When Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York used the term “concentration camp” last week to describe the current situation on the U.S. southern border, she sparked a vicious debate that became less about the crisis at the border and more about what the term really means. “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are. They are concentration camps,” she said in an Instagram live video. Her comments were met with sharp criticisms and responses from politicians and Holocaust organizations.
Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this. https://t.co/NX5KPPb2Hl
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) June 18, 2019
With this letter, I am formally inviting @AOC to come to Poland,where Adolf Hitler set up the worst chain of concentration camps the world has ever seen, so that she may see that scoring political points with enflamed rhetoric is unacceptable in our contemporary Western societies pic.twitter.com/ivOTfmiCfo
— TARCZYŃSKI Dominik (@D_Tarczynski) June 20, 2019
.@AOC Concentration camps assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of “extermination through labor.”
— Yad Vashem (@yadvashem) June 19, 2019
Many others came to Ocasio-Cortez’s defense, arguing that her use of the term was correct and precise.
In addition to historical accuracy, one of the reasons for thinking of current US border detention as concentration camps is that these camps tend to follow a trajectory. Looking at the past tells us something about what will happen next.
— Andrea Pitzer (@andreapitzer) June 23, 2019
I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) June 19, 2019
— The Rebel (@TheRebelTV) June 21, 2019
But the history of the term “concentration camps” is perhaps too complex to be summarized in 280 characters or a quick soundbite. The term was first used in 1897 in reference to Spanish General Valeriano Weyler’s relocation of over 300,000 Cubans into camps to suppress the Cuban Revolution. Use of the term grew over the next few years, with the British setting up over 100 camps during the Second Anglo-Boer War, a fact that was not lost on the Nazis. During World War II, the Nazi propaganda unit released a film titled Ohm Krüger to highlight the British camps and, in a speech on January 30, 1941, Hitler claimed that “concentration camps were not invented in Germany” and that “it is the English who are their inventors, using this institution to gradually break the backs of other nations.”
While the Spanish and British camps may have led to the term “concentration camp,” their purpose and philosophy were hardly novel at the time. As Dan Stone, a professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London and the director of its Holocaust Research Institute, writes in his book Concentration Camps: A Short History, these camps were just an extension of the system of colonial rule that had dominated the last century. He compares them to reservations and island prisons in that they established a principle of isolating groups of peoples perceived as being a danger to society.
The Nazis took the concentration camps to a new extreme. When it came to the Spanish and British, “people were rounded up against their will and brought to these camps and kept there as part of an anti-insurgency campaign,” says Christopher Browning, a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose research focuses on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. “The Nazis then took the term and turned it into rounding up political opponents—communists and socialists—and then into a catch-all for everybody they wanted to remove from society for which they did not want to have trials and indictments.”
The horrendous treatment of the prisoners also separated the Nazi camps from their less violent predecessors. “What characterized those camps was the level of brutality and a mortality rate that was much higher than any previous concentration camps,” says Browning. “The Nazis set the record on turning these places into places of torture and death.”
Despite these historical differences, the actual definition of the term tells a different story. As various articles have pointed out, the technical definition of “concentration camp” matches with what exists on the southern border. For example, Merriam-Webster 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.”
It is hard to argue that the camps at the southern border do not fit this definition. “I think she’s absolutely historically correct,” says Rachel Buff, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, regarding Ocasio-Cortez. “They are concentration camps, which means a population that has been othered and minoritized is detained against their will in a particular facility by a government without having committed any crime.”
However, her critics argue that, even if that is true, she and her defenders are missing the larger point. “When you make a statement like that, you have to know that when you use the term concentration camp, that evokes to the people of the United States the images of the Nazi concentration camps,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Sure, you can look up the definition in Websters to find something that will fit, but you are a member of Congress, for God’s sake.”
“I think one has to tread very carefully when you use the term, knowing that even though the term existed long before the Nazis, the normal reference points are the Nazis,” says Browning. These comments correlate with the dictionaries themselves, with Merriam-Webster, dictionary.com and the Cambridge Dictionary all using the Nazi camps as their primary examples.
Browning noted that the confusion over the term does not just come from its association with the Nazis. It also stems from a lack of distinction between Nazi concentration camps and Nazi death camps. “There is all sorts of confusion when you compare concentration camps with the Holocaust, where they are usually talking about death camps,” says Browning. “[The concentration camps] were built for Nazi opponents and the death camps were built for Jews. It was not the Nazi’s intention to intern large numbers of Jews. It was to kill them.”
While over 1.7 million Jews did perish in the concentration camp, close to 1.2 million of them were murdered in either Auschwitz and Majdanek, which only adds to the confusion. Both functioned as a concentration and a death camp, so the two aspects were often conflated with each other without properly understanding the differences. The conflation led to major misunderstandings in the public discourse, as the two terms are used interchangeably in the press, History Channel documentaries and casual conversation.
Indeed, Buff pointed that Ocasio-Cortez did not use the terms “death camps” or “Nazi” in the video. She also put forward the idea that the legacy of the Holocuast goes beyond the Jewish people. “We do not own that past, we tend that past. The last part of the Holocaust Museum in DC is all about other people’s Holocaust. It’s not just ours,” she says. “We have to understand that the legacy of the Holocaust is very broad.”
This is not the first time the debate over the term “concentration camp” has come up. In 1998, curators were preparing an exhibit for Ellis Island on the Japanese internment camps titled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience.” After meeting with the American Jewish Committee, the two groups released a statement that, among other things, stated that the Japanese camps, along with the Soviet, Cambodian and Bosnian camps, were indeed concentration camps.
Regardless, all sides of the argument seem to agree that Ocasio-Cortez’s comments focused the conversation on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust instead of the southern border. “The broken immigration humanitarian crisis is horrible and needs to be dealt with in its own terms. It does not need to be recognized [with the Holocaust],” says Cooper.
“I don’t care what we call them,” says Buff. “It’s immoral. It’s illegal under international law. It’s illegal under United States law.”
“It shifts the conversation away from the terrible things that are happening in the camps to whether she is exploiting them, and it becomes an argument of whether this is an exploitation of the Holocaust,” says Browning. “Instead of illuminating what we should be discussing, it allows everybody else to shift the conversation away from the point she was trying to make, so it does not serve her purpose.”