A World of Camps

By Kreienbaum, Jonas | Kritika, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

A World of Camps


Kreienbaum, Jonas, Kritika


Bettina Greiner and Alan Kramer, eds., Die Welt der Lager: Zur "Erfolgsgeschichte " einer Institution (The World of the Camps: The "Success Story" of an Institution). 359 pp. Hamburg: Hamburger Editionen, 2013. ISBN-13 978-3868542677. 32.00 [euro].

Internment camps are an essential part of modern history. From the first so-called "concentration camps" during the South African War (1899-1902) to present-day Guantanamo, they span the entire 20th century. They include, among many others, the prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in both world wars and the totalitarian camps in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. In consideration of its widespread use, Giorgio Agamben has recently dubbed the camp the "'nomos' of the modern," while Zygmunt Bauman views the 20th century as the "century of camps." (1) Considering the omnipresence of camps, Bettina Greiner and Alan Kramer--the editors of the volume Die Welt der Lager under review here--provocatively speak of a "'success story' of an institution." (2) But, Kramer asks in his introduction, what made it so successful? Which factors contributed to the camp's longevity and mutability (7)? These questions are the departure point of the collection, which evolved from a major international conference on camps held in Berlin in April 2011. (3)

Three sets of subquestions dealing with (1) the origins of camps, (2) the term "camp" itself, and (3) the change in camps' functions guide the 13 historical essays on "representative examples" (7) of camp systems. Most of the texts, all written by renowned camp specialists, focus on concentration camps, while others deal with POWs, civilian internment, and deportee camps to situate "the phenomenon in a broader context" (9). A section of 34 pictures of camps and internees, from a 1797 painting of the Norman Cross POW camp to a 2004 photo of Chinese prisoners, accompany the articles. In this review I will not discuss every single article but will instead focus on the three big themes--origins, terminology, and functional evolution-- addressing only those texts that contribute most significantly to illuminating the problem in question.

Looking for the origins of internment camps, both in general and in the case of particular camp systems, is highly important and actually a novelty in camp research. Even existing global histories on camps have asked few questions about processes of learning and information transfer, which may have helped spread the camp idea from one place to another. (4) This blind spot in camp research--its neglect of transnational connections--may well have obscured one of the most compelling answers to the question of why internment camps have appeared so frequently in the 20th century: namely, because the camp concept was adopted based on international precedents. A transnational approach, focusing on processes of learning, is especially pronounced in the texts of Alan Kramer, Andreas Stucki, and Bettina Greiner. Kramer, in his overview, looks at different possible connections between colonial, World War I, and subsequent camp systems. For the Soviet camps he notes that the term "concentration camp" had been introduced into Russian during the South African War, while it was mainly the experiences with POW camps during the Great War that shaped the concentration camps of the Russian Civil War that followed (22). Stucki focuses on one particular case and asks whether the process of "reconcentration" on Cuba, whereby more than 400,000 civilians were resettled by Spanish troops during the War of Independence (1895-98), created a precedent that was subsequently followed by other imperial powers, starting with Britain in South Africa? Stucki reveals that it was mainly critics of the British camp policy in South Africa who linked it to the notorious Spanish role model in order to delegitimize it. Those decision makers who established the camps in South Africa did not refer to Cuba, and it is therefore impossible directly to prove a process of learning, however likely it may seem in hindsight (82-86). …

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