One Long Night; A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer. Little, Brown and Company 2017.

Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night, has a chapter halfway through her book called “The Architecture of Auschwitz,” and I think that a good starting point for any review of her book. The components of Auschwitz and other German camps were already in existence by the 1930s. The Germans had their own needs to house civilians temporarily in camps that would both protect them – though that was not generally the major purpose – but also utilize their labor.

In January 1942, the German bureaucrats who were responsible for devising a solution to a part of that puzzle, the “Jewish question” or Judenfrage, gathered in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. They came up with what they considered to be a ‘final’ solution Endlösung. The question of when and where to send unwanted civilians had been an issue in Germany, the British Empire, and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century. And their death had not been the most important reason for their detention.

The issue of how to treat enemy aliens during a war had been raised back in the Spanish-American War in 1898. There were, at the time, no formal detention centers, and hence no care given to their needs. During our war with Spain, it was decided to use a Naval Air Station in Cuba on Guantanamo Bay.

In the case of Guantanamo, we were concerned about health and safety, mostly. But the whole world was shocked by the British treatment and fate of a population of Dutch farmers in South Africa, the Boers, during the Boer War of 1899. The women and children had been providing support to their men folk off fighting a guerilla war against a brutal British colonial army. The facilities for their detention were inadequate, and the Brits mostly let them die of disease and hunger in poorly provisioned camps.

At the same time, Europeans were meeting at the Hague (1899, 1907) to iron out the rules of warfare including the treatment of civilians.

I don’t want to pick on Britain and the British Empire particularly, but there is the historical record. Back home when war broke out in France and Belgium in 1914, the British began collecting German civilian prisoners then living in Britain and sending them at first to a camp on the Isle of Man, then using defunct jails and a kids holiday camp. Neither had good security, so the ‘national security people’ added additional compounds surrounded by barbed wire. German POWs were also sent to Canada where they were required to perform useful labor. Hence another part of the Hague conventions and the architecture of civilian internment had been added.

There were various classifications for these prisoners: known as Nazi sympathizers, immediate internment. (The Brits were preoccupied with the possibility of espionage risks.) Another classification was just to monitor them, confiscate their cameras. They were restricted in their travel around Britain and Ireland. However, sixty-six thousand enemy aliens not considered in any way a security threat were simply required to register. Many of them were Jewish refugees who had recently arrived in family groups.  Britain was being cautious. Much the same was true of their policies in India.

Of course the Russians had always had their “gulags,” places of extreme neglect and suffering. They also were inadequate for the immediate task of housing of captured German POWs. Also, civilians caught on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution and the collectivization of rural populations were interned into labor camps.

The German involvement in camps for German and Polish Jews is too familiar to require more elaboration. But Pitzer makes the interesting point that those internment camps were generally not initially set up to exterminate unwanted populations. They came to that as European opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany and France – but also Austria and Northern Italy, multiplied and began flowing into whatever facilities were available.

The camps became specialized. Some were purely labor camps, some punishment camps for criminality, camps for women only, but some were extermination camps. All of the “architecture” of Auschwitz-Birkenau had evolved over decades of incarceration, even if their immediate function was not Jewish destruction.

Then there were the Japanese-American internees. Always suspect by Californians, they were rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent inland, 120,000 of them. Many were citizens with Japanese ancestors. And the internment was blessed by the US Supreme Court in “U.S. vs. Korematsu”, a famous case involving the constitutionality of the action.

We have caught up with the long, sordid history of concentration camps. But one final chapter “The Bastard Children of the Camps,” and Pitzer is not talking about human infants but rather the continued practice of interning civilians. Back to Guantánamo where we have housed those arrested after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And then to General Pinochet’s Chili, Kenya, Malaya, Afghanistan, and French Indo-China to look at these “bastard camps”, and also add isolation, kidnapping, interrogation, torturing, and execution, to the “architecture” already described.

At the very end, Andrea Pitzer brings up another question: what to do with the ‘bodies.’ Some German concentration camps were solidly built of brick and are still around to visit, but many are collapsing into heaps of rotting wood. Memory is often attached to physical remains – and monuments of various kinds. Will the loss of those structures also mean the demise of their remembrance?

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