Bridges Across Savage Inhumanities

“The camps set up for Japanese Americans, like the camps we are currently forcing asylum seekers into were awful, but they are not engines of genocide.”–Evan Gerstmann

I mourn the way some persons, in general, and some persons who are Jewish, in particular, claim ownership of words like “Concentration Camp” (as if many other peoples have not been systematically corralled and detained in unsanitary, malnourished, dehumanizing prisons/penal structures); and words like “Genocide” (as if the cruel erasure of the aborigines of Tasmania never happened; as if we merely had a nightmare about the reduction of 90% of many North American Indigenous peoples via warfare, biological warfare, policies of extermination, disease, policies of termination, etc. And these are just a few examples). Though the word “genocide” was coined in the wake of Nazi atrocities against Jews, Roma, and others, there have been many, many, more genocides (as well as many more concentration camps). Yes! The Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany is among the most inhumane atrocities out there, ever. But I mourn the tendency of some Jews to claim ownership of these words because doing so builds barriers instead of bridges among those who have also suffered very savage inhumanities. We need to learn the lessons of these atrocities instead of engaging in what Elizabeth Martinez has referred to as the “Oppression Olympics.”

Even the initial concentration camps of the Third Reich, as dehumanizing as they were, did not start out as death camps. Persons incarcerated could be and were killed/murdered by German officials; but the “Final Solution” came later. Scholars disagree over that actual start of the “Final Solution,” but it was with the implementation of the “Final Solution” around about 1941 that the atrocities of the Third Reich hit even more horrific heights. (See Holocaust Encyclopedia here)

We must remember that the atrocities of the Third Reich happened in stages. We have to be mindful of those stages. We must do all in our power to make sure that the detention camps at the southern border of the U.S. today do not descend into bureaucratized death camps!

There are many crimes of Western imperialism dating back to the late 1400s. If we look carefully and critically at Spain’s Encomienda system imposed upon the Indigenous Peoples in “Hispaniola” in the late 1490s and at the Praying Towns forced upon Indigenous Americans during the early Massachusetts colonies of the mid-1600s, we will probably find concentration-like camps that descended into death camps. Many millions of indigenous people died or were killed as a result of violent European invasions of the Americas.

However, of this I am sure: There were horrific concentration camps that descended into death camps before the cruelties of the Third Reich. For example, there are the horrors of the British Raj and the death camps of Lord Lytton in the mid-to-late 1800s. (see source here).

The British would go on to use concentration camps at the turn of the 20th century for the Boers and Native South Africans. Then the British seemed to say, “tag you’re it” to the Germans. In the early 1900s the Herero and Nama death camps (especially Shark Island) happened in the country today known as Namibia; the Herero and Namaqua concentration/death camps occurred 30 years before the Third Reich. These death camps were, actually, a German colonial invention. But these British and German penal structures still post-date the U.S. reservation system imposed upon Native Americans (which included concentration camps and prisoner of war camps). And although the internment camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans did not descend into death camps, they were definitely concentration camps.

In short the concentration camps of the Third Reich were extraordinarily anti-human and atrocious in their scale and impact. But so were some of the concentration camps that preceded the Third Reich.

I agree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s application of “concentration camps” to the anti-human detention camps currently being used to imprison US immigrants and refugees, almost all people of color. And I pray and protest that the migrant concentration camps do not evolve into death camps or camps linked to the earlier genocidal practices.

Dr. Lory Janelle Dance
Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies
Associate Director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Visiting Senior Researcher
Human Rights Studies Program
Lund University, Sweden