I believe “when in future people say “concentration camp” everyone will think of Hitler’s Germany and only of Hitler’s Germany,” wrote Victor Klemperer in the fall of 1933. Unbeknownst to Klemperer, who died in 1960, his prescience would assume an unexpected relevance in the summer of 2019.
A German Jew who taught philology at a technical university in Dresden — philology is a discipline focused on the structure and historical development of language — Klemperer understood the term “concentration camp” was not a Nazi invention. The British used it extensively in reference to their incarceration of rebellious Dutch descendants in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902). While not so widespread, the same term (reconcentrados) was at times used both by the Spanish in the 1890s to describe their treatment of rebellious Cubans and by Americans engaged in pacifying Filipino Guerillas and civilians in the two-three years following the Spanish-American War (1898).
But what is a “concentration camp” and why has the term become so divisive, to the point of alienating, at least temporarily, many Holocaust scholars from an institution, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which for almost 30 years has served as a center for Holocaust research and study?
For the sake of simplicity, the Encyclopedia Britannica provides the following basic definition: “An internment center for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order. Persons are placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial.”
On Monday, June 17, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the term to describe U.S. facilities used along the country’s southern border to intern migrants from Central America. A heated debate ensued, responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term. Important at the outset, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming wrote (“tweeted”): “Please AOC (i.e., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. Six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” The U.S. Holocaust Museum followed on June 24 with an official statement beginning as follows: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”
I recently viewed a televised lecture, noticing that a member of the audience sported a cap with the words “Make America Think Again.” Neither Rep. Cheney nor the Holocaust Museum reflected sufficiently on Ocasio-Cortez’s words; both leapt from her equating today’s American internment camps on the Mexican border with concentration camps (an analogy in line with the Britannica definition) to somehow demeaning the memory of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
One might forgive Cheney; she should spend just a bit more than “a few minutes learning some actual history.” One cannot forgive the Holocaust Museum. In an open letter printed July 1 by The New York Review of Books, more than 700 Holocaust and genocide scholars from around the world appropriately chastised an institution they value and care about for ignoring a fundamental principle that learning, especially in the field of history, is founded on analogy. One course crucial to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Keene State College is “Comparative Genocide.”
I wish to close by looking at something fundamental to understanding both Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Over the years I’ve asked students to avoid using the term “death camp.” Nazi camps, whether named Dachau or Treblinka, were all places of death. The horror and brutality of every camp in the Third Reich should never be minimized, regardless of what we call them. Yet, a fundamental difference separated a “concentration camp” (e.g., Dachau), a piece of Germany’s geographic landscape within weeks of Hitler’s Jan. 30, 1933, appointment as chancellor and used chiefly for the first five years of its existence to intern political opponents, and an “extermination camp” (e.g., Treblinka), which didn’t appear in Europe until December 1941, well into World War II.
In Nazi Germany, the Britannica definition of concentration camps generally fits; extermination camps, however, were nothing other than factories of mass murder — places where victims, the vast majority being Jews, were usually gassed and their bodies burned within 1-2 hours of arrival. Extermination camps were intrinsic to the Holocaust; not so concentration camps. Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term was warranted.