Holocaust Historian: AOC’s Point About Trump’s Migrant Detention Centers Was Missed

British historian, and expert on the Holocaust, Dan Stone analyzes the recent comparisons of Trump’s migrant detention centers to concentration camps.
This undated photo of the shelters used to house unaccompanied foreign children in Tornillo, Texas. (HHS’ Administration for Children and Families via AP). Overcrowding of families observed by OIG in June, 2019, at Centralized Processing Centers in Texas. (DHS Office of the Inspector General)

This undated photo of the shelters used to house unaccompanied foreign children in Tornillo, Texas. (HHS’ Administration for Children and Families via AP). Overcrowding of families observed by OIG in June, 2019, at Centralized Processing Centers in Texas. (DHS Office of the Inspector General)

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London and is the author of Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2019)

When UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty, Philip Alston, published a report late last year saying that 14 million people in the UK were living in poverty as a result of the gutting of local services – ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’ – he was for the most part ignored. We do not like to hear unpleasant truths. Something similar has happened in reaction to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that detention centers for migrants along the Mexico-US border in Texas are ‘concentration camps’. Ocasio-Cortez’s claim has been greeted with ridicule rather than with silence, as Alston’s report was, and has given rise to outraged rejections.

When a member of its staff tweeted in support of Ocasio-Cortez, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement in which it ‘unequivocally’ rejected any form of ‘Holocaust analogy’ and specifically rejected ‘recent attempts to analogize the situation on the United States southern border to concentration camps in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.’ Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, went even further, claiming that Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion made her a Holocaust denier. Unsurprisingly, the back and forth of social media and op-ed pieces has seen many vicious attacks in the first category as well as some more considered pieces in the second, notably by Waitman Wade Beorn, Andrea Pitzer, and Timothy Snyder. Ocasio-Cortez’s words have been talked over, but with a rush to condemn without thinking through the implications of her claim. The net result is the same as in the case of Alston’s report: the substance of what she wants to say has been missed.

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It is important, first of all, to say that Ocasio-Cortez did not directly reference the Holocaust, although her use of the ‘never again’ slogan in a subsequent Instagram message suggests this is what she had in mind. The furious response to her tweet, however, indicates that when most people hear the words ‘concentration camp’, they think ‘Holocaust.’ This is somewhat ironic since most Jews, as Snyder notes, did not see a concentration camp: some 40% of the Holocaust’s victims were shot in pits close to their homes in Eastern Europe, and most of the rest died by asphyxiation in the death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Jews had been present in the Nazi concentration camp from its inception in 1933, but only in large numbers at specific moments (such as after the November Pogrom in 1938), especially at the end of the war, when evacuees from camps further east were forcibly marched to the surviving camps in Germany. This is why the Allies found large numbers of Jews among the survivors amidst the horrific scenes at Dachau, Buchenwald and, especially, Belsen, in April 1945. Amongst the Jews who survived the Holocaust, then, there was a disproportionately large number who had been held in concentration camps, mostly slave-labor sub-camps to which they were transferred in 1944. But in general, the Holocaust had little to do with the SS’s regular concentration camp system.

Second, the history of concentration camps predates Nazi Germany’s use of the term – although here is where things get more complicated. Like all contested concepts, the precise origins of the ‘concentration camp’ are debated. Historians often note that the British created ‘concentration camps’ in the Boer War as a means of isolating Boer civilians from the guerrilla fighters, though they also sometimes forget that large numbers of Black Africans were also held in them. But ‘zones of re-concentration’ were created by the Spanish in Cuba and the Americans in the Philippines at around the same time (the end of the nineteenth century), although whether these can rightly be called ‘concentration camps’ is a matter of debate.

Although not called concentration camps – except in some inmates’ sarcastic comments – the camps created for civilian refugees and internees during World War I deserve a mention in that they normalized the idea of statelessness: abandoning a person so that he or she no longer has any state protection, a procedure which is now illegal but which does not prevent it from happening. Republican France created camps for refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Spain created a huge system of camps, modeled to some extent on the Nazis’, including in the Canary Islands in the 1950s. The Nazi concentration camps were both linked to and different from concentration camps that had gone before. But it would be a mistake to argue that they are in an entirely separate category; when people make this claim, they are generally thinking of Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, extermination camps which were quite different from the Nazis’ concentration camps. Where the distinction lies, as I have argued in my recent book on concentration camps, is whether, as in the Nazi camps, the inmates have been abandoned by the law.

In that sense, the Soviet Gulag and other camps created by communist regimes present a prima facie case for being called concentration camps. So, too, do British camps in Kenya set up to hold Mau Mau ‘rebels’ in the 1950s, or camps set up under South American dictatorships in the twentieth century. The argument that Rohingya Muslims are being held in concentration camps – an argument put forth by Chris Sidoti, the international human rights lawyer who worked on the Australian National Inquiry into the separation of indigenous children and who, more recently, led a fact-finding mission to Myanmar — rests on a similar observation. But other sorts of camps are more difficult to classify, the internment of German-Jewish refugees in Britain at the start of World War II being a good example. In the American case, probably the example most on Ocasio-Cortez’s and others’ minds was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. These camps, such as Tanforan or Minidoka, are regularly referred to as concentration camps. But although the people in them were held against their will and had committed no crime, with their post offices and visiting hours they were a far cry from Dachau.

And here is the point: whether or not the camps in which Japanese-Americans were held were concentration camps is less important than understanding that their internment was an outrage in the first place. It was an act that revealed the paranoia which lies at the heart of many modern states, exactly the paranoia that we see in the Trump administration’s response to migration from Latin America to the US. It might not be appropriate to describe the detention centers that Ocasio-Cortez visited as “Dachau on the Rio Grande,” but the conditions in them are clearly disgusting and, for children especially, deeply traumatizing.

They are not holding criminals but civilians who have been hugely enterprising in getting that far and who want nothing more than a decent life for themselves and their families. By spending our time arguing about whether they are being held in concentration camps, we miss the point (and here Ocasio-Cortez’s words may have done her argument a disservice). As Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson recently pointed out, the problem is not whether these are concentration camps; the problem is that these people are being detained at all.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Concentration Camps / Donald Trump / Human Rights / Immigration