German-American Internment?
September 9, 2004 11:44 PM   Subscribe

Massive internment of German-American families during World War II: crackpot revisionist myth, or legitimate forgotten chapter in history? I read an Associated Press story that seemed to think it was the latter, but can't find an authoritative overview on the Web. Mostly just Nazi sites.
posted by inksyndicate to Society & Culture (14 answers total)
Link to the AP story please? Can't evaluate myth v. fact in a vacuum!
posted by mwhybark at 1:02 AM on September 10, 2004

Here's some stuff.
posted by ed\26h at 2:22 AM on September 10, 2004

When I get to work I'll look into it for you. (I'm a research librarian in a Holocaust- and WWII-related research facillity). I know that many German POWs ended up in U.S. detention facilities near the end of the war, but that's not what you're asking about. If you can link to the AP article so I could follow up with their references, that would be helpful.
posted by arco at 4:46 AM on September 10, 2004

Some German Americans were interned during the Second World War, but not to the extent that Japanese Americans were. The issue was discussed in this documentary based on a book by a University of Cincinnati professor. A former detainee is interviewed. I enjoyed the program, and would recommend it as an overview of the experience of ethnic germans in the US.

(Almost time for Octoberfest!)
posted by putzface_dickman at 5:20 AM on September 10, 2004

So, my post above is a bit inaccurate about the provenance of the film, but that can be cleared up by following the link.
The meat remains: some internments? yes. massive internments? no.
posted by putzface_dickman at 5:28 AM on September 10, 2004

I remember from a passing remark in a lecture that German and Italian nationals (not American citizens) were definitely shipped off to a camp in the Midwest. It's not inconceivable that recent naturalized citizens would have been sent there, too.

But certainly you weren't likely to get relocated just for having a German name. If that was the case, you'd know the family of someone that happened to. A LOT of Americans have german ancestry, and anyone with friends from Philadelphia or Chicago would have heard about it.

German-Americans got far worse treatment during WW I.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:44 AM on September 10, 2004

Lots of ethnicities were camped during WWII; not just the Japanese. Except it's politically expedient to point to the Japanese: a little offensive victory for the Left....
posted by ParisParamus at 6:58 AM on September 10, 2004

My brother-in-law's father was sent to a POW camp in Canada during WWII. He showed me a painting of the camp that was given to his father by another POW. Oddly enough, my father visited the site of the camp when working on the G8 summit in Kananaskis.

I know that in Canada several ethic groups were interned during the war, Germans included. I don't think the numbers came close to those of Japanese decent though.

There was an article in my local paper recently that mentioned a POW camp in Northern Ontario. The camp was not fenced in etc.. since the only way into the camp was on a very long train ride. I'd be curious if the same applied to internment camps.

Paris: Was that last comment absolutely necessary? Or could you try to keep that stuff in the Blue.
posted by smcniven at 7:22 AM on September 10, 2004

Oh, sorry for leaving out the link, and thanks for all the replies.

I read a little about it here at this story, which mentioned a figure of 30,000 European-Americans. That's the AP link.

But I wasn't sure whether this internment is comparable in conditions to the forced relocation of Japanese families, with kids, etc.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:29 AM on September 10, 2004

Paris: Well, not to get into a political debate, but I'm talking about American citizens, not the broader label of "ethnic" this or that, which seems to blur the issue. I know that German aliens were interned.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:30 AM on September 10, 2004

While the evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans has received more attention, many German- and Italian-American resident aliens were the subject of incarceration in detention centers run by the military or the Immigration and Naturalization Service during World War II. There has been some dispute among historians about the extent and details of the roundups, with some writers claiming that no detention of European-Americans took place.

It seems as though much of the confusion of this subject comes down to semantics. For example, one historian will claim that nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated, while another argues that the actual number of "internments" was much lower and that the higher number reflects the number of "evacuations" or "exclusions." The argument spills over into discussion of the treatment of European-Americans. I don't think that any serious historian would argue that the internment of Japanese-, German- or Italian-Americans did not occur--there is too much documentary and testimonial evidence--but any discussion of this type ("comparative persecution," as I call it) inevitably breaks down if you try to boil the whole thing down to a simple "x was worse than y" argument, or limit the discussion to just statistics. Some people see these (largely academic) disputes as evidence of some conspiracy to "cover up" the extent of the internments by the United States government, when in actuality the subject has been explored in a number of widely-available books. (Whether or not the U.S. government has adequately responded to the questions raised by this research is an entirely different issue.)

The short answer: yes, many Germans and German-Americans (the number I find is a little over 10,000) were incarcerated as part of an "enemy alien internment" program. Exactly what the term "incarcerated" means is more fully discussed in many books I can recommend if you want to explore the subject further, but I'm not sure how in-depth you want to get with it. Here are some of the major titles I looked at in responding to your question:
Fox, Stephen. America's Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment & Exclusion in World War II. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. [Note: This author also has a book about the treatment of Italian-Americans called The Unknown Internment.]

Holian, Timothy J. The German-Americans and World War II: An Ethnic Experience. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. [Note: Out of print, but your local library can probably get a copy.]

Kramer, Arnold. Undue Process: The Untold Story of America's German Alien Internees. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, ed. The World War Two Experience: The Internment of German-Americans. Volume IV of German-Americans in the World Wars, series edited by Arthur Jacobs and Joseph Fallon. Munich: KG Saur, 1995. [Note: Tolzmann appears to be one of the top experts on this topic, having written or edited many books on German-American history. This particular title is a collection of primary sources intended for scholars researching this subject.]
Your local library can help you locate copies of these or other books on this subject. This is not an exhaustive bibliography, nor do I specifically recommend one over the other (or these over any other titles out there). I only point them out as resources for further study and to suggest that the subject has been researched before.

Email me if you have any follow-up questions, but know that I am not an historian and have not researched this subject beyond what I've said here. I know this isn't a definitive answer to your questions, but hopefully this helps to clear things up a bit.

Aside: If you've ever wondered what reference librarians actually do, this post is a good example. I get email reference questions like this all the time, and this is the kind of work we do in subject-specific libraries. But, librarians of all kinds get paid to field questions of this sort, and to help people find the signals amidst all the information noise.
posted by arco at 8:37 AM on September 10, 2004


Good gravy, you must be going for special mention on the sidebar.

This'll help me a lot with an article I'm writing, so thank you.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2004

On the lighter side, the Onion had an article in Our Dumb Century about German internment camps during WW II, the joke being that Roosevelt was the first to be interned.
posted by GaelFC at 11:11 AM on September 10, 2004


Ah, I believe the Roosevelts were from an old New York society family, and as such were Dutch, not German.

"even Old New York, was once New Amsterdam..."

posted by leotrotsky at 12:08 PM on September 10, 2004

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