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 IN AMERICA ON GERMAN INTERNMENT
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.
DO WE LEARN FROM OUR PAST?
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