Did Britain invent concentration camps?

Concentration Camps
by Dan Stone, OUP, £12.99

The sociologist and Polish freedom-fighter Zygmunt Bauman called the 20th century “the century of camps”. While history provides many examples of repression and incarceration, the particular nature of these institutions is unique to modernity.

In this terse, punchy book, Stone charts the history of concentration camps, then asks what these institutions tell us about our modern world. Concentration camps first grew out of the 19th-century colonial practice of herding native peoples into reservations in order to both control and alter demographics. They evolved into their present form during the bloody colonial wars at the turn of the century.

The first recognisable camps were built in Cuba during the Spanish-American war of 1896, but it was the British use of them during the Boer War that bought these camps to public attention. Less well known, though a more accurate forerunner of the future, were those the Germans set up in South-West Africa during the Herero genocide of 1904-1907. Stone sees a subtle but significant shift in purpose: from incarcerating enemy combatants to use the captives as slave labour.

The Nazi camp system is, of course, the most notorious, but in its focus (especially towards the war’s end) on extermination, it is an anomaly. Much more representative is the Soviet gulag, where troublesome citizens could be made productive through forced labour. Yet, as Stone points out, camps were only a microcosm of the larger society: the entire Soviet Union was run as a prison camp.

Concentration camps continue to proliferate in repressive regimes, but the camp system is also a logical extension of modernity and the rise of the nation state. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if we see them cropping up again, as they did in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Stone has a simple style that conveys the horrors of the camps without lurching into sensationalism as he tries to situate camps within larger structures of state-building and incarceration. This is a grim history, but one we must not flinch from remembering.