What Is a Concentration Camp?
Most dictionaries define “concentration camp” as a space for separating a politically undesirable group, usually with degraded living conditions. In this sense, the terms “concentration camp,” “internment camp” and “detainment center” are interchangeable. But the term “concentration camp” is politically charged because of its association with the Holocaust. Because Nazi concentration camps ended in genocide, many find the comparison premature.
The problem with this point of view is that history has shown that those who run concentration camps don’t start out mongering murder. They keep their abuses hidden from the public, under the guise of safety and security. Any kind of internment center enables abuses to occur, because the minority is separated from public outcry. While not all concentration camps lead to genocide, historically people kept at internment centers end up abused and neglected.
Jonathan M. Katz’s fantastic article “Not Every Concentration Camp is Auschwitz” explains the history of the term “concentration camp,” from when it was first used to separate Cuban revolutionaries from Spanish colonizers. The opening of his article, pictured below, demonstrates how detaining centers are a slippery slope, regardless of what they’re called.
The definition that Katz uses is from Andrea Pitzer’s history of concentration camps:
concentration camps – require the removal of a population from society with all its accompanying rights, relationships, and connections to humanity. This exclusion is followed by an involuntary assignment to some lesser condition or place, generally detention with other undesirables under armed guard.
–One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017)
Detainment Center, Concentration Camp, Internment Center—What’s the Difference?
Both “detainment center” and “concentration camp” are places where a group of people (e.g. immigrants, prisoners of war) is separated from civilian society, to protect society from their influence. The only distinction being that definitions for “concentration camp” usually add that the conditions are poor. However, it is not part of the definition of “concentration camp” that the people interned are destined to be murdered, only that the facilities are not up to the standards expected in a decent society.
Even this distinction between the terms is slippery, because “concentration camp” originally meant exactly the same thing as “detainment center,” as the description of early Dachau above shows. Things started out just dandy. But over time conditions got worse and worse. No one’s first choice is execution, but the camps get so crowded and it costs money to feed people and care for them when they are sick. And because these are supposedly undesirable people, it is easy enough to feed them a little bit less and work them a little bit harder and certainly not to give them the medical care that ordinary citizens can’t afford. And then they start to die, not all at once, a few here, and a few there. Then not so few. Then a lot.
I’m not just talking about Germany. Every time this idea is tried, conditions deteriorate. Even the original use of the term “concentration camp” in Cuba was launched as a sunny, cheerful place that deteriorated into something sinister and cruel.
Thus, every time a government wants to try this idea they give it a new name. Last time we wanted to try it in America, they called them “internment camps.” Really, if you intern someone, you are detaining them, which is the same thing as concentrating the group away from the rest. The terms are synonymous, the newer term is just a euphemism. They are trying to paint up the old “concentration camp” idea and make it look new and fresh. But it is not.
Why do Detainment Centers Become Concentration Camps?
When you separate a group away from the rest of society, two things happen.
Reason One: The Other
For one, when you concentrate a group of people away from society, you inflame humanity’s natural inclination to see things as “us versus them”. Generally people are put into a detention center because they are already viewed by some part of the culture as outside of the tribe, as in the case of immigrants (note that Americans only seem concerned about the immigrants who aren’t white, otherwise where is the call for a Canadian border wall?).
Examples of mankind’s inclination to treat people differently when they are “othered” are numerous throughout psychology.
In one study, a group of very similar fifth grade boys were divided into two groups in a summer camp. The experimenters then tell the boys of the other camp. Not only did the group quickly turn to first rivalry, then violence, they began to perceive reality in a biased way. E.g. when shown two photos of beans gathered by their group and the other’s, they would say the rivals’ pile was fewer (even though the photos were identical). The experiment had to be shut down early because the children turned to violence against the each other.
In the Tajfel experiments, people where divided into arbitrary and/or meaningless groups. They don’t ever see any members of the arbitrary tribe they’ve just been assigned to. Then they are given a choice: they can either give both groups five dollars, or their group gets four dollars but the other group gets only three. He found that people preferred the second option, where they would prefer to get a buck less if it means they can stick it to this recently acquired outsider.
For more examples of the human drive toward tribalism, check out Lilliana Mason’s book Uncivil Agreement.
You can see this tendency in recent American history in the segregated south. After slavery was abolished, the government claimed that Black society would be kept “separate but equal.” But every American knows that the better schools, buses and drinking fountains went to White Americans, which led to the civil rights movement and the US Supreme Court outlawing segregation.
At some level, the claim that a detainment center is likely to have good conditions is just making the old failed “separate but equal” argument all over again.
When people of different groups shop at the same shops, pray at the same churches, and party at the same clubs, these tribal distinctions melt away. The less groups interact, the easier it is to dehumanize each other. Considering the examples above, how likely are people in a detainment center to remain well-cared for?
However, the first reason detention centers become concentration camps is not as dangerous as the second.
Reason Two: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Not everyone has hate in their hearts, but it’s easy to let conditions get worse when you can go about your day and never confront the conditions the othered group is kept in.
Katz gets at the heart of why these camps are wrong, even before the evidence of abuse comes to light:
It’s an unavoidable fact that one of the major reasons the Nazis were able to kill so many people so easily, once they decided to, was the dehumanization and isolation created by their original concentration camps. Convincing a bureaucracy to massacre civilians is hard. Subjecting legal prisoners to Sonderbehandlung, or “special treatment,” as the killing of 6 million Jews and many others was officially called, was easier. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a refugee from the Nazis who spent time imprisoned in a French concentration camp before the German invasion, later observed: “All [concentration camps] have one thing in common: The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead.”
“Separate but equal” is a lie.
“Separate and hidden” is downright dangerous.
The very act of setting these people apart from the rest of society is a dangerous step in the path to abuse at best and genocide at worst.
When Does a Detainment Center Become a Concentration Camp?
Though the terms are nearly synonymous, currently the more euphemistic “detainment center” implies that the conditions remain “separate but equal” to the rest of society. While I argue that the very act of separation leads to dehumanization and neglect, many will claim that the term “concentration camp” is not appropriate so long as conditions inside are as humane as the DMV.
The question then is: are the immigrants America is locking up being cared for properly? Are these centers/camps run fairly? If there is abuse and neglect, they are without a doubt “concentration camps.” I’ll let you be the judge. Over the past week I’ve been gathering examples of abuse and injustice at American detainment centers. I wanted to include them at the end of this article, but every time I searched, the list grew longer. Examples of people being forced to wear the same clothes for weeks, immigrants being given spoiled food and tainted water, children being forced to take drugs despite parent opposition, and detainees so traumatized they were cutting themselves.
Fascism doesn’t come all at once. We can’t wait until the government is committing genocide because by then it will be too late. If fascism is truly growing, then it won’t be adequate to detain undocumented immigrants. Because fascism doesn’t really solve any problems, it must continue to feed and grow by outcasting more and more people into dehumanized status.
Apologists will claim that it’s OK, because only “the bad ones” will be targeted. This is what fascism’s apologists always say: don’t worry, only the deserving will be harmed. All the while, the definition of who is unworthy, who is OTHERed continues to expand.
If the scapegoating of American immigrants is to descend into fascism, we must watch out for the long arm of the law to expand it’s definition of who is “the other”.
Those in power must be held accountable for this blatantly unconstitutional behavior.
When someone tells you the detained asylum-seekers are being treated well, remember the quote above, and point them to these articles. We CANNOT and SHOULD NOT trust that Uncle Sam won’t abuse this power, as history has shown concentration camps always descend into human rights violations.
Karma has a degree in writing and sociology. She’s an Americorps grad and a board member of the California Writers Club. Her first foray into human rights work was with the Westcott 12 activists who launched a 100+ day camp out in protest of sweatshop labor. Since then she’s organized with IndyMedia, Occupy Oakland, and most recently with Solidaridad Con Los Ninos, a group that organizes caravans to visit detainment centers. She loves street art, poetry, and dancing with wild abandon.