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While the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans by forcing relocation and internment in "camps" during World War II has finally become better known after years of "selective amnesia," the internment of German Americans has been forgotten and ignored.

The eventual internment of over 10,0001 people of German ancestry seems even more surprising given the large portion of the US population that has German ancestry as well as the lack of obvious "German" characteristics of a physical or ethnic nature for the most part (assimilation into American culture was quite smooth, even with newer immigrants who retained certain cultural and language/accent traits)—at least more so than the Japanese Americans2 or those of Italian descent.3

On the other hand, the precedent was there. During the first World War—though the number of internees was much lower—vigilantism, harassment, property damage, and even violence (there were a few lynchings) took place. Of course, when it was reported in the press, it was almost invariably described as actions taken against "anti-Americans," "pro-Germans," (and during the second World War, "pro-nazis")—terms that were essentially synonymous in much the same way "communism" came to be used. This, of course did not reflect the reality that none of these terms were by definition or in practice necessarily mutually exclusive.

There was a legalistic pretense for the internment and relocations.4 The Alien Enemy Act of 1798 (later codified under US Code Title 50 Chapter 3), allows for such things. If the United States declares war or "any invasion or predatory incursion is perpetrated, attempted or threatened against the territory of the United States" (foreign nation/government implied), the president—through proclamation—may make it such that "all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies." Further:

The President is authorized in any such event, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed on the part of the United States, toward the aliens who become so liable; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those who, not being permitted to reside within the United States, refuse or neglect to depart therefrom; and to establish any other regulations which are found necessary in the premises and for the public safety.

In time of war, this is understandable. But it didn't quite work that way in practice—or, perhaps, it worked all too well.

With a few exceptions (a few seamen on ships in US ports had been arrested as early as April 1941), the arrests started in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing (7 December 1941), when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the necessary proclamations designating German (8 December 1941), Italian (8 December 1941), and Japanese (7 December 1941) nationals as "enemy aliens." This brought restrictions on travel (no air travel of any kind), no entering or leaving the US except under "prescribed regulation," changing residence or "otherwise [traveling] or [moving] from place to place except under regulation), "exclusion" ( military bases, the Panama Canal zone, et cetera), and even possessions.5 It also allowed for internment/relocation.

By 11 AM, 9 December 1941, the FBI had already arrested 497 Germans, 83 Italians, and 1,221 Japanese (of which 376 were arrested in Honolulu). The FBI's swift action, of course, was not so much due to their quick response time and skill at rooting out "subversives," but because they already had lists of names. Two years earlier, in a message from J. Edgar Hoover to all Special Agents in Charge, it was noted that

The Bureau is, at the present time, preparing a list of individuals, both aliens and citizens of the United States, on whom there is information available to indicate that their presence at liberty in this country in time of war or national emergency would be dangerous to the public peace and the safety of the United States Government. The information now available relative to these individuals is, however, incomplete in most instances and it will be necessary to obtain additional information relative to the affiliations, business interests, activities, present address, age, and citizenship status of each." (6 December 1939)

It should be stressed that the above includes "citizens" as well. In 1940, the Alien Registration Act was passed which required all aliens 14 and older to be registered with the government. Another thing should be noted, especially in respect to the Alien Enemy Act as written: the arrests of both Germans and Italians began prior to the United States actually declaring war on either country (a stipulation of the act). In fact, as the memorandum mentioned earlier states, 581 were arrested by 11 AM on the ninth, a full two days before war was declared.

Also, in a Hoover memorandum listing "individuals who are being considered for custodial detention" sent to the INS on 8 December, the number of American Citizens thought to be "sympathetic to Germany" was given at 1,391 (over twice the number of German aliens, which was 636) and American Citizens sympathetic to Italy at 77. Again, citizens, not aliens as the act covers.6 Arrestees often had their civil rights violated, including detention for unspecified amounts of time while waiting to be "processed" ( due process, itself being slow in coming in many cases). Long and/or multiple interrogations took place, some over the course of days or spread out over months and without benefit of counsel. Further, any "legal" decisions were final and not subject to appeal.

In another memorandum, it lists warrants issued, executed, and (of particular note) arrests without benefit of warrant:

    • Warrants Issued 1757
    • Warrants Executed 374
    • Arrested Without Warrant 500
    • Warrants Issued 223
    • Warrants Executed 41
    • Arrested Without Warrant 85
    • Warrants Issued 700
    • Warrants Executed 437
    • Arrested Without Warrant 628

And while vandalism and looting were not of the degree and scale of the previous war, internees were often guaranteed one or both happening to their personal property after being arrested.

One of the numbers (I was unable to find clear statistics on this) that is equally forgotten were the numbers of "voluntary" internees—spouses and children, many of whom were American citizens (presumably not all the spouses were of German descent). These internees were allowed to enter the camps but were not allowed to leave. Sometimes couples were separated and children removed from the parents' care. Information on the whereabouts of family was slow in coming or nonexistent. Mail was exceedingly slow (often by months) while the censors and others scrutinized it for all things "subversive."

Other problems in the camps—besides being essentially noncombatant prisoners of war—came from those internees were really were pro-nazi (an estimate at one camp was approximately 10%), who would harass, berate, even threaten those who were not. Guards were sometimes verbally and physically abusive,7 food was minimal at times, work was hard, sanitation and heating sometimes inadequate, and all this living in small structures ("huts") and sometimes tents behind walls covered with barbed wire and under the watch of machine guns. Internees had to wear green uniforms designating their status. Many of these things bordering on violation of the prisoner of war additions to the Geneva Convention in 1929.8 Even worse, many were detained after the end of the war, some as late as 1948.

Again, it is understandable to some extent during a time of war, but such disregard for basic rights (particularly to those who were US citizens and supposedly guaranteed those rights) based not on actions taken but on where someone or someone's relatives were born and what the government was afraid that person might do gives pause at the very least.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 stated that "a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II" that "the actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" and that "individuals of Japanese ancestry suffered enormous damages, both material and intangible, and there were incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering for which appropriate compensation has not been made." It also was the basis for reparation payments and an official government apology. But only for the Japanese.

German and other European internees were not allowed to submit oral or written testimony at the hearings that were part of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that led to the act. The final report barely focused on the German problem at all and only recognized four internment camps (in point of reality, there were over fifty—in a sad bit of irony, one of the loations was Ellis Island). In 2000, the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act was signed. This only recognized the denial of civil liberties. An attempt at some kind of atonement was made in August 2001 with the introduction of the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act (note the word "study"). As of this writing (7 September 2001), little or no action seems to have resulted.

1 The total number of German internees, according to INS records, was 10,905. It is not known the number of Germans who were detained and/or returned to the United States from Latin American countries but estimates range from 600-5,000.

2 The number of Japanese internees (not those forced to relocate) was 11,229, including 95 and 910 from Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. An additional 2,220 from Latin American countries. The numbers do not include 5,620 who renounced American citizenship nor four nationals who were from islands in the Pacific, excluding Hawaii.

3 Records show there were 3,278 Italian internees. Records do not count any ones that may have been detained and/or shipped back to the United States from Latin American countries. Further, 52 Hungarian, 25 Romanian, five Bulgarian, and 161 "others" were also interned.

4 Relocation, used primarily on the Japanese, was a way to keep them away from sensitive military installations, harbors ("military security zones"), and whatever else the government/military chose (it was entirely discretionary). The difference was that relocation was largely "voluntary" (though one could question the consequences of not "volunteering" to move). The relocation centers provided housing, food, medical care, and education facilities for children—both citizen and alien. Jobs could be had there or even offsite. None of the Europeans were allowed access to similar facilities. Internment camps were more like prisoner of war camps. About 112,000 Japanese were relocated.

5 The list of items that could not be in one's "possession, custody or control at any time or place or use": firearms, ammunition, bombs, explosives or material used in the manufacture of explosives, short-wave radio receiving/transmitting sets, signal devices, codes or ciphers, cameras, and "Papers, documents or books in which there may be invisible writing; photograph, sketch, picture, drawing, map or graphical representation of any military or naval installations or equipment or of any arms, ammunition, implements of war, device or thing used or intended to be used in the combat equipment of the land or naval forces of the United States or any military or naval post, camp or station."

6 A Hoover memo to all Special Agents in Charge on 8 Decembers reads:


(all-caps in original) It also did not apply to "diplomatic or consular representatives." This doesn't change the fact that there were American citizens interned—a memorandum dated the following day discussed what to do if the FBI wanted certain "persons taken into custody who were American citizens." The names would be given to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge so he could "determine if there was any basis for arresting them" (this was decided against in the memo). The memo ends noting that "last night we arrested those persons on the list he sent up who we thought were aliens; that we may have arrested a few citizens along with the rest." 

7 A quote from a former guard: "at the time I never thought of these people as having families. They were enemy aliens and they were packed up because they were potentially subversive people. They were isolated and put into this camp. As far as we were concerned, they were enemies of the American people."

8 A few notable mentions. As far as housing, they must "afforded all possible guarantees of hygiene and healthfulness" and "the total surface, minimum cubic amount of air, arrangement and material of bedding—the conditions shall be the same as for the troops at base camps of the detaining Power." Food must "be equal in quantity and quality to that of troops at base camps." Of mail: "These letters and cards shall be transmitted by post by the shortest route. They may not be delayed or retained for disciplinary reasons" and "censorship of correspondence must be effected within the shortest possible time" (i.e., not "months").

(Sources: www.foitimes.com/internment has copies/links for relevant primary material, the US Code may be found at www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode, lines from the Geneva Convention relating to prisoners of war comes from www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/geneva02.htm)

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