Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > What is a Concentration Camp?

Jul 18, 2019

What is a Concentration Camp?

tags: Holocaust,Jewish history,concentration camps,Alexandria Ocasio,Cortez

Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

A new argument has broken out over the Holocaust, or more precisely, over references to the Holocaust in contemporary life. The sequence of events is revealing about politics, but not especially reliable about history.

In response to the increasing comparison of right-wing populists in Europe and America to Nazis, last December Edna Friedberg, a historian in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education, wrote an official statement for the Museum about the dangers of Holocaust analogies. She was clear about what she condemned: “sloppy analogizing”, “grossly simplified Holocaust analogies”, “careless Holocaust analogies”. Dr. Friedberg criticized the political use by left and right of “the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel”. She urged upon everyone better history, “conducted with integrity and rigor”.

This was not controversial, but rather typical of what historians say about the much too common references to Hitler and Nazis and fascism in our political discourse.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said last month on social media that the U.S. is “running concentration camps on our southern border”. Many Jewish organizations and Holocaust institutions condemned her remarks, as well as the usual chorus of conservative politicians. Although she did not mention the Holocaust, it was assumed that she was making one of those careless analogies for political purposes.

This appears to have prompted the USHMM to issue another brief statement on June 24, that then ignited a wider controversy: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum’s official statement on the matter,” referring to Dr. Friedberg’s earlier statement.

In response, an international list of over 500 historians, many or most of whom write about the Holocaust, signed an open letter to Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the Museum, published in the New York Review of Books, urging retraction of that recent statement. They criticized the rejection of all analogies as “fundamentally ahistorical”, “a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide.” They argued that “Scholars in the humanities and social sciences rely on careful and responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison, and argumentation to answer questions about the past and the present.”

There have been many media reports about the Museum’s June statement and the historians’ letter criticizing it. But there has been no discussion of the obvious distinction between the original statement by Dr. Friedberg and the newer unsigned “official” statement. Dr. Friedberg had noted that the “current environment of rapid fire online communication” tended to encourage the “sloppy analogizing” she condemned. Ironically, the too rapid response by someone at the Museum to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks ignored the difference between bad historical analogies for political purposes and the careful use of comparisons by scholars. Now the stances of the Museum appear contradictory.

The outraged historians also ignored the difference between the two versions of Museum statements, and demanded a retraction of the recent version without reference to Dr. Friedberg’s thoughtful statement.

An easier out for the Museum is to issue one more statement affirming that Dr. Friedberg’s formulation is their official position, excusing itself for the poorly worded June statement, and thanking the historians for defending the proper context in which the Holocaust ought to be discussed and the proper means for that discussion.

Lost in this furor is the fact that Ocasio-Cortez did not make a Holocaust analogy when she referred to concentration camps. Widely accepted definitions of concentration camp are worded differently but agree in substance. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines concentration camp as: “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers some history: “a camp where non-combatants of a district are accommodated, such as those instituted by Lord Kitchener during the Boer War (1899–1902); one for the internment of political prisoners, foreign nationals, etc., esp. as organized by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during the war of 1939–45.” The Encyclopedia Britannica offers a similar definition: “internment centre 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.”

Perhaps the most significant definition of the phrase “concentration camp” in this context comes from the USHMM itself, on its web page about Nazi camps: “The term concentration camp refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy. . . . What distinguishes a concentration camp from a prison (in the modern sense) is that it functions outside of a judicial system. The prisoners are not indicted or convicted of any crime by judicial process.”

From what we have learned recently about the actual conditions in the places where asylum seekers are being held on our southern border, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term fits closely within these definitions. She is supported by people who understand the realities of concentration camp life. The Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest Asian-American civil rights group, calls the camps which the US government set up to hold Japanese American citizens “concentration camps”, and repeated that term in June 2018 to condemn the camps now used to hold asylum seekers.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez used careful and responsible analysis to make a comparison between current American policy and a century of inhumane policies by many governments against people who are considered enemies. It will take much more contextualization and argumentation to tease out the differences and similarities between all the regrettable situations in which nations have locked up entire categories of innocent people. But given the emotions which have prompted even the most thoughtful to leap to briefly expressed one-sided positions, it appears unlikely that such rational processes will determine our discourse about this important subject.

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