The Untold Story of German Internment
There are certain events in history that are never publicized or written about in textbooks. Because of the consequences that releasing the truth might bring to the government and other organizations, the historical truth is often hidden or altered. In the case of internment policies during World War II, the program of Japanese-American internment is well known; however, what is not as well publicized is the administration of German-American interment and captivity of German prisoners of war. Throughout the United States during World War II, Germans were considered to be enemy aliens dangerous to the security of the nation and therefore, excluded from the rest of society in gulags spread across the country. In America’s Invisible Gulag, Stephen Fox elaborates on these “invisible gulags” and informs his readers about the little known German internment. In the foreword of the book, as Fox writes about Japanese and German internment, he says, “this zero-sum competition over which group suffered most only fosters distrust - even dislike - whereas knowledge of the larger historical picture might encourage German, Italian, and Japanese Americans to stand as one against all ethnic scapegoating.”1
In part one and two of the book, Fox writes about the background of the internment policy in the United States, the reason why German internment is not well known, and the steps taken to arrest German Americans. One of the main reasons German internment camps remained “invisible gulags” was because the “State Department officials did not want to draw attention to American internment practices.”2 The US government feared that if the German government found out about this internment, they would retaliate. Another reason was that in the postwar years, “new forces emerged – government, the media, academics, and others with a vested interest – to contribute more layers of obfuscation.”3 To protect the security of the United States, the government decided that it would be preferable if the public was oblivious about this unjust internment policy. After World War II, the nation apologized to the Japanese Americans that were interned when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This act provided Japanese Americans reparations but gave nothing to the German Americans who were interned. This angered many of the Germans who experienced the internment camps because they had a similar, if not worse experience than the Japanese Americans. For example, John Voelkel Jr. says in his interview, “he (his father) was kind of hot-tempered, and I guess the responses that he gave these people (the FBI) were such they led to his internment.”4 Many of the Germans tried to avoid being found by the government by hiding or running away to other countries or returning to their home country. However, because the government put a large amount of effort into enforcing the internment policies, many could not avoid it. Officials targeted German Americans who had presented a threat of communicating or having ties with Nazi Germany. The government arrested many German-Americans despite the fact that most of them had no ties with Germany and were innocent. These German-Americans were being arrested under false accusations; nevertheless, they were seized, jailed, and taken into the internment camps.
In the third and fourth part of the book, Fox writes about the experience in the camps and about Latin American deportations. Not only were the German Americans locked up in internment camps but Germans in Latin American countries were also arrested and kept under control. Germans in countries that were allied with the United States cooperated with the internment efforts. Many people were sent from camps in Latin American countries to the gulags in the United States so that the US government could keep a closer eye on them and make sure they were not active in helping the enemy country. Fox also describes life in these internment camps. There were over a dozen internment camps across the nation spreading from Hawaii, Texas, and all the way to Ellis Island. Some of these camps were for Germans only while some included people of Japanese and Italian origin. In these internment camps, the “prisoners” were kept under strict supervision to ensure that they did not participate in any suspicious behavior. Some prisoners were required to work but most had nothing to do, as a majority of them were located in camps in the middle deserts. Food and shelter were minimal; they slept in uncomfortable spaces and ate cheap food. Germans faced the same lifestyle as the Italians and Japanese in camps but were more excluded because of the hatred against the Nazi regime. However, most Germans disliked the Nazis. Fox states, “By 1938, Nazism had become an embarrassment and disgrace to the overwhelming majority of Germans in the United States of America.”5 In one interview, Dr. Otto Trott says, “Yes, as a boy and as a young man I would have voted for Hitler because I was of the opinion that this talk against Jewish people was just political expediency. I never took it seriously until I began to realize it was meant differently.”6
In parts five, six, and seven, Fox writes about the home front and exclusion in the internment camps. Because the internment was necessary for the safety of the nation, the government suggested aid by providing financial support and care for dependents of enemy aliens. However, assuming that the public would object to these special rights for enemy aliens, this policy was never enforced. Howbeit, the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association provided indispensable aid efforts to the interned citizens. These organizations donated money, food, and other essential items to the interned and families of the interned to improve their lives. Fox also spoke about the exclusion program of German-Americans. Exclusion procedures included a complex format of checks and balances. Persecution of naturalized Americans during war, on evidence not even the FBI could defend, was a violation of the right of habeas corpus given to everyone by the Constitution. German-Americans were treated as dangerous immigrants even if they had obtained an American citizenship and were looked down upon in society during World War II. Within the United States government, there were disagreements about the exclusion program and the extent of exclusion of the German-Americans. Even though Germans tried to fight against this injustice, the government was too powerful and suppressed them. Fox writes, “the Justice Department’s lax regard for its responsibilities in protecting the country – according to the military – continued to vex the War Department.”7 The government needed to be strict with its exclusion policies to protect the nation but at the same time respect the rights of the German-Americans and follow the American ideals set by the Constitution.
In the last two parts of the book Fox talks about the end of World War II and the interment program. He talks about parole, release from the gulags, and the repatriation of Germans. Fox says, “Most of the detainees and internees who were released before the end of the war became parolees…paroles could last from a few months to several years; some dragged into the 1950s.”8 Even after being release from strict supervision in the internment camps, these German Americans were still closely watched by the government to ensure that they did not make any threatening moves. There were many disagreements within the government about the release of the interned, but because they no longer posed a threat, most were released. Fox also wrote about repatriation, the process of returning a person back to one’s place of origin or citizenship, and said that the international standard for repatriation efforts during World War II was the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention in 1929 ratified by forty nations. German government objected to the United States insistence that certain German people be held back for national security reasons. Since 1945, there had been an effort by a group of internees from Crystal City, an internment camp in Texas, to find a lawyer willing to test the constitutionality of postwar internment and deportation orders. These actions played a pivotal role in averting deportations. As it can be seen, many of the Germans might have been innocent, but the United States government remained indifferent. Fox concludes the book by stating, “the internees might have forgiven, but they had not forgotten.”9 After the war, many Germans gained citizenship and tried to prove their patriotism and loyalty to the United States. In the epilogue, Fox writes about the postwar life of Germans and about history as a whole. Many stayed in the United States to achieve the American dream and strive for economic success. Also, to prove their sense of loyalty and dedication to the nation, many fought in the US army in future wars such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
In writing this book, the author, Stephen Fox, is attempting to let readers know about the untold story of German internment and the injustice done in the United States towards enemy aliens during World War II. At the end of the book in the epilogue, Fox writes, “What is past is prologue.”10 He is saying that having the knowledge of this obscure story of German internment is the first step in preventing future malpractices like these. Fox is also stating that the government should not, no matter for what reason, censor the telling of the historical facts and truths as in the case of this German internment. By explaining the truths and experiences of the interned Germans, Fox was able to depict the unfair internment of enemy aliens during World War II. Through his style, organization, and detailed interviews, Fox is successful in teaching the readers about the injustices of the United States government during World War II. He is attempting to prevent these unconstitutional policies that defy American ideals from being enforced once more.
Stephen Fox, being a United States history teacher for thirty years, was very familiar with the government policies during World War II. When he wrote this book, Fox was well informed about the German internment program and coming from a historical and educational background, it can be seen why Fox would choose to interview many Germans who were interned and document them in a book. Stephen Fox also wrote The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans During World War II, a “book about Italian internment during World War II”11. As it can be seen from these two books, Fox has an interest in World War II, the internment policy, and the history of American minorities. Through these two historical books, Fox attempts to elaborate on topics that are not as well taught about in history courses and reveal the truth behind topics that have been censored by the government. Fox does not identify his ethnicity or his country of origin but it would be no surprise if he were either of Italian or German descent.
America’s Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment and Exclusion in World War II was published in the year 2000. A half a century after World War II and after the end of the Cold War, the United States was in a relatively stable, peaceful situation. The history of World War II was well taught by that time in history textbooks and courses. Even though World War II history was adequately known by this time, the public did not know the story of German internment. To fix what he thought was a flaw in the subject of history, Fox wrote about, and tried to publicize the facts and history of German internment during World War II. Also, by 2000, the “Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed by president Ronald Reagan”12. Because this act recognized Japanese internment but not Italian of German internment, Fox felt a need to write about it and show that the Japanese were not the only ones who faced hardships during the war with the internment programs.
Both of the critical book reviews of Stephen Fox’s book America’s Invisible Gulag criticize him on his work. Both state that Fox’s organization and basis of information being from personal interviews is faulty and might not be historically accurate. The reviews take a skeptical stance against the interviews and criticize Fox’s writing. In one book review, Ron Robin from the University of Haifa writes, “His selective generalizations from that small group of interviews is unscientific and biased, at best. ‘History’ and ‘memory’ are two separate things but Fox seems a bit too ready to accept memory at face value.”13 However, the reviews praise Stephen Fox for writing about a topic that is not well known and publicizing this topic. Another review by Dale Steiner from California State University, Chico writes, “Fox has nevertheless, produced a well researched and compellingly presented account of a little known chapter of American history.”14 Both of the book reviews criticizes Fox’s historical accuracy coming from personal interviews but praises him for bravely writing about a little known topic of German internment during World War II.
As the two book reviews said, it is skeptical that this work by Stephen Fox is historically accurate. Because the interviews are held with people talking about their experiences from three decades ago, their memory can be faulty. Memory and history are two different things because history is supposed to be fact while memory may be inaccurate because of the inability to remember everything exactly and the ability for the mind to alter memory into a more personal experience. Furthermore, these interviews are personal accounts about how people experienced the internment camps; it is very likely that their opinions are biased and that they might over exaggerate the facts. However, even though German internment is a topic that is not as well known in the history of World War II, Fox does a tremendous job informing the reader about the topic. Informing these readers, most likely having no previous knowledge about German internment, with in-depth details and explanations of this complicated program was probably difficult. However, after reading this book, the reader is aware of the unknown history of German internment.
The 1940s was a watershed in American history. Stephen Fox neither supports nor argues this because he does not look at World War II as a whole; he focuses on the internment of German-Americans during this time period. Fox did not take a stance for or against World War II. By reading this book, the reader can not conclude whether Fox would consider the 1940s to be a period of watershed in United States history because all he focuses on are the facts of German internment. If he were to have a stance however, he would probably believe that it was a time of watershed. Fox writes, “History will judge internment in the long term, weighing not only its past corrosive effect on the nation’s values and the Constitution, but the menace of its present and future manifestations.”15 Because the German internment policies were a controversy during World War II, Fox would most likely consider World War II and the 1940s to be a time of watershed.
Through interviews with people who experienced internment first hand, Stephen Fox is able to inform his readers of the German internment program. At the end of the book Fox writes, “Conscience cannot be abandoned to avoid assessing the responsibility of those who ‘reasonably and prudently’ acted on the prejudices of their time.”16 Fox repeats, internment was an unconstitutional act in the history of the United States and one must first learn about it to realize its injustices.
1. Fox, Stephen. America’s Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment and Exclusion in World War II. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2000. Xviii.
2. Fox, Stephen. 27.
3. Fox, Stephen. 28.
4. Fox Stephen. 42.
5. Fox, Stephen. 93.
6. Fox, Stephen. 100.
7. Fox, Stephen. 197.
8. Fox, Stephen. 257.
9. Fox, Stephen. 288.
10. Fox, Stephen. 304.
11. Fox, Stephen. back cover.
12. Fox, Stephen. xxiv.
13. Robin, Ron. "America's Invisible Gulag." The Journal of American History Sep (2001): 711-12. Print.
14. Steiner, Dale. "America's Invisible Gulag." Journal of American Ethnic History Winter (2002): 109-10. Print.
15. Fox, Stephen. 297.
16. Fox, Stephen. 300.