Thursday, December 04, 2008

German American Internment Deserves Recognition

Bainbridge Historians note: We receive letters from German Americans questioning why their history regarding interment is ignored and why the Japanese American Reperations Movement is opposed to such recognition. A recent letter is below.

Certainly, I would love to see historical accuracy regarding WWII internment in the United States but I am pessimistic that it is possible. For whatever reason the US government has decided that it is our country's best interest to promote and fund a "Japanese American internment" narrative at the expense of historical accuracy regarding the internment of 11,000 German Americans during WWII.

Japanese Americans have an ongoing concerted effort (sanctioned by our government) to dominate the WWII US internment history. The recent $38 million dollar internment camp preservation bill will be used only to tell the JA internment story not the full narrative of US internment. During 2007 German American internees fought hard to be included in the internment camp preservation bill. Regardless of our collective efforts and input in the public informational meetings in 2007, we were totally shut out, similar to being shut out of the CWRIC.

My father was a German civilian seaman who was removed from a Standard Oil tanker in 1939 and interned at Ft. Lincoln in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He was interned because of his nationality and occupation. He was interned until 1943 when he was released on parole to work in the local community. In 1944, he entered the US military to gain his citizenship and served in the Pacific. (For a period of time he even trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie.) However, most Americans only know about the 442nd which promotes the fact that the unit was the most decorated military unit of WWII, but conveniently excludes the qualifier "for their size and length of service".

I have attended many presentations made by Japanese Americans and have challenged their continual denial that German and Italian Americans were interned. I have battled publicly on their false narrative. (I even have a good written record of a protracted battle with the JACL at Portland State University) The media will report on almost all JA internment stories but rarely report on European American internment. If an occasional article gets printed, it will never be picked up by the wire services. However, just the opposite is true for Japanese American internment. The most insignificant stories are blasted across all the wire services.

German Americans have had a bill in congress for approximately 10 years trying to get an investigation into European American internment but it has failed to move forward (which would exclude German nationals like my father). In 2007, it was added as an amendment to the contentious immigration bill and received a bit of publicity. Of course, the publicity was negative, so it was picked up by the wire services and blasted across the US. The interesting aspect is in the negative publicity we learned about a Department of Justice memorandum by Assistant Deputy Attorney General Hertling which was sent to the Senate Judiciary committee advising that the bill not be moved forward. In the letter Hertling states that the Department of Justice contacted a Senior Historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the merits of the bill. The historian said the language in the bill was grossly exaggerated and the treatment of German Americans in internment was benign. Of course this was not a public statement that we had any opportunity to refute. What made this historian the final arbiter on the subject of GA internment? Certainly, one should be asking why was a senior historian contacted off the record to weigh in on a bill regarding German American internees, particularly when the DOJ was the agency responsible for administering US internment policy during WWII? The records for internment are in the archives of the DOJ, why would they be soliciting an off the record opinion of a senior historian at the USHMM?

Previous to reading the Hertling memo, I believed that the JA's had modeled their efforts for redress and public funding after the civil rights movement. Hertling's memo exposed the distinct possiblility that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum really was the model for the JA's. My guess is opposition to internment redress efforts must have been coming from a Jewish contingency. Once the JA's realized this, they found a way to circumvent the opposition. For years I asked myself, why do JA's want the exclusive dialogue on internment. After reviewing the DOJ Hertling memorandum to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it appears not one but two influential groups oppose the investigation of WWII German American internment. Take a look at funding and legislation JA's have succeeded at and compare to the USHMM funding, initiatives and dialogue. The Hertling memo forced a review of collaboration efforts between the two communities, it is fascinating.

Indeed, while I applaud your efforts, I am not sure how you can correct the history of internment if “racism” is asserted each and every time any type of investigation is requested. If you notice, current researchers rely on secondary sources for their resource data on internment which has all been written by Japanese Americans, dismally missing in the research are primary documents. In 2008 $44,996,000 was appropriated by congress for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2000 legislation was signed granting the US Holocaust museum permanent status as a federal agency, in effect locking in federal support. As a museum press release explained at the time, “Permanent status permits Congress to provide funding without having to review the federal role.”

Recognizing WWII German American and Italian American internment would damage the JA narrative of racism, which would jeopardize future federal funding. The passage of the $38 million internment camp preservation bill may well serve as the nail in the coffin for historical WWII internment accuracy. It becomes almost impossible to challenge the narrative when it becomes institutionalized by the National Park Service across America.

Why is it totally OK for JA's to be interveners in a court case by a German American internee against the US government? How do JA's get by with not standing up for others who suffered the same indignities and civil rights abuses in some of the same internment camps during WWII and not suffer any vilification? Obviously, they realize the race argument shuts up all detractors. Just look, Chinese claims against Japanese war crimes are dismissed . . . American POW's claims for reparations against the Japanese government are opposed by the US government . . . the intentional starving of German civilians at war's end are silenced . . . German Americans internment will not be included in the camp preservations etc. Certainly, it would be great to find some way to break through the dishonesty that permeates US internment policy but the question remains how?

S. A. Weiss