JULY 29, 2018
“THE CONCENTRATION CAMP experience rarely begins and ends inside barbed wire,” writes Andrea Pitzer in the introduction to her book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. “It is a part of a process — usually one that starts with arrest and interrogation, continues via a journey of minutes, days, or weeks to a camp, and persists in exile or continued threat of punishment after release.”
Pitzer’s dark narrative begins just before the Spanish-American War and ends in the detention centers of Guantanamo Bay. In between are gulags, holocausts, and tales of survival amid a panorama of humanity’s best efforts at evil. Pitzer has written an important book, one which instructs by examples and demonstrates how governments commence, justify, and construct such dehumanizing situations over and over. It is a cohesive history that leaves the reader willing to shred their membership card to mankind.
Tales from survivors give the book its strongest optimistic notes, reminders that resistance and struggle can prevail. It is with a sense of hope that the reader imagines this to be a book that will need no sequel.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: What have you noticed in the last year, in terms of phrases and actions, which might hark back to darker times? In a new publication of essays by Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister, she mentions the need to become more aware of the language politicians and political groups use to promote their agenda. What, if any, danger signs have you seen?
ANDREA PITZER: Warning signs are everywhere. It’s not as if we might be accidentally stumbling into the kind of frameworks that have led to tragedies in the past. Instead, there’s a clear effort to take the United States there. The rhetoric of earlier eras is evoked through the intentional use of terms like “infested” and “breeding,” which categorize human beings as dangerous vermin. We continue to see lies about levels of immigrant crime — lies that more than a century of data show us are demonstrably untrue. Not only is ICE expanding, the force appears to be undergoing a deliberate hardening, in which leadership requires officers to treat targeted people as monsters: separating children from parents, finding and deporting veterans who have served honorably, arresting people at hospitals. The administration is working hard to sell the idea that patriotism requires cruelty and violence.
The use of rallies to gin up hatred, the demonization of political opponents — the list is endless. These are exactly the kind of precursors that have historically destabilized and polarized societies, making much worse things possible. What’s more, the same kind of inaction that froze the ability of the opposition to respond in other countries in the past is rampant in America today. Officials are aware that what’s going on is dangerous, but they’re too weak or too corrupt to do anything about it.
The United States is still a democracy, and a lot of the current rhetoric and policy could be reversed by future presidents. But even in the best-case scenarios, Trump and those who join him in promoting fear and hate are damaging our system for decades to come. Trump’s only grace is that he is not intelligent or disciplined enough to bring about the worst of the scenarios that have, in the past, resulted from the kind of ugliness that he’s unleashed.
When you spoke in Columbus, Ohio, recently, you stated that it takes more than one man to create the kind of atrocities that peaked in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, that it took a government to conjure that level of evil. Do you think the Trump administration has the attention span to create such monsters?
I think the president is willing to do harm to various vulnerable groups but at present is more interested in tapping into the underlying rage of his audience. He wants their adoration and approval. The danger lies more with those he has brought in — or allowed others to bring in — people who are committed to specifically attacking certain groups. Some have a history of working against the interest of African Americans, others have historically targeted immigrants, and so forth. Those with long legislative histories, like the current attorney general, are able to do more harm, because they actually understand how the system works. The erratic policies that appear to have originated from deeper ignorance of process, like the Muslim ban, seem less likely to stick in their worst forms — though the Supreme Court seems inclined to make some room for them.
But one concept that becomes apparent when you look at these things over a century or more is that when they’re first starting out, the party or leader who deliberately degrades the social fabric and tilts a country toward extrajudicial violence doesn’t necessarily realize how far things might go. For now, Trump is often accidentally sabotaging his own agenda. But if someone with an attention span were to gain and keep his confidence, to learn to manage him the way John Kelly has been trying to, then things could get much worse. The president clearly has every authoritarian impulse, but the judicial system is still somewhat robust, and a large portion of the population loathes him. At present, he does not have the juggernaut required to overcome either one of those or allow us to revisit history’s worst actions. But the idea that he himself would hesitate to do so is silly. He has openly embraced the use of torture to goad audiences, and we have reports that he has a history of sending goons to intimidate those who stood in his way at various points. Who believes that the kind of power vested in the presidency will awaken any sense of restraint in him? It seems far more likely to do the opposite.
What surprised you most while researching your book?
I was surprised and disappointed by the discovery that, in many cases, democratic governments and their leaders had not turned to the use of concentration camps in a panic, or as a result of no one knowing how terrible the camps would be. World War I was underway for several months before universal internment was adopted. During World War II, months likewise passed between Pearl Harbor and the US internment of its Japanese-American citizens. These were deliberate actions taken for the benefit of public perception, though key people in government understood them to be unnecessary.
So far, I’ve been talking a lot about the dangers to democracies and how they can fall into disgraceful actions. It’s important to also say that a lot of dictatorships and police states created camp systems with worse outcomes for more people — and much less accountability. It’s crucial to keep the whole history of camps in mind when picking on any particular government. But it’s also fine to ask hard questions of any administration that embraces extrajudicial detention. A camp doesn’t have to descend to the depths of Auschwitz to be horrific for detainees forced to live behind barbed wire.
This might be a good time to mention Guantanamo, which you visited recently. How do you think it fits in with the ongoing narrative of camps? You mentioned the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II being to some extent created for public perception. Was there a little bit of that for Guantanamo after 9/11 or was it a straightforward response to terrorism?
I made two trips to Guantanamo in 2015: one to observe pretrial hearings in the case against those suspected of aiding the 9/11 hijackers, and another to tour the detention camps that they were willing to let reporters visit. When I started the book, I thought Guantanamo would be a kind of distant cousin to other camp systems, a coda to the first camps, which started in Cuba in the 1890s. But the more I tracked post–World War II tactics with suspected terrorists, the more I realized that our approach with Guantanamo was in many ways a logical extension of the trend of Western nations toward atomized detention and institutionalized torture in the last half of the 20th century.
Though Guantanamo was just one part of a vast network of sites around the globe, the post-9/11 use of detention there was based in part on a naïve idea that we would magically capture members of the terror network that had facilitated 9/11, try them, and deliver speedy punishment. That was a natural impulse after the horror of what had happened. But it was also very much about perception, an attempt to look fierce in response to America finding itself vulnerable and devastated after the 9/11 terror strikes.
That idea persists today. In my book, I briefly mention the political rhetoric used in recent years about Gitmo, even though we now know about the torture that was conducted there on detainees. Senator Tom Cotton said in 2015 that Guantanamo’s prisoners could “rot in hell,” and several presidential candidates in the last election embraced keeping Guantanamo open and returning to forbidden tactics, despite or because of what the place now represents. That is entirely optics. Aside from the moral question of torture, which should be easy enough to answer at this point, trying to use military tribunals at Guantanamo to fight terror has proven useless as a legal approach and damaging to America’s relationships abroad.
Your book takes a long journey, beginning with the US war with Spain and ending in Gitmo. How difficult was it for you researching a seemingly endless horror show?
It was challenging to spend years researching many of the worst things that humans have ever done to each other. But a ray of light began to emerge as I wrote. I realized that people had to be trained and indoctrinated to do this. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and propaganda from a government or a party to make people embrace the idea of concentration camps. And even then, there are those who fight it. If we strengthen the rule of law and democratic institutions, if we look for interventions that make people less susceptible to propaganda, these actions build up a bulwark against extrajudicial actions. Unfortunately, history has shown that these things can happen anywhere, but in robust democracies, there tend to be more mechanisms to limit, reverse, or stop the process.
What influence does a camp mentality have on a given country’s arts community? I noticed Trump did not waste much time slicing the NEA’s budget in his first year in office.
Certainly where governments were strong enough to impose police states, censorship and limitation on arts usually followed. Certain schools or styles of art were dismissed as degenerate; others were held up as examples. The art that gets promoted in these situations is often art which points to some kind of nonexistent or highly mythologized golden era. In non-police-state settings during wartime, a lighter touch is required, and governments usually focus on propaganda, though censorship of art can creep in.
I don’t know that the attacks on the NEA are a good example of this kind of restriction, however; the NEA has long been a target of Republicans in the United States and may now be more of a political football than anything. For now, I think it’s predominantly attacked as a symbol, more than any real move toward widespread censorship. That’s not to say things can’t change. But for fiscal year 2018, the NEA actually got a sliver more funding than it did in 2017. So if it’s Trump’s goal to use his calls for defunding as something more insidious, that plan does not seem to be working yet.
You’ve mentioned that most think of Nazi camps when they hear the phrase “concentration camps.” Did looking at the Nazi era in the context of 20th-century camp history suggest anything new to you about them?
Yes, I think it makes a big difference to see German camps in context. Extermination factories were the Nazi addition in the evolution of camps.
Auschwitz and the other killing centers redefined the idea of a concentration camp around the world, and should be recognized as the crowning horror of the whole century of camps and the result of an industrial approach to genocide. The scope of their monstrousness, however, erased public memory about a lot of what had come before.
Before the creation of the death camps in late 1941 and early 1942, the basic idea of a concentration camp — mass detention of civilians without trial — was very normal. In the wake of mass internment during World War I, they were used globally in the 1920s and 1930s. Even in Nazi Germany, the main Konzentrationslager (KL) system of camps was the only system in place for nearly a decade. And in their first years, these camps weren’t that different from camps that had been seen elsewhere before. Members of targeted groups went in and were sometimes subjected to horrific abuse, but the vast majority of detainees were eventually released.
The staggering expansion of detention that accompanied the beginning of World War II degraded life in those camps to unlivable conditions even before the addition of the death camps. But overcrowding in the KL system combined with the creation of death camps transformed the whole system into an astoundingly lethal one.
As a result, I think we’ve forgotten how low-grade abuses set the stage for worse things. We talk about the catchphrase “first they came for the communists,” but people often forget the institutional side: how early acceptance of nonlethal extrajudicial detention for groups seen as undesirable or troublemakers made later innovations possible. It’s true that even before they came to power in 1933, Nazi leaders were already dreaming of a Germany with concentration camps and without Jews, but they were not yet picturing that camps would become the tool of Jewish eradication — the sites of genocide.
It took years of living inside the possibilities opened up by the existence of concentration camps to be able to create Auschwitz. I believe it is important to pay attention to what kinds of detention and abuse are continuing to operate long-term outside the established judicial system today. These are the most likely sources of our next innovations in horror.