Concentration Camps

Concentration camps or methods for concentrating populations for purposes of security and surveillance come in many different forms, although the first type brings to mind the camps in Nazi Germany prior to and during World War II. Concentration camps often bring up visions of the death camps of the Nazi era that resulted in the Holocaust. However, there were other types of concentration camps, although none reached the level of evil that was present in Nazi Germany when Adolf Hitler was in power. This entry examines the concentration camps used in Nazi Germany, early uses of concentrating a population, and concentration camps used by various countries with varying success after World War II.

Nazi Germany Concentration Camps

In Nazi Germany, concentration camps were initially penal facilities used to house individuals deemed dangerous to the state. These camps were different from normal prisons in that individuals were detained indefinitely without trial for both personal actions that were deemed unacceptable and for possessing group identities such as belonging to the Communist Party or other suspect organizations. The detention of these individuals was designed to provide greater security for the regime and to avoid internal dissent. In other cases, the camps were used as a mechanism for concentrating groups whom the regime considered to be in some way dangerous or to be an existentialist threat to German society. Jews were the most obvious group to fall into this category, but Gypsies and other undesirables such as homosexuals and those with physical defects who also were considered to be threats to the purity of German society were also imprisoned. They were placed in camps entirely on the basis of group membership without regard to any personal actions they might have (or not have) undertaken to threaten the Nazi government. Their placement in the camps in increasing numbers isolated them from the rest of the German population. The removal of Jews to ghettoes in the cities was also another form of concentrating the Jewish population. The concentration camps and the ghettoes became the gateway for the death camps that resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews as a matter of state policy as well as another 6 million individuals deemed to be undesirable or threatening. Some of these victims died as a consequence of overwork, malnutrition, inadequate medical care, and the notorious medical experiments, but the majority of these victims were murdered as a matter of state policy.

Early Concentration Camps

One of the first uses of camps to concentrate a suspect population occurred during the Boer War (1899–1902). After initial battlefield defeats, the British army was able to defeat the field forces of the Orange River State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). The British occupied the major cities and towns, but they were unable to control the countryside. Boer guerrillas (commandos) refused to give up the fight and attacked isolated British units, outposts, and supply columns. These commandos had the support of the local Boer population and of at least some of the indigenous African groups. To reduce the flow of supplies and the support that the guerrillas were receiving, the British concentrated both the white and indigenous African populations into camps—thus providing the name for concentration camps in the future. These camps proved to be extremely unhealthy, resulting in significantly increased mortality rates among all the populations. The strategy, however brutal in fact if not in intent, was ultimately effective in limiting assistance for the guerrillas. Eventually, the remaining Boer commandos surrendered to the British as a consequence of their isolation and as a consequence of the deaths of family members, including wives and children, in the concentration camps.

Post–World War II Concentration Camps

Concentration camps were used after World War II as part of government counterinsurgency strategies in colonial territories. The British in Malaya faced a rebellion when they tried to reestablish control after the Japanese occupation from local communists whose support was largely drawn from the ethnic Chinese community in the colony. To deprive the rebel guerrillas of food and other support, the rural Chinese population was concentrated in villages, not only where they could more easily be protected from coercion from the guerrillas but also where they could be prevented from voluntarily providing assistance to these groups. This technique proved to be effective in reducing the threat from the rebels rather quickly. They became an irritant rather than a direct threat, although it took almost two decades to completely eliminate the challenge that they represented.

This British technique of concentrating vulnerable or supportive populations that worked in Malaya was tried in a number of other locations. It was used with some success in the Philippines in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The newly independent government of the Philippines faced a rebellion by local leftist/communist groups that appeared during World War II to fight the Japanese. The Huks (short for Hukbalahap, or People’s Anti-Japanese Army) challenged the government. The Huks mobilized peasant opposition in central Luzon in the North. The government opted for the British approach and concentrated farmers into more secure villages in the areas where the Huk rebels were operating. This approach helped undermine the ability of the rebels to gain food and other support (although a lack of attention to rural needs in the following years has resulted in a resurgence of violent challenges).

The British used a similar strategy when they faced the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Tribal groups suspected of supporting the rebels were relocated to special villages to deprive the rebels of supplies and information and to protect those loyal to the colonial government. The Mau Mau rebels were defeated as a consequence of the overwhelming disparity in military forces, but their isolation from support did hinder them. The French, when facing a rebellion in Algeria, adopted a similar tactic with some success. Loyal villagers were placed in locations where greater security could be provided, but the concentration also made it more difficult for the rebels to receive any effective support. The French were able to win a military victory but lost the political battle when Algerian independence was negotiated.

The idea of concentrating a population for purposes of security and surveillance in wartime was also tried in South Vietnam with the support of the United States on the assumption that the policy that worked in Malaya and the Philippines would also work in Indochina. The policy in this case was called the Strategic Hamlet Program. The goal was again to separate the population from the Viet Cong guerrillas. The hamlets were designed to be easier to defend and protect the villagers, but they also provided a means of gaining intelligence on the Viet Cong. The hamlets also made it more difficult for any pro-Viet Cong villagers to join the guerrillas for specific attacks (farmers by day and guerrillas by night). However, this strategy did not save the South Vietnamese government and the United States from eventual defeat. The war in South Vietnam was lost for many reasons, including significant involvement by North Vietnamese military units, but it is clear that the strategic hamlets policy did not save the situation for the government. The idea of the strategic hamlets may even have made matters worse because the forced relocation of the rural peasants disrupted the social and economic relationships at the local level and alienated some individuals from the government.

James M. Lutz and Brenda J. Lutz

See also Germany ; Mass Incarceration ; Nazism

Further Readings

Fein, Helen. Accounting for Genocide: Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Free Press, 1979.

Jahoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears: The Story of American Indian Removals, 1813–1855. New York, NY: Wing Books, 1975.

Kenrick, Donald and Grattan Puxton. The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973.

van Heyningen, Elizabeth. The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History. Johannesburg, South Africa: Jacana Books, 2013.