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Redefining the Word ‘Home.’ German Internment Camp in World War I, 1917-1918

By Kerry Burns, Digital Marketing Manager for the North Carolina Museum of History

Group photograph of the Tsingtao Band (1917)

Before World War I began, no country was truly “prepared” for the harrowing reality of the division that would ensue. Once the metaphorical sirens of war sounded, individuals would go on to be defined purely by their country alone, not by their character. In a terrible case of being in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” over one thousand German civilians had to face this new reality almost immediately. During the initial outbreak of the news that war had begun, the SS Vaterland, an enormous German passenger ship, was anchored in Hoboken, New Jersey. Fears of enemy attack by vessel resulted in the German government canceling all trips back to the country, stranding the German passengers in the United States for three years.

Once the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, the Germans who were still in America were taken to Ellis Island, and then subsequently moved to the Mountain Park Hotel in Hot Springs, located in Madison County, North Carolina. The 500-acre site, equipped with cottages, tennis courts and hot baths, looked more like a summer camp than an internment camp.

View of German campers working on the construction of a church (1917)

View of the completed barracks in Camp B of the German internment camp (1917)

View of houses, gardens, a partially- constructed church, and German campers posing for a photograph in the German internment camp (1917)

At the time, Hot Springs was populated by less than 700 American residents. Suffice to say, it was a major adjustment for citizens to have their population more than doubled by the Germans, whom they called "Germanies." To add to the already-swelling population, nearly 30 of the Germans' wives and children traveled to America to be closer to their husbands and fathers, boarding with Americans at Hot Springs.

The “campers” were a diverse bunch, using their unique skill sets to better their stay, including creating a chapel, opening several shops and businesses, building fences around the cottages, and (somehow) constructing a carousel, with music playing as it spun. They had even put together a full brass band and orchestra for nightly entertainment!

Photograph of an unidentified event with unidentified German campers, wearing suits and standing on a stage featuring a painted backdrop, and the German Imperial Band, seated in front of the stage (1917)

View of a village street with a completed church (1917

Given that these Germans were merely civilians, the United States government was befuddled on how to handle them, initially not wanting to recognize them as “prisoners of war.” “So, how do we treat them,” they asked themselves. Alas, peer pressure brought on by growing war discontentment and disillusion persuaded the Department of Immigration to label the German campers as “enemy aliens,” effectively treating them as such. 

By that point in June 1917, however, the German campers had quite literally built a sense of community and belonging within Hot Springs. The intense labor they had put in to create a home in this internment camp had brought them closer together. In essence, they had found a way to make sense of a senseless situation.

Photograph of five German campers, wearing suits, playfully staging fighting off an attack by a fake alligator another German prisoner had carved from a tree stump (1917)

Group photograph of German prisoners and members of the German Imperial Band posing for a photograph inside of a camp building under construction (1917)

Close-up view of a fountain named “Marienburg,” featuring statues of Neptune, god of the sea, a walrus, and mermaids, located in the corner of a brick-walled garden built by German prisoners (1917)

Over time, the Germans' relationship with the Hot Springs natives improved significantly. German and American children began going to the same schools, American housewives invited their German counterparts over for tea, and the German language started to become popular, being taught and spoken on the streets.

Seeing the fruits of their labor, the German campers attempted to persuade the US government to pay them for their work, believing Hot Springs could eventually be transformed into summer homes for travelers. Unfortunately, their attempts were futile.

After a year of crafting a community, news came that the Hot Springs site would be shut down permanently. The campers were to be shipped away to a war camp in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, due to the U.S. War Department taking custody of the campers away from the Department of Immigration.

Suddenly, their new “home” was to be taken away from them, along with their few remaining glimmers of hope. Panic ensued throughout the camp, knowing they were to be housed and treated as prisoners of war in Georgia. Had everything they had created been for nothing? Did any of it ever matter? To make matters worse, a typhoid outbreak spread around the camp, causing the sickest campers to remain in Hot Springs alone, while the rest of their new family was on the next stop to their final destination on August 31, 1918.

View inside one of the barracks (1917)

Today, every trace of the Hot Springs village is completely gone, as if it never happened. All of the German campers have died, leaving the pictures as the sole evidence of what once was. These German campers were placed in a terrible situation and made the absolute best of it, using the resources, skills and hope they had to create something extraordinary.