Forgotten Internees

During the Second World War, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is a well-documented fact, thanks to the efforts of the survivors of the camps and the many historians who have dedicated their research to these camps. However, at the same time, over 10,000 German and Italian Americans were being interned in the U.S. Many of them were there due to their membership in groups like the Amerikadeutcher Volksbund and the Italian American faction of the Blackshirts, whose loyalties were with the German Nazis and Italian Fascists respectively. Entire families were moved away from strategic positions and major cities into camps on suspicion of espionage or un-American activities. Whereas the Japanese were thrown into these camps en masse with little regard due to their race, German and Italian-Americans were scrutinized on how “American” they were. With the Japanese, the racial factor in their internment is obvious. The argument could also apply to the Italians, who largely fell within the “white no quite” category. This was the criteria applied to those who, though being of European descent, were not treated as equals to the people of Western Europe due to the complexion of their skin. However, the Germans were undeniably white. For them, a new standard was to be applied: that of “Americanness.” For this reason, Congress created a committee whose purpose was to decide what was and was not American. The House Un-American Activities Committee, well known for the McCarthy hearings, was created in 1938 with the intent of discerning what actions by various immigrants and political groups could be considered “un-American.” Since the end of the war, much has been written on these subjects, but the manner they have been written in is unfortunately marred by the desire to focus on the place of the American Nazi party and the internment. For this reason, there has been a great divide recently amongst historians, those who are opening the research on these groups with the intent of researching the more marginalized groups, and those who are keeping alive the old practice of focusing on the majority of the subject group. In this case, the subjects are the internees who were accused of un-American behavior.

Since the end of World War Two, historians have written about nearly every aspect of the war. However, as historians, military historians in particular, have begun changing their methods, the focus for World War Two has shifted away from the front lines and towards the home front. Since then, historians have researched the treatment of African American soldiers, the place of Women both in the military and in civilian life, and the treatment of various immigrant groups in the United States. Amongst the latter of the histories is that of the German American in the days of internment. As it stands, historians have been trying to sort through the voluminous government documents covering the German-American internment. John Christgau, the author of Enemies: World War II Alien Internment (2001), stated that the government documents on this were “400 feet of cartons in the national archives” and would take nothing “short of a decade of research” to fully understand. The literature on the interment very much relies on these government records as well as the few testaments that they can get from various former internees. Even when interviews with the former internees are possible, historians often choose to use these to provide context to the voluminous government records. As for the literature itself, much of it directly focuses on the camps themselves and the conditions of the prisoners, though they do touch on the issue of identity in the U.S. during the war. Germans in the U.S. as well as German-Americans were interned across the U.S., even those that gave up speaking German, called themselves American, and were seeking naturalization. However, as Arnold Krammer, author of Undue Process (1997), was quick to point out, many of those who were being interned were also members of groups like Die Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, the German American Nazi party. This research comes from most of the pre-existing literature on the history of the Nazi movement and the German Fifth Column in the U.S. Krammer very directly cited works like Susan Canedy’s America’s Nazis (1990) as he described the FBI’s monitoring of, and eventual internment of, German nationalists in the U.S. This is, in some ways, very unfortunate. The research being used focuses more on trying to figure out who was and who was not a Nazi in the U.S., without really looking into the people who were innocent, but still interned. In Canedy’s book, she makes the argument that, whether or not they were Nazis, the U.S. was using political beliefs as a basis for internment, which violated the First Amendment. In this way, she is focusing on the larger point of political ideas in the U.S. and painting the vast majority of the internees as members of the Nazi party. However, the sources used by both of these types of literature are incredibly thorough. The vast majority of these books, like those on German-American internment, are built upon various government documents on naturalization records, records of soldiers being declared 4-F, unfit for service, for their political beliefs, and the FBI’s lists of people they were monitoring. Sander A. Diamond, author of The Nazi Movement in the United States (1974) and John Christgau directly credit the Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966, for opening up a section of history that might have become nothing more than a rumor told by the former internees. However, despite the great amount of information currently sitting in the National Archives that covers the treatment of German Americans in the Second World War, the vast majority of literature that touches on it is written on the American Nazis, while relatively few are written on the internment camps or the overarching question of German American identity during the war.

In stark contrast to the historiography on German Americans during the war, the histories of Italian Americans during the war are surprisingly well covered. Though the subject of Italian American discrimination during the Second World War was not covered in an official capacity until 1997 with Philip Jenkins’ Invisible Black Shirts (1997), which was a micro-history focusing on the history of far right groups in the state of Pennsylvania. Jenkin’s used the story of Italian-American Fascists not to explain the history of Italian-Americans during the war, but only to explain their part in the much larger history of far-right groups within America. In this way, the historiography suffers from a similar problem to what was seen with German American historiography. Much was written surrounding the historical buzzwords of Fascists in the U.S. and World War Two. However, as historians like Donna Gabaccia have been work to change the ethnic historical fields to focus more on the Italian Americans on the home front during the war, the historiography has slowly moved in that direction. In 1990, Stephen Fox wrote Uncivil Liberties, in which he compiled the stories of people directly involved with the implementation of the Enemy Aliens act, including District Attorneys, former politicians, and Italian-Americans who were declared Enemy Aliens. This inspired Lawrence Distasi’s Storia Segrata, written seven years after Fox’s book, covering the stories of various Italian American internees during the Second World War. His works have heralded a new movement amongst historians who have sought to cover the treatment of Italian Americans during the war. Since then, the literature largely covers the Italian-American’s struggle for identity during the time where many of them were labeled as “Enemy Aliens” as part of the larger issue of the Italian-American assimilation into American culture. A great part of this was the struggle to hold onto things that were seen as being inherently Italian, such as language and religion. This is covered at great length in Susan Carnevale’s A New Language, A New World, where she describes the effects of the Enemy Aliens act on Italian American culture and the struggle to hold onto the Italian language within the U.S. In a similar fashion, William Issel describes the problems the problems of maintaining the Italian American identity amidst anti-Catholic movements during the war in the book For Both Cross and Flag. Here, it is evident that the literature largely surrounds the struggle to maintain Italian culture and traditions in the U.S. during the war as a response to growing animosity towards those seen as “un-American.” Carnevale also describes how Italian Americans tried to prove their loyalty, or “American-ness”, by serving in the Army as well as certain programs run by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, that contributed to the invasion of Italy in 1943. However, while these histories do greatly contribute to the literature on Italian Americans in the Second World War, very little literature, outside of DiStasi’s original work, has directly covered the internment of Italian Americans. When such literature does, it largely relies on interviews from people claiming to be former internees, again, as DiStasi and Fox did. That being said, the literature has largely opened up and included inter-communal political struggles as Italian Americans had to abandon nationalistic ideas in favor of keeping their American identity. The fact that such things have been covered, and have been covered without simply using the subject of Fascism as a crutch, is indicative of the progress made by ethnic historians to cover the histories of ethnic groups and their ideas.

Similar themes have been found with the literature on Prisoner of War camps, both for former German soldiers and for Alien Enemies. Much of the literature has successfully avoided the easy method of simply writing on the existence of the camps and their practices. Instead, much of the literature covers the microhistory of camps based in specific states and how they dealt with both racial and political issues within the camps. These are particularly covered in Robert Billinger’s Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State, where he noted that the POW camps began to divide soldiers based on how loyal they were to the Nazi party. Billinger explains that this was not done as a method of sorting out who was and who was not a “real enemy”, but rather as a safety procedure as other camps had experienced murders, riots, and sometimes massacres against Nazi POWs. This is also covered in Antonio Thompson’s Men in German Uniform, where he is quick to distinguish the overt difference between being a Nazi soldier, meaning a soldier who was loyal to the Nazi Party, and a ‘German’ soldier, a soldier who could be from any nationality or race, but was in the service of the German army. Both authors note the problems guards faced when to mitigating racial and political differences that often ended in prisoner on prisoner violence. Such things show that the people being brought to the camps were not all diehard soldiers of the Reich, as they were often believed to be. However, while many works do cover these issues of race within the camps, others, such as Michael Waters, author of Lone Star Stalag, chose to focus on the place of the prison camps in the spectrum of international politics. Waters argued that the U.S. had met and exceeded the requirements on the treatment of prisoners. While Waters did not expound enough on inter-camp racial issues, he did cover issues of both loyalty to country and religion within the camp.

As for the internment of Enemy Aliens, the literature does provide a good mixture of racial politics and the struggle of being considered American. Though such things largely rely on the testimonies of others, a substantial amount is directly backed up by records from the FBI. This is especially clear in Christgau’s Enemies as well as Jan Russel’s Train to Crystal City. Christgau was able to cover the problems faced by ethnic Germans and German nationalists within internment camps like Fort Lincoln, North Dakota. Meanwhile, Russel covers the experiences of people who volunteered to go to internment camps as some member of their family, often their father, had been interned. In doing so, Russel writes about how the interment directly affected the familial dynamic and, in turn, how their treatment in these camps impacted their perception of their ‘American’ identity. These two works manage to tell the stories of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans who were interned without having to lean on the pre-existing literature on the American Nazi parties. Instead, they are able to explain the difficulties faced by Germans and German Americans within the United States to be persecuted despite innocence.

Throughout the historiography, it is evident that the story of Italian and German Americans during the Second World War is a struggle to prove “American-ness.” For the Germans, it was a struggle between two sides of a culture, one that sought to become American and one that sought to remain German. Christgau and Krammer have shown this by portraying the German Americans and German Migrants during the war as being a people that wanted to become fully naturalized, all the while having to differentiate themselves from the Nazis to prove their innocence to a skeptical government. At the same time, historians such as Carnevale and Fox portray the Italian Americans in a rather different light. Rather than having to simply debate innocence, Carnevale and Fox argue that Italian Americans had to prove loyalty as well as innocence. Carnevale specifically sought to illustrate this by bringing up the programs used by the OSS and the U.S. Army that utilized Italian Americans for the initial invasion of Fascist Italy in 1943. They were also quick to point out the existence of Italian-American war heroes, such as those who proved their loyalty on the field and those who tried to improve their communities by making it more “American”. However, despite the great strides forward made b y historians covering the era of internment, there is still a great bit more that must be written on this subject.

As it stands, the great problem with the literature on German-American is with the lack of research on their struggle with assimilation. While a great deal of research focuses on the actions directly against the Volksbund, there is very little focusing on the repression of the general populace of German Americans. It must be said, while there were hundreds of thousands of people of German descent within the U.S., the existing literature does not cover the challenges to the identity of German-Americans within the United States outside of those that were interned. While the literature does show that movies, newspapers, and radio programs often persecuted German Americans, there is very little written on the experiences of the average German American that was not interned. The pre-existing literature on the Volksbund is used as a crutch in Krammer’s work, which is evident as he directly cites Canedy’s America’s Nazis. While the ideas of the persecution of German Americans and the existence of a German American Nazi Party go hand in hand, Krammer relies too heavily on the latter part of that pairing. Whereas, in Christgau’s work, he sets the fear of German Fifth Columnists and Nazis as a background to the problems faced by non-Nazi German migrants. Despite the efforts of these historians, their place in ethnic history does not go far enough. Something similar can also be said for the place of German Americans in the military during the war. While the contributions of Italian Americans to the war effort have been stated, the literature does not contribute any stories of German Americans in the war. Knowing how many German Americans there were in the United States, they certainly would have contributed to the war effort.

A different problem is seen with the historiography on Italian Americans. While the literature does, thankfully, cover the identity struggles of Italian Americans and assimilation during the war. Carnevale, Fox, and DiStasi are able to portray the Italian American in the war without being held up by the history of the Italian American Black shirts. However, it is largely with the literature on the Black Shirts as well as Carnevale that is supported by governmental records. Fox and DiStasi largely rely on the personal stories of Italian Americans during the war, but bring very few governmental records to the table. There is also the problem of the migration of Italians within the U.S. that were not seeking citizenship. Carnevale, Jenkins, and Issel manage to cover the problems faced by Italian Americans, but not Italians in America. They portray the Italian Americans as being quick to try to prove that they were American, but say nothing about the Italian migrants who were still in the country when the war began. In this way, their works feed into the narrative that the Italian Americans were loyal Americans who were just persecuted for not being ‘American’ enough. Even though the presence of Italian Americans within the U.S. Army is certainly noteworthy as it adds to the ethnic history of Italian Americans, Carnevale only covers the presence of Italian American men in the military. She says very little of the presence, if any presence ever existed, of Italian American women in groups such as the WACs and the WAVEs. The presence of women in general being in the military for this time has been greatly noted by other historians for its political importance, its importance for the perception of women in America, and their place in the war effort. However, the literature does not cover the problems faced by Italian American women in such groups. If Italian American men joined in such high numbers, and women in general were volunteering for these groups, one can assume many Italian American women also volunteered. However, the existence of such a specific group, while likely very well documented, has not been written about as of yet.

In comparison to both of the other groups, the POWs are surprisingly well written about. The racial and political dynamic faced by prisoners of war in American camps is very well documented by Waters, Thompson, and Billenger. The literature does cover the issues faced by both the guards and the prisoners as prisoners began to divide themselves based on political ideology, which is well documented as it often led to violent outbursts within the camps. The problems with identity are also well documented based on the decisions of some prisoners to either stay or return to Germany after the war was over. Some sought citizenship, volunteered for de-Nazification programs, or became friendly with the American guards. Whats more is that the reasons that many of these prisoners sought citizenship are also very well documented. Some sought American citizenship because their country had been torn apart by the war, others wanted to stay because they preferred the American lifestyle. This issue is rather well discussed without getting stuck on the issue of Nazi politics, which is sometimes brought up by necessity. Even so, it is used as a background to the tensions in the camps on ideas of race and nationalism. Meanwhile, the literature on the internment camps describes the struggles faced by civilians in the U.S. with their ideas of nationality. Though it is largely hindered by the fact that few of the people who were originally interned, likely due to the possible persecution they would face post war for being a member of the Nazi party, historians are able to compensate by using the testimonies of family members backed up by government documentation.

The current field on the experiences of German and Italian Americans is in dire need of more diverse research. Though it does greatly cover the issue of Italian American identity and service, the issue of German American identity and service goes almost entirely unmentioned. The literature also does not expand on the problems face by non-internee German Americans, Italian-American Servicewomen, and Italian migrants. Meanwhile, the literature on the POW camps covers the ethnic histories of the prisoners thanks to good governmental documentation. It very clearly covers political, racial, and nationalistic issues regarding the prisoners and internees. It has also been evident that the more recent of these books have covered these issues in a much better manner, illustrating a change in the general methodology of historians.

[1] John Christgau, Enemies: World War II Alien Internment. (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press: 2001.), pg.7.

Billenger, Robert. 2000. Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Canedy, Susan. 1990. America’s Nazis: A Democratic Dilemma: A History of the German American Bund. Menlo Park: Markgraf Publications Group.
Carnevale, Nancy. 2009. A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Christgau, John. 2001. Enemies: World War II Alien Internment. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Diamond, Sander. 1974. The Nazi Movement in the United States: 1924-1941. London: Cornell University Press.
Fox, Stephen. 2000. Uncivil Liberties: Italian Americans Under Siege in World War II. Mickeygod Publications.
Issel, William. 2009. For Both Cross and Flag: Catholic Action, Anti-Catholicism, and National Secutiy Politics in World War II San Francisco. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Jenkins, Philip. 1997. Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press .
Krammer, Arnold. 1997. Undue Process. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Press.
Russell, Jan. 2015. The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Familiy Internment Camp during World War II. New York: Scribner Publishing.
Thomspon, Antonio. 2010. Men in German Uniform: POWs in America during World War II. Knoxville: University of Tenessee Press.
Waters, Michael. 2004. Lone Star Stalag: German Prisoners of War at Camp Hearne. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.