German American Internees in the United States during WWII

Americans of German heritage were imprisoned in WWII.


1918 Codification of Alien Enemy Act of 1798, 50 U.S.C 21-24, permitting apprehension and internment of aliens of “enemy ancestry” by U.S. government upon declaration of war or threat of invasion. The President is given blanket authority as to “enemy alien” treatment. Civil liberties may be completely ignored because enemy aliens have no protection under this 202- year-old law. Government oppression is likely during wartime.

1939-1941 Various governmental bodies, such as the FBI, special intelligence agencies of the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Army’s Military Intelligence Division compile lists of dangerous “enemy aliens” and citizens, including the FBI’s Custodial Detention Index (the “CDI”).

1940 The census includes specific listings and location of persons based on their ethnicity, which may have assisted the U.S. Government in later identification of “suspect” individuals of “enemy ancestry.”

1940 Alien Registration Act of 1940 passed requiring all aliens 14 and older to register with the U.S. government.

Dec. 7, 1941 Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Pursuant to the Alien Enemy Act of 1798, Roosevelt issued identical Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527 branding German, Italian and Japanese nationals as enemy aliens, authorizing internment and travel and property ownership restrictions. A blanket presidential warrant authorized U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle to have the FBI arrest a large number of “dangerous enemy aliens” based on the CDI. Hundreds of German aliens were arrested by the end of the day. The FBI raids many homes and hundreds more are detained before war even declared on Germany.

Dec. 11, 1941 U.S. declares war on Germany and Italy.

Jan. 1942 Pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 2525-2527 and 2537 (issued Jan.14, 1942), the Attorney General issues regulations requiring application for and issuance of certificates of identification to all “enemy aliens” aged 14 and older and outlining restrictions on their movement and property ownership rights. Approximately one million enemy aliens reregister, including 300,000 German-born aliens, the 2nd largest immigrant group at that time. Applications are forwarded to the Department of Justice’s Alien Registration Division and the FBI. Any change of address, employment or name must be reported to the FBI. Enemy aliens may not enter federally designated restricted areas. If enemy aliens violate these or other applicable regulations, they are subject to “arrest, detention and internment for the duration of the war.”

Jan.- Feb. 1942 In cooperation with the military, the DOJ establishes numerous, small prohibited zones strictly forbidden to all enemy aliens. DOJ also establishes extensive “restricted areas” in which enemy aliens are subject to stringent curfew and travel restrictions, particularly on the West Coast.

Feb. 19, 1942 Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to define military areas in which “the right of any person to enter, remain in or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions” are deemed necessary or desirable. This order applies to all “enemy” nationalities.

March 11, 1942 Executive Order 9095 creates the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, which gives the Custodian discretionary, plenary authority over all alien property interests. Many internee assets were frozen creating immediate financial catastrophe for affected families.

Feb.-April 1942 Congress ratifies Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imposition of sanctions for violations of the order. Extensive military zones established on the east and west coasts, significantly expanding upon those originally created by DOJ, and in certain areas around the Great Lakes. General John DeWitt issues a series of Public Proclamations creating Western Defense Command military areas and outlining curfews, travel restrictions and exclusion provisions, among other things, applicable to German, Japanese and Italian aliens, as well as Japanese American citizens. By military order, thousands of German, Japanese and Italian aliens required leave military areas on the West Coast. Later, approximately 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans are relocated from the West Coast to camps administered by the Wartime Relocation Authority. On an individual basis, “potentially dangerous” U.S. citizens of German ancestry are also ordered out of military zones and forced to establish new lives with little or no government assistance.

October 1942 Wartime restrictions on Italian Americans terminated.

1942 – 1943 Internment camps administered by the military and the DOJ are established throughout the country. The INS operated the DOJ camps. The largest were located at Crystal City and Seagoville, Texas and Ft. Lincoln, ND. There were at least 50 temporary detention and long-term internment facilities. Internees are transferred from camp to camp under armed guard, further disrupting their lives and making it even more difficult for their families to find them.

1942 U.S. Government initiated exchanges of approximately 2,000 internees for Americans held in Germany. Six exchange voyages carried many families to Germany, including American-born children and U.S. citizen spouses of German alien internees. As the war progressed, travel across the Atlantic was increasing hazardous. Upon arrival in war-ravaged Germany, exchangees were unexpected and unwanted by their families. Many are suspected of being spies. Families with young children, some even born during the trip to Germany, had to make their own way to family homes through hazardous countryside, frequently in winter, carrying all their worldly belongings. Some men were beaten and arrested by the Gestapo as spies and put in camps, leaving families destitute again.

1942 The U.S. initiated a cooperative program whereby Latin American countries at U.S. direction captured German Latin Americans, including German and Austrian Jews who had fled persecution. Under U.S. military guard, prisoners were shipped to the U.S. in the dark, dank holds of boats and rarely permitted on deck. Open bucket latrines were placed among the prisoners. No one told them what was happening to them. They were interned and many forcibly shipped to Germany. General George Marshall stated in a 12/12/42 memo to the Caribbean Defense Command: “These interned nationals are to be used for exchange with interned American civilian nationals.” By the end of the war, over 4,050 German Latin Americans were brought to American internment camps.

1942 – 1945 Thousands of German aliens and German Americans are arrested, interned, excluded, paroled, exchanged and generally harassed by a suspicious country. Few know why they are interned or for how long. Internees try to make lives in camps, attempting to ignore the psychological and physical upheaval to which they have been subjected. Mental anguish, anger, guilt and shame are common. Armed guards and guard dogs watch over internees living in huts or dorms in barren parts of the country surrounded by barbed wire, observed from guard towers. All mail is censored. Contact with the outside world is severely limited. Many continually appeal their internment orders. DOJ generally ignores their requests, requiring unobtainable “new evidence” for consideration of appeals. Some are granted rehearings, pursuant to which an even smaller number are released. Internees who are released do not know why, nor do they ever learn why they were interned. Those released are generally subject to parole restrictions. Internees are pressured to repatriate. Hopeless and bitter, many agree and are readily used for exchange. There were six exchanges with Germany, primarily of civilians, but also of POWs. One trip of the SS Gripsholm in January 1945 involves 1,000 exchangees. The government arranges for “trustworthy” able-bodied men to work outside camps. One group works on the Northern Pacific Railroad in North Dakota repairing the railroad tracks and living in boxcars with coal stoves throughout the winter. Others work for the Forest Service and 3M.

May 7, 1945 Germany surrenders.

July 1945 Truman issues a Presidential Proclamation 2655 authorizing the U.S. to deport all enemy aliens deemed “to be dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States.” This affects hundreds, if not thousands, of internees who remain imprisoned indefinitely.

Aug. 14, 1945 Japan surrenders.

November 1945 Many internees released from camps. Parole limitations for most persons terminated. Internment camps progressively closed and remaining internees eventually consolidated at Crystal City and Ellis Island.

Late 1947 Crystal City family camp closed. Those still imprisoned, exclusively German internees and their families, transferred to cramped Ellis Island where others are held. Virtually all are of German ancestry. Over the next year, many additional persons are returned to Germany. Others are paroled or unconditionally released to return to their homes. The barbed wire exercise cages overlook the Statute of Liberty. The captives contest repatriation and deportation by pooling their limited funds to finance appeals in court. They finally find a voice in Congress—Senator William Langer of North Dakota.

August 1948 Due in large part to Senator Langer’s efforts, among others, the last person, a German American, is finally released from Ellis Island, three years after cessation of hostilities with Germany. No internee was ever convicted of a war-related crime against the United States. Upon release, most adult internees sign secrecy oaths, many are threatened with deportation with no prospect of return if they speak of their ordeal. Many internees, always fearful, take the secret to their graves. Reportedly, camp employees also sign oath of secrecy. The secret is well kept. Few today know of selective internment.


Internees and excludees return home to suspicious communities, some have been interned 6-7 years. Children do not remember life without barbed wire. Homes and livelihoods are lost. Reputations destroyed. No safety net protects them. They confront feelings of confusion, anger, resentment, bitterness, guilt and shame. They try to understand what happened and repair broken lives. The experience scarred families forever. Those exchanged to Germany struggled to survive in the extremely difficult postwar years. Some exchangees returned to the U.S. years later. Frequently, American-born children left their families behind in order to do so. Many never were allowed to return. Others, embittered by what they perceived as America’s betrayal, never wanted to come back.

1980 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (“CWRIC”) created. Focused primarily on the relocation of Japanese and Japanese Americans, the CWRIC did not allow German Americans or other European Americans to testify or offer written testimony on their wartime experiences. The final report, Personal Justice Denied, focuses primarily on German American individual and group exclusion issues under Executive Order 9066. It identifies only 4 internment camps. The tribulations of German internment are covered in only four paragraphs primarily discussing the hearing process. The CWRIC asserts that this process afforded sufficient “rough fairness” under the circumstances. The CWRIC is wrong. Lacking sufficient due process protections, this “rough fairness” frequently resulted in unjustified, painful years of captivity, exchange and property loss for thousands.

1988-present Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed solely giving redress to and acknowledging injustices to Japanese Americans and Aleuts. No German American or other affected European American allowed to give oral or written testimony on their wartime experience during congressional hearings. Civil Liberties Education Fund established to fund projects relating to public education regarding the Japanese American experience. National Park Service study funded to designate Japanese relocation camps as national historic landmarks. In January 1999 the U.S. settles Mochizuki class action agreeing to monetary redress of $5,000 and a presidential apology for Japanese Latin Americans. In November 2000 the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act signed into law recognizing only the government’s wrongful denial of Italian American civil liberties. In February 2001, Wartime Parity and Justice Act of 2001 introduced to provide for the inclusion of Japanese Latin Americans in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, among other things.

Aug. 3, 2001 Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act, joined by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). Reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate in March 2002, amended and renamed as the Wartime Treatment Study Act.

Feb. 5, 2003 Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced H. Res. 56 calling for National Day of Remembrance on February 19 and supporting the goal of the German, Japanese and Italian American communities to increase public awareness of the World War II violations of civil liberties by the U.S. government.


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