On June 18, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triggered an outburst of indignation when she described U.S. detention facilities at the southern border as “concentration camps.” Opponents denounced the characterization not just as an unfair attack on American immigration policy but as an abuse of history. Ocasio-Cortez had “demean[ed] the memory” of Holocaust victims, wrote Liz Cheney, while New York governor Andrew Cuomo asserted that “there is no comparison to the Holocaust, period.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum appeared to obliquely censure Ocasio-Cortez by reminding the public that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events.” The Museum apologized if a stray tweet similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s by one of its own staffers had caused “any offense to Holocaust survivors.”
In all of these responses lurked the accusation that Ocasio-Cortez was doing harm to past victims of Nazi violence by using the words “concentration camp” to describe ongoing human rights abuses. This charge is puzzling—and not simply because the Nazis did not invent concentration camps, do not possess a historical monopoly on their use, and did not primarily carry out the Holocaust within their confines. (They employed a generally distinct set of extermination sites, including death camps such as Treblinka. Ocasio-Cortez, who understands this, did not refer to the Holocaust in her original tweet.) Even more to the point, Nazi camp survivors themselves have continually employed the language of “concentration camps” for just such activist ends since the moment the Second World War ended.
The most extraordinary example of this phenomenon was the International Commission against the Concentration Camp Regime, a group founded in 1949 composed of Western European, predominantly non-Jewish survivors. Under the commission’s banner, men and women who had originally been deported to Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps for courageous acts of resistance to Nazism now undertook an impassioned crusade against the ongoing existence of cruel internment systems around the world. The project collapsed after a decade—but not for reasons that support the arguments of Ocasio-Cortez’s critics. In fact, the story of the group’s precipitous fall offers a cautionary tale about how treating Nazi atrocity as an impossible-to-reach benchmark for moral outrage has worked to excuse the inexcusable.
The International Commission against the Concentration Camp Regime was first conceived as a crudely partisan project. Launched by French ex-Trotskyist and Buchenwald memoirist David Rousset at a moment of acute Cold War tension, the commission was conceived as a vehicle for highlighting embarrassing similarities between Hitler’s atrocities and Stalin’s vast network of gulag labor camps. It was, one observer marveled, a “brilliant shortcut” for discrediting Soviet communism. But the effort was transformed by early participants into a more genuinely global endeavor. French left-wing Catholic writer Louis Martin-Chauffier, a Bergen-Belsen survivor, was especially influential in this regard: he insisted that commission members also consider detention conditions in “the capitalist democracies—without forgetting our own.” Participants squabbled over exactly where to set their sights, but none believed that using the term “concentration camps” to describe present-day internment facilities belittled their own past suffering. Indeed, they viewed activism on behalf of current detainees as a sacred calling. (They did draw a line at invocations of the Nazi death camps: “Birkenau,” Rousset admitted, “remains beyond comparison.” But in the 1950s, when the Holocaust had not yet emerged as a clear-cut conceptual framework, this presented no difficulty: the European public still associated concentration camps primarily with the Nazis’ dehumanizing treatment of Resistance deportees, not their genocidal violence against Jews.)
Despite their harrowing wealth of experience, members of Rousset’s commission had no less difficulty than today’s commentators in settling on a firm analytical definition of concentration camps. Their preliminary debates on the issue dragged on for more than a year, and finally resulted in a bare-bones formulation that participants uniformly proceeded to ignore. Instead, they sought out sensory cues that resonated with their memories. It was the familiar odor of the toilets in one Spanish penal colony, asserted Norwegian Ravensbrück survivor Lise Børsum, that convinced her the site was a true concentration camp. Members also increasingly fell back on sweeping ideological distinctions: “totalitarian” states were likely to possess camps, they believed, while democracies—even in their decidedly non-democratic colonial outposts—were not.
As the commission investigated the USSR, Spain, Greece, French Tunisia, and the People’s Republic of China over the course of the early 1950s, some members became troubled by its procedures. French Resistance heroine and legal scholar Elisabeth Ingrand, who headed the group’s 1952 on-site inquiry into the prison system of right-wing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, fretted that the “extreme” historical example of Nazi Germany made even reprehensibly harsh penal regimes like Spain’s look benign in contrast. Hitler’s camps set too high a bar for moral condemnation: “better than Buchenwald” was a dismal standard for praise. But Ingrand and other members consoled themselves that the commission’s comparative approach was also what netted spectacular publicity for its inquiries. No one cared if Franco’s prisons were merely bleak, disagreeable, or “extrajudicial”; if they were judged “concentration camps,” though, then genuine outrage could be stoked. As Rousset insisted, even if definitions were hard to pin down, “public opinion knows exactly what concentration camps are, and that they are in every case the worst thing that could exist.”
The potency of the term “concentration camp” was a double-edged sword, then—one that commission members fell on the wrong side of when they launched an on-the-ground investigation in French Algeria in 1957, two and a half years into the Algerian independence struggle that lasted until 1962. The French government, fighting to maintain France’s 125-year-long possession of Algeria in the face of a nationalist revolution, was eager to avoid alienating global opinion with embarrassing headlines. So it took care to distinguish its Algerian detention facilities from the Nazi concentration camps; in fact, a 1955 law formally banned “the creation of camps” in the territory. In reality, however, it is difficult to see what other language might describe the ever-expanding constellation of desolate, barbed-wire-enclosed “centers” that French military and civilian forces employed to sideline suspected Algerian nationalists—roughly 15,000 of them by 1957. (It is worth noting that all these prisoners were technically French citizens—a categorization that in this case provided no meaningful protection from indefinite detention without trial.) A French government inspector’s secret report to his superiors on the “atmosphere of terror” at one such internment site described it as crammed with far more detainees than it was designed to hold, run by a “brutal, impulsive, violence, scheming” director, and plagued by “severity of temperature in winter as in summer, frequency of sandstorms and even actual tornadoes, absence of running water, [and] presence of scorpions and vipers in a region that is also, by the way, infested to an incredible degree with flies.”
And yet, after touring twenty-five camps like this in Algeria, the commission’s survivor-investigators wavered in their final assessment. The detainees were not engaged in forced labor, they noted. They were not starved, beaten, or denied medical attention—as all of the investigators had themselves once been. These prisoners even received letters. What is more, the commission’s members—especially the patriotic French Resistance veterans among them—struggled to believe that the abuses they were witnessing added up to a pattern of systematized wrongdoing. France, they reasoned, was not a totalitarian dictatorship but a proud democracy; it had more or less invented “the rights of man.” Surely any violations of those rights in Algeria were temporary, localized “errors,” the product of an “extraordinary situation” that had originally been brought about (some members believed) by Algerians’ own unlawful acts of rebellion. In the end, the group sternly condemned the illegitimacy of France’s internment policy but nevertheless declared that its detention facilities could not be understood as concentration camps “in the proper sense of the term.”
Apologists for the French repression in Algeria promptly made unnuanced use of this nuanced conclusion. “Algeria: ‘No Concentration Camp Regime,’ Certifies the Delegation of Former Deportees,” read a typical front-page newspaper headline. France’s foreign minister triumphantly quoted the commission’s verdict at the United Nations; conservative legislators cited it on the floor of the National Assembly. The French Resident-General in Algeria announced that the Nazi camp survivors’ report vindicated his country’s “humanity” and its “honor.”
Many participants in the commission recoiled in shame and horror from these unforeseen (if, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely foreseeable) consequences. The celebrated French ethnographer and Ravensbrück survivor Germaine Tillion is a case in point. A leader of the commission from its earliest days, Tillion believed that its verdict had been correct: France was not replicating the Nazi camp system in North Africa. But if this finding was intellectually honest, it was beside the point in moral terms—and politically disastrous. Thus Tillion abruptly stepped away from the commission. In a 1960 letter to Børsum, she explained her “loss of interest” in what she now dismissively referred to as “these concentration camp questions”: all that mattered now, she wrote, was “helping Algerians.” Reassuring the French public that the camps in which those Algerians languished were more humane than Ravensbrück served no such purpose.
With the loss of key participants such as Tillion, the commission gradually dissolved. Over subsequent decades, it has been forgotten. It is worth remembering today. Rhetoric genuinely capable of moving the public to outrage and action over the plight of distant, alien, and racialized “others” is terribly elusive; Rousset’s commission managed to find it. So too, it now appears, did Ocasio-Cortez: as the uproar over her claim demonstrates, the astonishing power of the label “concentration camp” persists today.
The term also remains securely linked in the public mind to Nazi Germany, no matter how loudly historians shout reminders about British camps in the Boer War, Spanish ones in Cuba, or American ones in the Philippines. It is still true, as one French commentator observed in 1957, that in our imagined moral geography, concentration camps mark “the line of demarcation that separates democracy from dictatorship.” Thus to label today’s U.S. detention centers as concentration camps is not only to mark these facilities as morally unacceptable—a task that might be just as effectively accomplished by highlighting the trauma and bewilderment of the caged, hungry, and frightened small children that they contain. It is also to offer an explicitly political condemnation of American state power as authoritarian—as having crossed that demarcation line.
Of course, the immense oratorical charge possessed by the term “concentration camp” also marks its peril, as the commission learned the hard way. Because these paired words continue, unavoidably, to evoke the world-historically extreme Nazi case, they threaten once again to lead us into the trap of exculpatory comparison (“better than Buchenwald”) that snared Rousset’s followers in Algeria. Would we be better off in the end if, imitating Tillion, we set aside “these concentration camp questions” and simply focused our energies on helping detained people however possible?
We do not need to gauge how precisely the present suffering of Central American children held in cages matches up with the horrors experienced by Nazism’s victims before we declare the U.S. camp system a disgrace and an emergency. Tillion’s example offers a salutary alternative to such obscene moral calculus. However, I am not sure that “these concentration camp questions” should be entirely dismissed in favor of offering humanitarian “help.” Disastrous U.S. policies at the southern border ultimately cannot be addressed through distributing more toothpaste to detained children. Meaningfully opposing the Trump administration’s vicious anti-immigrant program demands more than campaigning for kinder, gentler detention centers—particularly because the sickening cruelty being enacted in these camps is a deliberately crafted performance of U.S. state power, not a product of carelessness. Instead we need a robust, generous, and avowedly political vision of immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeker rights, and of economic and moral solidarity across borders. We need to organize for an end to current internment practices, not for a softening of them. The United States’ formal status as a democracy is, sadly, no guarantee against its use of concentration camps. But democratic politics can and must be mobilized to fight against them.
Emma Kuby is the author of Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945.