Why have German-, Italian- and Latin American Internment during WWII been kept out of the USA History books?

Why have German-, Italian- and Latin American Internment during WWII been kept out of the USA History books?

By Kevin Anthony Stoda

I have a lot of Germanic blood on both sides of my family.  Previously, I have written on the topic of being an American in Germany and being either of German descent (or simply German) in America previously.  One writing of mine was a review of the book TEARING THE SILENCE: On Being German in America , a collection of interviews which were conducted, compiled and edited by psychologistUrsula Hegi.


Heggi focused primarily on Germans who were mostly too young to remember WWII (and felt little responsibility for the Hitler era) but who had grown of age in America following WWII.

Recently, I came across another set of historical examples on the perplexing reality of the Germanic peoples in America landscape of the 20th Century. This particular topic encompasses the great internment of the Germans, Japanese, Italians, and many Latin American German and Japanese in the USA during WWII. 


I had long been familiar with the Japanese internments and believe that the Japanese Stodas were also interned at that time.  However, until I came across a series of websites and oral histories on the topic of German internment in WWII, I had had no idea how pervasive internment of potential American enemies had been during the Great War against Fascism.


The silence on German, Italian, and Latin American internments is still great in places as hot as Crystal City, Texas (120 degrees at times) and as cold and as snowy as Ft. Missoula, Montana or Ft. Lincoln, North Dakota. One web project that is beginning to tell these imprisoned people’s stories is at the German American Internee Coalition site: 


The site shares:

“German Americans constitute the largest ethnic group in the US. Approximately 60 million Americans claim German ancestry. German American loyalty to America’s promise of freedom traces back to the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, during World War II, the US government and many Americans viewed ethnic Germans and others of ‘enemy ancestry’ as potentially dangerous, particularly recent immigrants. The Japanese American World War II experience is well known. Few, however, know of the European American World War II experience, particularly that of the German Americans and Latin Americans. We also have much to learn about the Japanese and Italian Latin American programs. The focus of this overview is the US resident German experience, however, the programs were applied to all of “enemy ancestry” with varying ramifications. For more information regarding the internment of Germans from Latin America, click here. For more information regarding the related legal framework, click here.
The US government used many interrelated, constitutionally questionable methods to control those of enemy ancestry, including internment, individual and group exclusion from military zones, internee exchanges for Americans held in Germany, deportation, ‘alien enemy’ registration requirements, travel restrictions and property confiscation. The human cost of these civil liberties violations was high. Families were disrupted, reputations destroyed, homes and belongings lost. Meanwhile, untold numbers of German Americans fought for freedom around the world, including their ancestral homelands. Some were the immediate relatives of those subject to oppressive restrictions on the home front. Pressured by the US, Latin American governments arrested at least 8500 German Latin Americans. An unknown number were sent directly to Germany, while 4050 were shipped in dark boat holds to the United States and interned. At least 2,650 US and Latin American resident immigrants of German ethnicity and their native-born children were later exchanged for Americans and Latin Americans held in Germany. Some allege that internees were captured to use as exchange bait.

There is little wonder that so many of our ancestors did not pass down German or other languages to the second and third generations here in the USA.


Most German-Americans only have found out about their ancestors having been interned through accident. 

The erasing of memories and the shame that internment had brought has been almost been complete over the last few generations. Deborah McCarty Smith writes of John Heitman’s experience growing up in post-WWII America:

“A German Lutheran catechism and an ashtray, crafted from a rock and painted ‘Seagoville 1943,’ were John Heitmann’s first clues to his family’s history in the years before his birth. The clues would lead him to FBI files, immigration records and conversations with princes and professors and to the tip of the iceberg of a chapter of U.S. history unknown to most Americans – the internment of German aliens during World War II.”

Smith continues, “Seagoville [in reality an internment camp near Dallas], Heitmann knew, was somewhere his parents lived in Texas during the war, but never spoke of. The catechism, found two years ago while browsing books in his mother’s home, was stamped with a German inscription: ‘A gift of the German Red Cross to prisoners of war, 1943.’ A fax from a friend at the National Archives handed Heitmann the missing piece: ‘my father’s card file from the Immigration and Naturalization Service in May 1942 with a warrant to arrest my father as a dangerous pro-Nazi. My father was apprehended at his home in Astoria, N.Y., by seven FBI men with machine guns.’”

“We never talked about this. After the war, my father settled into a seemingly normal middle-class existence and lived as if it never happened,” Heitmann said.



The story of many of WWII internees of Asian, European, and Latin American descent often shared the same experience—an experience that many Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians have been sharing in too much–after 9-11-2001.

“The Department of Justice (DOJ) instituted very limited due process protections for those arrested. Potential internees were held in custody for weeks in temporary detention centers, such as jails and hospitals, prior to their hearings. Frequently, their families had no idea where they were for weeks. The hearings took place before DOJ-constituted civilian hearing boards. Those arrested were subject to hostile questioning by the local prosecuting US Attorney, who was assisted by the investigating FBI agents. The intimidated, frequently semi-fluent accused had no right to counsel, could not contest the proceedings or question their accusers. Hearing board recommendations were forwarded to the DOJ’s Alien Enemy Control Unit (AECU) for a final determination that could take weeks or months.
Internees remained in custody nervously awaiting DOJ’s order–unconditional release, parole or internment. Policy dictated that the AECU resolve what it deemed to be questionable hearing board recommendations in favor of internment. Based on AECU recommendations, the Attorney General issued internment orders for the duration of the war. Internees were shipped off to distant camps. Families were torn apart and lives disrupted, many irreparably. Family members left at home were shunned due to fear of the FBI and spite. Newspapers published stories and incriminating lists. Eventually destitute, many families lost their homes and had to apply to the government to join spouses in family camps, apply for welfare and/or rely on other family members who could afford to support them. Eventually, under such duress, hundreds of internees agreed to repatriate to war-torn Germany to be exchanged with their children for Americans. Once there, food was scarce, Allied bombs were falling and their German families could do little to help them. Many regretted their decision. Considering the spurious allegations, which led to the internment of a majority of internees, their treatment by our government was harsh indeed. Their experience provides ample evidence of why our civil liberties are so precious.”


John Heitmann, who is mentioned above, is now professor of history and has often sought to obtain all records on his father’s case with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, but he has often come up against Walls of Silence over the years. 

When discussing his continuing struggle to obtain information, Heitmann recalls “”I’ve always dealt with the history of institutions and how they can impersonally repress individuals who are perceived as a threat to those institutions. . . .”

“’Do we really learn from our past?’ Heitmann wonders, tracing parallels between the internment of German- Americans in the ’40s and government plans to intern suspected communists in the ’50s, Iranians in the ’70s and Iraqis in the ’90s. In the FBI Filegate flap of the Clinton administration, in current anti-immigrant sentiment, in anti-terrorist legislation that circumvents due process, historians hear ominous echoes of earlier times.”

Finally, Heitmann summarizes, “There are some intrinsic flaws in human nature that reappear and are reflected in our institutions. It’s a story of how institutions end up biting people . . . . In a world where there are lots of smoke screens and J. Edgar Hoovers, an individual can really be hurt….”  He then acknowledged “a professional curiosity that is fueled by a personal quest to discover a part of his family history that is buried under years of silence.”

If this is the case, our endless war on terrorism in the 21st century is going to leave many more generations scarred due to American backlash and internment.


Enemy Alien Control Program WWII: An Overview


German American Internee Coalition


Internment of German Americans in the United States in World War II


Japanese American Legacy Project


Japanese Internment:  This is the Enemy


Japanese Relocation Centers, http://www.infoplease.com/spot/internment1.html

Letters from Japanese Internment


The Story of Italian American Internment in WWII


Traces: German-Americans in the United States in WW II


World War Two—Japanese Internment Camps in the USA http://www.historyonthenet.com/WW2/japan_internment_camps.htm

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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14 Responses to Why have German-, Italian- and Latin American Internment during WWII been kept out of the USA History books?

  1. eslkevin says:


    German Internment Camps in World War II
    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:
    • GERMANS:
    o Warrants Issued 1757
    o Warrants Executed 374
    o Arrested Without Warrant 500
    o Warrants Issued 223
    o Warrants Executed 41
    o Arrested Without Warrant 85
    o Warrants Issued 700
    o Warrants Executed 437
    o 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: http://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 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/geneva02.htm)


  2. eslkevin says:

    Dear Kevin,

    Do you remember what early fascinations captured you as a child? Whether it’s inspired by the stars in the sky or a field of flowers, curiosity about the world is the beginning of knowledge—and science.

    Scientific curiosity is the key to solving our world’s most crucial environmental, health, and security problems—such as global warming. Yet, those who have a vested interested in denying global warming are trying to kill the public’s curiosity, and thus squelch the truth. And we can’t let that happen.

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  3. T. Mann says:

    The silence on German, Italian, and Latin American internments is a disgrace to this nation. Thats why they fail to teach the truth as with all things. People today might find themselves in a similar situation if they fail to recognize the facts.

    • eslkevin says:

      When I first heard of the Latin American internments–I recall that I was in Cuernevaca, Mexico–having graduated with a degree in history (from a U.S. college that was founded by German speaking peoples0 the year before.

      No one had mentioned the internments of Germans at that campus.

      Interestingly, too, althought the best rice (due ot Japanese internment near Cuernevaca)grows in the region–almost no one makes the connection to day to Japanese and German/Italian internment in the area.

  4. eslkevin says:


    German American Internment refers to the detention of people of German citizenship in the United States during World War I and World War II. Unlike the Japanese Americans who were interned during the war, they have never received an apology or reparations.[1] However, unlike Japanese-Americans, who were rounded up whether citizens or not, only non-citizen Germans were rounded up, with the exception of American-born minor children of internees.

  5. Cecilia says:

    My mother was a WWII war bride, a survivor of the Dresden firebombing and a Catholic Holocaust survivor.Her father was very wealthy; a top chemist for IG Farben, which put Hitler into power. He publicly spoke out against Nazism until the SS killed him and put the kids into forced-labor camps. My dad, Us Army Corporal, met and married her in post-war Germany, and brought her to his family in the poor Ozarks of southern Missouri. She, as a German, was not welcomed by some folks there. Kate, my mom, is nearing 85; she lives with me since I rescued her from a psychiatric ward almost 6 years ago. I wish my dad had chosen to stay in Germany and averted the culture shock and rejection suffered by my mom.

    • eslkevin says:

      Sadly, it is still hard for anyone to live and settle in parts of Germany that they did not grow up with. I met many former Eastern Germans from WWII era who said it took decades to get accepted in western German cities.

      • eslkevin says:

        I myself lived in Germany 6-7 years of my life and many government prejudices exclude Americans of German decent–same goes for Canadians of German decent–i..e little integration support.

  6. Wesley Cragun says:

    There is definitely a racial aspect at play here. The authors of history books are very PC and focus only on the internment of Japanese-Americans because it fits the narrative of the 1940s USA as being defined by racism and white supremacy. If they also focused on the internment of Germans and Italians, that would take away from the race-baiting quality that the textbook authors seek to achieve. So they choose to ignore the Germans and Italians altogether.

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