KL – Definition

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The generally accepted and widely used term “concentration camp” is actually all but useless for a historian because it tells nothing whatsoever about the functions of this entity.

It simply states that for some reason (unknown from the term proper) someone concentrated (i.e. placed) a certain number or individuals (hundreds? thousands? tens of thousands?) into some kind of a camp (military? prison? labor? tourist?). It also does not tell whether the individuals in question went to the camp voluntarily or at gunpoint (or were coerced in some other way).

Consequently, it does not distinguish between several very different types of camps – labor camps (for voluntary labor, forced labor or both), POW camps where prisoners-of-war are interned for the duration of the latter, death camps used for extermination of a certain category of individuals (i.e. Jews), prison camps (where inmates were sent after they were tried in a court of law, convicted and sentenced to a certain number of years of hard labor), and internment camps.

In this section, I will cover the last category of Nazi camps (which, incidentally, were also forced labor camps in most cases). I will analyze in appropriate detail other types of Nazi camps in sections devoted to the corresponding Nazi crimes.

The term “internment camp” is crystal clear because it states right then and there that (1) individuals are interned – i.e. are placed in the camp against their will and without trial – i.e. without going through the proper legal process, without any legal charges or even the intent to press any charges; and (2) this incarceration facility (let’s be blunt) is modeled after a military camp.

The latter means that the inmates are held not in civilian-style prison buildings, but in military-style barracks (usually) or tents – if the camp in question is a temporary one.

The fundamental difference between a concentration camp and a prison camp is that it is used for preventive detention, not punishment (although both can and are usually used for “re-education” – i.e. brainwashing).

In other words, the inmate of the prison camp is sent there by the verdict issued by a criminal court (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, could (and usually were) 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 as 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.

However, in this section and in the remaining chapters of this book, I will use the official Nazi abbreviation KL (from Konzentrationslager) which will be used both in singular and in plural, depending on the context.

Although the official German term is translated into English as “concentration camp”, in this section it will refer to Nazi internment camps (in reality, forced labor camps and forced labor parts of death camps), but not to extermination camps, prison camps or POW camps which will be covered in other sections of this chapter.

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