Institute News

Dan Stone Lecture (Summary)

Dan Stone, PhD (Royal Holloway, University of London)
“Concentration Camps: A Global History”
March 29, 2016

X Close

2016/03/29 Visiting Scholar Dan Stone Lecture on Concentration Camp

Language: English

Professor Dan Stone, Royal Holloway, University of London, offered a global perspective of the origins and history of concentration camps.

In his public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research  Professor Dan Stone gave a glimpse into the work he has been doing on compressing the global history of concentration camps into 35,000 words to be published as part of the Very Short Introductions series by Oxford University Press.

There have been many philosophical and sociological attempts to explore the meaning and nature of camps, including by scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman, Hannah Arendt, Wolfgang Sofsky, and Giorgio Agamben, among others. Stone asserted that much of their theorizing about the meaning of camps relies on an archetypal and ahistorical camp. While some camps have received more attention than others, such as Auschwitz or Dachau, close readings of the historical development of camp systems should make us wary of accepting theorizing that is based on an ahistorical view of an ideal camp typus. Moreover, we are now fortunate to have many detailed historical studies of how camps in different countries and time periods arose, developed, and closed.

Stone argued that these histories allow us to consider concentration camps from a transnational perspective. Where, how and why did camps emerge as they did? Did regimes learn from each other? Were ideas about incarceration shared or passed on (with resulting camps emerging through diffusion) or did camps arise independently as a response to the specific structural conditions of the modern world at particular points in time in particular places? Or are both explanations for the emergence of concentration camps valid in different cases?

Stone uses the following working definition: “A concentration camp is an enclosed site used to hold, against their will and without due legal process, a group of civilians deemed as unwanted by a regime.”

In his lecture Stone described and analyzed a vast range of concentration camps in global history in order to illustrate that there is no one archetypal camp. When we think of concentration camps, many of us think of images of Dachau, he explained. However, there are many concentration camps that looked nothing like Dachau. We tend to think of concentration camps as death camps, because of Auschwitz, but in many cases, camps were not designed for punishment or death but instead for confinement. Stone asked whether our attention to the complex range of camps has been diverted by our engrossment or captivation with the Nazi camps in particular.

Stone described many types of camps that both meet his definition and challenge our almost automatic conceptions of what a concentration camp is, for example camps the British set up in South Africa at the turn of the century which were not set up for punishment; camps to intern Japanese Americans; camps for Jewish displaced persons in Cyprus; Soviet gulags in which prisoners were permitted to move around freely; Guantanamo; favelas; and sweatshops. Can’t these all be considered concentration camps used to isolate unwanted population groups?

Stone affirmed historian Klaus Mühlhahn’s contention that concentration camps first emerged in the non-Western world as a product of colonial rule. Stone asserted that the most compelling reason for the implementation of these colonial practices in Europe was World War I. During the war, there was large-scale internment of both prisoners of war (8 to 9 million POWs) and civilians. POW camps do not meet Stone’s definition because they did not house civilians, but their scale and the death rates within them are significant for the discussion about concentration camps because they illustrate the state’s willingness to incarcerate people on a massive scale. This willingness manifested itself in the extensive numbers of civilians interned during World War I as nations began to deprive naturalized citizens from people of ‘enemy origins’ of their citizenship. Stone analyzed a range of cases in which enemy civilians were interned throughout and beyond Europe, including a vast number of refugees who likened the conditions of their internment to concentration camps.

Stone argued that even more important than the massive number of civilians held in camps during World War I is the reason they were held there. Among other reasons, desire for racial and national homogeneity and irrational fears about the enemy within led to states depriving people of their citizenship rights, rendering people stateless and leaving them vulnerable. When people think of the origin of concentration camps, Stone described, they think of the colonial concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa and then they think of Nazi Germany. However, the civilian camps created during World War I provide more of a precedent for the later Nazi and Soviet camps. Stone characterizes the connection between the colonial camps and the Nazi camps as weaker and more coincidental.

Stone explained that concentration camps have been an expression of the modern nation state when it feels itself to be under threat due to alien populations that in the nation’s view prevent ethnic, racial, or national homogeneity.

Stone described concentration camps in the context of the Armenian genocide, and then enumerated examples of camps in nationalist China and in Europe (Francoist Spain and Fascist Italy) and referenced numerous other settings of camps around the world, including Cambodia, North Korea, and the dictatorships of Argentina and Chile. Diffusion of camp technology combined with local or national conditions and traditions, which resulted in camps across the globe.

The use of concentration camps prevailed in decolonization and colonial wars, such as in Kenya, Malaya, and Algeria. Several scholars have used the term “gulag” for the camps set up to separate guerillas and civilian supporters after the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. More people were detained in Kenya than anywhere else in the British Empire. Historian David Anderson calculates that at least one in four adult Kikuyu males (from Kenya’s central highlands) were detained or imprisoned between 1952 and 1958. The Kenyan case, which has received a great deal of attention in Britain in the last ten years, raises intriguing questions about the transnational frame since there may be connections between these camps, the earlier South African ones, and the Nazi ones. Stone raised the question of how the British experience of liberating Nazi camps affected their colonial and military self-perception in the context of decolonization. Stone went on to describe the camps in the context of the Algerian War (1954-1962), in which the French interned a third of the rural population (approximately 2.3 million people), also to stem support for guerillas but having quite the opposite effect.

After a discussion of Japanese internment camps, Stone then analyzed the camp system in China, which has been a tool for the reshaping of society, remolding its nation through labor. Emigrants and scholars use the term “concentration camps” to refer to the Chinese camps because of the living and working conditions there. 50 million people have been convicted to these camps in the last 40 years. 16 to 20 million people are still imprisoned there, despite the system of “laogai” being officially outlawed in 2013.

Concentration camps are an expression of the modern state at particular moments in history, Stone summarized. They emerged in the early 20th century as modern states emerged from earlier forms of rule. They are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself under threat. While many people imagine only Nazi camps when thinking of concentration camps, concentration camps have proliferated since World War II and have emerged all over the globe, becoming what Stone characterized as an all too ubiquitous characteristic of our world. If we consider sweatshops and favelas as concentration camps, or use the metaphor of the concentration camp to discuss them, Stone asserted, this leads us to considering inequalities in our own world and to recognizing that concentration camps are not only the products of “mad” dictators.

The lively Q&A period that followed Stone’s lecture centered on his definition of “concentration camp,” various examples that may confirm or challenge the definition, and the challenges he faced in writing about the subject when there was not one conception of what constitutes a concentration camp.

Summary by Martha Stroud