. “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, May 4, 2021.

[2] Department of Justice, Office of the U.S. Marshal for the District of Kansas, Enemy Registration Affidavits, National Archives Catalog 286181

[3] U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Alien Registration Affidavits, National Archives Catalog 5889371

[4]  U.S. District Court for the District of Kentucky, Alien Enemy Registrations, National Archives Catalog 5752917

[5] Population Schedules for the 1850 Census, 1850 - 1850 Record Group 29: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007. https://paperdata.benschmidt.org/datasets/1850_uscensus_winslowhomer_entry

[6] Kinnahan, Thomas P. "Charting Progress: Francis Amasa Walker's Statistical Atlas of the United States and Narratives of Western Expansion." American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2008): 399-423.

[7] Scott, James C. Chapter 1, “Nature and Space.” In Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.