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…

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