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A History of Horror

Contrary to what might be expected, the first recorded use of the expression “concentration camps” did not occur in either Germany or Russia. Nor was the term originally English, as many also mistakenly believe. In fact, as far as it is possible to ascertain, the first person to speak of concentration camps—or, more precisely, to speak of a policy of reconcentración—was Arsenio Martinez Campos, then the commander of the Spanish garrison in Cuba. The year was 1895, and Martinez Campos was fending off the latest in what seemed to be a never-ending series of local insurgencies. Looking for a permanent end to the Cuban independence struggle, he proposed, in a confidential letter to the Spanish government, to “reconcentrate” the civilian inhabitants of the rural districts into camps. Although he conceded that the policy might lead to “misery and famine,” it would also, he explained, deprive the insurgents of food, shelter, and support, thereby bringing the war to a more rapid conclusion.

Martinez Campos didn’t manage to carry out the policy, but his successor did. Over the following two years, from 1896 to 1898, General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau forcibly removed many thousands of Cuban peasants from their homes. As predicted, “misery and famine” followed. Theoretically, the camps were meant to consist of suitably built dwellings, on fertile land, near sources of water. In practice, the Cuban peasants were thrown into “old shacks, abandoned houses, improvised shelters,” wherever it happened to be convenient to throw them. Food was distributed irregularly. Typhus and dysentery spread rapidly. Young girls prostituted themselves for a bit of bread. As many as 200,000 reconcentrados may have died.

One contemporary Cuban historian has described these first camps as a “holocaust of gigantic proportions.” In view of the connotations of the word “holocaust,” this is an inappropriate description. Nevertheless, there is a curious and rather surprising chain of connections between these first Caribbean concentration camps and the Nazi concentration camps which came into existence less than four decades later.

In fact, both the term and the idea spread and evolved rather quickly. By 1900, a mere two years after the Cuban camps were closed, the Spanish term reconcentración had already been translated into English and was used to describe a similar British project, initiated for similar reasons, during the Boer War in South Africa. Just as the Spanish had grown frustrated with the guerrilla tactics of the Cubans, so too had the British been flummoxed by the Boer soldiers’ ability to live off their civilian sympathizers. These civilian sympathizers were duly “concentrated” into camps, in order to deprive Boer combatants of shelter and support. Once again, misery and famine, as well as sickness and hardship, were the result. To contemporaries, the connection between the South African camps and the Cuban camps was clear: at the time, the British were both praised and attacked for adapting “General Weyler’s methods” to the Transvaal.

Four years later, the same policy was again adopted, again in a colonial setting although a slightly different one. This time, the colonizers were not Spanish or English but German. As not everybody remembers, the Germans briefly had African colonies: one of them was Deutsche Sud-West Afrika, now Namibia. The territory was populated by the Herero, a tribe whom the Germans resented; not only did their numbers hamper white settlement, but their presence violated the ethnic purity of the new “German” state. At first, the colonial policy was simply to slaughter the Herero. To some of the German colonists, this seemed inefficient. Following the British example in neighboring South Africa, the Herero were duly driven into concentration camps. But the Herero were not merely starved. They also died of exhaustion after being forced to do heavy physical work on behalf of the German colony. At the beginning of 1905, there had been 14,000 Herero in captivity. By the end of that year, half were dead.

Because of the Herero, the word Konzentrationslager first appeared in German, in 1905. It was also in these African camps that the first German medical experiments were conducted on human beings. Two of Joseph Mengele’s teachers, Theodor Mollison and Eugen Fischer, carried out research on the Herero, the latter in an attempt to prove his theories about the superiority of the white race. Nor was he alone in his beliefs. In 1912, a best-selling German book, German Thought in the World, claimed that nothing “can convince reasonable people the preservation of a tribe of South African kaffirs is more important for the future of humanity than the expansion of the great European nations and the white race in general,” and that “it is only when the indigenous peoples have learned to produce something of value in the service of the superior race…that they can be said to have a moral right to exist.”

The resemblance to the racist language of the Holocaust is clear enough; there was, in addition, one further strange coincidence. The first imperial commissioner of Deutsche Sud-West Afrika was Dr. Heinrich Goering—the father of Hermann, who set up the first Nazi camps in 1933. The authors of Le Siècle des camps ask, “Ceci explique peut-être cela?“—can the one, perhaps, explain the other? The corrupting experience of colonialism—which both reinforced the myth of white racial superiority and legitimized the use of violence against other races—may have helped prepare the way for the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

It isn’t that simple, of course: the German camps cannot be “explained” by South African or Cuban camps, any more than the Soviet camps can be “explained” by the fact that the term kontslager also first appeared in Russian as a translation from the English, probably thanks to Trotsky’s familiarity with the history of the Boer War.1 Nevertheless, these are points worth exploring. Shelves full of books have been written arguing that the Nazi camps can be wholly explained by German anti-Semitism, or by German intellectual history, or by the Prussian legacy. Likewise, the Soviet camps have been attributed to the particular nature of Bolshevik revolutionary theory, to the personality of Lenin, to the tsarist legacy. Yet although different nations made very different use of camps, and although concentration camps developed in very particular national situations for particular reasons, the phenomenon of the concentration camp also has a multinational history. Perhaps it is time to explore how methods of repression—like methods of warfare—were transmitted across borders and across cultures.

That, at any rate, is the argument of Le Siècle des camps, the first attempt at a history of the twentieth-century concentration camp. But it is an argument that the book’s two authors make very carefully. Writing it, they have taken into account the controversy over the views of the German historian Ernst Nolte, who has argued, to put it succinctly, that the crimes of Hitler can be “explained” by the fact that the Soviet Union built its concentration camps at an earlier date. They also appear to want to avoid some of the arguments that arose over the Le Livre noir de communismeThe Black Book of Communism—a similarly cross-cultural, similarly lengthy, and similarly French attempt to estimate the harm done by Communist regimes, from Lenin to Mao to Kim Il Sung.^2 Upon publication, the Black Book set off a storm of controversy across France, in part because its editor pointedly noted in his introduction that more people had been killed in more different ways by Communist regimes than had ever been killed by Hitler. To some, this again seemed an attempt to reduce the significance of the Holocaust.

In their introduction to Le Siècle des camps, Rigoulot and Joël Kotek, his coauthor, announce that they intend to avoid the essentially sterile argument over “who was worse, Hitler or Stalin” (along with the arguments over “who was worse, Stalin or Mao, China or Cambodia, authoritarian Latin America or totalitarian Europe”). Nor do they want to equate the British in South Africa with the Communists in China with the Nazis in Auschwitz, or claim that the detention camps built for Japanese-Americans during World War II can rightly be described as “the American Gulag,” as they often are. Nevertheless, they argue that comparisons will, in the end, help us to see the horror of the most terrifying camps more clearly, to understand where it came from and why it happened:

To say that Treblinka is “unique” is to presume that one has compared it with other camps and that one has come to the conclusion that it is radically different. The comparative study of the phenomenon of the concentration camp is not only legitimate but necessary, if one wants to extricate the specific traits of each particular case.

In the end, their research is illuminating because the global phenomenon is one to which we haven’t given much thought. Because of the horror that the term “concentration camp” evokes, there is a natural desire not to analyze it. But do we really know what, exactly, we mean by the term “concentration camp”—or why we use it the way that we do? Perhaps it is easier to start by defining what it is that a concentration camp is not—and that is how Rigoulot and Kotek begin. A concentration camp, they say, is not a prisoner-of-war camp or a refugee camp, although at times both have resembled concentration camps; one thinks, for example, of the terrible conditions in which Soviet prisoners of war were held in Nazi Germany, or the misery in which displaced persons lived in Europe after the Second World War.

Nor is a concentration camp the same thing as an ordinary prison, or even an ordinary criminal prison camp, although the line between prisons and concentration camps is not always easy to draw either. Generally speaking, criminals are condemned by a judicial system that addresses individual guilt, whereas people are sent to concentration camps by police and armed forces carrying out political orders. Again, this distinction also sometimes breaks down. In the case of the Soviet Union, there was a judicial system set up to condemn large numbers of “enemies of the state” to concentration camps. That system was perfunctory—“trials” rarely took longer than a few minutes—but it existed, helping to legitimate the camps in the eyes of those who designed them. So did the fact that Soviet political prisoners, criminal prisoners, and even captured war criminals were frequently kept together in the same camps and jails.

A system of concentration camps is not quite a system for mass murder either. Although these definitions also blur, most concentration camps, including most of the Nazi camps, were not organized merely to eliminate people, even if that was the practical result of forced hard labor, desperately poor hygiene, and starvation rations. The authors point out, as have others, that the Nazis did not consider their death camps—that is, camps where prisoners arrived and were immediately executed—to be part of the same system as their concentration camps. There were four such death camps—Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In addition, Majdanek and Auschwitz served both as concentration camps and as death camps. These six camps were sometimes called Vernichtungslager—extermination camps—rather than concentration camps.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Geller, Kontsentratsionni Mir i Sovetskaya Literatura (London: Overseas Publications Exchange Ltd., 1974). Geller’s book, which has been translated into French but not English, was the first to examine the evolution of concentration camps as a part of Bolshevik ideology.

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