German and Italian detainees

In addition to the forced removal of Japanese Americans for purposes of confinement in War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, the Justice Department oversaw the internment of more than thirty-one thousand civilians during the Second World War. This total included approximately 11,500 people of German ancestry and three thousand people of Italian ancestry, many of whom were United States citizens. [1] These detainees were housed in the Justice Department and army camps scattered across the country, from Crystal City , Texas, to Ft. Lincoln , North Dakota, to Sand Island , Hawai'i. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and a newly created Special Defense Unit (SDU)—at that time all under the Justice Department's supervision—played crucial roles in the wartime confinement of ethnic Germans and Italians.


Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover , the FBI began a secret five-year plan in 1935 to investigate individuals residing in the United States who maintained ties to communist or Nazi organizations. With assistance from the Military Intelligence Division (MID) and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), by 1938 the FBI had developed a list of 2,500 alleged communists and Nazis living inside the United States. Just a year later, with war looming in Europe, U.S. officials claimed that the FBI was monitoring "more than ten million persons." [2] President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Hoover in charge of all counterespionage and counterintelligence operations in June 1939, while Congress began to discuss the establishment of concentration camps for political extremists and disloyal residents. At this time Hoover also spearheaded the creation of a "custodial detention index," a master list of civilians whom the FBI would arrest and detain in the event of war or national emergency. [3] Also known informally as " ABC lists ," the custodial detention index placed groups and individuals into one of three categories according to their perceived levels of danger. [4] Evidence suggests that the majority of Germans and Italians included on these lists were actually U.S. citizens. [5] Finally, the passage of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 prompted the hasty nationwide registration and fingerprinting of all resident aliens, a total of 4.9 million people. [6]

These prewar activities presaged the Justice Department's creation of a formal Alien Enemy Control Program following the United States' declaration of war. Authority for this program was derived from the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 , which gave the President power to apprehend, restrain, and remove resident enemy aliens during times of war or national emergency. [7] Measures taken in the United States during the First World War, as well as more recent events in the United Kingdom, provided precedent for the internment of foreign residents. The Justice Department had arrested 6,300 German aliens under presidential warrant during World War I and incarcerated more than two thousand of them for the war's duration. [8] In the United Kingdom, which had been at war with Nazi Germany since September 1939, tribunals investigated more than seventy-five thousand resident enemy aliens from Germany and Austria—most of whom were Jewish or part-Jewish—and interned twenty-two thousand of them. [9] In the United States, however, the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Program also targeted numerous American citizens, with J. Edgar Hoover publicly expressing concern over what he termed "the naturalized citizen whose cloak of citizenship is a sham and is dangerous to the nation's security." [10]

Confinement Experience

Justice Department officials opted for a policy of selective internment of ethnic Germans and Italians, irrespective of citizenship status. Arrests of civilians whose names appeared on custodial detention lists—including numerous American citizens—commenced on December 8, 1941, three days before the United States had declared war against Germany and Italy. [11] Detainees received hearings following their arrests, but those arrested on the U.S. mainland were not allowed legal counsel. [12] In Hawai'i, twenty-one of the 106 ethnic German and Italian civilians arrested within forty-eight hours of the Pearl Harbor attack were U.S. citizens. [13] Confinement of German citizens in the United States had actually begun two years earlier, when more than five hundred German crew members from the ocean liner SS Columbus were rescued in the Atlantic Ocean before being transferred to Fort Stanton , New Mexico. Another group of Italian seamen was apprehended in May 1941 and confined at Fort Missoula , Montana. [14]

Justice Department officials took a variety of factors into consideration when considering whether to subject an individual to confinement, placing particular emphasis on membership in proscribed organizations. The greatest cause for alarm was the overtly pro-Nazi Amerikadeutscher Volksbund (German American Federation) or "Bund," headed by German American Fritz Kuhn. Although its actual membership probably hovered close to ten thousand, the Bund had organized a widely publicized rally at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1939 that attracted twenty-two thousand enthusiastic spectators. [15] In addition to membership in suspect organizations, FBI officials evaluated an individual's newspaper and magazine subscriptions, foreign bank accounts and property holdings, overseas remissions, purchases of war bonds or Rueckwanderer Marks (re-emigration marks), recent visits to Axis countries, and relatives' activities in those countries. Finally, FBI agents collected extensive statements from anonymous informants, whose testimony was not always reliable. [16]

The diverse makeup of Justice Department detainees classified by as "Germans" or "Italians" reveals that other factors trumped ethnicity, residency, and citizenship as grounds for internment. On the U.S. mainland, refugees and naturalized citizens from countries annexed or occupied by Nazi Germany also came under suspicion, resulting in the confinement of Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. [17] Those apprehended in the Territory of Hawai'i included a handful of Jewish refugees and people of Danish, Finnish, Irish, and Norwegian descent. Several of Hawai'i's Caucasian detainees had even served in the U.S. Armed Forces. [18] The scope of the American confinement program also extended overseas, with FBI agents compiling lists of allegedly dangerous individuals of German, Italian, and Japanese descent residing throughout Latin America. Pressure from the U.S. State Department resulted in the apprehension and deportation of 4,058 ethnic Germans and 288 ethnic Italians (along with 2,264 people of Japanese ancestry) from nineteen different Latin American countries to the United States for the purposes of prisoner exchanges with Axis nations or continued confinement on the U.S. mainland. [19] The ranks of these detainees included large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe, with 250 Jews detained in the U.S.-administered Panama Canal Zone alone. [20]

Federal authorities concentrated this eclectic and multinational mix of enemy aliens in at least twenty-one different Justice Department and Army camps far removed from coastal areas, typically in facilities that also held Japanese detainees. [21] Population totals were extremely fluid as prisoners were transferred between camps or repatriated to their native countries. The Justice Department's Crystal City site, which served as a family camp, reached a peak population of 3,374 prisoners, including 997 ethnic Germans and six ethnic Italians–many coming from Latin America. [22] 2,150 ethnic Germans—both civilian residents and merchant seamen—passed through the Justice Department camp at Fort Lincoln, making this Bismarck, North Dakota, facility one of the chief confinement sites for German detainees. [23] Other camps featuring significant ethnic German or Italian populations included the aforementioned Ft. Stanton and Ft. Missoula sites, as well as Camp Kenedy , Texas, and Camp Forrest , Tennessee.

Comparison to the Japanese American Experience

While civilians of Japanese ancestry were subject to a three-tiered process of exclusion, removal, and internment, most of America's ethnic Germans and Italians were spared from one substantial component: they were not forced to endure a comprehensive program of removal followed by incarceration in WRA camps. [24] Indeed, the sheer enormity of these two ethnic communities would have presented a substantial obstacle: Germans and Italians constituted the two largest foreign-born populations in the United States at that time. [25] There were more than 1.2 million people of German birth living in the United States in 1940 and five million residents with two German-born parents. America's ethnic Italian population was even larger, as more than 2.4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1901 and 1920 alone. [26] To a certain extent, German and Italian immigrants retained their national identities, as evidenced by the existence of 178 German-language newspapers and 129 Italian-language newspapers as late as 1942. [27]

Anti-Asian prejudice coupled with the fact that German and Italian immigrants—unlike Japanese Issei —were eligible for U.S. citizenship enabled members of these ethnic communities to become more closely enmeshed within the American social fabric than their Japanese counterparts. [28] The majority of German and Italian-born civilians living in the United States in 1941 had already received American citizenship. [29] In fact, President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry J. Stimson quickly dismissed the notion that Italian Americans posed any danger to the American war effort. [30] Given these factors, although General John L. DeWitt initially recommended the mass removal of ethnic Germans and Italians residing in coastal areas, it is not surprising that a congressional committee led by California Representative John H. Tolan rejected his proposal. (See Tolan Committee ). [31] People of Italian ancestry received an additional boost on Columbus Day 1942, when Attorney General Francis Biddle officially deleted Italians from the ranks of enemy aliens. [32]

Nevertheless, ethnic German and Italian residents felt the brunt of America's internment and exclusion programs. In addition to the diverse collection of detainees described above, military authorities excluded hundreds of German and Italian nationals and U.S. citizens from coastal security zones. While this measure did not lead to incarceration in WRA camps, it effectively banished coastal residents to locations further inland. [33] The plight of ethnic German and Italian detainees went largely unrecognized during the decades of the Japanese American redress movement . In fact, President Ronald Reagan's public apology that accompanied his signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 spoke only of "Japanese Americans" and "members of the Aleut community." Two years later, when issuing the first redress payments, President George H.W. Bush pledged to "take a clear stand for justice and recognize that injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II." [34]

Authored by Alan Rosenfeld , University of Hawai'i - West O'ahu

For More Information

DeStasi, Lawrence, ed. Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Internment and Evacuation During World War II . Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001.

Fox, Stephen. America's Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment and Exclusion in World War II. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

———. Uncivil Liberties: Italian Americans Under Siege During World War II. Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2000.

Krammer, Arnold. Undue Process: The Untold Story of America's German Alien Internees. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.


  1. See Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Internment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 124-125; Tetsuden Kashima, "Introduction," in Yasutaro (Keiho) Soga, Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'i Issei (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008), 5; Stephen Fox, Uncivil Liberties: Italian Americans Under Siege during World War II (Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2000), xi; Stephen Fox, America's Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment and Exclusion in World War II (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), xvi; Stephen Fox, Fear Itself: Inside the FBI Roundup of German Americans during World War II (Lincoln: iUniverse, 2007), xxiii. Numbers vary slightly. While Tetsuden Kashima reports 2,730 detainees of Italian ancestry, Fox provides a higher figure of 3,278 interned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and 418 by the Justice Department.
  2. Arnold Krammer, Undue Process: The Untold Story of America's German Alien Internees (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), 2. For more on the FBI's initial list of 2,500 Communists and Nazis, see Fox, Invisible Gulag , 4; and Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 21.
  3. Fox, Invisible Gulag , 4-5; Fox, Fear Itself , xxxiv; and Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 30-33.
  4. This classification system was developed by the SDU. For more on "ABC" designations, see Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 27-33; and Fox, Fear Itself, xxxiv, 160.
  5. See Krammer, Undue Process , 31-32. Krammer cites a memo produced by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on December 8, 1941, which provided the following figures: of 4,060 ethnic Germans and Italians on the "ABC lists," only 713 were confirmed enemy aliens. 1,442 people were classified as American citizens sympathetic to either Germany (1,393) or Italy (77), while citizenship could not be established for the remaining 1,905 people in question.
  6. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 was part of the more extensive Smith Act . For more on the registration of resident aliens, see Krammer, Undue Process , 26.
  7. 5th Congress of the United States, "Alien Enemies Act," 1798, For a brief discussion of the Alien Enemy Act of 1798, including its use during the War of 1812, see Krammer, Undue Process , 13-14; and Fox, Invisible Gulag , xv-xvi.
  8. See Commission of Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 290-291; Fox, Invisible Gulag , 7; and Krammer, Undue Process , 14-15.
  9. See Krammer, Undue Process , 18-21; and Fox, Invisible Gulag , 8. Also of interest here is the 2001 German film Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) , which tells the story of a German-Jewish refugee family interned in British-controlled Kenya.
  10. See J. Edgar Hoover, "Alien Enemy Control," Iowa Law Review 29 (1943–1944), 407. For further discussions of the FBI's investigation and confinement of U.S. citizens, see Krammer, Undue Process , 31-32.
  11. A memo issued by Hoover on December 8 listed more U.S. citizens than enemy aliens. See Krammer, Undue Process , 31-32.
  12. Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 285. Those interned in Hawai'i, were allowed legal counsel, but expenses were not covered and the accused could not confront anonymous informants.
  13. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 72.
  14. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 17; and Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 46. For the detailed story of one of these German seamen, see John Christgau, Enemies: World War II Alien Internment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 7-47. For more on the camps at Ft. Lincoln and Missoula, see Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 202.
  15. Krammer, Undue Process , 4-6. Also see Fox, Invisible Gulag , 24-26; and Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 288.
  16. For more on causes of internment, see Fox, Invisible Gulag , 5; and Fox, Fear Itself , xxxiv.
  17. See Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 124; and Krammer, Undue Process , 74-75.
  18. Examples of detainees who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces include Carl Armfelt, Arthur Baltrusch, Claude Lyderson, Mario Valdastri, and Hans Zimmerman . Transcripts from individual hearing board sessions in which individual histories are discussed—including detainees' ethnic backgrounds and veteran status—can be found in the National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter cited as NARA), Record Group (hereafter cited as RG) 389, Entry 461. For more on Mario Valdastri, see Lawrence DiStasi, ed., Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001), 143-155.
  19. These figures come from Krammer, Undue Process , 98. For more on the deportation and confinement of Latin American residents see Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 305-314. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 94-103; and Fox, Fear Itself , 219-249. Kashima provides a slightly lower figure of 2,253 for people of Japanese ancestry.
  20. Fox, Fear Itself , 241.
  21. See Krammer, Undue Process , 83-84, for a list of nineteen confinement sites in the continental U.S. housing ethnic German or Italian detainees. Additional civilians of German and Italian ancestry were held at Honouliuli and Sand Island in the Territory of Hawai'i. Further details regarding these confinement sites can be accessed at the German American Internee Coalition website, 2011: (August 23, 2011).
  22. See Krammer, Undue Process , 110; and Fox, Fear Itself , 117.
  23. Krammer, Undue Process , 128.
  24. For more information on the smaller-scale forced removal of ethnic Germans and Italians away from the U.S. West Coast in 1942, see Fox, Uncivil Liberties , xv; and Fox, "The Relocation of Italian Americans in California during World War II," DiStasi, ed., Storia Segreta , 30-54. Rose D. Scherini estimates that as many as 10,000 ethnic Italians were forced to relocate from the West Coast. See DiStasi, ed., Storia Segreta , 10.
  25. See Fox, Invisible Gulag , 13; and Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 228.
  26. See Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 289; and Krammer, Undue Process , 60. The Italian immigration figures come from Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 3.
  27. Krammer, Undue Process , 53-54. Fox reports slightly higher figures for 1937. See Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 41.
  28. For a discussion of differing views of Axis nationals in the United States, see Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 54-55; and Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 227-229.
  29. By the time of the U.S. entrance into the war, 74.6 percent of German-born residents and 57.5 percent of Italian-born residents held U.S. citizenship. See Fox, Uncivil Liberties , 8.
  30. See Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 287; and Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 54.
  31. See Krammer, Undue Process , 69; and Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 287; and Fox, "Relocation," 44-46.
  32. See Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 287; Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 54; Krammer, Undue Process , 69; Fox, Uncivil Liberties , xv; and DiStasi, ed., Storia Segreta , 20.
  33. For more on the program of exclusion in general, see Committee, Personal Justice Denied , 4-6, 10-12, 15-16, 93-116. For studies of exclusion policies as they related to ethnic Germans and Italians, see DiStasi, ed., Storia Segreta , 21-26; Commission, Personal Justice Denied , 287-288; Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 132-133,136-139; and Fox, Invisible Gulag , xvi.
  34. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 221. President Bill Clinton signed a "Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act" in 2000.

Last updated Jan. 18, 2024, 4:12 p.m..