A concentration camp is a large detention centre for political opponents, specific ethnic groups or other groups of people set up for confinement, extermination or forced labour.
The first large-scale confinement of a specific ethnic group in detention centers began in the summer of 1838, when President Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to enforce the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by rounding up the Cherokee into prison camps before relocating them.
The term "concentration camp" was first used by the British military during the Boer War. British forces rounded up the Boer women and children as well as black people living on Boer land, and sent them to camps scattered around South Africa.
Although neither of these examples were extermination camps, the poor nutrition and bad hygiene of the camps resulted in high mortality rates. The Boer situation was only relieved when Emily Hobhouse brought the conditions in the camps to the attention of the British public; the Cherokee situation culminated in the Trail of Tears.
The term Internment Camp is often used as an equivalent in other historical contexts, such as the imprisonment by the United States of Japanese American citizens during World War II. However American internment camps did not involve forced labor or extermination, merely confinement.
During the First World war, thousands of Ukranians were put into concentration camps as "enemy aliens" to perform forced labor in steel mills, forestry, etc. This is partly because Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, partly because capitalists wanted to turn a profit on slave labor, partly because Canadians were racist, etc.
Concentration camps rose to notoriety during their use in World War II by Nazi Germany. The Nazi regime nominally maintained both kinds of concentration camps -- work camps and extermination camps. The distinction between the two, in practice, was very small. Prisoners in Nazi work camps could expect to be worked to death in short order, while prisoners in extermination camps usually died sooner in gas chambers or in other ways. Guards were known to engage in target practice, using their prisoners as targets.
The first Nazi camps were within Germany, and were primarily work camps. The worst excesses, including the murder of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovahs Witnesses, Polish intellectuals, Soviet Prisoners of War and others, were to come later in the war. (See Holocaust, genocide.) It is estimated that around six million people were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
Major Nazi Concentration Camps
- the three camps at Auschwitz
- Bergen Belsen
In the Soviet Union, concentration camps were called GULAG, after the branch of the internal police that managed them, and white collar camps were sometimes called sharashka. These were used as forced labor camps, and were often filled with political prisoners. The Gulag system was exposed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his work The Gulag Archipelago. The sharashka, prisons filled with engineers and scientists as slaves for the state, are treated in his book The First Circle. An estimated 40 million people died in the Soviet concentration camps.
People's Republic of China
Concentration camps in modern China are called Laogai, which means "reform through labor". The communist-era camps began at least in the 60s and were filled with anyone who had said anything critical of the government, or often just random people grabbed from their homes to fill quotas. The entire society was organized into small groups in which loyalty to the government was enforced, so that anyone with dissident viewpoints was easily identifiable for enslavement. These camps were modern slave labor camps, organized like factories. However most persons arrested for political reasons were released in the late-1970's at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.
There are accusations that Chinese labor camp produce products are often sold in foreign countries with the profits going to the Chinese government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. However, these products make up an insignificant amount of China's export output, and it has been argued that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not itself a violation of human rights and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are there for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West.
The use of prison labor is an interesting case study of the interaction between capitalism and prison labor. On the one hand, the downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments increasing pressure for local governments to attempt to supplement their income using prison labor. On the other hand, prisoners do not make a good workforce, and the products produced by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by ordinary paid labor.
An insiders view from the 1950s to the 1990s is detailed in the books of Harry Wu, including Troublemaker and The Laogai. He spent almost all of his adult life as a prisoner in these camps for criticizing the government while he was a young student in college. He almost died several times, but eventually escaped to the US. Critics have argued that he far overstates the present role of Chinese labor camps and ignores the tremendous changes that have occurred in China since then.