We're all familiar with the haunting images of the concentration camps of World War II.
The cruelty of places like Auschwitz are widely studied and known primarily because millions of lives were lost and irreparably damaged by the terror that ensued within their walls.
This could also be because of a predisposition in Western cultures to only focus on the events and history of places in the West.
But the history of concentration camps extends back to the late 19th century when two inventions, barbed wire and the automatic rifle, made it possible for small numbers of guards to control large populations.
So today we'll be diving into this troubling corner of world history to answer the questions: why did concentration and internment camps start and under what circumstances are they still being used on civilian populations around the world to this day?
In 1895, long before the battles of WWI and WWII, the then Spanish Governor-General of Cuba Arsenio Martinez Campos introduced a new term to the realm of modern warfare: reconcentracion.
In an article for Smithsonian mag, journalist Andrea Pitzer details Campos letter to the Spanish Prime Minister in which he expressed concern that the fighting from local rebel forces would never cease as long as they were getting aid from civilians.
He proposed that civilians and fighters alike could be rounded up and kept behind barbed wire in Spanish controlled camps in order to bring an end to the conflict.
But the man who would introduce the concept of concentration camps to the world balked at implementing them on the island, saying in the letter, “I cannot as the representative of a civilized nation, be the first to give the example of cruelty and intransigence.” However, after he was recalled from the island and sent to other foreign posts, his successor Valeriano Weyler (ominously nicknamed “The Butcher”) did implement the policy on the island.
The resulting carnage led to the death of over 150,000 people in Cuba and earned Weyler a reputation in US newspapers as a brutal tyrant.
Yet Weyler maintained after the conflict was over that his reconcentrado policy was merited.
On May 3rd 1898 he’s quoted in the New York Times saying: “I was rigorous, just and resolute.
I had a problem to solve by the rules of military science...I did not originate the scheme for reconcentration.
If it were mine, I would avow it.
The scheme was the upshot of war, the growth of abnormal conditions, rather than a deliberate plan.
It was rife in the time of Campos...I am a soldier, and I have never considered it my duty to wrap up my rifle balls in wadding lest I hurt my enemy.” Weyler’s unrelenting policy of brutality would have far reaching effects even after the conflict ended.
An August 1910 article, also from the New York Times, notes that Weyler’s actions in Cuba served as a catalyst for the Spanish American War of 1898.
It describes pitiable and inhumane conditions in which civilians were collected into camps surrounded by deep ditches and barbed wire fences on all sides, with little attempts made to feed the incarcerated populations held in the camps.
This resulted in widespread deaths.
According to the article these first concentration camps “...cost Spain about $200,000,000, 18,000 lives lost through fever and rebel bullets, as well as fourteen pieces of artillery and more than a thousand rifles.” Weyler’s tenure in Cuba had deadly consequences, not just for the Cuban people but for the world.
Despite the fact that he was largely lambasted in the foreign press for starting the world’s first concentration camps, numerous countries mirrored his strategy in the decades that followed.
The concept of imprisoning enemy soldiers is as old as Warfare itself.
Dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, there is a precedent for civilians of captured groups or defeated armies being taken prisoner.
There was also precedent for detaining, mistreating, and relocating large groups of civilians for the purposes of War or land disputes, as was the case with Native American groups throughout US history.
However the large-scale detainment of groups of civilians for the express purpose of winning wars and conflicts started with concentration camps in the late 19th century.
This was largely aided by the invention of two key pieces of equipment in the mid 1800s: barbed wire and automatic rifles.
Modern barbed wire was originally patented by an Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden in 1873.
Glidden’s two strand barbed wire improved on the design of a fellow Illinois farmer named Henry Rose.
It was primarily created to help farmers in the Great Plains region keep grazing cattle and sheep in check.
The new invention, which largely replaced expensive and cumbersome wooden fences, soon took off and by 1880 over 80 million pounds of Glidden’s cheap barbed wire had been sold.
The second key piece of equipment invented in the mid 1800s was the automatic rifle.
The Spencer gun (introduced around the time of the Civil War) allowed soldiers to fire multiple rounds after loading the weapon only once.
Improved models continued to roll out during the 19th century, with the result being increasing numbers of fatalities in war.
A man named John Moses Browning was one of the early innovators of these even deadlier rifles when he started working with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1883.
When combined, barbed wire and the automatic rifle made it possible for a relatively small group of guards to control a large prisoner population.
As a result of these inventions and Weyler’s policies in Cuba, the use of concentration and internment camps spread in subsequent wars and the practice was adopted by many nations long before the infamous camps of WW2.
Even countries like Britain and the US that had remained outwardly critical of Weyler’s camps in Cuba began to use them as a war time strategy.
In fact historians Iain R Smith and Andreas Stucki note in their article that in 1938 infamous Nazi leader Hermann Goering pointed out to the British ambassador to Berlin that it was during the Boer wars in South Africa from 1900-1902 that the term “concentration camp” first became well known in English.
Both Boer farmers and local South Africans were placed into camps by the English with poor water supplies, inconsistent food and shoddy shelters, resulting in thousands of deaths.
And during WWI the precedent of interring civilians continued in both Europe and the US where forces detained German migrants.
In the US approximately 6,000 German migrants (overwhelmingly men) were imprisoned in camps and the government seized an estimated half a billion dollars in private property.
The conditions in the US camps varied, resulting in some suicides and disease outbreaks.
However the prisoners were also granted some degree of freedom within the walls of the camps, where they organized courses taught by interned professors, played music and built structures that mirrored German villages.
Forced imprisonment in the US occurred again during WW2, when 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to these camps.
However the phrase "internment" has been called into question by scholars and activists in recent years.
These groups argue that the use of the term “internment” actually serves as a euphemism that diminishes the reality of the camps that were established in the United States during WWI and WWII.
In fact, in an article for HuffPost Joseph Shoji Lachman notes that in an indirect quote from FDR to the military Joint Board on August 10th 1936, that the former President referred to the camps as concentration camps saying: “What arrangements and plans have been made relative to concentration camps in the Hawaiian Islands for dangerous or undesirable aliens or citizens in the event of national emergency?” So there is evidence that internally during conflict the camps were called by a different name.
According to Lachman the term “internment” camp actually refers to a camp in which foreign enemies are imprisoned.
But the majority of Japanese Americans held within these camps were in fact US born citizens.
Activist groups like Densho offer that we refer to the camps as ‘incarceration’ or ‘prison’ in order to fully explicate the history of Japanese American forced removal during the war.
However it is the concentration or extermination camps of Europe (particularly Germany) during WW2 that give us our popular understanding of concentration camps today.
Places like Auschwitz marked a new era of an already deadly model of warfare that saw the systematic murder of millions of Jewish people as well as ethnic and other minorities perceived as enemies of the Nazi regime.
By the end of the war in 1945, the death count from these camps had reached over 10 million people.
Previous concentration camps had seen the death of thousands of civilians and soldiers from overcrowding, poor living conditions, and a lack of access to water or food.
But the camps of World War 2 proved to be even more deadly.
In addition to the same deplorable conditions of the camps that came before them, these camps were also used for extermination.
So rather than dying solely of disease or starvation, prisoners were now subject to torture, human experiments, and mass death.
The goal of extermination, rather than a goal of weakening support for enemy combatants, set these camps apart and showed the world the horrors possible using this deadly strategy.
And just as barbed wire and early automatic rifles made reconcentracion possible in Cuba in 1895, even deadlier weapons like gas chambers made the camps more fatal.
What began in Cuba in 1895 unleashed a new systematic strategy of war that meant more innocent civilians than ever could be detained, mistreated or even killed in the name of military action.
This strategy continues to be a threat to this day.
Today, China and Myanmar have been in the news with accusations of sending Muslim minorities to internment camps, allegations which both governments deny.
And yet the history of concentration camps also tells a story of how we think of war in general, namely the role of civilians -- who can be used, tortured or killed in order to win a larger conflict.
It broadens the definition of who can be enlisted in and used to win a war.
And it’s a threat that leaves no one safe during conflict.