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The Global History of Concentration Camps
“The use of concentration camps changes the world, but going forward, the most predictable outcome of their use is a world with more camps”
Today we use a lot of euphemisms: re-education camps, internment, work camps, prison camps, camps for internally displaced people. But before world war one, these prisons were known simply as concentration camps and they started in Cuba in the 1890s to control an uprising against the Spanish colonizers. Since then, concentration camps have proliferated across the globe, and have become the tool of choice for governments attempting to control large groups of people. Entire ethnic groups have been rounded up over the past 100 years, incarcerated without trial, and held indefinitely, slowly starving to death or dying from disease and neglect, even here in the US. What do all these camps have in common? What sets them apart? and most importantly, how do we fight them? We talk with Andrea Pitzer about her book “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps.” She traces the evolution of the concentration camp, from its earliest incarnation in Cuba to its modern day forms in China, Burma and Guantanamo.
Episode Transcript Below
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- Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev, Oleg Timofeyev – Perpetuum mobile – Acrobatic Dance: Music from the Gulag, Hänssler Classic, 2004
- Abdul Mozid – Untitled – Music in Exile: Bangladesh, 2019
- Chris Zabriskie – What Does Anyone Know About Anything – Direct to Video, 2015
- Soft and Furious – Superconnected Sleep – The Merfolk I Should Turn to Be, 2017
- Himalayha – Noite de Novembro – II, 2019
- Blue Dot Sessions – Boston Landing – Skittle, 2018
- Miles Jay – Bass Taqasim Nahawand – The Troposphere, 2014
- Uyghur Bahar Seylisi – Untitled – Music of Xinjiang:Uyghur and Kazakh Music from Northwest Xinjiang, 2016
Host- Im Salima Hamirani and on todays show…
Fade in Rohingya man singing
(translation) we have no jobs, no human rights we are unhappily living in these camps. Other community can move everywhere. So we cannot move, we cannot do, we cannot learn.
Host- in Sittwe, on the outskirts of where the Rohingya used to live, sits a sprawling IDP Camps, or a camp for internally displaced people. In 2012 the Burmese military began a reign of terror against Rohingya villages, burning raping and killing. The remaining Rohingya were herded together and forced into the IDP camps. This man, is one of the survivors.
So this condition is like .. animal. Just our life is like animals life.
Host – Hes in the camp with his entire family and while they wait to be released, they lives falter.
My life is destroyed. Im thirty eight years old. So i have four children. Im thinking im afraid of my childrens future life.
Host: They cant leave. They have no jobs, no education. Armed guards patrol the borders with rifles. They receive food rations once a month, which most of them sell for firewood in order to cook rice. Which means they often go hungry. The situation weighs on the camp residents, even as they organize and try to fight back.
How can we get our human rights and also our justice?
Host: Rations, segregating people according to race, armed guards. If that sounds familiar, it should. Theyre markers of what we call concentration camps.
So the idea of a concentration camp is, first of all, not prisoners of war, but civilians, so not combatants. And it’s the mass detention of civilians without a trial, usually on the basis of race or ethnicity or religion or political affiliation, something someone belongs to rather than anything that they’ve done.
Host: Concentration camp. That word should be a ghost of world war 2 and the holocaust. And in fact, just using it creates strong emotional reactions. It should. But not all concentration camps look like the ones we saw during the holocaust.
One thing I always like to say upfront whenever I’m talking to people is we are not talking about Auschwitz, we are not talking about death factories, and maybe we’ll get to that later. But in the beginning, you know, that hadn’t been invented,
Host: In fact, recognizing the signs of a concentration camps is important, because according to Andrea Pitzer, the world is currently awash with them.
You really see in as the Cold War rises, that that colonial camp system, along with the communist camp system, sort of dividing the world. Everybody’s doing camps.
Host: And everybody IS doing camps – Chinas has camps for the Uighers and political opponents. The United States has camps for immigrants. North Korea has camps. You could argue that guantanmo is a concentration camp. And thats what were talking about today in Making Contact. How exactly did we get here?
Andrea Pitzer wrote an entire book on the topic, called One Long night: A Global History of Concentration Camps and for the first part of our show were going to take a look at the rise of the concentration camp and how it became an almost permanent institution around the world. Heres Andrea:
Well, it was actually a book I wanted to read that didn’t exist. And when I was working on my first book, which was the political biography of Vladimir Nabokov, the guy who wrote Lolita, his brother had died in a German concentration camp and concentration camps from World War One came up in his work and the Soviet gulag. And it just led me to think, when did this idea of a concentration camp and this phrase enter the world and how did that become an okay thing to do?
Host: So before we dive into the history of camps, lets talk about some of their defining features, or what sets them apart. Because in some ways concentration camps and modern day prisons are very similar.
Well. And one of the things that happens with a lot of big camp systems is they kind of become their own little worlds. So you actually had like solitary confinement quarters and sometimes jails inside big concentration camp systems.
Host: But there is a big difference between them. For one, as we mentioned, concentration camps target ethnic groups. But also –
What separates it from a prison in general is that in prison, in theory, people are supposed to have had trials. They they’re supposed to have had some chance to present some kind of defense. Whereas a concentration camp is usually an end run around that process. Sometimes you had people rounded up as a group. For instance, the British in Kenya, they would sometimes have a judge sentenced 300 people all at once in a field, which is not a real trial.
Host: And then theres the inescapable death count – even in the earliest manifestations of camps, even before the calculated killing of detainees.
Even though they didn’t use bullets and nooses and hangings, disease, malnutrition, and just the terrible conditions that they were in, the hardships that they faced were enough to kill so many people. And most of them were women and children.
Host: Andrea Pitzers last point is really important. Governments dont have to actively kill people. Just rounding them up in squalor without adequate food and water and sanitation is enough to lead to mass death. This sort of death by neglect was a common factor in all the camps were about to examine.
Were going to do a very fast overview of a profound history which most people have never heard of, stick with us. Theres links on our site for more information on each camp system in case youre interested.
So phase one: The creation of the first concentration camp.
There are probably dozens of ancient examples of governments rounding up ethnic groups and isolating them. The native american reservations here in the United States, for example. But the first real use of the term concentration camp was used by the spanish in Cuba. And thats where Andrea Pitzer starts her book, in Cuba in 1896. The Spanish called it reconcentracion.
So what a concentration camp was in Cuba in the 1890s was it was a way to fight rebels that had been going for 30 or 40 years.
Sound of fighting, gun shots.
Host: The Cuban insurgency wanted to fight off the Spanish colonizers. And for a while they were winning. Theyd attack the spanish military and then melt black into the countryside where they lived with their families, as farmers often. It was impossible for the Spanish to isolate the rebels. That is, until the spanish government sent a man to Cuba named Captain General Valeriano Weyler
And Wyler was already nicknamed the butcher and wanted to have as free a hand as possible going in. And he came in and instituted this first in one region and then across much of Cuba. And it was a very deliberate move. It was understood to be as harsh as possible. And interestingly, Wyler even compared it to what Sherman had done in the south during the civil war. And this was how he used he justified it to America, was I’m not doing anything different than what you’ve done.
Host: So what did Welyer do exactly?
Instead of catching those guerrillas that were actually fighting them, they decided it was easier to just round up all the civilians, put them behind barbed wire, and then everyone who was left could be shot as a guerrilla. That was a more efficient way to deal with isolating these guerrillas and keeping them from resources.
It was from the beginning. You know, it was part of this military strategy. It was also punitive. I mean, it was hard on these people to see their families and their fellow countrymen rounded up and starving in these camps, because even though they weren’t death camps, these camps in Cuba, in the space which are only open for about two years, ended up killing.
Most estimates run about 150000 people, which was about 10 percent of the island’s pre-war population. So it was a huge toll.
Host: But the camps werent happening in secret. Many Cubans who fled in the 1890s came to the US and started to organize a publicity campaign. And at the same time, international journalists went to Cuba, writing damning exposes of the conditions in the camps. A Harpers dispatch said the prisoners were penned up in starvation cages. illustrations of the dead filled the global news. And that had an effect, here in the United States.
The idea of independence, you know, hadn’t been quite as long ago as it’s been for us today from the Revolutionary War and this idea of people throwing off the yoke of a European power. There was a romantic idea to it as well. But McKinley, who was president at the time, came out very clearly before we entered the Spanish American War. He said it would lead to no peace but that of the wilderness and the grave.
So he denounced it, sought from the highest platform that a president can denounce it.
Host: And eventually the ongoing insurgency and the involvement of the US led to the closing of the camps. But then something interesting happened..
Well, we did go to war with Spain and we beat them pretty quickly, and that was sort of the beginning of the end of Spain as a significant empire and we inherited a lot of their colonial possessions. And one of the things that we then took and decided not to give independence was the Philippines. And so we got involved in a conflict very much like the one that Spain had been involved in, in Cuba. And instead of taking the position that these camps would be bad and that independence would be a good thing, there was a real sense of this is actually the conflict that the phrase white man, the burden comes from. There was this sense that we needed to civilize the Filipinos. There was a sense that we needed to keep power around the world. And this is sort of when America becomes an empire and rises in place of Spain. And we instituted our own camps, you know, within a couple of years after McKinley had denounced them. Far fewer people died because they were only open a few months before the guerrillas surrendered. But it’s estimated that more than 11000 deaths were directly attributable to just a few months of these camps being open.
Host: Thats right, after loudly denouncing the Spanish camps in Cuba, The United States opened their own in the Philippines. And soon after, the rest of the world followed our example. Camps of this type – colonial camps – exploded.
So in the first decade, it really happened and a lot of. In several really four main colonial locations around the world, southern Africa. There were two. The Germans had some in what was southwest Africa then now called Namibia. And there was a is in the wake of a genocide there against the Herrero and Nama people. There were the camps you mentioned in the Boer War in southern Africa, the Cuban camps and the Philippine camps.
Host: Like the original Cuban camps, they were meant to contain anti-colonial insurgency. So torture, starvation, disease were persistent. And we dont have time to cover everything that happened in them but for a while they were so deadly that they affected the way the world thought about concentration camps.
Those camps were so brutal and so lethal that the idea kind of became repugnant that civilized nation wouldn’t really do this. And that’s why they sort of fell away before World War One,
There’s this moment in World War One, right before World War One, where there’s almost no camps in the world.
Host: Its important to recognize that we had this one moment in our collective history without the brutality of concentration camps. It bookmarked the first phase of their invention and use. But the respite didnt last.
Sound of bombing runs.
Host: Phase two, of concentration camps. World War One. Suddenly almost every western country involved in the war began using what we now call internment camps.
So England and Germany both started out rounding up people that they thought were spies. And that was not unusual that something had been done in previous years. And there’s in most countries there’s a lot of legal room to lock up suspected spies during wartime. But what was kind of new was this idea. I’m not just suspecting you individually for something you’ve done and you individually for something you’ve done, but because you’re German or because you’re British
Host: Internment was a nicer word. But an internment camp IS a concentration camp.
And that spread to six continents just over the course of World War One. And then suddenly it became normal to do this to people. And not that many people died in those World War One camps compared to camps like the Cuban camps and the Philippine camps. So this rehabilitated this idea.
Host: These camps were not colonial camps. They werent as harsh. They werent meant to crush people, merely detain them. World War one made camps seem kinder and more palatable. And thats extremely important for what happens next.
This idea of internment that somehow if you gave some people some books to read and you didn’t shoot them, that it would become innocuous, you know, really took root. [45.2s] So I think the danger is we think that there’s some kind of safe way for particularly for a democracy to lock up civilians and detain them without trial just on the basis of identity, as long as we’re not killing them on purpose. And that somehow that can be done justly or appropriately or safely. But what we’ve seen is again and again in the past, things like World War One opened the door for things like the Soviet gulag and the Nazi camps.
Host: But how did the internment camps lead to the something as violent as the gulag and the Nazi camps?
And don’t forget, at that time, Britain was a huge empire. So when the British decided to do this, they were doing it all around the world.
So suddenly you went from almost no camps anywhere in the world to most established countries having some kind of system by which they would register, roundup, give numbers to indefinitely detain civilians, that they did not actually suspect of committing any specific crimes. It normalized it around the world. And just as importantly, it built a bureaucracy for it.
Host: The bureaucracy to track and register people paved the way for registration in Nazi Europe. It also got people used to the idea of turning yourself in for incarceration. Because even though you were sent to a horrible demeaning prison, after having committed not a single crime, you usually didnt die. It was temporary.
They came back out. And so people said, oh, if we just in a moment of crisis, we’ve been picked as a pariah. But we know we’re not really pariahs. If we go along with the government, we let ourselves be detained, then they’re going to let us go. Once this crisis passes and I think that this is first and foremost one of the answers to people who wonder why did people turn themselves in and go to camps in Nazi Germany? It’s important to remember that in the first years, the camps weren’t death camps at all. Most people who went in did actually come out. I think the numbers are in the high 90 percentiles for the first five years of Nazi camps, not even Nazi camps.
Host: You have to remember, that if you were an immigrant at this point, basically anywhere in the world, in the wrong country during World War 1, you could be detained. So many people ended up in internment camps that even Leon Trotsky found himself locked up in Canada.
He was in New York. I think he was working as a newspaperman right before he tried to return to Russia because the revolution was starting without him and he wanted to get back and lead it.
Time. And so he got on a boat and was heading back to Russia and he was picked up and he was picked up in Canadian waters and he was taken to a Canadian detention camp.
And he actually got intervention from Kerensky, who was the head of the provisional government in Russia at that time. And he was released. But one of the first things he did in the months that followed was to write a pamphlet about so much for democracy and how awful this was that he’d been in this camp and how ridiculous it was. And that pamphlet was distributed to all the people on the frontlines in the Russian civil war that were fighting on the Red Army side. He felt this so strongly.
Host: Trostky was detained in a concentration camp. I want to reiterate that because of what he does next, when he finally gets back to Russia to help with the revolution.
And interestingly, within a few months, he had recommended putting people in just those kinds of camps, targeting people who were against the revolution in Russia and putting them in those camps. They start locking up their own population. So this is sort of a new moment in the European non colonial setting you have where countries are not just locking up enemy aliens and foreigners as they had been in World War One. They’re locking up their own suspicious subsets of civilians.
Host: So again, someone argued against concentration camps being used by someone else. And then, they turned around and created their own camp system. That really amazed me. And I think it drives home the seduction of concentration camp idea.
The Russian gulag and the Nazi camps happened almost at the same time. I think of this as phase three. The gulag took a while to become a concrete institution and Russia had always had work camps. But the revolutions concentration camps were extremely brutal, even in the earliest years.
And people then are starting to starve to death and you’re weeding out the weak populations. And about three or four years after that, right, 1929, 1930, we have the formal establishment of the gulag, which puts these principles into just even wide like a much wider spread, much more lethal effect.
Host: In the gulag, much like the Nazi camps, life expectancy plumetted. People slowly starved to death on meager rations. They did back breaking labor – often for 12 to 16 hours a day – building roads and infrastructure in freezing temperatures. They had no heating. They were beaten often, sometimes raped. They slept 12 to a room or more and disease ran rampant.
The average life span of a detainee in the gulag was 2 years. 2 years. Between 1.5 and 1.7 million people died as a result of detention, from 1930 to 1953. And if that seems like an extremely violent way to deal with dissent, it is. The entire system was built on paranoia. Which is actually a hallmark of concentration camps.
Somebody was the head of the secret police. Three years later, might die in a camp. And I think that that’s one of the things that’s important to realize about these camps is it’s never just one person’s vision. It becomes its own system and almost a self-perpetuating system. And it can eat up anything. And this is one of the things that’s most dangerous about it.
Music – put break here
Host: Youre listening to Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. And this is Making Contact. Subscribe to our podcast at www.radioproject.org. Make sure you don’t miss out on new shows and behind the scenes information. Go to Radioproject.org and check out the Stay In Touch section.
Welcome back to Making Contact, were listening to an interview with Andrea Pitzer, Author of One Long Night: A global history of Concentration camps. In the first half of the show we looked at the early history of concentration camps, starting in Cuba and ending with the Russian gulag, around the end of world war one. So what happens after world war 1?
AMBI – news from Nazi germany or World war 2. Let news reels run and then fade under.
Host: World War 2. And the rise of the German camps. These are the concentration camps we think of when we hear that term. For a while, the Nazi camps and the gulag camps (which were open simultaenously) were the most deadly prison system the world had ever known. Eleven million died in just the Nazi camps. At least 6 million of those were Jewish. But in the beginning, the Nazi camps were not aimed at the Jewish population, despite Hitlers anti-semitism. At first, they were much like the Gulag system: they were used to control opposition right as Hitler rose to power.
The first people they targeted were people in the Reichstag, their sort of Congress that had opposed them, that belong to these far left parties. And then they used them for sort of anybody who was standing against them.
Host: Thats in line with most totalitarian governments and how they use camps: in order to control dissent. But eventually, the targeted populations grew and grew.
They used them in the mid 30s for vagrants on the street, for homeless people. They would throw criminals in there after they had served their sentences because they were getting so much criticism for having so many political prisoners. They just threw a bunch of criminals into sort of dilute the political prisoner numbers. They threw in homosexuals.
Host: They also targeted the Roma or Sinti people, communists, jehovahs witness, alcoholics and drug addicts, the disabled and the autistic. Anyone who didnt fit their Nazis Aryan ideals. Nazi plans for the Jewish population, however, were different.
Their idea for the Jews from 19 early 1920s up was to get them out of the country. They wanted them gone from Germany. They were using their legal system, not the extra legal system of the camps, but their actual legal system to target Jews. So Jews were stripped of citizenship. They weren’t allowed to own a whole bunch of appliances. They weren’t allowed to be in these parks. They weren’t allowed to be doctors. They weren’t allowed to use public hospitals. They just made regulation after regulation after regulation that made it almost impossible to live and be a Jew in Germany. And this pattern happens up until about 1938 in November, when you have this orchestrated terror called Kristallnacht. And that is, you know, synagogues were trashed, shops were broken into. All kinds of damage was done. And then the German government actually fined the Jews for what had been done to them. And this was a real attempt to terrorize them and to get them to leave. And that is the first time you have a huge roundup. Tens of thousands just in the space of days of Jews were rounded up and put in concentration camps, really swelling their ranks very quickly.
But out of those tens of thousands of Jews who were put in camps almost all of them, had been released.
Host: Over time however, the Nazis plans for the Jews began to shift.
And then two things happened, which was, one, the world didn’t really respond in a significant way to Kristallnacht. And I think the Nazis began to realize that they might be able to do other things. And the other thing that happened was that now Germany in 1939 was moving through Poland. So it invaded. It started World War 2. And now it was moving through terror territory that was not 1 or 2 percent Jewish as Germany had been before the war, before the Nazis had taken power, but was in some parts of the country, majority Jewish. And so then it’s in that window from 39 to 42, where you start to see this idea of the final solution beginning to emerge.
Host: The final Solution as it came to be known, turned places like Dauchau or Auschwitz into outright death camps, with firing squads and gas chambers. The end product of generations of growing antisemitsim and Nazi fascism. But increasing violence, and death, over time, is also a symptom of concentration camps
And of course, the longer those camps are open, the more nefarious the power that is imposing the camps, the more time they have and the more ability they have to turn the camps to other ends. And this is, of course, what we see with the Nazis particularly.
Host: It’s one of the reasons Andrea Pitzer says we have to close them as soon as possible before they become entrenched and more violent. The average age expectancy in Auschwitz for example, by the end of the war, was a few weeks.
NEWS REEL TO END.
Host: After World War 2, the world promised to never again let genocide happen, never again use concentration camps, never let another holocaust occur. But we started this episode of Making Contact talking about modern day concentration camps, such as the Rohingya camps in Burma. So what happened?
The world sort of reset in 1945 and went back to those colonial camps from half a century before. And it’s partly because you had the Cold War binary thing right it’s Russia versus the U.S. So you were either communist or you were anti-communist and if you were communist then you had these big camp systems that were modeled on the gulag and if you were anti-communist then you would develop these anti colonial of these colonial sort of anti rebellion camps that had been from 50 years before.
Host: This is phase four, the phase were in TODAY. And these new concentration camps worry Andrea Pitzer:
The continuation of the old camps that concern me are this idea we talked about from the beginning of isolating the guerrillas, isolating the terrorists by rounding up a bunch of people. And I think it’s worth knowing that. Guantanamo, for instance, started as a mass detention for asylum seekers And the sort of room, the wiggle room that the government was given to hold people there was the very basis on which it became a torture site for ostensibly for terrorists after 9/11. So this idea of the terrorism we also see reflected again in these Uighur camps.
LE YUCHENG: 1)we will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries. Which are fraught with biasis and seriously far from teh truth Xinjiang, as an anti terrorism measure, set up these training centers to help people influenced by terrorism to stay away from extremism so they could be integrated into society sooner.
Host: Thats Le YuCheng, Vice Foreign Minister for China, Speaking to the UN back in 2018.
MUSIC – Uyghur Music.
The Chinese have realized that if you say people are terrorists or you’re dealing with a terror threat, then there’s very few countries that are going to say, no, you shouldn’t deal with this Muslim terror threat. And so this becomes a fig leaf to cover in China. the lowest numbers I’m seeing now are more than a million in the highest numbers are in the millions of Uighurs that have been detained.
FROM NEWS: I was taken to a cell, which was built underground with no windows. There were cameras on all four sides so the officials could see every corner of the room. There were around 60 people in one of the cells where I was held. At night, 15 women would stand up while the rest of us would sleep sideways, and then we would rotate every two hours. Some people had not taken a shower in over a year.
Host: Youre listening to the testimony of Mihrigul Tursun who spoke in front of Congress in November 2018, about her experience in the Uighur re-education camps. Her testimony was read through an interpreter.
I also experienced torture in a tiger chair the second time I was detained. I was taken to a special room and placed in a high chair. Bands held my arms and legs in place and tightened when they pressed a button. The guards put a helmet on my shaved head. Each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently, and I could feel the pain in my veins.
And there’s other minorities as well, Muslim minorities that have been detained. And so this terror threat, I think, continues to be a way in which you can run pretty brutal and torture filled camps and get a pass from the world.
Host: But Andrea Pritzer doesnt feel as if it’s hopeless. her sense of hope was surprising to me, and I asked her – whats it like to learn all this history and watch it repeat – the same patterns, the same hatred, the same torture and abuse of dissidents and ethnic minorities? She responded, the thing is, these grand designs – mass imprisonment, rounding up entire communities, disappearing people, they require our complicity.
Well, my brother, when I was writing this book said isn’t it just terribly depressing that humanity comes around again and again to this? How do you have the spirit to write this book? If this is where people always end up? And it made me think because actually what I found was that. A government has to actively train people to accept this. So it has to train guards and hardened them to be willing to do these kinds of things to people. And it also has to train a population to be willing to allow people to be locked up this way. So the good news is it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. We don’t always return to this.
The bad news is we’re really susceptible to the kind of propaganda that lets governments and parties make us believe that this is necessary. So that’s really where we have to, I think, focus, if we want to keep this from happening is on that propaganda that sells people on the idea that other human beings are animals or that they’re filthy or that they represent a kind of crime danger that is just invented or that they are somehow subhuman. And I heard them from people who were in favor of some of the camps we have today. For instance, when I was in Myanmar, I heard exactly this language. This is language we hear from the president, but it’s very old and camps rely on it in order to exist.
I think concentration camps are gonna be really hard to eradicate, Any system is vulnerable to it. So just because you’re a democracy doesn’t mean you won’t do this. But if you’re a democracy, there are more levers that are possible to undo it.
Host: You were just listening to Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration camps. Before we end our show today we just want to thank Music in Exile for letting us use Abdul Mozids song which was recorded in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, which started the show.
And wed love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the detention centers at the border and how can we close concentration camps for good all over the world? Join the conversation on Facebook; — Our Twitter handle is Making underscore Contact and on Instagram were makingcontactradioproject.
The Making Contact Team includes:
Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Dylan Heuer and Lisa Rudman. Im Aysha Choudar . Thanks for listening to Making Contact!