Nowadays, just about everyone associates the ominous term “concentration camp” with the Nazi regime and the Third Reich. Consequently, one of the most popular myths about Nazi Germany is that it had invented the idea of a concentration camp (and the corresponding term).
This is simply not true. Although the Nazis used these facilities on the largest scale (by far) in human history (they had up to 755,000 simultaneous internees in 15,000 concentration camps), it did not invent the idea (or even the term for that matter). And were not the first to use it – again by far.
By definition, concentration camp (more accurately, internment camp) is an incarceration facility modeled after a military camp (and thus uses military-style barracks or tents rather than prison-type buildings).
The fundamental difference between a concentration camp and a prison camp is that it is not a penal institution but is used for preventive detention. In other words, the inmate in the prison is sent there by the verdict issued by a criminal trial (i.e. as a punishment for his or her actions that violate the criminal code of the corresponding nation).
The inmate in the concentration camp is interned there because he or she is determined a security risk by the security service (e.g. political police or the military) – not by the courts. Both, however, can be established as (slave) labor camps where inmates are forced to work for the corresponding government.
Consequently, the Soviet GULAG (again contrary to a very popular misconception) was a system (vast network, actually) not of concentration camps, but of prison camps – because technically inmates were sent there not by the Soviet political police (Cheka, GPU, NKVD or GUGB), but by the courts. Kangaroo courts, that’s for sure, but still formally the courts.
The term “concentration camp” was coined not by a German, but by a Spanish general and government official – Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, – a Spanish general who served as the Governor General of the Philippines and Cuba. It was in the latter capacity that in 1897 he has established the “reconcentration camps” (as he called them).
General Weyler (of Prussian descent, believe it or not) was appointed Governor General of Cuba for a very specific purpose – to crush the Cuban rebellion (actually, the Cuban War of Independence) that by that time went on and off for thirty years.
Weyler quickly realized that because rebels were (predictably) supported by the local population that had no desire to be part of a Spanish Empire, he had no other choice but to separate the former from the latter thus denying the insurgents access to vital supplies (and the ability to blend in with the civilians).
This “separation” in practical terms meant deportation of all local populations from rebel-infested and subsequent “reconcentration” in “safe havens” (i.e. internment camps) guarded by loyal Spanish troops.
As this “separation” was vehemently opposed (and resisted whenever possible) by Cuban civilians, it was a war crime (crime against humanity), plain and simple. Nevertheless, by the end of 1897, General Weyler relocated over 300,000 locals into areas nearby large cities in Cuba.
Such massive relocation (especially combined with total lack of concern for the welfare of civilians being deported), obviously, resulted in thousands and thousands of deaths (which for all practical purposes was mass murder).
Although initially this deportation (“evacuation”) of local civilians delivered a heavy blow to the rebels, in the end it did not crush the rebellion. First, the Philippines rebelled – which forced Weyler to move his elite troops from Cuba.
Then, Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was assassinated in June of 1897. Weyler lost his principal supporter in Spain and was replaced in Cuba by the more conciliatory Ramón Blanco y Erenas who promptly ended “separations”.
Which did not help either as in April of 1898 the Spanish-American war broke out. It (quite predictably) resulted in the destruction of Spanish Atlantic and Pacific fleets and in the independence of both Cuba and the Philippines.
General Weyler went on to become the Minister of War in the Spanish government and died peacefully in Madrid on October 20th, 1930 at a ripe old age of ninety-two. He did not see the Nazi reincarnation of his concentration camp idea (but most likely knew about the Soviet one).
Although Valeriano Weyler invented the term “concentration camp”, he was not the first to put the idea in practice. The first concentration camps were established by the United States government in 1830s (a whole hundred years before Dachau) during the genocide (let’s call a spade a spade) of Native Americans in their conquest of the American version of Lebensraum (which in terms of death toll was no better than Nazi Generalplan Ost).
Actually, it was from the Americans that General Weyler learned about the “separation” anti-guerilla strategy (although they did not yet use the term “concentration camp”).
Despite his eventual defeat, Weyler’ “separation” strategy was deemed by the British valuable enough to be extensively used during the Second Boer War in South Africa.
British strategy was far more brutal than the Spanish one as it was combined with the “Scorched earth” policy (which made it an even more monstrous war crime). It included (but was not limited to) systematic destruction of crops, slaughtering of livestock, burning down of homesteads and farms, the poisoning of wells and salting of fields.
It was also far more extensive than the one employed by the Americans in the “Wild West” and by the Spanish in Cuba. For the first time in history of concentration camps, its system of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans covered the whole nation and the first in which some whole regions had been depopulated. Over 26,000 Boer civilians (mostly women and children) died in those camps.
Nazis were not the first German government to establish concentration camps either. Between 1904 and 1907, the Imperial German Army operated concentration camps such as the Shark Island, Swakopmund and Lüderitz Bay camps in German South-West Africa (now Namibia).
Initially established as a tool to suppress the Herero-Nama rebellion, these camps subsequently were transformed into slave labor camps where the natives were forced to work for German military and settlers.
The mortality rate in these camps was horrible – over 50% (some say up to 75%) of inmates eventually died. The total number of victims is estimated of about 25,000.
The closest thing to Nazi concentration camp system was (unsurprisingly) set up in the Soviet Russia less than a year after the Bolsheviks came to power. The first such camps were established in May of 1918 and on July 23rd, 1918, Leon Trotsky – a commander-in-chief of Soviet Armed Forces (and a Jew) signed an order that stipulated that these camps will be used
“to isolate and eliminate class-alien, socially dangerous, disruptive, suspicious, and other disloyal elements, whose deeds and thoughts were not contributing to the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat”
Which for all practical purposes meant that these camps were from the very beginning planned as not just internment camps (or even labor camps) but full-fledged death camps – 25 years before Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor.
By the end of the Civil War in Russia in 1922, there were 315 such camps in existence – already an extensive system. They ultimately became the core of the infamous GULAG where from four to six million inmates perished.