Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Targeting Jewish Migrants and Unwanted Foreigners in the 1920s: The History of Germany’s First Immigration Detention Sites


Sabrina Axster


Time to read

7 Minutes

Guest post by Sabrina Axster. Sabrina is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interrogates the racial, colonial, and capitalist logics of border controls and policing in Western Europe and the United States. In her doctoral dissertation, she examines how the control of mobility constructs migrant exploitability by pushing migrants into spaces of legal precarity. Her work has been supported by the American Political Science Association and the German Academic Exchange Service and she has been awarded the 2022 Edward Said Award of the International Studies Association’s Global Development Section and Millennium’s 2022 Northedge Prize. You can find out more about her work at https://www.sabrinaaxster.com/. This is the third post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention' organised by Ana Ballesteros-Pena and Cristina Fernández-Bessa.


a cell in an old building
A cell in Fort Prinz Karl which had been used to detain ’migrants in the 1920s. Photo: Sabrina Axster (2022).

In 1920, the Bavarian government opened the first immigration detention site in Germany: Fort Prinz Karl in Ingolstadt, about an hour away from Munich. Simultaneously, the Prussian government also opened two immigration detention sites – one in Cottbus in Eastern Germany and one in Stargard in present-day Poland. Few archival materials on the sites survived, but those that did paint a bleak picture. They detail insanitary living conditions, lack of medical care, food scarcity, lack of proper heating, and no adequate clothing for the winter months. The available materials in the Bavarian State archives document several suicide attacks. The conditions in Fort Prinz Karl were so bad that, in a 1995 article in the German history magazine Geschichte quer, local historian Theo Straub described the camp as the first concentration camp on German soil. A letter from the head of the security guard in Fort Prinz Karl from 13 November 1920 said the conditions in the camp were an embarrassment for Bavaria. The situation was not much better in the Prussian camps. Fabian Promutico recounts an incident in the Stargard Camp when a fire broke out during the night of 26 May 1921 in one of the 35 wooden barracks that housed 80 people each. The barracks had been locked from the outside, so the detainees had to jump out of the windows to escape. Once outside, they were met with physical attacks by security guards. Several people lost their lives that night and many others, who had already secured visas to migrate to the US, lost their travel documents in the fire. This meant that they had to stay in the camp and in Germany.


an old building site
Fort Prinz Karl, Germany’s first immigration detention site. Photo: Sabrina Axster (2022).


a hallway
The hallway leading to the cells in which immigrant detainees were held in Fort Prinz Karl. Photo: Sabrina Axster (2022).

All three camps were established as part of a flurry of anti-immigration laws passed after the end of World War I. They were abandoned prisoner of war camps that had been used during World War I. The practice of imprisoning enemy soldiers became widespread during the 1899-1902 South African Anglo-Boer War when the British detained large numbers of non-British soldiers and civilians as part of its scorched earth technique. The detainees were interned both in South Africa and in other outposts of the empire where they were often put to use as workers in the colonies or were submitted to re-education efforts. Germany first used concentration camps during the German genocide against the Herero and Nama people in Namibia that took place from 1904 and 1908 and during which they killed and detained tens of thousands of people. While there is no official count, estimates suggest that up to or just over 100,000 people were killed by the Germans. During World War I, these camping strategies were brought to Europe and new camps were built or repurposed from other military buildings to house the millions of foreign soldiers and officers that were arrested during the war. In the 1920s, three of these buildings turned into the first German immigration detention sites.

The camps were part of a broader set of efforts to reduce the number of ‘undesirable’ and ‘unwanted’ migrants in post-World War I Germany. While they were officially put in place to control the influx of Jewish migrants who were fleeing the pogroms in Ukraine and Poland that led to the death of tens of thousands of Jewish people between 1918 and 1920, a closer look reveals that there was a second shift that took place in Germany at the time. Germany no longer needed foreign labor. Prior to World War I, the country had developed an extensive migration control system to bring in and manage foreign workers in the agricultural sector as well as mining and industry. During World War I, Germany relied on agricultural workers from its occupied territories and prisoner of war labor. But after the end of the war, and faced with the return of German soldiers from the front who needed to be reintegrated into the German economy, women and migrants were removed from the workforce. To justify these strict immigration laws, migrants – and particularly Jewish migrants – were blamed for the multiple crises Germany was dealing with after losing World War I.

Reeling from the loss of the war, Germany found itself faced with the loss of territories in the overseas colonies and in Europe, hyperinflation, and a food and housing shortage. Rather than accepting responsibility for these challenges, the German government placed the blame squarely on foreigners – predominantly on Jewish migrants but also on the allied foreign governments, and foreign migrants. Jewish people were an easy target. Long-standing forms of antisemitism that had deemed Jewish people as untrustworthy, deviant, and communistic morphed with the distrust of foreigners which had been amplified during the World War I craze of finding foreign spies and threats. Archival materials form the archives in Prussia and Bavaria, as well as the Bavarian war archives and the Munich state archives reveal how foreigners, and especially Jewish people, were blamed for Germany’s multiple political, economic, and social crises.

The archival materials at the Munich State Archives include a report from a December 1919 meeting to discuss the reduction of foreigners. The meeting was attended by representatives from multiple federal ministries such as health, labor, nutrition, the interior, and foreign affairs, as well as from the Central Bank and state representatives from Prussia and Bavaria, among other states. Attendees blamed foreigners for the housing shortage by taking up apartments that should be set aside for the many native German displaced persons who were returning to Germany after the end of World War I. They also blamed the food shortages and the spread of infectious diseases on foreigners and accused them of engaging in unlawful trade. Here the emphasis was placed specifically on Jewish people who were accused of selling goods on the black market and laundering money. Other archival materials, including internal communication between ministries, policy papers, and newspaper articles, reiterate these accusations.

In response, the federal and state governments passed a set of successive immigration laws over the course of 1919. While these differed in some details, the laws largely mandated the detention and deportation of any unwanted foreigner who had been found guilty of a crime, was not regularly employed, or did not have a permanent place of abode. Foreigners were only allowed to work in jobs for which no German citizen could be found. Laws passed by the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, which applied to all of Germany, included some protections for Jewish people. It said that they would be allowed to stay in Germany even if they did not have their official papers and that Jewish charity organizations could vouch and provide for them if they did not have a permanent residence or a job. Jewish migrants should only be deported if they had been sentenced guilty of a crime by a German court, if they were unemployed, if they did not have a permanent residence, or if there was sufficient proof that they posed a threat to public peace, order, and security. The wording of the law, however, immediately illuminates the precarious nature of this ‘special’ right to stay and how its implementation would lie in the eye of the respective official: only those who acted in a ‘flawless’ manner would be tolerated.

While these laws were officially targeting all migrants, the antisemitic thrust of these policies is illuminated by their implementation. Government officials tried to hide the antisemitic nature of these laws, saying that they did not single out any religion, but rather that Jewish people simply happen to commit those crimes that warrant a deportation more often than others. The reality belies these statements. Shortly after the laws came into power, Jewish organizations lamented the extraordinary extent to which Jewish people were targeted. The Jewish Cultural Society in Munich wrote on 31 October 1923:

“The deportations that have been carried out by the police in Munich do appear as a general measure against Jewish people. [The police] will make even the most objective observer realize, that those targeted are not targeted based on their behavior, but mostly based on their Jewishness. There is no other reason to believe why else the police would rely on such irrelevant reasonings for their deportation orders; for example describing someone, who came from a poor background, as a pest because he was able to build a sizable amount of wealth, or when someone is deported because they are accused of a crime for which they have already been found innocent and for which the actual perpetrator has already been found.”

Archival documents on individual deportation proceedings further underscore the obscure reasons for which Jewish migrants could be expelled. A Jewish couple was handed a deportation order after being accused of smuggling food during the war rationing period. They had been found guilty of purchasing 10 pounds of butter and a few pounds of meat. In another case, a man was handed a deportation order for having been prosecuted for begging twice in 1903 and for an accusation of fraud in 1912 which had been dismissed by the court during the trial. The police listed a third reason to justify his deportation. They accused him of being a fraudster, arguing that the man had been poor when he moved to Bavaria during the war but had since then become wealthy by running an export business. In his appeal, the man explained that the reason he had been able to open his business was because his in-laws had given him a loan.

Amidst the flurry of expulsion and deportation orders, the German government quickly ran into two major challenges. Verifying the identity, citizenship, and residence permits of people took time. Consequently, Germany struggled with detaining those foreigners that it had arrested under suspicion of residing in Germany without the required authorization. Secondly, it was unable to deport all of those it wanted to remove. For Jewish people this was largely because many of them had officially been rendered stateless. They had not brought their travel documents and the Polish consulates were unwilling to recognize them as Polish citizens and issue new identification documents. There was also concern about the potential impact on Germany’s reputation abroad if it was found out that the country was sending people back to places where they would be prosecuted and potentially be imprisoned or killed.

In response, the government began to explore the option of opening immigration detention sites. The context in which these detention sites emerged thus pushes us to recognize their colonial and domestic roots in terms of the logics underpinning them. We see how the practice of detaining unwanted foreigners emerged out of colonial security techniques and was driven by a morphing of long-standing forms of antisemitism with the increased distrust of foreigners stoked by World War I in the context of a diminishing need for foreign labor. To justify the increased migration controls, German politicians mobilized the large scale economic, social, and political crisis it found itself in and for which foreigners were scapegoated.

a closed envelope
A letter with the stamp of the immigrant detention site Fort Prinz Karl. Source: Private collection, Max Schuster.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Axster. (2023) Targeting Jewish Migrants and Unwanted Foreigners in the 1920s: The History of Germany’s First Immigration Detention Sites. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/03/targeting-jewish-migrants-and-unwanted-foreigners-1920s. Accessed on: 13/06/2024

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