The complex history of concentration camps

"We must be cautious about what we label a concentration camp – but must also not let confusion cloud the real issues", says Dan Stone

Migrants at a detention centre in Texas, March 2019

Recent years have witnessed a noticeable growth in the use of camps of all sorts across the world. There are refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in nations bordering Syria; in the UK there are Immigration Removal Centres in places such as Harmondsworth. At the other end of the scale, there is a large camp system in North Korea about which we know very little. There has also been much recent concern that so-called ‘re-education camps’ in China holding people of the Uighur ethnic group are being used to separate families. Following a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, international human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti has said that Rohingya Muslims are being held in concentration camps.

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The camp phenomenon is increasing, but what specifically denotes a concentration camp? These are places of horror and dehumanisation, sites where civilians are extracted from ‘normal’ society and held against their will. Most important, they are installations where the rule of law has been abandoned – where the inmates have no means of contesting their incarceration.

Despite this increasing prevalence of camps around the world, the revelations in summer 2019 about the conditions of migrants detained on the border between Mexico and the US state of Texas have sparked particular condemnation. An internal US watchdog report published in July, on facilities in the Rio Grande area, Texas, highlighted “dangerous overcrowding”, with photographs showing 71 men in a cell designed for 41 women. Pennsylvania Representative Madeleine Dean tweeted that conditions were “far worse than we ever could have imagined”.

As well as the specific conditions in these US-Mexico border facilities, their very existence has sparked debate. A volatile political issue intensified when US representative and Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as “concentration camps”. “The US is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” she said in an Instagram Live video. “I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that… ‘never again’ means something.” She went on to write: “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalised with dehumanising conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.” She cited the work of Andrea Pitzer, author of the 2017 book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, who has asserted that the camps on the border fall within her definition of that term.

US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the the National Action Network Annual Convention
US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose comparison of detention centres in the United Stated to historic camps caused much debate (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, understandably, sparked strong reactions. When a member of its staff tweeted in support of Ocasio-Cortez, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) issued a statement in which it “unequivocally” rejected any form of “Holocaust analogy” and specifically rejected “recent attempts to analogise the situation on the United States southern border to concentration camps in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s”. Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, went even further, claiming that Ocasio-Cortez’s assertions made her a Holocaust denier. This seemingly bizarre claim rests, one assumes, on a logical extension of the USHMM’s objections to “Holocaust analogies” – as if even to suggest that the Holocaust might be considered in the same breath as other genocides or human rights violations somehow downplays or denies altogether the significance of the Nazis’ genocide against the Jews. In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s claims, President Trump himself tweeted that “The Border Patrol, they are great people, they are patriots, they love our country”. The Border Patrol has rejected critics’ claims, as has the Republican Party. Very few Republicans are willing to criticise the border facilities, just as, more recently, the large majority have failed to reject Trump’s attacks on ‘the squad’, the four congresswomen of colour (including Ocasio-Cortez) whom he regards as unpatriotic because of their critical stance.

Unsurprisingly, the back and forth of social media and op-ed columns has seen many vicious attacks as well as some more considered pieces, notably by Pitzer and by fellow historians Waitman Wade Beorn, Emma Kuby and Timothy Snyder.

When people think of concentration camps, they think of the Holocaust

What’s interesting is that Ocasio-Cortez did not directly reference the Holocaust, although her use of the ‘never again’ slogan, along with an image of a Holocaust memorial featuring the phrase in several languages, suggests that is what she had in mind. The furious response to her tweet, however, indicates that when most people hear the words ‘concentration camp’, they think of the Holocaust.

There are two problems with this reaction and, therefore, some of the outrage that greeted her comments. First, the connection between the mass extermination of the Jewish people and the concept of the concentration camp does not tell the whole story of the horror of the Holocaust. Second, concentration camps have a far longer and more complicated history than their use by the Nazis during the Second World War. Only through understanding both of these histories can we begin to make sense of what seem to be similar institutions today.

As historian Timothy Snyder has noted, most Jewish people did not see a concentration camp in the Second World War. Jews were present in Nazi concentration camps from the system’s inception in 1933, but only in large numbers at specific moments (such as after the November Pogrom, or Kristallnacht, of 1938). Some 40% of the Holocaust’s victims were killed face-to-face, shot into pits close to their homes in eastern Europe. In just one instance, at the Babi Yar ravine just outside the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, more than 33,000 Jewish people were massacred across two days in September 1941. Most of the rest of the victims of the Holocaust died by asphyxiation in the death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

As such, the Holocaust was, for the most part, separate from the SS’s regular concentration-camp system. We can attribute the confusion that has grown on this subject to the most famous of the Nazi camps: Auschwitz. Rather than being a single facility, it was actually three camps. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp, originally intended to house political prisoners. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was a death camp, primarily designed for killing people. Auschwitz III (Monowitz) was a slave-labour sub-camp set up to staff a nearby factory. Monowitz was also the administrative centre for a large number of other slave-labour sub-camps, the names of which (such as Blechhammer, Janinagrube and Eintrachthütte) have largely been forgotten.

Because Auschwitz was in existence almost until the end of the Second World War, many months after the Operation Reinhard death camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) were closed down in 1943, and because tens of thousands of inmates had passed through it and been transferred elsewhere, there were lots of witnesses from across the whole of Europe. And, even though it had been largely evacuated by the time the Red Army liberated it in January 1945, the huge camp and some 7,650 of its inmates who had been left behind were still there to be seen.

The point at which the Holocaust and the concentration-camp system really converged was at the very end of the Second World War. In January 1945, there were 714,000 recorded inmates of the SS concentration-camp system, a figure that doesn’t include every camp in Germany (and excludes forced labourers working in factories across the Third Reich). About a third of these died on the so-called ‘death marches’, when evacuees from camps in the east – many of them Jews – were forcibly marched to others still in existence in Germany and Austria to avoid them being captured alive by the Red Army. Such people were made to travel huge distances in the middle of winter, with minimal food or shelter. If they couldn’t keep up, they were shot or left to die on the roadside. This explains why there was a massive overcrowding of desperately ill people in places such as Belsen in March and April 1945. Because of the disastrous conditions in those camps, they began functioning as death camps, even though they hadn’t been set up for that purpose.

Those are the main causes of the present-day confusion between the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews and their use of a system of concentration camps. It’s a confusion that only really started about 20 years after the end of the Second World War. Before that point, western Europeans didn’t think only of Jews when they talked about concentration camps, but also of political resistors, or other groups of deportees such as forced labourers. As people became increasingly aware of the Nazi murder of the Jews, confusion also, ironically, grew about that policy of extermination and its implementation. And, as the Holocaust has turned into a universal symbol of evil over the past 40 years, some of the complexities of the history of concentration camps were forgotten.

Indeed, the fact that the existence of concentration camps pre-dates the Third Reich – and the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent the term – means the idea that we should be outraged purely by its use today is ahistorical. It tells us more about the resonances the phrase has today, which are very different from those it would have had in earlier times and in other places.

As is the case with all contested concepts, the precise origins of the term ‘concentration camp’ are debated. The Spanish in Cuba, and the Americans in the Philippines, created so-called ‘zones of concentration’ at the end of the 19th century. Despite the similarity in names, however, we should be cautious. Andreas Stucki, a historian at the University of Bern, argued in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2018 that these two cases have been incorporated into the wider history of the subject more because of semantics than the nature of what actually happened. In the case of Cuba, large numbers of people were relocated from what was considered to be a guerrilla war zone. Famous images showing starving, ill-cared-for people seem to reflect modern concepts of concentration camps, yet these were not really camps but, rather, regions to which civilians had been relocated, and we would be hard-pressed to fit them into the same historical category.

Boer families in a British camp in Eshowe, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in 1990 during the Second Boer War
Boer families in a British camp in Eshowe, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in 1990 during the Second Boer War. Held in appalling conditions at the camp, many people died (UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images)

Historians have noted that the British created ‘concentration camps’ in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). They were used as a means of isolating those Boer civilians believed by the British to be aiding the guerrilla fighters – providing them with supplies and food, and helping them melt back into the general population when they weren’t fighting. The camps in South Africa, in which conditions were shocking and an estimated 48,000 died, have similarities with those created less than two decades later for civilian refugees and internees during the First World War. The latter facilities weren’t called ‘concentration camps’ – except in the sarcastic comments of inmates – but are particularly worthy of mention because they mark the first large-scale internment of civilians on European soil.

This speaks of a kind of state paranoia, and of a fear of foreigners owing allegiance to a different state – both of which have become commonplace today but which, at the start of the 20th century, were new phenomena. These camps are also interesting because they normalised the idea of statelessness: of abandoning people so that they no longer have any state protection. In this sense, there’s a case to be made that the Soviet Gulag and other camps created by communist regimes might also justifiably be called concentration camps. So, too, might British camps in Kenya set up to hold Mau Mau ‘rebels’ in the 1950s, and camps set up under South American dictatorships in the 20th century.

Other historical examples of similar camps also fit this pattern. The internment of Italians and German-Jewish refugees in Britain at the start of the Second World War is one instance; an even clearer case is the internment of Japanese-Americans during the same conflict. These latter were people who had done nothing wrong, but who came under suspicion by the US government of owing allegiance to an enemy state simply by virtue of being Japanese. Again, though, the history is complicated. The camps in which they were held, such as Tanforan and Minidoka, are regularly referred to as ‘concentration camps’, yet – despite the fact their inmates were held against their will – they had facilities such as post offices and visiting hours. Clearly, they were a far cry from Nazi camps such as Dachau.

Such internment reveals the paranoia at the heart of many modern states. We now see the same paranoia in the US

Yet here is the point: whether or not the facilities in which Japanese-Americans were held were concentration camps is less important than understanding that their internment reveals the paranoia that lies at the heart of many modern states. Further, it’s exactly the same paranoia that we now see in the United States, in the response of President Trump’s administration to migration from Latin America to the US.

As such, these ideas – of statelessness and state paranoia – speak to a wider historical story. As president, Trump clearly has enormous power and influence over these kinds of decisions. But the camps in the US of 2019 tell us not just about the attitude of a particular administration but about the temper of the times more generally. They exist not just because people with particular views are speaking louder. They also have to be operationalised by regimes that believe their actions will win them political capital.

Such camps can, therefore, usefully be seen as a kind of symptom of political disruption, and of wider structural and geopolitical issues: the movement of peoples, the perceived transfer of power from rich countries to developing countries, and the effects of climate change on nations around the world. These circumstances are putting pressure on resources and on states to provide for ‘their’ populations in ways that are feeding this kind of paranoia. And so the people of a land such as the US, which is built on immigrants, increasingly express the idea that they have to keep migrants out because they’re threatening ‘their’ livelihoods.

In other words, it’s not just because there are lots of people who don’t like foreigners that we see the growing use of detention centres; it’s because people feel that their ways of life are somehow under threat, and that these foreigners are icebreakers for a larger, oncoming change. All of these large-scale phenomena feed through into the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, and the sorts of sentiment that many people hoped, in the decades after the Second World War, were dead.

We should be cautious about attempting to identify too strongly a recurring pattern. This isn’t exactly the same phenomenon repeating through history. But it is symptomatic of the fact that moments of crisis (or perceived crisis) lead states to behave in certain ways. The report of conditions at the facility at Clint, Texas – children with their own bodily waste on their clothes, people drinking toilet water, guards mocking the inmates – is reminiscent of some conditions at concentration camps. As in concentration camps in other settings, these phenomena are not a result of the US Border Control being unable to afford to house people properly; in fact, there are empty beds in longer-term Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. It seems, rather, that despite President Trump’s insistence he is merely trying to persuade would-be migrants not to travel to the US, we are witnessing a policy of humiliation. Although the conditions in China’s camps holding Uighur people are no less outrageous, such occurrences seem to us more frightening when supposedly liberal states act in a similar way. Where is left to hide? Whose rights are not at risk?

Of course, a liberal state such as the United States allows for opposition in a way that is not permitted in authoritarian regimes. There are plenty of people publishing outraged comments about what’s going on in the US, as well as those who argue that any comparison between the detention centres and concentration camps is unfounded. There is much historical precedent for dissent: the British humanitarian activist Emily Hobhouse, for instance, campaigned to highlight and change the conditions of women and children in Boer War concentration camps. Conditions did improve, but not before tens of thousands died in the camps.

Still, it’s important to phrase such criticism carefully. Ocasio-Cortez’s words may have done her argument a disservice, because they refocused the debate to one about terminology. Historians are obliged to stress that the various examples discussed in this piece (and many more could be added) are not all the same: they occurred at different times, in different places, and were administered by different regimes with differing ideologies. So although in some ways it could be argued that it’s entirely reasonable to use the term ‘concentration camp’ in the case of the facilities on the US border – because it’s been used to describe all sorts of sites of incarceration throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – it needs qualification, and the claim is inherently risky.

I would argue that, when we consider the examples considered here, the term ‘concentration camp’ has always connoted – as we have defined – the forced detention of civilians against their will, who are denied access to basic rights most of us take for granted, including recourse to law. The civilians held in concentration camps are completely at the mercy of the guards and of the regime by which they are imprisoned. Unlike at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba – for all of the horrific treatment there – they have no access to law. No one represents them.

Aside from the instinctive reaction that wrongly associates concentration camps solely with the Holocaust, much of this debate turns on whether one can find an adequate definition of a concentration camp. The fact that, like any concept that has a long history, such an attempt is so fraught with historical and political risks means that we are less in need of a consensual, timeless definition than of the need to understand that it is a term that has, at different moments in time, connoted different things. The term ‘concentration camp’ has a broader conceptual history that we need to understand to make sense of the situation in the present day. Rather than obsess over whether the detention centres on the US/Mexico border are ‘concentration camps’, we should be outraged that such places with such appalling conditions exist at all, housing not criminals but enterprising people who – in the tradition of American history and nation-building – seek a better life for themselves and their children.

Dan Stone is professor of modern history at Royal Holloway University of London, and author of Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 18 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in October 2019