Dispelling the assumption that concentration camps began and ended in Nazi Germany.
Pitzer (The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, 2013), the founder of the Nieman Storyboard at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, examines what she deems “the defining atrocity” of the 20th century. Drawing on memoirs, histories, and archival sources, she offers a chilling, well-documented history of the camps’ development. The precursor of concentration camps, she contends, arrived with the Spanish Empire, which pursued a policy of relocating and imprisoning native populations in the Americas. Later, in the American Civil War, the Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp was “a harbinger of the civilian concentration camps that were to come.” These burgeoned during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, during which scores of camps held prisoners of war, civilians identified as enemies, and more than 100,000 black Africans. Dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia coursed through camp populations. That model of incarceration was carried on by Germans in South Africa, who built camps at military posts to contain the despised Herero and use them for forced labor. Every man, woman, and child “wore stamped, numbered metal tags,” and some children became the personal slaves of German officers. Characterized by barbed wire, rotting food, and brutal, hierarchical supervision, the first decade of concentration camps presaged the proliferation of camps for enemy aliens during World War I. In 1914, combatant nations herded hundreds of thousands of civilians in networks of camps located far from the battlefield, “a deliberate choice to inject the framework of war into society itself.” The perception of civilians as a threat justified genocide such as the persecution of Armenians by Turkey and of Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled by Nazis. In grim detail, Pitzer portrays camps in Cuba, the Philippines, Russia, China, and North Korea as well as the rounding up of Japanese citizens in the U.S. She sees Guantánamo as a contemporary instance of “indefinite detention without trial,” which is “the hallmark of a concentration camp system.”
A potent, powerful history of cruelty and dehumanization.