World War II internment camps still have much to teach us


US newspaper headlines of the forced relocation of over 110,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry.

Rachel Pistol
University of Exeter

Read any newspaper in the United States or United Kingdom at the moment and it is likely to be full of news items related to refugees and immigration. Were you to open a newspaper in the 1930s, you would find very similar news stories. Despite the fact Second World War internment took place over 70 years ago, it could not be more relevant in today’s society.

Internment is a recognised function of war, and so the detention of enemy aliens during the Second World War was not unexpected. In times of peril, it can be hard to discern who is friend and who is foe, and there are inevitably casualties of war.

However, national security as a reason for action can sometimes be abused.

Such was the case with the mass internment of those of Japanese ancestry in the United States, a large proportion of whom were American citizens, supposedly protected by the constitution. There were multiple deaths in camp due to the poor medical facilities, notwithstanding the trigger happy guards – the most famous of these deaths perhaps being that of James Hatsuki Wakasa in 1943.

In the case of internment in Britain, the most readily identifiable victims were those who drowned when the Arandora Star, a ship transporting internees from the Isle of Man to Canada, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, in 1940.

It should be a sign of a society’s humanity as to how marginalised peoples are treated, particularly when the only ‘crime’ of an individual is his or her race, religion, or nationality.

The Anglo-American treatment of foreigners in today’s political climate bears many hallmarks of the 1930s and 1940s.

In Britain, for example, only recently was the deplorable treatment of inmates at an immigration centre highlighted on a BBC documentary. The desperation experienced by those detained because of their immigration status has led numerous suicide attempts, which are sadly becoming more frequent.

The situation is similar in the USA, where immigrants can be detained indefinitely, and are often subjected to dehumanizing treatment. They are also regularly denied adequate medical care, which has led to the deaths of several individuals. Even though those in modern detention centres are not being detained for the same reasons as enemy aliens were during the Second World War, the fact still remains that internees of the Second World War could well have recognized conditions like these.

In my new book, I compare the treatment of Germans, Austrians, and Italians in the UK, and those of Japanese ancestry in the USA during the Second World War. Despite the difference in nationalities, these groups shared many similar traits, not least the fact that in their respective host nations they were the nationalities at which the majority of anger was directed. Britain was under threat of invasion by Germany, and the US feared an invasion by Japan on the West Coast following the attack on American soil at Pearl Harbor. As a result of these fears, internment policies were directed mainly at the Germans, Austrians, and Italians in Britain, and the Japanese in America.

Over time, public feelings of anger and fear began to mellow, and internees in both countries were able to leave the camps after proving their loyalty.

Amid great controversy, Japanese Americans were drafted into the US military without reinstating their constitutional right to freedom. They ultimately served in what became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in US military history. In Britain, release could also be expedited through joining the Pioneer Corps, which many internees did in order to fight against Nazism.

The fact that internees could go from being vilified as foreigners to being celebrated as decorated war heroes shows how wary we need to be of popular opinion. The public mood changes so quickly that policy decisions based on hysteria will always have negative repercussions.

Barbed wire surrounding an Isle of Man internment camp.

While in Britain internment has, for the most part, been swallowed into the larger war narrative because refugees were ultimately offered safe haven, no apologies were ever made regarding the loss of life on the Arandora Star. In America, civil rights campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s culminated in 1988 with an official presidential apology, which acknowledged that a racist interpretation of internment should never have happened.

The problem is, however, that the hostile treatment of individuals because of their nationality and ethnicity is not something that ended with the closure of the internment camps, nor even with the presidential apology. Rather, the hostility has returned.

The language and policies of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America are very anti-immigrant. The leaked post-Brexit immigration plans, for example, demonstrate a more hard-line approach than has been seen for many years. Similarly, in America, proposals such as the Muslim travel ban, the end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme, and the violence in Charlottesville, demonstrate the tensions still present on issues of race and nationality. The same conservative pundits now defending Trump’s anti-immigrant policies were also quick to defend Second World War Japanese internment and racial profiling after the 9-11 attacks.

All these policies and proposals hark back to restrictive immigration legislation passed in both countries from the late nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth century, which were later repealed. When considered together, these events mark a disturbing trend that show how important it is to understand the past in order to better understand the future.

Second World War internment may have ended many decades ago, but the prejudice that led to decisions that culminated in the creation of barbed wire camps is still in existence today.

5 thoughts on “World War II internment camps still have much to teach us

  1. So detainees in Britain were ‘allowed to join the Pioneer Corps to fight against Nazism’. The Pioneer Corps should not be confused with the ‘Pioneer’ platoon of an infantry battalion which had specific tasks in an attack. The main tasks of the Corps included clearing the dead from battlefields, digging and maintaining latrines, and any other filthy labouring tasks required, they did little or no actual fighting, although it could be said that their existence permitted others to be released for the purpose. The Pioneer Corps, to my knowledge, had great difficulty in maintaining its numbers and the drafting in of internees would have been taken in extremity. It was an insult to them rather than an acknowledgement of their desire to fight Nazism. The fact that so many chose to take this course of action is yet another reflection on the overall disgraceful way that aliens were treated.

  2. My father and grandfather were interned on the Isle of Man (separately) and they lost an Italian relative on the Andora Sta. I asked my father whether he had ever felt resentful of his tratment (he was just 16 at the time) and he told me “No, at the end of the day the British accepted us for what we were”. How ashamed he would be today of Brexit and the anti-immigratin rhetoric.

  3. Sovereignty confers the right to reject would-be immigrants and exclude non-citizens on any basis whatever. If you want Britain to take all comers, go ahead and say that. I’d rather let Germany have the ones we don’t want.

    This carelessly-written post fails to recognize the distinction between treatment of citizens and non-citizens. That notorious oxymoron, “International Law,” does not allow us to strip people of their citizenship as a prerequisite to deportation except in very narrow circumstances. It is also relevant that some countries including China already violate the cognate obligation to take their nationals who are not our citizens back when we deport them. I’d favor sending such people to any place that would take them.

    Governmental discrimination among citizens based on ethnicity and similar factors has been conspicuous in many countries including the US (“affirmative action”), India (quotas for scheduled castes), and Islamic nations. At the end of the day, detention is one more form of discriminatory treatment. In wartime, it’s not all that different from suspending the right to habeas corpus.

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