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Concentration Camps


The concentration camp has become a paradigmatic symbol for oppression of the racial or ethnic other. The Oxford Dictionary defines a concentration camp as a camp where non-combatants of a district are accommodated. While this definition captures the basic description it does not articulate that concentration camps have become synonymous with starvation, rape, torture, violence, and mass extermination. Some camps also involve forced labor in addition to the other forms of inhumane treatment. Many statesWestern and non-Western, democratic and undemocratichave used concentration camps as tools to target civilian populations and hated ethnic groups. The justification for camps has generally been to cleanse the society of perceived internal threats to security and order. In most cases a distinct ethnic group or class of people is determined to be a threat and subject to internment by state decree in order to guarantee stability and prevent insurgency. Thus the development of concentration camps is driven in its earliest form as a counterinsurgency technique against anticolonial struggles.

The first use of concentration camps was by the British during the Boer war (18991902). Boers and black Africans were placed in camps so that they would be unable to aid Boer guerrillas. It is reported that more than 27,000 Boers and 14,000 Africans died in the camps from disease and starvation. Most of the dead were children, clearly noncombatants in the conflict. The British also employed the use of concentration camps in Namibia, the Isle of Man, Cyprus, Kenya, Channel Islands, and Northern Ireland. In Kenya during the Mau-Mau rebellion the British placed 1.5 million Kikuyu rebels in concentration camps. More than 300,000 Kenyans died as a result of these policies. These cases make it clear that even when concentration camps are not explicitly designed to exterminate large portions of the enemy population they are no less deadly in their effect.

Camps have almost always been justified by and surrounded conflicts whether civil or international. Some of the most notable examples have surrounded multinational conflicts like World Wars I (19141918) and II (19391945). During World War I, Austria-Hungary placed Serbs and Ukranians in concentration camps during the war. However, the most prominent examples emerge from the experience of World War II.

The experience of Nazi Germany in World War II stands as the paradigmatic example of concentration camps. The Nazi government led by Adolf Hitler and an ideology of cleansing the German nation and controlled territories of Non-Aryans, developed camps for mass extermination and forced labor. The primary groups targeted by Germans were Jews from Germany and territories occupied by Germany during World War II like the Netherlands, France, and Poland. However, while the Nazi camps are known for their extermination of Jews they were not the only populations placed in camps. Nazis also placed the Roma (Gypsies), Africans, homosexuals, and communists in camps for forced labor and extermination.

The Nazi camps first began in 1933 largely for internment but were converted to the cause of extermination in 1941. Evidence shows that more than six million Jews and some unknown others perished in the Nazi camps of Treblinka, Belzec, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Sobibor. Methods of extermination included starvation, gas chambers, disease, and firing squads. According to some sources groups of individuals were used at times as target practice for German soldiers.

The Nazi concentration camp spawned immense creativity and social scientific work. Psychologist Viktor Frankl developed his psychological perspective called logotherapy based upon his experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau. Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben has developed theories around the state of exception and the bare life to see the concentration camp as a product of modern state sovereignty rather than as an aberration. Italians also placed Jews and communists into camps during World War II and camps also existed in the Netherlands and France.

However, Germany and Italy were not the only nations to use internment during World War II. The United States put ethnic Japanese, many of who were American citizens, into what were called internment camps beginning in 1942. This action was undertaken by the Roosevelt administration under executive order 9066 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December of 1941. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans and some German Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, were placed in internment camps. Lt. General J. L. DeWitt wrote in a letter to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, June 5, 1943, that, The security of the Pacific Coast continues to require the exclusion of Japanese from the area now prohibited to them and will so continue as long as that military necessity exists (p. vii).

Many Japanese died or suffered poor health and neglect in the camps. In order to leave the camps young men had to swear allegiance to the United States and agree to enter the U.S. military. Many refused and were punished, and their stories are captured in the novel The No, No Boys (1978)[MS1] referring to their decline of swearing allegiance to the U.S. and their decline of military conscription. In 1988 the U.S. Congress formally apologized to Japanese American victims of internment camps and granted reparations to the group according to the Japanese-American Reparation Act.

Japanese internment is not the only instance in the United States of the perceived use of what many identify as concentration camps. The practice of placing Native Americans on Indian reservations that had few services and little or no economic opportunities has been likened to the practice of concentration camps. The Native American experience begins with the Indian Removal Act of 1838, which relocated Southern tribes east of the Mississippi River and set the stage for moving them to reservations. Others like Stanley Elkins in his work on slavery compared slave plantations to concentration camps.

In the twenty-first century the detention and torture of terror suspects and so-called illegal combatants outside of the Geneva conventions at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been likened to concentration camps. Detainees have been subjected to a range of forms of extralegal torture that do not conform to the Geneva Conventions or other international law.

Latin America has not been free from the experience of concentration camps. The military junta in Argentina used camps to torture and kill more than 30,000 disappeared dissidents between 1976 and 1983 during what is called the Dirty War. The military regime of Augusto Pinochet (19152006) in Chile also used similar camps to deal with dissidents during its reign following the coup against democratically elected leftist President Salvador Allende (19081973).

Between 1895 and 1898 the Spanish in Cuba employed camps to combat the insurgents fighting for Cuban independence. The atrocities in the camps, the bombing of the Maine, as well as the imperialist designs of the United States are cited as reasons the United States invaded Cuba in the Spanish-American War (1898). The Spanish also used camps in the Philippines in 1901 to quell descent against colonial rule.

Other uses of the concentration camp have involved the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot (19251998) in Cambodia, North Korea, and the Peoples Republic of China reform and labor camps. The camps in Cambodia caused the deaths of 1.7 million enemies of the Khmer Rouge (19751979); the camps in North Korea held 1.6 million enemies of the state (19481994); and countless millions in the camps in China developed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (19581961 and 19661969). In each case, these were communist regimes that used camps to reform political dissidents or those who were perceived to be ideological or ethnic enemies of the regime. In each case, thousands died in camps from starvation or from overwork or were executed. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (18781953) used concentration camps called gulags to address political dissenters, Jews, and other ethnic groups in Russia. These camps included Trotskeyite political foes, and ethnic Ukranians, Chechens, Inguish, Crimean Tartars, Tajiks, Bashkirs, and Kazaks.

One of the more recent experiences with concentration camps was the Balkan War, following the break-up of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 more than 200,000 Croats, Serbs, and Muslim were killed in camps and by acts of ethnic cleansing.

The widespread use of concentration camps for social scientists demonstrates the willingness of various kinds of states in different contexts to engage in this harsh form of population regulation. The camps themselves demonstrate the extensive power of modern states to regulate all aspects of everyday life for citizens and other populations contained within national, colonial, or imperial boundaries. Camps have also provided opportunities to understand the psychology of the oppressors and the oppressed. The concept of authoritarian personality was developed in part to understand the participation of regular Nazi soldiers in the extermination of Jews. Further, the works of Stanley Elkins, Avery Gordon, Agamben, and Frankl, among others, examine the effects of camps on individuals and groups. Beyond psychology, notions of collective memory and haunting have also been developed to analyze the way the experience of concentration camps structures the lives and memories of generations beyond the initial victims. Concentration camps are a devastating product of modern nation states and civil and international military conflicts. At the same time, they are a rich but disturbing area of study for those who seek to understand the role of the state and the psychology of violence and oppression.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Contempt; Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust, The; Imperialism; Imprisonment; Incarceration, Japanese American; Jews; Nazism; Personality, Authoritarian; Reparations


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elkins, Stanley. 1968. Slavery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frankl, Viktor. 1997. Mans Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Touchstone.

Gordon, Avery. 1997. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lt. Gen. J. L. DeWitt to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, June 5, 1943. 1943. In Final Report; Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942. pp. viix. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

Mark Sawyer

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Concentration camps are sites for the forcible detention and isolation of large numbers of people outside judicial control or international conventions. They tend to be set up in periods of war or internal turmoil and, in contrast to prisoner-of-war camps, are used to confine civilians, usually people regarded by those in power as (potential) opponents or as a threat, and often with a view to their eventual removal. The establishment of concentration camps is linked to the modern bureaucratic-militaristic state and its attempts to maintain the dominance of the ruling elites and to create some homogeneity. The term is often used synonymously for the camps set up by the Nazis first in Germany and later in the occupied territories of Europe. In fact, the origins of concentrations camps go back much further, and conversely, not all the camps established by the Nazis were of the concentration camp type.


The military internment camps used in 1838 by the U.S. Army mostly in Tennessee to detain several thousand Cherokee Indians before their forced resettlement under the Indian Removal Act can be seen as early examples of the kind of detention centers that later became known as concentration camps. The term itself was first coined in the Third Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898), when the Spanish governor, General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, ordered the Cuban rural populations to relocate to "campos de concentración" to avoid being treated as insurgents. The British army used the same term for the camps they set up during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) for Boer women and children as well as their black workers to cut off civilian support for the Boer forces.

Common features of all these camps were that people were detained there as members of a specific group rather than as individuals, that this was done on the basis of an administrative act rather than as the result of a judicial process, and that there was usually no procedure to challenge the internment. The human rights of those internees were ignored and violated. Treatment was harsh and often arbitrary, and most camps were characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, malnourishment, and, as a consequence, diseases and a high mortality rate.

War and upheaval in the early twentieth century brought internment camps of this type also to Europe. During World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire used them in its Balkan border regions to confine Serbs and other (pro-Serbian) Slavs who were regarded as potentially disloyal and destabilizing. The largest of these camps was at Doboj in northern Bosnia, which held some forty-five thousand people between 1915 und 1917. In Finland, after the Civil War of 1918, the victorious "Whites" (nonsocialists) set up camps to confine tens of thousands of people who were suspected of belonging to the "Reds" and seeking a Soviet-style revolution. Two camps run by the Prussian state government in Germany between 1921 and 1923 to detain "unwanted" foreigners until their deportation were officially called "concentration camps." Many of those detained there were Jews from eastern Europe.


It was the Nazis who gave the concept concentration camp its definitive and most notorious shape. Under their regime, concentration camps became a central element of the repressive system and the racial state. The Nazi concentration camps imparted to the twentieth century some of its defining images that achieved almost iconic character, such as the gate and ramp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or the skeletal survivors behind the barbed-wire fences of Bergen-Belsen.

The system of Nazi concentration camps started out in an ad hoc and widely improvised way. An emergency presidential decree of 28 February 1933 following the burning of the Reichstag laid the foundations for imprisonment without trial outside the regular penal system. Subsequently, thousands of political opponents of the Nazis, most of them communists, social democrats, and trade unionists, were taken into so-called protective custody (Schutzhaft). Camps to hold them were set up and run, often in administrative rivalry, by the SS (Schutzstaffel), the SA (Sturmabteilung), the political police, and other local and regional state agencies. The first SS camp was established on the order of the Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), on 21 March 1933 at Dachau near Munich, but it was only in 1934 that all "protective custody" camps came under the control of the SS. Himmler appointed Theodor Eicke (1892–1943), the commandant of Dachau, as head of the inspectorate of concentration camps and SS guard units (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager und SS-Wachverbände) and ordered him to reorganize and standardize the concentration camp system. Apart from Dachau, all the other camps were disbanded in the mid-1930s and new purpose-built concentration camps, modeled on Dachau, were set up to take their place.

With the consolidation of their rule, the Nazi regime placed not only political opponents in concentration camps but also social outsiders whose nonstandard behavior was seen as unacceptable in the racially pure and socially regulated "national community" (Volksgemeinschaft). They included beggars, vagrants, the so-called work-shy, alcoholics, people with a string of criminal convictions, pimps, prostitutes, homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses, and Sinti and Roma. From 1938, especially following the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) pogroms of 9–10 November 1938, Jews, too, were incarcerated in concentration camps.

After the outbreak of war, the number of concentration camp prisoners soared. The largest intake were now Jews and political prisoners, most of the latter suspected members of the national resistance movements against the Nazi occupation. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war also ended up in concentration camps. In January 1945, the SS registered almost 715,000 concentration camp prisoners, the highest total number at any one time; less than 10 percent of them were Germans.

Concentration camps were only those camps that came under the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager. The Nazis still established a multitude of special detention camps where conditions were similar but which were outside this administrative and organizational system, such as labor education camps, forced labor camps, forced ghettos, police imprisonment camps, transit camps, and civil internment camps. Some of these were open to inspection by representatives of international organizations such as the Red Cross. Special cases were the extermination camps Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, which were set up to implement the "Final Solution." They were not part of the regular concentration camp system either, but there was considerable overlap, as two concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek-Lublin, also had gas chambers installed.

Labor deployment

Hard work was an important element of concentration camp imprisonment from the very beginning and was intended to discipline and drill the inmates. In the early years most of the work that they were forced to do served no meaningful purpose, but from the mid-1930s economic considerations gained greater prominence among the higher echelons of the SS. The concentration camp prisoners were increasingly recognized as an asset that the SS could exploit to their own advantage by deploying them for menial tasks in the the ambitious civil and military construction projects that the regime embarked on.

During the war, deployment shifted from construction to the armaments industries, and concentration camp prisoners became part of the reservoir workforce used to replace the German workers drafted into the Wehrmacht. Most were hired out to state and private firms in need of manpower, which in the last years of the war comprised nearly all prominent German firms. The concentration camp system was now an important element of the huge economic empire of the SS. In order to coordinate their economic interests more effectively, the SS Business Administration Main Office (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt, WVHA) was established in early 1942, and the inspectorate for concentration camps became part of it as its Section (Amtsgruppe) D. Subcamps of the existing concentration camps were established near those plants that employed large numbers of prisoners, and as a result the concentration camp system became a vast network spanning much of Europe. In 1945 there were some 1,200 satellite camps (Außenlager) and work commandos (Außenkommandos), which together held more prisoners than the 25 main concentration camps (Hauptlager), whose main task had become one of distributing prisoners to where they were needed.

However, despite their economic importance especially in the final years of the war, the deployment of concentration camp prisoners was not ruled by rational considerations of productivity or cost-efficiency, but work always remained primarily a means to humiliate, terrorize, and ultimately annihilate the prisoners. Apart from few exceptions, they were put to work under horrific conditions and driven until their strength was totally depleted in a system perhaps best described as "terror work" (Sofsky). In the last stage, most of those deployed in underground factories such as the one producing the V2 weapons, did not last longer than a few weeks.

Treatment of concentration camp prisoners

In the early years of Nazi rule, conditions were not unlike those in the pre-Nazi concentration camps. Many prisoners were released after a period of detention, and there were no systematic killings. Deaths that did occur were usually the result of abuse and maltreatment of individual prisoners by their SS guards.

However, from the beginning, imprisonment in concentration camps was meant to break the inmates as individuals. Various measures were used to achieve this, and they became more brutal as time went on. Prisoners had to give up all personal possessions, had their hair shaved off, were made to wear a special outfit that identified them as concentration camp prisoners (the "zebra uniform"), and had their names replaced by identification numbers (which were later tattooed onto their arms). Daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, and severe punishment for even the slightest violation of the camp rules set by the SS added to the rule of terror and unpredictability that characterized these camps.

Rising prisoner numbers meant that conditions in the camps deteriorated markedly and death rates rose sharply. With the outbreak of war, concentration camps were not just sites of mass-scale confinement but became also sites of murder—not as individual acts of arbitrary violence but as deliberate policy. This included the execution of prisoners without trial and the killing of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Auschwitz concentration camps. A number of prisoners were subjected to medical experimentation before they were killed. In addition, there was what has been called "indirect mass annihilation," the deliberate policy of induced starvation, brutal treatment, and total physical exhaustion through "terror work" eventually leading to death. This policy reached its climax when the camps in the east were hurriedly vacated before the advancing Red Army and the prisoners herded to camps in the Reich where those who had not died during these transports or marches were left to perish. The best known of these receiving camps is Bergen-Belsen near Hannover, which became an enduring symbol of the final phase of the Nazi concentration camps because of the photographs and film footage taken by the British when they liberated the camp in April 1945.

Prisoners were classified according to why they had been sent to the camps, and from 1936 they were given different colored badges, mostly triangles, which they had to wear on their clothes; for Jews it was the yellow Star of David. The treatment of the prisoners varied considerably according to their category. German criminal and political prisoners generally held the highest social position and had the best chances of getting preferential work assignments or positions of supervising or even commanding other inmates. The Jews were at the lowest rung of the concentration camp hierarchy, and the treatment that they received was worse than that of any other group. After the outbreak of war, their chances of survival were by far the lowest. Located only marginally higher on the social scale were homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, and Russians. Some of the prisoner-functionaries in the camps executed their task with brutality similar to the SS, whereas others tried to use their positions to help their fellow prisoners. The dividing line between perpetrators and victims often became blurred: "a grey zone, with ill-defined outlines which both separate and join the two camps" (Levi, p. 27).

Despite all the attempts of the SS to dehumanize the concentration camp prisoners and isolate them, something like a "camp society" did emerge in most camps. This was easiest in the early period of Nazi rule, when the process of developing solidarity was helped by the fact that most of those imprisoned were political opponents of the Nazis, but even during the final stages of the war, when conditions became increasingly unbearable, testimonies of survivors cite many examples of mutual support. There were also attempts of small groups to engage in resistance activities.

It is impossible to give a precise number of the people who perished in the concentration camps; estimates range from 700,000 to as many as 1,100,000 out of a total of some 1.7 million. Most of these deaths were not the result of outright executions but of the conditions of the imprisonment. In addition, up to three million Jews plus tens of thousands of non-Jews were systematically killed in the extermination camps, largely by gas.

The legacy of the Nazi concentration camps

Those who survived the concentration camps kept the scars of their physical and psychological wounds for years, most of them until their death, and even the second generation was affected by this experience. There were also widespread feelings of guilt over having survived while so many others had perished. Many perpetrators never faced prosecution for the crimes they committed. The Allies tried the upper echelons of Nazi and military officials at Nuremberg, but most of the "ordinary" SS men and women returned to normal life after the end of the war. Postwar Germany, west and east, had problems facing up to the Nazi past. There was a general will not to remember too closely, and while cemeteries at the sites of the former concentration camps were cared for, it was a considerable time before proper memorials were set up that provided information on the crimes committed there. It was only after German unification in 1990 that a wider discourse opened up about the place of the Nazi concentration camps in public memory, and how what is basically unrepresentable can be remembered.


Just as the Nazis did not invent concentration camps, they were not the only ones to use them during this period. In the Soviet Union, camps to detain mainly political opponents date back to the 1920s, and this practice still continued after 1945: the so-called gulag system, as it became known after the branch of the Soviet security service NKVD. During World War II, members of ethnic and other minorities whose loyalties were doubted were also subjected to camp imprisonment or relocation to closed settlements.

In the Spanish civil war (1936–1939), the antirepublican forces led by General Francisco Franco set up concentration camps, such as San Pablo de Cardeña near Burgos, to incarcerate members of the prorepublican International Brigades who were not immediately executed after their capture. When prorepublican refugees from Spain entered France in early 1939, they were placed in special internment camps, the largest of which was Gurs at the foothills of the Pyrenees. The Vichy government of unoccupied France retained Gurs after 1940 and used it for the detention of political opponents and, increasingly, Jews, many of whom were handed over to the Germans. While conditions in all these camps were appalling, they were broadly in line with pre-Nazi concentration camps.

This was different from the camps established during World War II in Mussolini's Italy, by the pro-Nazi Ustaša régime in Croatia, and by Romania under Marshal Ion Antonescu, mainly in Transnistria. These were run on lines similar to the Nazi concentration camps, although they never achieved the same kind of murderous "efficiency." One of the most notorious camps was in Jasenovac, Croatia, where tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Sinti and Roma were murdered.


The end of the Nazi regime did not mean the end of large-scale and arbitrary internment in camps established only for this purpose. Soviet military government placed political opponents of the new regime in their zone of occupation in Germany in "special camps" (Sonderlager), often set up, as in Buchenwald, at the recently liberated Nazi concentration camps. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, the ethnic German populations were rounded up after the end of the war, and many of them were confined in camps before their forced resettlement into what remained of Germany. Following their successful coup in 1967, the Greek military junta interned thousands of political opponents whom they suspected of "leftist" sympathies.

All these camps were detention camps where people were confined as members of specific political or ethnic groups and without proper judicial process. However, there has been disagreement over whether they could by right be called concentration camps, not least in the light of the specific connotation that this term obtained during the Nazi period. As a result, more descriptive terms, such as labor or detention camps, have usually been used to avoid an immediate Nazi association. Camps outside Europe were more readily branded as concentration camps, such as the so-called reeducation camps set up in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot seized power in 1976.

In the post–Cold War period, there seems to be a gradual return to the use of the term in the somewhat wider sense of pre-1933. There was broad agreement that the camps set up by all the warring ethnic groups during the collapse of Yugoslavia, and in particular during the Bosnian War of 1992–1995, constituted concentration camps, with the abuses against the internees, the purposeful killings, and the conscious intent of ethnic cleansing. However, it needed film footage from the Bosnian Serb–run Logor Trnopolje camp in northern Bosnia to galvanize the international community into active intervention in this conflict. The pictures were so effective because they showed Muslim and Croat prisoners emaciated and behind barbed wire, which immediately evoked the scenes of Bergen-Belsen after its liberation in April 1945. The fact that they shook the world in a way that other pictures of human suffering in such camps during this war did not showed yet again the long shadow that the Nazi concentration camps cast over the twentieth century and beyond.

See alsoAuschwitz-Birkenau; Buchenwald; Dachau; Forced Labor; Genocide; Gulag; Holocaust; Yugoslavia.


Armanski, Gerhard. Maschinen des Terrors: Das Lager (KZ und GULAG) in der Moderne. Münster, Germany, 1993.

Bauman, Zygmunt. "Das Jahrhundert der Lager." Die Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte 41, no. 1 (1994): 28–37.

Benz, Wolfgang, and Barbara Distel, eds. Geschichte der Konzentrationslager, 1933–1945. 2 vols. already published, several more in preparation. Berlin, 2001–.

Drobisch, Klaus, and Günther Wieland. System der NS Konzentrationslager, 1933–1939. Berlin, 1993.

Gilbert, Martin. The Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust. London, 1982.

Gutman, Yisrael, and Avital Saf, eds. The Nazi Concentration Camps: Structure and Aims-—the Image of the Prisoner—the Jews in the Camp: Proceedings of the Fourth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference. Jerusalem, 1984.

Herbert, Ulrich, Karin Orth, and Christoph Dieckmann, eds. Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager: Entwicklung und Struktur. 2 vols. Göttingen, Germany, 1998.

Kaminski, Andrzej J. Konzentrationslager 1896 bis heute: Eine Analyse. Stuttgart, Germany, 1982.

Kogon, Eugen. Der SS-Staat: Das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager. Munich, Germany, 1946.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. London, 1988. Translation of I sommersi e i salvati (1986).

Orth, Karin. Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager: Eine politische Organisationsgeschichte. Hamburg, Germany, 1999.

Pohl, Dieter. Verfolgung und Massenmord in der NS-Zeit, 1933–1945. Darmstadt, Germany, 2003.

Schwarz, Gudrun. Die nationalsozialistischen Lager. Frankfurt am Main, 1990.

Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Translated by William Templer. Princeton, N.J., 1997. Translation of Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das Konzentrationslager (1993).

Tuchel, Johannes. Konzentrationslager: Organisationsgeschichte und Funktion der "Inspektion der Konzentrationslager," 1934–1938. Boppard am Rhein, Germany, 1991.

Wippermann, Wolfgang. Konzentrationslager: Geschichte, Nachgeschichte, Gedenken. Berlin, 1999.

Rainer Schulze

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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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concentration camp Detention centre for military or political prisoners. The first were set up by the British for Afrikaner civilians during the South African Wars (1899–1902). The most notorious were established by the German Nazi regime in the 1930s for political opponents, and people considered racially or socially undesirable. Some of these camps provided slave labour while others were the sites of mass execution. In Poland, more than 6 million people (mostly Jews) were murdered in the gas chambers. Gulags were widely employed during Stalin's purges, and reeducation camps were used in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and by the Khmer Rouge. See also Auschwitz; Belsen; Buchenwald; Dachau

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con·cen·tra·tion camp • n. a place where large numbers of people, esp. political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned to provide forced labor or to await mass execution. The term is most strongly associated with the camps established by the Nazis.

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