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Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps

Although monstrous for most observers, totalitarianism and concentration camps belong to the same family, forming a coherent and in some sense logical entity. Concentration camps were not created ex nihilo by totalitarianism. They appeared for the first time in 1896 in Cuba, at the time of an armed insurrection against the Spanish Crown. Valeriano Wyler y Nicolau, the capitan general of the island, decided to lock up a large portion of the peasant population in so-called camps of reconcentration, in order to isolate the guerrillas totally. Four years later, Lord Horatio Kitchener would take this as his model during the Boer War in South Africa.

The first camps were temporary, but all the ingredients of what would become the scandal of the concentration camp were nonetheless present: the notion of collectively punishing an entire group; the idea of preemption (with most of the interned being innocent); administrative detention (whereby no court has judged the internees); and bad health conditions (with mortality high from the start). Such a camp is most often hermetically sealed from its surroundings, and rapidly and summarily consigned, to mass together supposedly dangerous or threatening individuals or groups of individuals.

Why did colonial rulers decide, around the beginning of the twentieth century, to intern civilians en masse? The answer lies in the advent of mass politicization, when even the humblest citizen was portrayed as an active subject of the nation, and therefore in time of conflict imagined as a potential enemy. Until 1880 political life was largely restricted to the elite(s), but the early 1880s witnessed a significant change in political conditions, which resulted in the masses acquiring a much stronger sense of political consciousness.

Origins of the Concentration Camp

Two great passions of modern political life—Nation and Revolution—arouse the masses, and through conscription, which began with the Napoleonic Wars, have become enormously important in modern wars. With the confrontation of gigantic armies and each side determined to prevail, major conflicts have given rise to the problem of what to do with captured enemies. The problem is immense, because not only are there many prisoners, but it makes no sense to liberate them, whether shortly after capture, or thereafter. This is because a captured soldier is, and will remain for the duration of the conflict, a potential enemy and thus a distinct threat. From this comes the necessity of neutralizing him for as long as the war lasts. In fact, it was the U.S. Civil War that inaugurated the practice of interning great masses of people. Camps were created urgently and with necessarily scant regard for health factors—to receive on both sides huge populations of prisoners. These camps consisted of canvas tents surrounded by metal wire fences. Barbed wire was not invented until 1867, two years after the South's capitulation, for the purpose of management and surveillance of the great herds of cattle in the American West. Barbed wire would become an enormous success, because it is cheap and easy to make and install. By 1896 the Spanish began using these "metal thorns" to surround the camps where they reconcentrated Cuban peasants and their families.

By 1900 it was the British who resorted to the practice in South Africa, followed by the Germans in 1904 in Hereroland (now Namibia). The Herero were the first victims of genocide in the twentieth century, but also of the policy of concentration camp elimination through work. The few survivors of the 1904 genocide found themselves penned in forced work camps and/or hired for the day by private enterprises.

The dehumanizing process was unleashed, and nothing henceforward would stop this instrument par excellence of social control. It would spread even to the very heart of the European continent. It is impossible to understand the concentration camp system (from Soviet Russia to Nazi Germany, by way of France during the Third Republic) without considering World War I (1914–1918) and its consequences. The concentration camp universe can be seen as a product of the extreme violence of this war and a result of the brutalization of European society, especially in Germany and Russia, within the context of an increasing scorn for socalled civil society. Soon the detention camp for external enemies (civilian or military) would be destined for the internment of internal enemies; on August 8, 1918, Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky ordained the establishment of two camps, at Mourom and Arzamas, for "'suspicious agitators, counterrevolutionary officers, saboteurs, parasites, speculators' who will be interned until the end of the civil war" (Werth, 1997, p. 85). Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn correctly points out that for the first time "the word [camp] is applied to citizens of the country itself" (1974). From this moment on the enemy was seen as internal, and the function of the camp was to render innocuous such subjectively guilty individuals. Adolf Hitler's Germany copied Soviet Russia in this regard—witness the twelve thousand people arrested on February 28, 1933, the morning after the Reichstag fire. A decree promulgated for "the protection of the people and the State" (Schutz von Volk und Staat, decree of the Reich President for the protection of the state) aimed to isolate behind barbed wire any person who was or might be opposed to the regime. The detention of people known to be innocent of any crimes was deemed preventive (Schutzhaft).

A result of improvisation, the concentration camp system was imposed in the former Soviet Union as well as in Nazi Germany, and quickly became a permanent feature. The will to transform fundamentally an existing order in pursuit of an ideology, whether social or racial, leads to this system. It arises out of deep necessity, as something that is integral to totalitarian regimes, indicated by the fact that all such regimes have been endowed with powerful concentration camp systems: from the former popular democracies of Eastern Europe to communist China, by way of North Korea. Totalitarianism is anti-individualist, a kind of group religion that aspires to remodel the individual, adapting its method as necessary, from positive influences (propaganda) to negative education (brutality). Totalitarian concentration camp experiences are marked by this double perspective; they are terrorist but also "pedagogical."

The creation of Dachau can be very well understood from this point of view, as well as its infamous motto, "Arbeit macht frei," which means "Our own labor makes us free." Inaugurated March 21, 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, Dachau was a camp of preventive detention (Schuzthaftlager), aimed at both isolating enemies of the people and setting them on the right road. Dachau is often mentioned as the first of the Nazi concentration camps, but the initial camp dates from February 1933, or less than a month after the accession of Hitler to the Chancellery. Something like seventy camps, all told, would spring up just about everywhere in Germany before the end of World War II.

At Dachau an offer was held out to Aryan ideological "deviants," including a few dozen communists, who freshly converted to Nazism, were liberated from the camp. Economic functionality, that is to say productive work, was not necessarily linked to camp life. In the British camps of South Africa (1900), as in the French camps of the Third Republic, there was no work, no more than in the camps of the Algerian War. Work was not a component of nontotalitarian concentration camp institutions. At the beginning even the Nazi camps had no productive goal, nor did they serve any economic purpose. Their essential function was to tame wayward minds, and break the rebels and any other opposition.

Progressively, the notion of profit emerged, to the point of transforming the camps into veritable factories, because it appeared as though the concentration camps would remain permanent institutions. Being that the camps were going to exist, they might as well yield an economic return. The idea of having the cost of the institution borne by the detained themselves arose at the same time in Germany and the former Soviet Union, where the principle of "cash autonomy" would come into use. Confirmed by the testimony Tzvetan Todorov gathered about work in the communist camps, huge profits were sometimes made from unpaid labor. Detainees were unable to refuse any arduous task, no matter how backbreaking. The Nazi camps became guided by the economic needs of the SS in 1937 and 1938, when camps were constructed near quarries and SS factories; not until 1942 were they integrated into the war effort of the Nazi state. By mid-September 1942 Himmler would invent the notion of "extermination through work" for Jews and other victims. Germany's great war machine needed replenishment, so the concentration camp supply of workers started growing exponentially. In 1941 the camps accounted for only 60,000 individuals, mostly Germans or Austrians. In August 1942 this number grew to 115,000. In August 1944 it reached 524,268. By mid-January 1945 a peak of 714,211 detainees was achieved. Hundreds of thousands of people would be sold to German industrial enterprises (Siemens, Daimler-Benz, Krupp, Volkswagen, Knorr, IG Farben, Dynamit Nobel, Dresdner Bank, BMW, AEG).

A Complex Reality

Unquestionably, the camps are creatures of modernity created by various kinds of political regimes, but all camps were not the same. Bloemfontain (the Boer camp in South Africa), Manzanar (in the United States), and Gurs (in France) cannot be compared to Nazi Germany's Buchenwald or the former Soviet Union's Magadan, nor even to Belene (in communist Bulgaria). Using the same term, concentration camp, to designate detention centers, work camps, even extermination centers is the source of much confusion and far too much relativism. The Manzanar camp that served to intern Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II cannot really be compared to a Nazi, Soviet, or Chinese camp. There are at least two kinds of camp, if not three, if the six Nazi centers of extermination are (mistakenly) included:

  1. Detention and/or internment camps whose purpose is to isolate temporarily suspected or dangerous individuals. In this category are camps created during conflicts to imprison national "enemies" (as in August 1914 and September 1939), or those perceived as such (e.g., Japanese Americans in the United States). In most of these camps slave labor is unknown; their function is prophylactic, not productive. Living conditions in them can be harsh and sometimes atrocious whatever the regime and its purpose: colonial (Herero), security (Gurs), or dictatorial (Franco).
  2. Concentration camps. These are the camps that constitute the most significant category, and are at the heart of the totalitarian concentration camp phenomenon, whether one is speaking of the Nazi KZ, the Soviet gulag, or communist European and Asian (laogai) camps. These camps, which are characterized by a quadruple logic of humiliation, reeducation, work, and annihilation, are essential to the regimes that created them. They are usually veritable extermination camps, where the mortality rate could approach 50 percent.

The four Nazi centers of immediate execution (Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka) should be excluded from this list, as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Technically speaking, these could not be called camps, even of extermination; they were not destined to receive internees, but to immediately exterminate those rounded up from the four corners of Europe.

SEE ALSO Auschwitz


Applebaum, Anne (2003). Gulag. A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Allen Lane.

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1997). Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kaminski Andrjez J. (1982). Konzentrationslager 1986 bis heute, Eine Analyse (Concentration camps 1986 to today, an analysis). Munich: Piper Valag, 1996.

Kogon, Eugen (1960). The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. Trans. Heinz Norden. New York: Berkley.

Kotek, Joël and Pierre Rigoulot (2004). Century of Concentration Camps: 100 Years of Radical Evil. London: Orion/Weidenfeld.

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

Joël Kotek

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