Concentration camp

28 March, 2008
Chapoutot Johann

We can date back the concept and the reality of concentration camps to the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. The commander of the British troops fighting the Boers, Lord Kitchener, linked his tactics of scorched earth to establishing vast camps for the internment of civilians who had been driven away from their home and uprooted by the destruction of their farms and lands.The vast detention facilities of concentration camps were made possible by the invention of barbed wire in France in 1865, and by a mass production that began in Illinois, United States, in 1874. Barbed wire made it possible and cheap to restrain cattle on a large scale and to build restrain facilities for whatever purpose. Widely used in the southwest of the United States, barbed wire fences recall in our imagination the raising of livestock in the Wild West. Soon, this treatment was to be applied to human beings. As a matter of fact, barbed wires enabled governments and the military to build large camps without carrying the financial burden of building real prisons. At the end of the 19th century, the British army decided to confine and relocate human populations as if they were cattle.

Interestingly, the concept and expression of concentration camps that was coined in 1899 was originally not seen as being especially brutal or inhumane: it was a cold, technical term that expressed a rational and well planned way of handling with hostile populations. It was seen as much more humane than killing. On December 11, 1904, the Chancellor of the Reich, Bernhard von Bülow, ordered General von Trotha to erect Konzentrationslager in the German South-West Africa (Deutsch Südwestafrika) to accommodate what remained of the Herero, a people that had been slain in what is seen as the first German genocide, during the Herero War of 1904-1905. Trotha had expelled the Herero from their land and had driven them to the desert, where 60 000 of them died. Chancellor von Bülow expressed his concern that the honor of the German state might be stained by such methods and saw the Konzentrationslager as an appropriate way of dealing with the insurgents.

Our conception is, after 1945, somewhat different: after Dachau and Buchenwald, no government whatsoever would use the expression of concentration camp, preferring those of detention facility or internment camp. In any decision to resettle a population in a camp, there is arbitrariness and violence: as we already saw with the example of Great Britain, concentration camps where not only used by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships. In times of juridical exception, such as wars, democracies resorted to that means too: France during the First World War (Pontmain) and after the Civil War in Spain for the major part of the nearly 600 000 refugees who had fled from Franco, the United States and Canada for Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. There is violence in such decisions inasmuch as people are compelled into detention, are deprived of some of their basic rights (freedom of movement) without any wrongdoing. But the National-Socialist regime made absolute arbitrariness, that is violent deprivation of any right, the basic rule of the Konzentrationslager, KZ in their technocratic language. The first to be erected was the KZ Dachau near Munich. It was opened on March 21, 1933, on the very day when Hitler’s cabinet was voted with full powers by the new Reichstag. Dachau was opened to imprison the enemies of the regime: communists, social-democrats, freemasons, intellectuals, “asocial” elements such as alcoholics and homosexuals. In 1933 only, 15 other KZ were opened, ten of them closed after a few months for rationalization purposes, so that in May 1938 three concentration camps remained : Dachau, Buchenwald (opened in 1937) and Flossenbürg. After the Anschluss with Austria, the SS created the Austrian camp of Mauthausen. The first big wave of Jewish internment in concentration camps followed the invasion of Austria (March 1938) and the pogroms of the Reichskristallnacht (November 9, 1938). The concentration camps were, after the elimination of the SA chiefs on June 30, 1934, the realm of the SS, which considered themselves as the racial elite of the Third Reich and saw in the camps a welcomed opportunity to prove their superiority by humiliating the inmates. The camps functioned as the magnifying mirror of the self-proclaimed master race. Camps were built on the same pattern: the SS facilities, the Kommandantur and its offices, and the camp itself, surrounded by a double fence and watchtowers. The central place was the Appellplatz were the number of inmates was regularly checked. During the course of the war, and with the increasing population of the camps, the SS were less and less seen: power was exercised by inmates (Lagerälteste, Blockälteste, Kapos, Vorarbeiter) selected by the SS. They were all the more zealous and brutal as they could be deprived of their privileges by the Lagerkommandant at any time. In Buchenwald, the situation could be improved after the Greens (German criminals) were replaced by the Reds (German political prisoners, mostly communists) in these functions.

Harsh brutality, forced labor, mistreatments of any kind, malnutrition and cold, as well as arbitrary executions were the causes of abnormal mortality and reduced life expectancy. Because of this, concentration camps are often confused with extermination camps, all the more as they were very soon equipped with crematories to eliminate the bodies, and sometimes with gas chambers. Some of the Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, were both concentration and extermination camps, but the Nazis made a difference between the classical camps and the killing centers, death factories with only a small population of inmates while the vast majority of the prisoners only entered the camp to be killed after a few hours, sometimes less. In concentration camps, forced labor became a strategic imperative around 1942, when the War on the East proved to be more problematic. The explosion of the camp population, due to the extension of the German Reich, made labor the best method to produce cheaply and to slowly kill resistance fighters and opponents of any kind.

In the national-socialist concentration camps, something new in history was experienced: the complete deprivation of humanity without hope or redemption. In the 1970’s, the West would discover, with Soljenytsin and Vassili Grossmann, their Russian counterpart, the Gulag. The comparison between the two systems of concentration camps remains as debated as the comparison between the two regimes.


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Cite this item

Chapoutot Johann, Concentration camp, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 28 March, 2008, accessed 27/04/2020,, ISSN 1961-9898
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