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Remember the detainment of ethnic Germans in the U. S. during WWI and WWII?

Remember the detainment of ethnic Germans in the U. S. during WWI and WWII?

Yes, it happened

Most people are well aware of the U. S. internment of ethnic Japanese, but it’s apparently a little-known fact that some ethnic Germans residing in the U. S. were detained in camps in this country during both world wars:

With the US entry into World War I, German nationals were automatically classified as “enemy aliens.” Two of the four main World War I-era internment camps were located in Hot Springs, N.C. and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer wrote that “All aliens interned by the government are regarded as enemies, and their property is treated accordingly.”

By the time of WWII, the United States had a large population [including many citizens] of ethnic Germans. Among residents of the United States in 1940, more than 1.2 million persons had been born in Germany, 5 million had two native-German parents, and 6 million had one native-German parent. Many more had distant German ancestry.

During WWII, the United States detained at least 11,000 ethnic Germans, overwhelmingly German nationals. The government examined the cases of German nationals individually, and detained relatively few in internment camps run by the Department of Justice, as related to its responsibilities under the Alien and Sedition Acts. To a much lesser extent, some ethnic German US citizens were classified as suspect after due process and also detained. Similarly, a small proportion of Italian nationals and Italian Americans were interned in relation to their total population in the US.

Some interesting details of the WWI group: a total of 2,048 were incarcerated, including “the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt and 29 players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Their music director, Karl Muck, spent more than a year at Fort Oglethorpe, as did Ernst Kunwald, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.”

From Wikipedia about WWII:

The large number of German Americans of recent connection to Germany, and their resulting political and economical influence, have been considered the reason they were spared large-scale relocation and internment.

Shortly after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, some 1,260 German nationals were detained and arrested, as the government had been watching them. Of the 254 persons not of Japanese ancestry evicted from coastal areas, the majority were ethnic German. During WWII, German nationals and German Americans in the US were detained and/or evicted from coastal areas on an individual basis. Although the War Department…considered mass expulsion of ethnic Germans and ethnic Italians from the East or West coast areas for reasons of military security, it did not follow through with this. The numbers of people involved would have been overwhelming to manage.

A total of 11,507 people of German ancestry were interned during the war. They comprised 36.1% of the total internments under the US Justice Department’s Enemy Alien Control Program.

It’s a fairly considerable number, although the numbers for Japanese nationals as well as Japanese-ethnic citizens were much higher: about 110 to 120 thousand in all. Included in the Japanese total were many U. S. citizens.

The internments involved most of the people of Japanese ethnicity living in this country, who were far less numerous than people of German origin and who were also highly concentrated on the west coast, the area from which they were evacuated (after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was considered particularly strategically important).

I’ve looked at many sites describing the Japanese internments, searching for the answer to this question: what percentage of the citizens of Japanese ethnicity in the camps were minor children being interned with their non-citizen parents? I’m sure that the answer can be found somewhere, but so far I haven’t been able to locate it online. All I have discovered are sites such as this one, which state that the majority of those interned were citizens and the majority of those interned were children, but which treat these as two separate statistics rather than discussing the overlap and saying whether the vast majority of the citizens were the children.

At any rate, I do believe that racism was at least part of the reason that far more people of Japanese descent were interned than those of German descent. But it was hardly the only reason. Other reasons were the smaller numbers of ethnic Japanese living here as compared to ethnic Germans, their concentration on the west coast, and probably the emotional reaction to an attack on Pearl Harbor.

Were some American citizens of German ancestry detained? Yes:

In the United States, however, the Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Program also targeted numerous American citizens [of German ethnicity], with J. Edgar Hoover publicly expressing concern over what he termed “the naturalized citizen whose cloak of citizenship is a sham and is dangerous to the nation’s security.”…

Justice Department officials opted for a policy of selective internment of ethnic Germans and Italians, irrespective of citizenship status. Arrests of civilians whose names appeared on custodial detention lists—including numerous American citizens—commenced on December 8, 1941, three days before the United States had declared war against Germany and Italy. Detainees received hearings following their arrests, but those arrested on the U.S. mainland were not allowed legal counsel. In Hawai’i, twenty-one of the 106 ethnic German and Italian civilians arrested within forty-eight hours of the Pearl Harbor attack were U.S. citizens…

One other thing—at the time of WWII, Japanese-born residents of the U. S. had not been allowed to become citizens, although their American-born children were citizens. In contrast, people of German and Italian birth had been allowed to become citizens, so that was another difference.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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“At any rate, I do believe that racism was at least part of the reason that far more people of Japanese descent were interned than those of German descent. But it was hardly the only reason. Other reasons were the smaller numbers of ethnic Japanese living here as compared to ethnic Germans, their concentration on the west coast, and probably the emotional reaction to an attack on Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. Occam says this is the most likely correct analysis. We look back now at a time barely remembered and decry the abuses and bigotry, but to those who lived it, these were prudent precautions in a rapidly changing industrialized world full of unknowns.

In a sense, the world was much bigger back then; more foreboding. Information was slower, radar was a theory, armies still packed by mule, navies powered by coal, airplanes were slow crates, and Goddard’s rocketry was novelty. There was real fear that the free world would succumb to the modern mechanized might of the fascists & imperialists during the 1930’s.

As for citizens of German descent in the USA, my family name is about as uber-Prussian as they come. Add in a string of grandfathers named Adolph, and my elders weren’t hard to pick out in a crowd during both world wars. But since the family emigrated back in the 1850’s, I guess ‘midwestern nice’ prevailed over nervous suspicions.

If grandpa and great grandpa faced any bigotry or discrimination during WWI, they never let on about it, and the WWII Army Air Corps. was more than happy to take my Dad’s enlistment. He says no one ever gave him grief to his face, before or after the war.

    I agree. This article is B/S.

    My fathers side was 7 out of 8 at the great grandparent level, recent German immigrants (between 1900 and 1905) and 3 out of 4 grandparents were also German immigrants. My grandfather was brought here as an infant by his German parents. He served briefly in WW1, was in the reserves between, and served in WW2 in counterintelligence against the Germans.
    Not only did none of my German relatives suffer this but have I never even heard of this before.

My great-grandmother was a German-American, until WWI. At that point, she started telling people she was from Alsace. By WWII, she was the block captain in charge of making sure everyone had their lights out, or windows covered with dark cloth.

The fact was that Very few American citizens of German origin were interned in the US during WWII. Almost all of the Germans interned were German citizens and many of those were released after being vetted. Others were members of the American Bund and other Pro-Nazi organizations. The German internments were the usual result of citizens, of a foreign nation with which the US was at war, being in the country during hostilities.

The Japanese internment, on the other hand, was largely composed of American Citizens of Japanese origin, not just, or even mostly, Japanese citizens. As to a racial motivation, there may or may not have been one. The degree to which a racial component existed will always be in doubt, for a very simple reason; Japan had directly attacked the US on December 07, 1941, while Germany did not. There might also have been a small motivation to protect Japanese American from reprisals by non-Japanese American citizens over the bombing of Pearl harbor. Some Japanese Americans also fought for the US, in Europe.

The internment of Japanese Americans included families, as well as adults. While the internment of Japanese American citizens was not the USA’s finest hour, it was not the equivalent of the Nazi death camps.

    It is most probable that the Niihau Incident influenced the decision to inter Japanese citizens on a greater scale than the Germans. Several resident Japanese ‘turned’ almost immediately when a Japanese pilot crash landed on Niihau island after Pearl Harbor, and the concept that *thousands* of them in Hawaii or the West Coast would follow suit frightened a lot of people.

      CalFed in reply to georgfelis. | June 30, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      It is possible that it had some minor impact. However, very few of the 158,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans that lived in Hawaii at the start of WWII were ever interned.

Green WWI troops riding a southbound transport train through NorCal – at a whistelstop they trashed a small valley town named Germantown – said town quickly renamed itself Artois.

Now you know more useless trivia. You’re welcome!

I believe the Internment camp on Angel Island in the SF bay is open for tours. If you live in the SFBA there was a passenger ferry from Tiburon – bring bicycles and pack food. I faintly recall that the same jail was used to intern Chinese coolies late 19th century.

Tanforan racetrack just south of SF was converted to an internment camp – later bulldozed to make room for a mall.

Another difference between the Japanese and German populations is the language. There were more Germans here, and more Americans who had at least a limited grasp of German, which is very similar to English, and quickly picked up by motivated adults.

The Germans were more easily vetted.

Completely routine. A German mountaineer climbing Everest was interned by British authorities after climbing back down on the Indian side, even though he was unaware that there was a war on. During the Falklands unpleasantness, both sides were care to pretend that there wasn’t a war going on, as both would then feel obligated to arrest and intern each other’s citizens, which would kill business; many thousands of Argentines and Britons are in each other’s country at any one time, beavering away at work with no connection to international affairs.

The bizarre thing about the Japanese internment is that it was specifically aimed at persons—hundreds of thousands of them—who were under no suspicion for anything except being Japanese, and who, the majority NOT being Japanese nationals, would not normally be even considered for internment without cause. The Germans and Italians detained were individually arrested and investigated for suspect activity such as espionage or sabotage; a procedure entirely proper and very sensible.

During the Great War, membership in organizations such as the German-American Bund was cause for suspicion, but I don’t recall if anyone was summarily rounded up … considering that Wilson was involved, anything is possible.

After the Doolittle raid, one American bomber landed in Russian territory on Sakhalin. The base commander threw a party in the aircrew’s honor, then interned them and the plane, in strict keeping with Russia and Japan’s neutrality pact. For political reasons, the crew were allowed (illegally, but with a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink) to escape to the west a year or two later, and eventually made it back to the US via Iran. Until then, Russia billed the US annually for the cost of their room & board, and for the upkeep of the bomber. All according to both custom and treaty.

The German detainees here in the Great Plains were frequently involved in the community. Many of them were naturalized and stayed here after the wars.

SpaceInvader | June 30, 2018 at 3:50 pm

I had a Chinese lab partner in college. He told me that, even though he was brought here to America as a small child through a Baptist refugee program and cared for by American foster parents, he is loyal to China and would actively fight on their side if America was ever in a dispute with China. It’s a mistake to think that because someone is an American citizen that their loyalties are to America.

“The internments involved most of the people of Japanese ethnicity living in this country, who were far less numerous than people of German origin and who were also highly concentrated on the west coast, the area from which they were evacuated (after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was considered particularly strategically important).”

This is only partially true.

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) produced a series of reports on this subject for the FDR administration and the conclusion was that Japanese-Americans were loyal citizens who posed little to no credible threat to national security. In this, the FBI concurred, and believed it had already taken into custody those who did pose a threat – the FBI opposed mass incarceration.

For instance:
“The ONI’s point person in the surveillance of the Japanese American community on the West Coast was Kenneth Ringle, the assistant district intelligence officer for the Eleventh Naval District in Los Angeles. The bilingual Ringle traveled up and down the coast and built a network of Japanese American informants. He also led a break in of the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles that led to the breaking up of a Japanese spy ring. (See Tachibana case.) In Hawai’i, Ceil Coggins built a similar network in Hawai’i and like Ringle came to believe strongly in the “loyalty” of Nisei, later advocating strongly that they be allowed to fight in the U.S. armed forces.[3] Ringle issued a series of reports that largely vouched for Japanese American loyalty and argued against mass exclusion. Ringle’s and the ONI’s views were largely ignored by the army, which successfully pressed for mass removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.”

“Director Hoover famously opposed the mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans, feeling that his agency had successfully identified and arrested those who posed any kind of threat.”

The Army believed otherwise, so there was actually a difference of opinion on the subject. FDR decided to side with the Army.

Who considered incarceration “strategically important”? Of the three agencies tasked with internal security/counter intelligence, only the Army; with the ONI and MI (Military Intelligence) dissenting.

As for the role played by racism in the Pacific war, see War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (J.W. Dower, Pantheon 1986). (This book was published before the declassification of the above-menionted ONI reports.)

    DaveGinOly in reply to DaveGinOly. | June 30, 2018 at 8:58 pm

    “Of the three agencies tasked with internal security/counter intelligence, only the Army; with the ONI and MI (Military Intelligence) dissenting.”

    Should read:
    Of the three agencies tasked with internal security/counter intelligence, only the Army; with the ONI and FBI dissenting.

War is hell.

Lesson: Don’t start one.

All of our Japanese residents were quite easily recognizably “Asian”–as opposed to the “white” and Caucasian Germans !!– Any chance of that lone surviving 1942 B-25 ever being located and preserved–or just lost many decades ago ??? ABJ

I believe the idea of internment was to move the Japanese away from the West Coast. If you could show that you had somewhere else further East you could go then you didn’t face internment.

“…By contrast, persons evacuated under the War Department’s West Coast program were not internees (although several thousand Nisei became such after renouncing their American citizenship). The Army’s initial effort was to induce voluntary movement from the restricted military areas to locations further east. A variety of reasons, including limited individual resources and opposition from inland communities, made this approach unworkable, however, and mandatory removal followed. The evacuees went first into assembly centers up and down the coast, and then to ten relocation camps running from eastern California to Arkansas. These were run far more loosely than the internment camps for enemy aliens, and the civilian War Relocation Authority set up a program for screening the evacuees and granting leaves to those with acceptable records who could find employment outside the western states. By December 1944, when the mandatory program ended, about 35,500 had left the camps under these conditions. Another 4,300 college-age evacuees also received leaves, to study outside the West Coast…”

Was there ill will towards people of German descent during the war? I don’t know, but I grew up with the family story that my German grandfather insisted my mother always be called by her full name of Geraldine and not the nickname of “Jerry” because the Germans were called “jerries”, and that was bad. My mother said her father was quite self-conscious of his ancestry during WWII. This was also the grandfather who, though he was fluent in German and his wife fluent in Norwegian and French, insisted that ONLY English be spoken in their home and not any other language because, “ We are Americans, and we will speak like Americans!” He was very proud of his adopted country.

There is another theory as to why Japanese and Japanese-American citizens had their land and property stolen by the government and were forcibly removed to camps. Clearly, racism was a factor. The article linked to below also explores the influence in California of labor unions and white farmers, who didn’t want to compete against industrious immigrants. It’s an interesting piece.

My grandfather was a German immigrant and during WW1 he somehow managed to get a government job (he was college graduated engineer) and the story goes that he carried papers as well as a little American Flag in the pocket of his suit – just in case.

He died in 1919 of the Spanish Flu and my grandmother went on to do housecleaning and whatever else to raise her 2 sons.

But those were different and much more trying times.