German American WWII Internment (part 2 of 2)


Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two part column. The first part can be read at

With disregard for station in life or in religious affiliation, scientists, educators, farmers, brewers, physicians, American police troops swept German American civilians through California and other coastal communities, on their way to internment camps during World War II.

Separated from families and homes, these detainees were not tried and were not spying, but faced as much as six years “internment” simply because they were of German blood. Most of them, by birth or naturalization, were American citizens.

As the war ground on, they were supplied with materials, and built homes, schools, recreational facilities – all in all, they developed communities and lived, protected in a sense, from the devastation that was raining down upon their homeland.

Karen Ebel, whose late grandfather was a camp detainee, published a timeline based on research being done now by survivors willing and able to talk about it. Others in the Internment Coalition are historians Alfred Heitmann and Prof. Arthur Jakobs.

12-7-1941: Ebel begins with the horrific Japanese bombing raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a U.S. protectorate in the South Pacific.

Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, citing a blanket presidential warrant, ordered the arrest of German nationals, calling them “dangerous enemy aliens,” as well as Italians and Japanese. Hundreds were arrested by the end of the next day, before the U.S. had even declared war on Germany. (12-11-41)
1-1942: About a million “enemy aliens” reregistered, including 300,000 German-born aliens, who will face loss of home and property if they stray into military zones, defy curfew, or travel restrictions.

Ebel writes: “The U.S. government initiated exchanges of approximately 2,000 internees for Americans held in Germany. Six exchange voyages carried many families in Germany, including American-born children and U.S. citizen spouses of German alien internees….”

5-7-1945: Germany surrenders.

8-14-1945: Japan surrenders.

Experiences ran the gamut of being arrested, interned, excluded, paroled, exchanged, generally harassed. Their emotions included mental anguish, anger, guilt, shame. Some finally agreed to repatriation, but war-torn Germany can’t take them back. There was grinding poverty, lack of facilities. Some are American citizens, in far worse condition than if they had stayed in the States.

1942-1943: About 50 temporary and permanent camps are thrown up to house German aliens. The largest are Crystal City and Seagoville, Texas, and Fort Lincoln, N.D.

1942-1945: Many internees are crammed into Ellis Island, N.Y. Most of the Germans were granted paroles, but not many wanted to repatriate to Germany. Many requested financial compensation because all their household members and possessions had been ransacked away from them.

1948: Despite filing a flood of petitions for acknowledgment with no results, the Germans finally found a voice in Congress, Sen. William Langer (D-ND).

Eber writes: “Due in large part to Senator Langer’s efforts, among others, the last person, a German American, is finally released from Ellis Island after cessation of hostilities with Germany. No internee was ever convicted of a war-related crime against the U.S.”

Upon release, most adult detainees sign secrecy oaths, many are threatened with deportation with no prospect of return if they speak of their ordeal. Most internees take their secret to their graves.

The Internet yields stories and pictures a-plenty documenting the German Americans’ plight: is your best bet. A browser search including words like German, American, Internment, WWII should get you started.

I find it curiously jolting to learn that singing German songs and speaking German in worship services were at one time or another considered criminal acts in the United States, ditto the performance of the music of German classical composers.

In fact, many states banned teaching the German language in the public schools, and the Boy Scouts participated in a book-burning at the Cleveland public library, according to Dr. Joe Wendel, who is a member of the Internment Coalition.

Wendel’s group calls for national recognition of the “…largely unknown history of 11,000 German Americans and another 6,000 German South-American citizens interned in the U.S. during World War II, allegedly to be exchanged later for Nazi-held Americans.”

Freedom is not free, a reader wrote to me. Never has been, never will. But attention should be paid.