…it’s important to note that despite the contemporary association of concentration camps with the Shoah, they are not a Nazi invention. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various imperial forces — including the British and Germans in their African colonies, the Spanish in the Caribbean, and Americans in the West — engaged in the practice of rounding up civilians into concentration camps as a tactic to suppress indigenous guerrilla warfare. By isolating the civilian population, fighters had fewer places to hide. Large populations of mostly women and children were held in terrible, quasi-permanent conditions, without trial, and died en masse from disease, malnutrition, and exposure.
Historian Isabel Hull argues that the German military’s predisposition toward “final solutions” was first evident in the 1904 internment and genocide of the Herero and Nama people in the German colony of South West Africa, now Namibia, in what was already called a “concentration camp.” The term itself comes from reconcentración, a Spanish policy deployed against Cubans in the 1890s, which was then reused by the British during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
Meanwhile, Americans offended at the use of “concentration camp” should acquaint themselves with our own history of civilian detention. As early as 1862, American forces interned Dakota women and children at Fort Snelling. George Takei tweeted this week regarding the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, “I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.”
Applying the term “concentration camp” to the indefinite detention without trial of thousands of civilians in inhumane conditions — under armed guard and without adequate provisions or medical care — is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the lessons of the Holocaust will be lost if we refuse to engage with them.
Anna Lind-Guzik, “I’m a Jewish historian. Yes, we should call border detention centers ‘concentration camps.'”, Vox (20 June 2019) [https://www.vox.com/first-person/2019/6/20/18693058/aoc-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-concentration-camps-immigration-border]