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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.

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. 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.

  2. 3

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

  3. 4

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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