On Concentration Camps
It was said by a certain congresswoman (and I do mean certain in every sense of the word; few leaders in today’s America have proven themselves as minimally informed yet as unwaveringly convinced of their opinions as is she) that the dilapidated and overcrowded units along the southern border in which a recent deluge of illegal immigrants have been housed were tantamount to “concentration camps”.
Not surprisingly, this utterance of hers raised more than a few eyebrows. Indeed, it did so even upon the faces of her allies most ardent in their support of her and most sympathetic to her unusual form of rhetoric. Yet those brows began to furrow and exasperation crept on the countenance when she concluded this provocative observation by uttering the phrase “Never Again”. These doleful two words are quite unequivocal. They are, of course, those by which the Holocaust is remembered today. Having said them, she made what was a tenuous comparison of the immigrant housing situation on the southern border to concentration camps into an explicit invocation of that grisly extermination of six million Jews.
A remarkable thing to say on its face, the comparison of our immigrant detention centers to concentration camps—situated within this country, a putatively generous bastion of liberty and human rights—rather peremptorily demands our attention. It does so, I should think, at the very least. If civility is a feature by which we fancy ourselves distinguished among all peoples on this historically quite brutal earth, we could never be so insensitive to the claim as not to inspect it further and with haste. Thus, our exertion toward a more thorough examination of the issue will be forgiven by the pundits and the cynics who smile at us, an often-too credulous mass. We must discover if really this is the case: is the American government operating a string of concentration camps along the southern border?
Surely, if it is (as that ever-so certain congresswoman claims), our attachment to so lofty a set of ideas as enumerated above would rightly be questioned, if not fully revoked. And we, a contrite and ashamed nation, certainly wouldn’t find it wise to protest its revocation. Nor should we if her comparison is shown to be a charge of which our government is guilty. And we, the people by whom this now magnanimous, now nefarious government is funded, would be complicit all the same.
First, however, before the drawing of any verdict regarding our government’s depravity, its humanity, or its ambivalence somewhere in between, a word must be said on the subject of history. It seems always to be the case that those least affiliated with it and habituated to its study make the most extraordinary claims in its behalf. Like an analphabetic grammarian or a food critic without a sense of taste, those to whom history is not only a distant time but a foreign tongue have a tendency of perceiving its lessons with complete inaccuracy. Granted, within the simple and incapacious confines of one’s own head, this misperception is no big deal and it arouses my frustration not. Sure, it’s an issue if one’s concerned with the current epidemic of ignorance that’s been terrorizing our mental and national state, but if kept quiet, historical ignorance is not a communicable disease. It’s when one becomes a vocal and public expositor of poorly-formulated thoughts unanchored by the truth of the past that mischief is given a chance to run off of its leash. It’s then that history becomes pathology and we’ve fully lost our grasp.
And nothing is more mischievous nor ultimately more specious than the phrases and images that are used to elicit memories of Nazism, Fascism, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Yet for some reason, be it out of ignorance or recalcitrance, our intelligentsia appears intent on using these terms where they don’t apply. Indeed, their legitimate application is mercifully reserved for very few cases in this modern and mostly peaceful age. One can point to Venezuela for National Socialism, perhaps Hungary or Poland for incipient Fascism, but nowhere—so far as we descry—can concentration camps or a burgeoning Holocaust be seen. Nevertheless, all of these terms, be they applicable or not, are used with such regularity, such flippancy (and with such lack of historical fluency) as to diminish their original meanings.
This brings us back to the congresswoman from whose Instagram video the words “concentration camps” and “Never Again” were heard. To refresh the memory, they were strung together in what was a painfully inarticulate description of the situation of which our southern border has long failed to disencumber itself. The problem, though unresolved and intractable through the course of the past few decades, has become in recent weeks distressingly acute. The heat down there is extravagant and the hospitality sorely wanting. The numbers of alien arrivals are simply incommensurate with the government’s humble means. Though not deliberately cruel, our treatment of them hasn’t been the epitome of humane. We haven’t the beds to accommodate them, the nutrition to preserve them, the sanitation to cleanse them, nor the bi-partisan political motivation to alleviate their plight.
Yet they come of their own volition. That’s not to say that they’re not coerced by the wretchedness of the circumstances from which they flee—conditions that doubtless are a sad admixture of immiseration, desperation, poverty, and ill-health—to traverse the middle of this long continent and arrive with wishful anticipation at our gates, but it’s a trial and a travail upon which they embark voluntarily. They are free agents, however unenviably placed, and their emigration is an act of their own accord. It’s for this simple reason that the term “concentration camp” is inappropriately applied when made in reference to the southern border and the units to which these illegal immigrants have been temporarily confined.
In nearly every historical instance to which the term “concentration camp” can be applied, a group of people (typically one of an ill-favored breed) was quite literally “concentrated” in a specific allotment of land over which its “superiors” or captors presided. The idea of the concentration camp was an expedient and a novelty in the late nineteenth century; a well-designed atrocity in the twentieth.
Before the arguably unjustified intervention of the American military on the island of Cuba in the year 1898 (for which the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, the casus belli of the Spanish-American War, was dubiously responsible), the Spaniards forced into concentration camps hundreds of thousands of native Cubans. The purpose of this unprecedented maneuver—it had never been systemically attempted in any previous war—was to separate these locals from the native combatants. The latter had taken to the verdant, tropical mountains and fields—the later playgrounds of a well-concealed Castro—to wage a guerrilla campaign against the powerful and traditional Spaniards. This, of course, was a compulsory concentration—not at all one into which the Cuban people willingly marched.
The mortality rate was unforgivably high. Already a despised people in the Spaniard’s mind, the imprisoned Cubans had little opportunity of withstanding the conditions under which they lived. They faced terrible and unrelenting heat, insalubrious houses, endless and menial work, and the brutal sadistic urges of a frustrated and defeated Spain. Quickly, they moved from despised to decimated in less than a year. The eventual liberation of Cuba (for which an America with annexation on its mind is very rarely thanked) and the success of its revolution freed those prisoners from the camps. None thought that so depraved a regression to barbarism could ever happen again.
The fin de siècle would come and pass before the next concentration camp arose. This time, as it did in the Cuban Revolution, it would arise in a time of war. On this occasion, however, the belligerents weren’t Conquistadores and Cubans but Angles and Afrikaners, and the setting wasn’t an island of the Caribbean in the New World, but a country perhaps eldest of them all. We jump in time and in place to the progenitor to the modern state of South Africa and its Boer War, a surprisingly under-appreciated conflict in the minds of the American west.
I consider our general lack of interest in this war of independence surprising for the quite selfish reason that it so closely resembles our own. The British empire, very nearly at its most puissant height as that ominous twentieth century got underway, was attempting to consolidate the southern-most tip of a continent already colored in the shade of her majesty’s red. While France failed in working itself and its mission civilisatrice horizontally from Senegal to the Red Sea, Great Britain nearly succeeded in dominating that arid continent from top to bottom—cap-a-pie. From Egypt to South Africa, the formidable Cecil Rhodes (to whose eponymous and illustrious scholarship so many of our brightest graduates on this side of the Atlantic aspire) wanted a distinctly British link and bothered himself little with thoughts of just how much blood need be shed to hold the African line.
Naturally, the local Transvaal and Orangemen of South Africa were less than amicable to his ambitious plan. Hegemony, so they thought, was palatable up until a point; the Brits could disseminate their fertile seed in every which way, so long as it didn’t touch the African tip. Though unsuccessful in the end, the Boers fought a far better-equipped British army with a tenacity that was something to behold. This is where our revolutions diverge; ours was successful, theirs ultimately futile. Wanting the likes of a General George Washington and having not the geographic benefit of a vast ocean in between colonizer and tributary state, the Boers were defeated by the superiority of British arms.
Toward the end of the war, in an effort to sequester the civilian population from the guerilla combatants, the British took a page out of the recent Spanish playbook. In imitation of those haughty Iberians working in the Cuban heat, the British colonists erected concentration camps in which the Boer people were forced to live. Sadly, as might be expected in an environment of gratuitous violence, collateral damage, and a years-long war, the conditions to which the prisoners were exposed were horrendous. Thousands of immured Boers perished of malnutrition, pestilence, disease, and exposure. If any consolation in the face of travesty was to be had, it might be that attempts to reform the administration of the camps were in the air. The problem was that they took too long to float so far south. Unfortunately, they were often delayed and painfully unavailing, but it can’t be said that there wasn’t pressure to ease the atrocities exerted by discomfited Londoners back home.
A few years after the Boer experience and a few hundred miles north of the modern South African state (to whom independence was finally granted by the British government in 1961), the Germans had a similarly brutal response to what they considered a misbehaving local tribe. Tribes, really, as there were two: the Herero and the Namaqua. Though deeply entrenched in mutual hostilities for which propinquity and history are largely to thank, the two indigenous tribes found themselves caught in the same net and opposed to the same enemy. Both were now under the subjection of an interloping German elite, one that proved itself as murderous as it was avaricious for land.
Late to the scramble for Africa, and perhaps for that reason desirous of standing shoulder to shoulder with the atrocities of their other European contemporaries, the Germans treated the local inhabitants over whom they now ruled with complete disregard. Here, in this creatively-named country of German South West Africa (today we know it as Namibia; a mellifluous improvement to the guttural German tongue) witnessed the slaughter of thousands of tribesmen, women, girls, and boys.
As did the Spaniards and the British before them, the Germans initially conceived of their concentration camps as a means commensurate to a military end. They wanted to cordon off the guerrilla militarists (the style of fighting to which the Herero and the Namaqua had been made to resort) from the civilians upon whom the former relied for food, clothing, and other essential things. All other innocents would be rather unsparingly cut down by the advent of the Maxim gun—the bloody brainchild of Hiram Maxim, the dual resident and duly-honored American-Brit. If not that, they’d be prevented from accessing drink from local watering holes—the intention being slowly to desiccate them beneath the inescapable glow of the African sun.
Those not starved, dehydrated, nor shot in the head while in the discomfort of their homes were to be gathered up, fettered, and sent to one of five concentration camps along the country’s western coast. The most infamous of the lot was the concentration camp of Shark Island where the above three afflictions (starvation, dehydration, and ballistics through the head) were equally as abundant as they were on the outside in the field.
Aptly named, Shark Island was created from the outset to be a pool of death. In this way, the German version of the concentration camp differed slightly, though very much for the worse, from that of Spaniard or the Brit. Unlike those other two overly heavy-handed European hegemons, the Germans made extermination a chief aim of the island and continued its operation (both of concentrating and of killing) even after the cessation of its short-lived “war”.
Whereas the British soldiers promptly closed the Boer concentration camps after the guerrilla phase of their war had ended, the Germans perpetuated and perhaps even accelerated theirs in a deliberate effort to eradicate the Herero and Namaqua peoples. It can be said, though not without the acidic taste of history regurgitated and repeated, that the Germans were attempting the planned genocide of an entire race. As we know, it was a plan that didn’t find itself resting in latent disuse for long. Three decades hence, they’d replicate this dream on a much more impressive scale. As the first quarter of the twentieth century ended, world Jewry would become the target, but every inspiration to carry forth this type of systematic murder on so massive a scale came from a couple of provincial African tribes.
One could go on about this overwhelmingly forgotten and historically foreboding event. After all, it was the one event before all others that set the stage for the later atrocities attributable to that increasingly fistic, Teutonic state. Encouraged by the results they’d achieved in that forsaken corner of Africa, the Germans would later synonymize death with concentration by opening camps all across Europe and their new, imperial domain. They became masters of mass slaughter after observing the Gulag methods of the Soviets. Zyklon-B, a gas odorless and murderous, was then introduced. The result was six million dead Jews and an exhortation to bear in mind the simple mantra of “Never Again”.
Having waded through the brutal and sanguinary history of the concentration camp, from its origin as a Spanish military expedient to its conclusion as Hitler’s final measure to rid himself of all Jews, we return to the comparison offered by the congresswoman at the start. By any measure of history, by any shifting definition of political semantics, it’s impossible to claim that the facilities in whose overpopulated halls thousands of illegal immigrants are being held are in any way comparable to concentration camps. Immigrants arriving to this country with the hope of attaining a better life are neither Boers, nor Cubans, nor Hereros, nor Namaqua. They certainly have their troubles, but one of them isn’t the compulsory detention in a concentration camp.