“When the hardliners win, as they appear to have in the US, conditions tend to worsen significantly.”
Andrea Pitzer wrote for the New York Review of Books about “the history of concentration camps and how it illuminates what we're doing on the border,” and it's the one deep dive on the subject you should definitely read.
This week, some of the zeitgeist was caught up on a debate about whether the detention camps ICE and DHS and CPB are setting up along the US-Mexico border can or should be referred to as 'concentration camps.'
Pitzer's piece for NYRB explores the history of such camps, in Hitler's Germany and long before it, and how what we're doing now to Central American children and mothers is informed by it.
It's going to get worse.
What kind of conditions can we expect to develop in these border camps? The longer a camp system stays open, the more likely it is that vital things will go wrong: detainees will contract contagious diseases and suffer from malnutrition and mental illness. We have already seen that current detention practices have resulted in children and adults succumbing to influenza, staph infections, and sepsis. The US is now poised to inflict harm on tens of thousands more, perhaps hundreds of thousands more.
Along with such inevitable consequences, every significant camp system has introduced new horrors of its own, crises that were unforeseen when that system was opened. We have yet to discover what those will be for these American border camps. But they will happen. Every country thinks it can do detention better when it starts these projects. But no good way to conduct mass indefinite detention has yet been devised; the system always degrades.
When, in 1940, Margarete Buber-Neumann was transferred from the Soviet Gulag at Karaganda to the camp for women at Ravensbrück (in an exchange enabled by the Nazi–Soviet Pact), she came from near-starvation conditions in the USSR and was amazed at the cleanliness and order of the Nazi camp. New arrivals were issued clothing, bedding, and silverware, and given fresh porridge, fruit, sausage, and jam to eat. Although the Nazi camps were already punitive, order-obsessed monstrosities, the wartime overcrowding that would soon overtake them had not yet made daily life a thing of constant suffering and squalor. The death camps were still two years away.
The United States now has a vast and growing camp system. It is starting out with gruesome overcrowding and inadequate healthcare, and because of budget restrictions, has already taken steps to cut services to juvenile detainees. The US Office of Refugee Resettlement says that the mounting number of children arriving unaccompanied is forcing it to use military bases and other sites that it prefers to avoid, and that establishing these camps is a temporary measure. But without oversight from state child welfare inspectors, the possibilities for neglect and abuse are alarming. And without any knowledge of how many asylum-seekers are coming in the future, federal administrators are likely to find themselves boxed in to managing detention on military sites permanently.
President Trump and senior White House adviser Stephen Miller appear to have purged the Department of Homeland Security of most internal opposition to their anti-immigrant policies. In doing so, that have removed even those sympathetic to the general approach taken by the White House, such as former Chief of Staff John Kelly and former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in order to escalate the militarization of the border and expand irregular detention in more systematic and punitive ways. This kind of power struggle or purge in the early years of a camp system is typical.
The disbanding of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, in February 1922 and the transfer of its commander, Felix Dzerzhinsky, to head up an agency with control over only two prisons offered a hint of an alternate future in which extrajudicial detention would not play a central role in the fledgling Soviet republic. But Dzerzhinsky managed to keep control over the “special camps” in his new position, paving the way for the emergence of a camp-centered police state. In pre-war Germany in the mid-1930s, Himmler’s struggle to consolidate power from rivals eventually led him to make camps central to Nazi strategy. When the hardliners win, as they appear to have in the US, conditions tend to worsen significantly.