Concentration Camps Are Older Than World War II
The history of the World War II concentration camps extends back to the late 19th. century and the invention of barbed wire and the automatic rifle. Danielle looks at the grim origin of concentration and internment camps and the various countries (including Spain, Great Britain, and the United States), who used similar tactics long before the Nazi Regime.
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
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
If it were mine, I would avow it.
The scheme was the upshot of war, the growth of abnormal conditions, rather than a deliberate
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.