WWII German/American Internments

WWI hostility was well documented. Streets were renamed, certain foods were renamed, the abolition of German American social organizations, suppression of German newspapers and magazines, the prohibition of German language instruction in many school systems.

The internments of Germans during WWII is less documented and even denied by many. There were approximately 11,000 members of the German American community interned during WWII for fear that these persons were involved in subversive activities against the United States. WWII paved the way for a new wave of ‘anti-German’ sentiment and discrimination. This discrimination culminated in the arrest and internment of thousands of members of the German American community.

In addition the US also accepted more than 4,500 German nationals that were deported from Latin American countries. They were detained in Department of Justice Camps. The FBI drafted a list of Germans in fifteen Latin American countries suspected of subversive activities. After Pearl Harbor, the US demanded deportation for detention on US soil. Responding countries deported or expelled over 4.000 people. Those deported were suspected of being Nazi party members, recruiters of NSDAP/AO (oversees arm of the Nazi party) and very few of espionage. There were also German Jews deported at that time as well. Most of the German Jews lived in Latin America, where they had escaped to avoid Nazi persecution. The only countries that didn’t participate in the program were Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. It doesn’t appear that any of the Latin American Germans deported to the US were interned in Maryland.

September 6, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to compile a roster of ‘individuals’ both aliens and citizens of the US, where 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 safety. This was called the ‘ABC’ list.[1] It was prioritized from the most likely to commit subversive activity to the least likely. (The list was compiled using membership lists of clubs such as the German-American Bund, the subscription lists to German newspapers and magazines, and that of confidential informants (usually with no direct evidence of wrongdoing).

This was made simpler in 1940 with the enactment of the Alien Registration Act. In this act, which was supposed to protect the Germans, the government reserved the right to punish aliens who did not comply fully with the letter of the law; violation of the restrictions listed on the reverse side of each alien identification card subjected many offenders to possible detention and even internment. After passage of the 1940 Alien Registration Act which required all aliens residing in the United States to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, approximately 5 million persons registered. Of the total number of registered aliens, 1,100,000 were classified as "enemy aliens" [to mean that they were aliens of an enemy nation] at the outbreak of war on December 7, 1941. The "enemy alien" population of 1,100,000 was made up of 683,259 males; 294,650 of whom were Italians, 145,477 were Germans, 56,332 were Japanese; and remainder were from Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

The Bureau of Intelligence felt the number of ideological fascists within the German-American community was considerably higher than that among the Italian-Americans. It was felt by many at the time that the Germans were the most dangerous to US security and that most Americans felt the treatment of German aliens had not been strict enough.

The benefit of this registration was made evident with the aftermath of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The government acted quickly in detaining aliens from Axis nations fearful of potential sabotage and treasonous activity. The US did not formally enter the war until December 11, however, the first arrests and detention of legal German residents, which were considered a security risk occurred on December 7th and 8th. Another directive from J. Edgar Hoover to special agents instructed the agents to round up those on the list in groups A, B and C. [2] As of December 9th a total of 636 German aliens, 1,694 individuals of German descent and 1,393 American citizens felt to be sympathetic to Germany, had been taken into custody by agents of the FBI. Ten of the 636 were taken from Baltimore.

The east coast provided the area with the greatest number of apprehensions of German legal resident aliens; between December 7, 1941 and June 30, 1945, New York led the list of arrests with 2,291, followed by New Jersey with 756, Pennsylvania with 388, Connecticut with 92, and Massachusetts with 58. Specific cities where German aliens were apprehended, according to FBI files were Albany 77, Baltimore 53, Boston 57, Buffalo 48, New York 2,159 and Newark 756.[3]

We often hear and read of the Japanese internments and we know that restitution and letters of apology were sent to those of Japanese origin or heritage. The internment of Japanese was permitted after the passage of the Presidential Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. This order cleared the way for the deportation of not only the Japanese, but also the Germans and Italians. The order, after years of abuse, deportations and evictions of primarily the Japanese, was rescinded in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. The next President, Jimmy Carter established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) which resulted in the final report in 1982, Personal Justice Denied, which found that the decision to incarcerate and deport the Japanese was based on race prejudice and war hysteria. Ultimately the US government sent apologies and redress payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors. This was a result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 signed by President Ronald Reagan. The appropriation bill was signed by George H.W. Bush in 1989. The bill applied strictly to the Japanese Americans and to members of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. No such payment or letter has ever been made to the Germans.

It is documented that many of the German clubs, societies, churches, newspapers, etc., went to great lengths in attempts to avoid the hysteria and discrimination shown during WWI.

· Cincin-natier Freie Presse (September 18) published a platform for German Americans and advocated a pro-American stance.

· Youth Outlook-New York-December 1939, “We do not stand alone in our desire to prevent the return of the pogrom like atmosphere which in 1917, made life miserable for loyal and democratic citizens of German descent.

· Zion church in the City of Baltimore served as a rest stop, using their famous Adlersaal for soldiers and sailors returning from the war and on their way home. They were provided a cot and meals during the transition. The church even presented the American Red Cross with an ambulance and funds for blankets, etc. Zion like many other churches with German congregants sent almost 120 men and women to serve and Zion like many other churches lost some of their congregants to the war.

A small number of groups were Nazi sympathizers and they made it difficult for those not involved. Groups such as the German-American Bund were a small but very focused and vocal group. This group is said to have begun a German school in Yorkville in New York where the goal was the indoctrination of sons and daughters of German immigrants to Nazi ideology. This definitely factored in to the treatment afforded the German American community.

Some wonder why more Germans were not incarcerated, deported or interned. I think if we look at the numbers and census records of that time, the numbers of Germans or those of German ancestry is mind-boggling. The Japanese were interned as a whole, the Germans on an individual basis. In 1940 more than one million persons in the US were born in Germany, approximately five million had both parents born in Germany and approximately six million had at least one parent born in Germany. On top of that you would need to consider the number of citizens of German ancestry…which would be in the high millions since the Germans arrived in the US in 1608.

Beginning, January 5, 1942 aliens nationwide were required to turn in all firearms, radio transmitters, short wave radio receivers, cameras, weapons or implements of war and any papers, documents or books in which there might be invisible writing.

Alien hearing boards were developed, but were for the most part useless. There were boards established in all 94 federal jurisdictions. Each board was comprised of five citizens and each hearing three of the five citizens were present. The boards were empowered to recommend one of three potential outcomes-1) release of alien due to no evidence of wrongdoing, 2) conditional parole-still sufficient doubt and the individual would be required to check in periodically and 3) internment at a designated center for the duration of the war due to a perceived security risk. The hearing process was tilted in favor of the government. Aliens could use friends and family as character witnesses, however, they could not retain legal counsel, they could not argue the particulars of the case against them, nor could they at any time confront their accuser.

As late as 1991 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, newsmen such as Clarence Page (McNeil-Lehrer News Hour) and John Chancellor (NBC) reported that NO European-Americans, German, Italian or other –were interned during WWII. This, even when according to an Immigration and Naturalization letter of August 9, 1948 stated 10,906 Germans were received by the INS under the enemy alien program.

Detention and Internment centers were established in various parts of the US. In each of the jurisdictions, it was one of three authorities that controlled the camp. It was either 1) the military, 2) the Immigration and Naturalization Service and 3) the Department of Justice. Several such as Fort Howard and Fort Meade in Maryland were camps controlled by the military. Camp Upton in New York was also under military control. The most famous center was Ellis Island, who only a few decades before welcomed the Germans to the US. This camp was maintained by the INS and was the last facility to hold aliens until June 1948. Ellis Island served as a last stop for those aliens that had been marked for repatriation or deportation. Larger centers were located in barren areas (to prevent or deter escape attempts), one of the largest in Texas. Crystal City served as a family camp from December 12, 1942 to 1947. Most of the men here were arrested and forcibly interned, however, the women and children for the most part were classified as ‘voluntary’. Here families had cottages and many went about their daily life. Many farmed, gardened and raised their families. There were limited bathrooms so the majority of inmates used public showers and latrines. There was a camp laundry (handled the clothing of 4,000 internees), a sewing shop, a tailor, etc. They even had a post office, however, most mail was read by censors fluent in English and German..mail was often altered. There were restrictions on personal property and food was rationed at a general store, the amount being dependent on the number in the family. There was a clothing store, but it was very restrictive. All home improvements or beautifications were done at the internees expense. There were machine shops, etc. The chores of the camp were divided. It wasn’t uncommon for the Japanese to do the gardening and farming and many Germans worked on the machinery. Much of the food was provided by local farms near but not within the camp. The camp did have farms and it is estimated that 2500 quarts of milk were needed due to the number of children in the camp, also estimated to be around 1600 at one point of its operation. The camp also sported an orchestra, lectures, cultural events and even a soccer team. Others also played softball and basketball. They even published a camp newspaper, the ‘Lager-Nachrichten’ on a weekly basis. The camps were often inspected by the International Red Cross to make certain the detainees were adequately supplied and taken care of.

So what about Maryland? There are differing stories on the number of camps in Maryland. It has been pretty well confirmed that Ft. Meade, a US Army military post still operating in Maryland, served as a camp. We know that it served to house German POW’s and is still the resting place of 32 German soldiers. It also served as a temporary detention site for Japanese, German and Italian prisoners before they were shipped other locations. There are also some references that cite Fort Howard as a site for an internment camp. One such source regarding Fort Howard is a map of the German Internment camps on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_concentration_and_internment_camps#/media/File:German_American_internment_sites_during_World_War_II.jpg

It is estimated that at its peak, the number of internees at Fort Meade was a little over 350. This was in 1942. According to Dr. John Heitmann, many civilian internees came to Ft. Meade from Ellis Island on their way to other more permanent camps.

Dr. Heitman writes that internees were treated as prisoners of war here, issued government khaki and housed in four man tents. The perimeter was sealed with barbed wire and guard tents with machine guns. Dr. Heitman identifies one of the biggest problems at Ft. Meade was the presence of real POWs interned here. These men were loyal to their Fatherland and often had different views of those interned here that were living and working in the US.

The internees were moved out in 1943 to make room for more German POWs.

There have been groups established to make more of this history known. The most well-known is the German American Internee Coalition. They have worked also legislatively for recognition of German internees and the civil rights violations. There was legislation, the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act, and an independent commission established in 2001. In 2007 the Senate passed the Wartime Treatment Study Act to examine the treatment of ethnic groups targeted by the US during WWII. This legislation was kicked around for several years and again in 2009 passed a House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration. It has never passed both chambers and therefore has not become law. The legislative history and the bill itself may be read on the German American Internee Coalition website, click here. [http://www.gaic.info/ShowPage.php?section=Legislative_Efforts&page=Wartime_Treatment_Study_Act]

Another interesting fact is American born Japanese-Americans were out of internment camps by the end of June 1946, however, the last group of German legal resident aliens (about 100) were not released until June 1948.


· 'Fragile and Beleaguered are the Many: The Recurrence of Anti-German Activities During World War II', Holian, paper written for the Society for the History of Germans in Maryland.

· Wikipedia

· German American Internee Coalition. See www.gaic.info

· (“Enemies are Human,” a paper presented to the Dayton Christian-Jewish Dialogue, May 10, 1998, by John A. Heitmann, Ph.D., Professor of History, University of Dayton.)

To Read More:



Personal Stories: http://www.gaic.info/ShowPage.php?section=Real_People&page=US_Resident_Internees


[1] An excerpt of a TWX to all FBI Special Agents in Charge (SAC) from J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) –December 6, 1939.

"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."


[3] FBI, Department of Justice, ‘Apprehensions, December 7, 1941 to June 30, 1945, Reference Document 100-2-4014, as prepared by Arthur D. Jacobs, November 1990. The original document was declassified on August 17, 1990.