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A History of Horror

It should be evident, moreover, that camps are not necessary to carry out mass murder: many regimes, in many places, over many centuries, have found methods of murdering large numbers of people without resorting to camps at all. While Rigoulot and Kotek’s decision to write only about camps certainly makes sense, it also means much that is relevant is left out. For example, they include a brief mention of the South Vietnamese government’s resettlement policy, which concentrated civilians into “strategic villages” in order to damage Communist guerrillas. This was certainly a cruel policy, but not crueler than the Soviet government’s bombardment of Afghanistan, which is thought to have killed a million people. That policy was also intended to reduce support for guerrillas, but doesn’t fit into the scheme of this book.

Still, as we compare concentration camps to other forms of imprisonment, a definition slowly emerges. Rigoulot and Kotek conclude that when we speak of concentration camps, we generally mean camps for people who have been imprisoned not for what they have done but for who they are. Concentration camps are not built for individual offenders, but rather for a particular type of noncriminal, civilian prisoner, the members of an “enemy” group, or at any rate of a category of people who, for reasons of their race or their presumed politics, are judged to be dangerous or extraneous to society. In his first recorded use of the term kontslager in August 1918—he appears to have picked it up from Trotsky—Lenin called not for the “guilty” to be condemned to camps but for the mass imprisonment of “unreliable elements.” It is no coincidence that concentration camps reappeared in Europe in the past decade during the Bosnian war, which was a war about establishing ethnic purity in certain parts of former Yugoslavia.

Beyond their pursuit of a particular type of prisoner, the camps described in Le Siècle des camps cannot be said to have had much in common. Some, like the detention camps set up for Japanese-Americans during World War II, were genuinely intended solely to isolate people who were seen, without individual evidence, as potentially disloyal. Others were designed to make full use of cheap inmate labor: at its height, the Soviet camp system was a vital part of the Soviet economy, and prisoners were used in every industry imaginable. Still others have been intended to “reeducate” prisoners of doubtful loyalty, sometimes by demanding self-accusation and false confession as well as by administering harsh treatment. Generally speaking, democratic regimes have used concentration camps as temporary measures, during wartime. Totalitarian regimes deploy them as a permanent and intrinsic part of the system: by definition, totalitarian regimes are those which establish a social ideal, and then seek to eliminate or reeducate everyone who doesn’t fit into it.

Rigoulot and Kotek grapple with these differences in part through an exploration of what was unique about daily life within each one of the camp complexes, using what secondary sources are available. These accounts are very uneven, which is perhaps to be expected: not all of the camps created during the past hundred-odd years have been studied with the same thoroughness. Nor is documentation always available. The Nazi camps are described in hundreds of memoirs, archival documents, and a secondary literature that continues to expand. We know of the contemporary camps of North Korea only through descriptions of the very occasional defector. Nevertheless the authors sometimes appear not to be aware of recent publications from recently opened Soviet archives; they speculate, for example, about the possible existence of “special regime camps”—i.e., camps with particularly brutal regimes—for political prisoners, when in fact the existence of such camps has been amply documented.

The authors also classify camps into four rather crude categories: those designed merely to isolate people (Cuba, South Africa); those designed to profit from forced labor (Soviet, early Nazi, Chinese and other Asian camps); those designed to first humiliate and then eliminate prisoners (later Nazi camps); and, finally, the six Vernichtungslager, which were actually not “camps” at all but killing factories. The authors admit that some of the distinctions between their categories are hard to draw. Nevertheless, both the somewhat overlengthy histories of particular camps and the categories serve a function. They are, simply, a device which enables Rigoulot and Kotek to discuss the global phenomenon of the concentration camp without having to say that all concentration camps, or all totalitarian regimes, were everywhere the same, or that the existence of horrific crimes in one country lessens the guilt of those who carried out horrific crimes in another.

When the camps are considered from a global perspective, several patterns emerge. It is striking, for example, how many of the camp systems began spontaneously. Goering himself, at the time of his Nuremberg trial, remarked that the first Nazi camps had come about simply because, from one day to the next, “we found ourselves with several thousand prisoners on our hands.” The same was true in the Soviet Union, where prisoners from 1918 onward were often placed as an emergency measure in old monasteries and churches. Even as late as 1943, the Italian camps for Jews—they had begun to appear in 1939, under the direct influence of Hitler—were still located in “schools, villas, convents, castles.” During the Greek civil war, camps were hurriedly set up on islands, where inmates lived in ragged tents or simply slept under the stars.

It is also striking how often the camps emerged in the midst of war, revolution, and wider violence. Along with arguing that the legacy of imperialism has been overlooked as an influence in the prehistory of twentieth-century totalitarianism, Kotek and Rigoulot also emphasize the brutalizing influence of twentieth-century warfare, particularly as practiced during World War I in Europe, and, by extension, during World War II in China. New weapons and new inventions (barbed wire among them) made it suddenly easier to terrorize more people more rapidly. World War I also spawned its own camps: vast internment camps, in Alsace-Lorraine, for “suspect” civilians, and enormous prisoner-of-war camps farther east as well. The hellish experience of the trenches might also have helped, in Germany and Russia, to produce the disregard for human life that was a fundamental component of totalitarianism.

But for the different kinds of camps to expand, and to persist over a long time—as they did in Nazi Germany, in the Soviet Union, and in China—something else had to be present besides the immediate and spontaneous need to round up large numbers of prisoners and to treat them as cattle or as cargo. Ideology is one word for it, but it might be more precisely said that there had to be a rhetoric of dehumanization, of depersonalization. As has been described many times, the Nazi dehumanization of the Jews preceded the actual creation of the camps: before the Jews were actually rounded up and deported, they were deprived of the right to work as civil servants, as lawyers, as judges; they were forbidden to marry Aryans, forbidden to attend Aryan schools, forbidden to slaughter animals according to kosher law; they were forced to wear gold Stars of David and subjected to beatings and humiliation on the street.

Within the camps, the process grew more extreme. Gitta Sereny, in her long interview with Franz Stangl, the commander of Treblinka, asked him why camp inmates, before being killed, were also beaten, humiliated, deprived of their clothing. Stangl answered, “To condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did.”3 In his hugely influential The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, the German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky has also shown how the dehumanization of prisoners in the Nazi camps was methodically built into every aspect of camp life, from the torn, identical clothing to the deprivation of privacy to the heavy discipline—there were strict rules for making beds—to the constant expectation of death.4

Nor, perhaps, is it wholly coincidental that, in the Soviet case, attitudes toward prisoners underwent a deep transformation precisely at the time that the camp system began to expand. From the late 1930s, Stalin began publicly to refer to “enemies of the people” using what one historian has called “biological-hygienic terms.” He denounced them as vermin, as pollution, as filth which had to be “subjected to ongoing purification,” as “poisonous weeds.”5 Prisoners were at the same time “excommunicated” from Soviet life, were not allowed to refer to one another as “comrade,” and could no longer earn the title of “Stakhanovite” or “shock-worker,” no matter how well they behaved or how hard they worked. So powerfully did this exclusion from Soviet society affect prisoners brought up in it, writes Jacques Rossi, that as late as the 1940s,

a brigade that had just completed an 11 1/2–hour shift agreed to stay and work the next shift only because the chief engineer…said to the prisoners: “I ask that you do this, comrades.”6

The Asian societies that set up mass camp systems, and mass systems of repression, were no exception. In China, the Cultural Revolution demonized people as the “Blacks” as opposed to the “Reds.” In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge venomously castigated “75ers,” the people who were expelled from the cities in 1975. In North Korea, the authorities speak of the “unreformables,” who are like “harmful weeds which must be uprooted.”

Whether this sort of language was transmitted across borders, with one set of revolutionaries picking it up from others (and it is worth noting how often the “weeds” metaphor has been used), or whether the need to dehumanize outsider groups is somehow intrinsic to human nature seems an unanswerable question. But it is clear that methods of organizing camps could be and were exported. Leaving aside the probably unresolvable question of how much Hitler actually knew about Stalin’s camps, we can say without a doubt that the Chinese knew a great deal about them. At the height of Sino-Soviet collaboration in the early 1950s, Soviet “experts” helped set up several Chinese camps, and organized forced labor brigades at a coal mine near Fushun.

In postwar Eastern Europe, Communist camps were often not merely set up with Soviet advice, but were actually organized and run, in the early days, by the Red Army and the Soviet secret police. Certainly this was the case in East Germany, where some of the new regime’s prisoners were placed in recently liberated Nazi camps, including Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. In Romania, which also set up a large system of Soviet-style forced labor, the secret police acted under direct orders from their Soviet counterparts.

Nothing, of course, prevented other cultures from redesigning the Soviet model to suit their own needs. After Stalin’s death, even the camps in the East European Communist states began to vary widely. The Czechs slowly disbanded their camps while the Bulgarian Communists maintained theirs well into the 1970s. The Chinese camps—laogai—still exist, of course, although they no longer resemble the Stalinist camps they were set up to emulate. Although the Stalinist camps maintained “cultural-educational” departments, and although their commanders paid lip service to the idea of reeducation, they had nothing like the rigid reeducational system which the Chinese camps now have, a system in which prisoners’ atonement and ritual abasement before the Party—another form of depersonalization—seem to have a far higher importance to the authorities than the goods that the prisoners manage to produce. The idea of the concentration camp was general enough to export; but the specific details—what the camps were used for, how they ultimately developed, how rigid or disorganized they became, how cruel or liberal they remained—all of this depended on the particular country, on the culture, on the regime.

In the end, any exploration of the general subject of camps invariably leads back to a discussion of what was different about each one, and what was unique about the regimes which designed them. This doesn’t mean that comparisons will stop: in fact, as we now begin to look back on the history of the twentieth century, the subject will be hard to avoid. In their conclusion, the authors of Le Siècle des camps note that the “globalization” of the history of camps may have already begun. Two former victims of Asian camps, Pramoedya Ananta Toer of Indonesia and Harry Wu of China, have visited the sites of Nazi camps. I was present at a seminar in Kraków where Nazi, Soviet, and North Korean camps were all discussed. One of the most interesting recent books about what the French call le phénomène concentrationnaire, Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme, examines the experiences of prisoners in both the Nazi and Soviet systems, asking whether it was possible for them to maintain any sort of morality in the inhuman world of the camps.7

Nor is the globalization entirely new. It was Hannah Arendt, after all, who called for the writing of a history of the concentration camp, “from their beginnings in the imperialist countries, passing by their utilization as a temporary measure in wartime, arriving at their institutionalization as a permanent organ of government in regimes of terror.” Kotek and Rigoulot humbly admit that their book is merely the beginning of a response to her proposal. One hopes there will be others.

  1. 3

    Gitta Sereny, Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (McGrawHill, 1974), p. 101.

  2. 4

    Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Princeton University Press, 1997).

  3. 5

    Amir Weiner, “Nature, Nurture, and Memory in a Socialist Utopia: Delineating the Soviet Socio-Ethnic Body in the Age of Socialism,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 4 (October 1999), p. 1121.

  4. 6

    Jacques Rossi, The Gulag Handbook: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Soviet Penitentiary Institutions and Terms Related to the Forced Labor Camps, translated by William A. Burhans (Paragon House, 1989), p. 449.

  5. 7

    Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, translated by Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak (Metropolitan Books, 1996).

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