The Holocaust and Horror at the Border

June 28, 2019
Kevin Madigan
Kevin J. Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History / Photo: Justin Knight

In light of reports of migrant deaths and inhumane conditions for children, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. took to social media last week to criticize U.S. immigration policy, comparing the country's detention centers to "concentration camps."

Republicans and some Democrats responded strongly, saying that Ocasio-Cortez's comments demeaned the victims of the Holocaust. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement that it "unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary." On Twitter, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-WI called the comparison a "disgrace" and wrote "Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history."

HDS's Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Kevin Madigan specializes in the study of German and Italian fascism as well as ancient and medieval Christianity. His course, "The Holocaust and the Churches, 1933-1945," explores "the history of European anti-Semitism, German history from Bismarck to the accession of Hitler, the evolution of anti-Jewish persecution in the Third Reich, and the history of the Holocaust itself." HDS asked Madigan to provide some context for the terms being tossed back and forth in the media.

HDS: What exactly are "concentration camps"? Did they start with the Nazis?

KM: Responding to a question like this requires some distinctions. I’d like to introduce three:

1. To begin with what concentration camps are depends, of course, on the definition of “concentration camp.” One historian of such camps, has recently defined a concentration camp system as “mass detention of civilians without trial.” I could do no better. That said, hers is quite a broad, historically unspecific definition. By that definition, such camps emphatically did not begin with the Nazis, who established Dachau in the year they came to power (1933). Most historians agree that, defined as above, concentration camps existed in the nineteenth century and were known globally in the twentieth century.

But even when we limit our field of vision to Europe, World War II, fascist regimes, and the Holocaust, it would be hard to maintain that only Germany erected them. It is not widely known, but Mussolini built more than 100 concentration camps in Italy and in territories, such as Croatia, it occupied 1939-45. The most infamous of these is Fossoli, just north of Modena. Once taken over by Germans, Italian Jews (including Primo Levi) were transported from there to Auschwitz.

Over time, Fossoli was thus both a concentration camp—it concentrated civilians, in this case those defined as enemies of regime, who were mostly citizens by birth—and a transit camp, that is, a locus from which perceived enemies of the regime would be deported. San Sabba, a camp in Trieste, originally served as a center for the detention of enemies of the Italian State. When it fell under Nazi control, it became an extermination camp—the only on Italian soil. Non-Jewish antifascists as well as Jews were killed there.

2. Questions of definition complicate matters, but what a concentration camp is, or what it means, is not just a matter of definition, or denotation, but of connotation and resonance. Some of the controversy around the use of the term “concentration camp” to characterize detention centers on the southern border of the U.S. derived from politicians who intended to speak denotatively and those who received the term connotatively. Not to mention one could claim to be speaking denotatively but, without acknowledgment, to be taking advantage of semantic resonance, or connotation.

Many did not distinguish between camps for concentration and camps for extermination. But many thought that any use of the term, whatever the purpose of a camp, is so indelibly, so emotionally associated with Nazi atrocity—and the death of so many innocents—that it was analogically false or (as with the Holocaust Museum statement) disrespectful to the victims of Nazi genocide.

3. Finally, neither definition nor semantic resonance captures the historical complexity and variety of how camps operated. The broad definition given above may be as good as any, but that defines a concentration camp, inevitably, from 30,000 feet. When we parachute down to learn something about an American camp for the internment of Japanese, an Italian or German camp for the concentration of putative enemies of the political regime, or Jews, or both, a Soviet gulag—well, historical realitieson the ground” complicate the issue maybe more than we’d like to think. As usual, the serious study of history frustrates the use of terms, especially loaded one—sometimes, perhaps, pedantically, irrelevantly, or otherwise not usefully.

HDS: Why is the term so closely associated with the Holocaust?

KM: 1. In part because it is a Western term.

2. In part because the Holocaust is an event that is close to us in time.

3. Because so many American citizens either escaped the Nazis, survived camps, or had relatives or children who were potential or actual victims.

4. American educational institutions like museums, universities, and religious schools have felt it important, for historical and moral reasons, to have programs on the history of the Holocaust. Millions of students have learned about the Holocaust in this way, and it is primarily in this context that the term “concentration camp” has been introduced to them. Most Americans are not experts, and thus most, not surprisingly, identify concentration camps primarily if not exclusively with the Nazis.

5. The connection between the camp and the Holocaust has been reinforced by the thousands of documentary and feature films that are the source of most Americans’ exposure to the use and imagery of “camp.”

HDS: Does the U.S. have its own history with concentration camps?

KM: Again, much would depend on definition. The internment of almost 120,000 Japanese civilians in the U.S. (and the “relocation” of 21,000 residents in Canada) seems to suggest it does.

Again, historical distinctions complicate matters. Not in doubt is that almost 120,000 Japanese civilians were deported from homes and placed in “internment camps.” (Canada “relocated” 21,000 of its citizens.) Here we are talking about individuals who were already citizens moved from homes, mostly on the West coast, to facilities, mostly on the western interior of the country. Each of these was, in effect, a town, with familiar functions and amenities, institutions, and occupations: schools, post offices, places to work, and farms. Inmates there worked but were not intentionally worked to death. They were not destined for death, but they were not there voluntarily. The town was thus superficially familiar, but it was also surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

There may be a very fine but real distinction between an internment camp and a concentration camp. Typically, an historian would want to be true to the differences. An activist, politician, or commentator might wish to elide the differences for political or humanitarian motives.

HDS: Is it dangerous, as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum claims, to compare U.S. migrant detention centers to concentration camps, even if they're not all "death camps"?

KM: Some commentators, like Rafi Schwarz, have argued that those who deployed the concentration camp image had been careful to de-Nazify it.

Schwarz has complained here: “the Holocaust Museum’s obstinance remains particularly troubling. Why bother learning about the Holocaust at all, if the goal is simply to ossify its horrors as something that offers no contemporary roadmap for action? If the past isn’t prologue, but simply an antique to be analyzed from afar, then what do we need museums for at all?”

For Schwarz and those like him, remembering for the present and the future is what matters. For these it would be dangerous not to compare.

HDS: In the New Yorker, the journalist Masha Gessen writes: “The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.”

Is the argument we're having about concentration camps and immigration policy really about how we understand history and how it relates to contemporary life? Could it be dangerous not to draw comparisons from the present to events in the past, even if those past events are "monstrous"?

KM: Yes: history and policy are all mixed up here—in every sense of that phrase. The whole issue strengthens the veracity of Faulkner’s famous saying: “The past is not dead. It’s not even [the] past.”

by Paul Massari