Concentration camps are places where people are held outside of any judicial process for an indefinite period of time. Camp prisoners are often made to complete forced labour or await execution. The Nazis built hundreds of these camps all over Europe. These camps were extremely unsanitary, overcrowded and brutal places. Concentration camps existed prior to the Nazis, and have existed since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.
The first places defined as concentration camps were in Cuba in 1896 and South Africa in 1900. These camps were created during the Spanish-American War by the Spanish and the Anglo-Boer War by the British. They were created to hold civilians suspected of helping the enemy, or having the potential to help the enemy, in one place.
These camps were not forced labour camps, and the people held in them were not made to work, nor were they held with the intention of murder. However, in both cases the conditions were extremely poor. As a result, approximately 10,000 people died in Cuba, primarily of starvation and disease.
In the camps in South Africa, 45,000 people died. This figure combines the number of deaths of the Boer Population (approximately 25,000 deaths) and Black Africans (approximately 20,000 deaths). The conditions in the camps holding Black Africans were particularly poor. Overall, deaths were primarily caused by measles, although brutality and poor sanitation also contributed.
Camps were also used by Germany in the Herero and Nama War between 1904 – 1907 in German South-West Africa. In this instance, the camps aimed to punish the Herero population. The death rate of the camps stood at 45%, double that of the British camps in South Africa.
Camps were also used widely for the first time in the First World War to hold captured enemy soldiers. Whilst these were defined as prisoner of war (POW) camps because they held soldiers, they shared many features of concentration camps.
During the First World War, concentration camps were also used by the Ottoman government (Committee of Union and Progress) in the Armenian Genocide. Armenians were forcibly separated by the Ottomans from other civilians whilst waiting to be transported to the deserts of Syria. Whilst not physically enclosed by walls or fences, conditions in these spaces were horrific, with little sanitation and widespread disease. These appalling conditions led to a large mortality rate. Historian Dan Stone comments ‘What we see in the Armenian Genocide is something part way between the colonial dumping grounds and the Nazi death camps. People were not murdered on arrival at Der el Zor as at Treblinka; but they were separated off from the rest of the population and abandoned to die’ [Dan Stone, Concentration Camps, A Short History, (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 2017), p.30].
Although parallels can be drawn between these concentration camps and the Nazi camp system, it is important to note that each camp was unique, from the conditions inside, to the intentions behind them.