Posts Tagged ‘concentration camps’

“In the fiendish humiliation of prisoners in the concentration camps, which—for no rational reason—the modern executioner adds to the death by torture, the unsublimated yet repressed rebellion of despised nature breaks out. Its full hideousness is vented on the martyrs of love, the alleged sexual offenders and libertines, for sexuality is the body unreduced; it is expression, that which the butchers secretly and despairingly crave. In free sexuality the murderer fears the lost immediacy, the original oneness, in which he can no longer exist. It is the dead thing which rises up and lives. He now makes everything one by making it nothing, because he has to stifle that oneness in himself. For him the victim represents life which has survived the schism; it must be broken and the universe must be nothing but dust and abstract power.”

– Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic Of Enlightenment. 1944/1947. Translated by 

Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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“IN 1940, even before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers, policymakers began to warn of imminent threats to the south. Numerous politicians and political scientists claimed that German and Japanese agents had organized an infiltration of Peru, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. These enemy agents, it was said, were plotting coups and conspiring to launch an invasion of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt warned in repeated radio addresses that the Third Reich and the Japanese empire were erecting “beach heads” across South America. These anxieties were so pervasive that, in the same year, the White House contemplated dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Brazil in a preemptive strike against what it feared was a looming invasion.

Once the war reached the Western Hemisphere in December 1941, these fears started to shape formal policy. American officials were determined to suppress any potential subversion in Latin America, preferably with the cooperation of local governments. For this purpose, in January 1942, the United States helped found a new organ, the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, or CPD. Joined by twenty-one countries, from Canada in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, the CPD would combat any activities that government officials deemed subversive, such as commerce with Axis countries or the publication of “questionable” newspapers. The CPD helped coordinate the sharing of intelligence and relevant legal procedures. A team of US legal experts, for example, helped Mexican and Brazilian officials draft regulations that curtailed the political activities of “dangerous” individuals and limited their right to travel.

But the United States wouldn’t stop at censorship and espionage. Within a few months of the CPD’s formation, its agents decided the enemy’s subversion was so dangerous that it could only be prevented through “preemptive” arrest. In the winter of 1942, American officials began to encourage and help local governments in numerous Latin American countries raid the houses of suspicious civilians. US intelligence agents provided police officials with names and logistical support, while State Department personnel helped skeptical politicians get over their opposition, mostly through generous economic loans. The thousands who were detained as a result were mostly sent to local military bases and denied access to legal representation or due process. Like the Japanese Americans whose arrest was unfolding at the same time, the detainees were targeted not so much based on anything they’d done (only a tiny minority was politically active), but due to their ethnic backgrounds: The vast majority were members of immigrant communities from Germany, Japan, and Italy.

CPD officials were well aware that many of these detainees did not pose a risk to security. They also knew that the officials in charge of the arrests were often motivated by racism or greed. (Internal reports mentioned policemen’s plans to take over the prisoners’ houses.) In one of the most grotesque consequences of this operation, the “dangerous aliens” arrested in Guatemala in 1942 included German-Jewish refugees who had recently fled the Third Reich. But in their eagerness to take action against foreign threats, American policymakers were unmoved by such tragedies. They accepted these incidents as collateral damage and sought, time and again, to enlarge the number of preemptive arrests.

The CPD’s campaign culminated in the creation of multiple concentration camps in the United States itself. American officials were convinced that they were better equipped to supervise and handle the Latin American detainees than their southern neighbors, some of whom had begun to complain about the high costs involved in holding them. In 1943, the CPD coordinated the deportation of eight thousand people from several Latin American countries to the United States. Forced onto crowded navy warships by Marine troops, they were shipped to San Francisco and New Orleans, where they were detained and processed by immigration officials. Most of the detainees were then sent to military bases in Texas, including Camp Seagoville, located a few dozen miles to the north of the Trump Administration’s proposed camps. They spent the war’s final years detained indefinitely without any charges brought against them, mostly working in local farms and factories. Unlike the asylum seekers held by CBP, these detainees enjoyed some modicum of decency. Camp authorities largely kept families together, provided basic schooling for children, and even allowed inmates to elect their own representatives, who organized cultural events. Still, because they were deemed enemy agents, most were deported at the war’s end alongside Axis POWs to Asia and Europe. Many of them would never see their homes again.

It was no accident that all these cruelties took place in the context of prolonged and brutal war. The pervasive fears over existential threats, the belief that foreign enemies were supported by internal subversion, and the sense that victory required the total destruction of our foes all fueled the conviction that “foreigners” were enemies and thus had no rights. The American concentration camps of the 1940s exemplified the logic of such war. Foreigners were guilty until proven otherwise.

THIS LOGIC HAD A LINEAGE and a name: “militant democracy,” a term first coined in 1935 by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein. A German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Loewenstein arrived in the United States convinced that totalitarian and democratic regimes could not coexist. It was the nature of fascists and communists, he wrote in widely read academic essays, to infiltrate democratic regimes, exploit their freedoms of the press and speech, and destroy them from within. Long before the first shots of World War II were fired, Loewenstein claimed that an existential struggle between democracy and its enemies was already engulfing the entire globe. To win, democracies had to reform themselves. They had to become “militant.”

The heart of militant democracy was the suspension of laws and rights. Because totalitarianism operated especially through subversion, Loewenstein wrote, democrats had to get over their “legalistic blindness” and recognize that “the mechanism of democracy is the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.” Governments had to move aggressively to limit rights—preemptively—to those deemed dangerous. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion would all be suspended, and the crackdown enforced through the creation of new, anti-totalitarian secret police forces. For Loewenstein, loyalty to the state preceded any discussion of rights. Anyone who questioned political norms found themselves outside the sphere of the law. “Fire should be fought with fire,” he wrote in 1935.

Throughout the 1930s, Loewenstein’s ideas were largely confined to academia. But World War II propelled an otherwise fringe concept like militant democracy to the maintenance of American power. To anxious government officials, the writings of Loewenstein and scholars like him captured new wartime exigencies. They clarified why curbing—and even abolishing—rights did not undermine democratic freedom, but actually enhanced it. Theories like Loewenstein’s also linked external and internal threats and rendered them indistinguishable. Japanese American or Latin American communities were thus the same—no matter where their members were born, they were both emissaries of global danger and thus not entitled to legal status. As his way of thinking spread, Loewenstein took on a more active role in America’s militant democracy. In 1943, he was recruited as legal advisor to the Justice Department, a position from which he joined the CPD and helped coordinate its campaign of surveillance, arrests, and deportations.

While Loewenstein ultimately returned to academic life, militant democracy outlived World War II. In the cold war’s harsh early years, some politicians and scholars continued to insist that international conflicts required the suspension of some rights at home. (The West German supreme court, for example, relied on militant democracy to outlaw the Communist Party in 1957.) Yet it wasn’t until the attacks on September 11 and the beginning of the war on terror that these notions reasserted themselves in the United States as forcefully as they did during World War II. The revival of militant democracy in the first decade of the 21st century helped prepare the ground for the tragedy unfolding in Texas.”

– Udi Greenburg, “The Logic of Militant Democracy: From domestic concentration camps to the war on terror.N+1, July 6, 2018.

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“It is important not to forget that the first concentration camps in Germany were the work not of the Nazi regime but of the Social Democratic governments, which interned thousands of communist militants in 1923 on the basis of Schutzhaft and also created the Konzentrationslager für Ausländer at Cottbus-Sielow, which housed mainly Eastern European refugees and which may, therefore, be considered the first camp for Jews in this century (even if it was, obviously, not an extermination camp). 

The juridical foundation for Schutzhaft was the proclamation of the state of siege or of exception and the corresponding suspension of the articles of the German constitution that guaranteed personal liberties. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution read as follows: “The president of the Reich may, in the case of a grave disturbance or threat to public security and order, make the decisions necessary to reestablish public security, if necessary with the aid of the armed forces. To this end he may provisionally suspend [ausser Kraft setzen] the fundamental rights contained in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153.” 

From 1919 to 1924, the Weimar governments declared the state of exception many times, sometimes prolonging it for up to five months (for example, from September 1923 to February 1924). In this sense, when the Nazis took power and proclaimed the “decree for the protection of the people and State” (Verordnung zum Schutz von Volk und Staat) on February 28, 1933, indefinitely suspending the articles of the constitution concerning personal liberty, the freedom of expression and of assembly, and the inviolability of the home and of postal and telephone privacy, they merely followed a practice consolidated by previous governments.“

– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Homo Sacer Omnibus. Stanford University Press, 2017. p. 138

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“During the more than two decades that Joe Arpaio served as sheriff of Maricopa County, overseeing the jail system, millions of dollars would be paid out in lawsuits over the deaths of inmates. In 1996, Scott Norberg died after being suffocated in one of Arpaio’s “restraint chairs,” after being descended on by “fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating [him].” They were, said an eyewitness inmate, “like a pack of dogs.” After the Sheriff’s Office was accused of discarding evidence in the case, including the deceased’s crushed larynx, his family received an $8 million settlement. In 2015, Felix Torres was pulled over on his bicycle for riding the wrong way up the street, and found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia. While in jail awaiting trial, he was taken to the County Medical Center for severe stomach pain. Though Torres said he had a history of ulcers, doctors decided he had a hernia, and gave him a drug not recommended for people with ulcers. After being returned to jail, Torres, “spent the next few days crying, writhing in pain, and begging guards to help him or take him to the hospital.” Torres began “banging on his cell door and asking for help,” but an officer told him “You’re bullshitting… go to sleep.” On the night he died, Torres asked multiple officers for help, telling them he was dying. “You’re fucking faking it,” one replied. Torres’s family would receive $1 million. (And while it should make no difference, we might bear in mind that at the time of his death, Felix Torres was an innocent man.)

Felix Torres was the latest in what the Phoenix New-Times had begun calling Joe Arpaio’s “parade of corpses,” with “endless” numbers of court cases over “needless deaths and injuries in the jails.” Arpaio refused to disclose the number of deaths in his facility, despite evidence that inmates were committing suicide at a rate that “dwarfed” other county jails.

But it was not just those who died in Arpaio’s jails that suffered. Everyone did, because Arpaio made clear he wanted them to. Even though most of the inmates were legally innocent, Arpaio called them “criminals” and thought up ever-more sadistic treatments for them. First, of course, were the infamous tents: inmates would be forced to live without air conditioning in the Arizona heat, which reached well above 110 degrees. (At one point it reached 145 within the tents, causing the inmates’ shoes to melt.) Even the showers provided no relief; they were kept near boiling temperature. Winter was somehow even worse: the tents were unheated, but Arpaio would not permit warm clothing, not even a jacket. A former inmate wrote in the Washington Post that it was “freezing, achingly cold,” and that detainees wrapped their extremities with plastic bags. “I was in so much pain,” he said, that even now he cannot be cold without being reminded of it. 

Arpaio instituted chain gangs, and boasted that he had the first all-female chain gangs, soon to be followed by juvenile chain gangs. He took away every small comfort that could possibly make life in such conditions tolerable: no coffee, no cigarettes, no newspapers, no television. (Sometimes he permitted The Weather Channel “so these morons will know how hot it’s going to be while they are working on my chain gangs.”) He fed inmates meals that cost as little as 15 cents each, and was proud of the fact that the food was rotten and contaminated. Only two meals were provided per day, leading some inmates to lose unhealthy amounts of weight (a federal court eventually ordered Arpaio to meet USDA requirements), and Arpaio imposed a bread-and-water diet on any detainee found committing an “unpatriotic act.”

Medical care for those who suffered from mental illness was “dangerously inadequate.” Arpaio “tortured inmates who were on psychotropic medication by locking them in unbearably hot solitary confinement cells.” Those with physical vulnerabilities were mistreated, too; a paraplegic had his neck broken by guards and a pregnant woman lost her baby after officers left her in her cell instead of taking her to the hospital. It even took a federal court order to ensure “functional and sanitary toilets and sinks, with toilet paper and soap.” (Take a moment to visualize what happens when an overcrowded group of people does not have access to any of these things.) Arpaio introduced a policy that only those who could prove they were U.S. citizens could visit family in jail, meaning detained immigrants could not see their spouses or children. (At one point, an interpreter and U.S. citizen who worked for the county was also prohibited from entering the facility, because he was a Latino who could not instantly produce paperwork showing his citizenship.) 

None of this served any purpose other than furthering Arpaio’s attempts to build a brand out of callousness. “Jails are intended to be punishment,” Arpaio said (although jail aren’t intended to be punishment, because most people in them haven’t been convicted of a crime yet), and he joked that the facility was his own personal “concentration camp,” dismissing all concerns as “civil rights crap.”

– Nathan J. Robinson, “WAIT, DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY KNOW JUST HOW EVIL THIS MAN IS?Current Affairs. August 26, 2017.

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“If the British camps – and, increasingly, those set up by the Germans in Southwest Africa in the context of the Herero and Nama Wars (1904-07) – have been remembered as so destructive, this is because of the impact of the Nazi camps. According to Hannah Arendt’s essay ‘Social Science Techniques and the Study of Concentration Camps’ (1950), the Nazi extermination camps ‘must cause social scientists and historical scholars to reconsider their hitherto unquestioned fundamental preconceptions regarding the course of the world and human behaviour’. Or, as the historian Geoffrey P Megargee puts it in The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945 (2009), the Nazis’ camp system – 27 main camps and more than 1,100 satellite camps, became ‘perhaps the most pervasive collection of detention sites that any society has ever created’.

This is true, yet reading history backwards and recalling the British camps of the Boer War as precursors of the Nazi camps helps us to understand neither the British nor the Nazi camps. The former were not genocidal, and the latter became part of the genocide of the Jews only late in the war; for most of the period of the Third Reich, the camp system was separate from the ‘war against the Jews’ and the extermination camps were not part of the regular concentration camp system, as Nikolaus Wachsmann writes in KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015). Concentration camps are not uniform in all settings and regimes; they have multiple histories.

Rather than stressing continuity between British and Nazi or Soviet camps – as Arendt said in her essay ‘The Concentration Camps’ (1948), the former are only ‘apparent historical precedents’ – a more analytically fruitful approach is to examine the impact of the First World War. Here, for the first time in modern Europe, we see the emergence of the concept of statelessness, of superfluous people, of refugee camps, and the willingness of the state to incarcerate huge numbers of civilians considered threatening. From August 1914, France was placed by President Raymond Poincaré in a state of siege; a ‘state of exception’ that had been the norm in the colonies was now a technique of governance in Europe. In France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Germany, the status of naturalised civilians was revoked for people of ‘enemy origin’. In an era before the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, this sudden condition of statelessness and the concomitant creation of refugee camps in Europe radicalised state behaviour at a time of rising nationalism, and did more to normalise the use of concentration camps than any prior colonial precedent.

Why does this change of focus matter? The answer is not just that there is no single history of camps, no simple line of continuity from the colonial camps through the Nazis and the Soviet Gulag to the North Korean camp system. It is that concentration camps, seen as tools of population management in the era of the First World War and after, are instructive about the nature of the modern state.

Concentration camps are an interesting phenomenon in their own right, but their true relevance lies in what they tell us about our world now. If the 20th century was, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claimed, the ‘century of camps’, this is because the world of nation states that emerged in the 20th century – and which remains with us today – is a world of fear and paranoia based on mutually exclusive notions of ethnic and national homogeneity and territorial integrity.

‘Security’ in this context breeds suspicion: of fifth columnists, racial and national pollutants and immigrants. Incarceration techniques employed in concentration camps were borrowed in a transnational framework but, more so, they were logical growths wherever the modern state emerged. They aided the state in isolating the unwanted (racial, religious, etc) and controlling the rest of the population through the implied threat of ending up in a camp for not conforming. Concentration camps, with their centralisation of terror, embody the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels most threatened. We have not seen the last of them.”

– Dan Stone, “Concentration camps reveal the nature of the modern state,” Âeon. July 14, 2017.

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