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Concentration camp

A 'concentration camp' is a large detention center created for political opponents, aliens, specific ethnic or religious groups, civilians of a critical war-zone, or other groups of people, often during a war. The term refers to situations where the internees are persons selected for their conformance to broad criteria without judicial process, rather than having been judged as individuals. Camps for prisoners of war are usually considered separately from this category, although informally (and in some other languages) they may also be called concentration camps.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. defines concentration camp as:

a camp where non-combatants of a district are accommodated, such as those instituted by Lord Kitchener during the South African war of 1899-1902; one for the internment of political prisoners, foreign nationals, etc., esp. as organized by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during the war of 1939-45

Until Nazi Germany set up camps whose main objective was to kill prisoners, and called them concentration camps to conceal their true purpose, the term was used relatively literally to mean simply a camp where a group of prisoners was concentrated, although conditions may have been less than ideal. Since then, no government or organization has set up camps by that name. What used to be called concentration camps were later called by a succession of euphemisms, new terms being invented as existing ones become an embarrassment: internment camps, resettlement camps, new villages, strategic hamlets, etc.

Since the nature of Nazi Germany's so-called "concentration camps" became known (see below), the term is often used propagandistically by opponents, with greater or lesser justification, to imply that a camp is designed to exterminate, rather than merely to concentrate, its inmates.

The term is not generally considered appropriate for Prisoner of war camps such as Andersonville during the American Civil War. Although large numbers of prisoners were concentrated there in horrific conditions from 1863 to 1865, and perhaps a quarter of them died, the prisoners were combatants and the camp is generally classified as a POW camp.

Early civilisations such as the Assyrians used forced resettlement of populations as a means of controlling territory, but it was not until much later that records exist of groups of civilians being concentrated into large prison camps.

In the English-speaking world, the term "concentration camp" was first used to describe camps operated by the British in South Africa during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War. Originally conceived as a form of humanitarian aid to the families whose farms had been destroyed in the fighting, the camps were later used to confine and control large numbers of civilians in areas of Boer guerilla activity. Tens of thousands of Boer civilians, and black workers from their farms, died as a result of diseases developed due to overcrowding, inadequate diets and poor sanitation. The term concentration camp was coined at this time to signify the "concentration" of a large number of people in one place, and was used to describe both the camps in South Africa and those established by the Spanish to support a similar anti-insurgency campaign in Cuba at roughly the same time (see below).

Over the course of the twentieth century, the arbitrary internment of civilians by the authority of the state became more common and reached a climax with the practice of genocide in the death camps of the Nazi regime in Germany, and with the Gulag system of forced labor camps of the Soviet Union. As a result of this trend, the term concentration camp carries many of the connotations of extermination camp and is sometimes used synonymously. In technical discussion, however, it is important to understand that a concentration camp is not, by definition, a Nazi-style death-camp.

What follows is a brief history of concentration camps established by various countries and regimes.



The word "concentration" in the context of forcible internment was first used during the Third Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) by the then Spanish military governor, Valeriano Weyler. Weyler's policy of "reconcentración" (in Spanish) resulted in the mass movement of rural populations to suburban areas of large cities, in an effort to cut off the widespread support the Cuban rebel government then enjoyed. The measure was a product of Spanish desperation at its army's mounting losses in men and territory to the rebels, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths (largely of women, children and the elderly) to disease, overcrowding, and exposure. The policy left a bitter legacy in the Cuban political consciousness, felt even to this day, and the worldwide horror that such an atrocity inspired (fomented by the yellow journalism of the Hearst newspapers) rallied support in the United States for a war against Spain.

The United Kingdom

The term "concentration camp" was first used by the British military during the Boer War (1899-1902). Facing attack by Boer guerrillas, British forces rounded up the Boer women and children as well as black people living on Boer land, and sent them to 31 camps scattered around South Africa. This was done as part of a scorched earth policy to deny the guerrillas access to the supplies of food and clothing they needed to continue the war.

The camps were situated at Aliwal North , Balmoral , Barberton, Belfast, Bethulie, Bloemfontein, Brandfort, Heidelberg, Heilbron, Howick, Irene, Kimberley, Klerksdorp, Kroonstad, Krugersdorp, Merebank , Middelburg, Norvalspont , Nylstroom, Pietermaritzburg, Pietersburg, Pinetown, Port Elizabeth, Potchefstroom, Springfontein, Standerton, Turffontein , Vereeniging, Volksrust, Vredefort and Vryburg.

Though they were not extermination camps, the Boer camps were noted for their poor nutrition and bad hygiene, and the associated high mortality rates (28,000 women and children died). The Boer situation was only relieved when Emily Hobhouse brought the conditions in the camps to the attention of the British public.

During World War I, South African troops (then a part of the British Empire) invaded neighboring German South-West Africa. German settlers were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Pretoria and later in Pietermaritzburg.

The British interned German and Austrian aliens that they rounded up after the start of World War II, many being held in Douglas on the Isle of Man. The vast majority of them were freed within six months, having been found to be "friendly aliens"; examples include Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold and members of the Amadeus Quartet.

In the conduct of the Malayan Emergency, British armed forces established resettlement camps, later renamed new villages, having the characteristics of concentration camps. These were the forerunners of the strategic hamlets established by American armed forces during the Vietnam War. The chronic renaming is the result of a euphemism treadmill.

Alderney in the Channel Islands was the only place in the British Isles where German concentration camps were established. In January 1942, the occupying German forces established four camps, called Helgoland, Norderney, Borkum and Sylt (after the German North Sea islands), where captive Russians and other east Europeans were used as slave labour to build Atlantic Wall defences on the island. Around 460 prisoners died in the Alderney camps.

Between 1971 and 1976 the British had a policy of internment in Northern Ireland and used Long Kesh as an internment camp to house people believed by the government to be members of paramilitary organisations.

The United States

The first large-scale confinement of a specific ethnic group in detention centers began in the summer of 1838, when President Martin Van Buren ordered the U.S. Army to enforce the Treaty of New Echota (an Indian Removal treaty) by rounding up the Cherokee into prison camps before relocating them. Although these camps were not intended to be extermination camps, and there was absolutely no official policy to kill people, some Indians were raped and/or murdered by US soldiers. Many more died in these camps due to disease, which spread rapidly because of the close quarters and bad sanitary conditions: see the Trail of Tears.

Throughout the remainder of the Indian Wars, various populations of Native Americans were rounded up, trekked across country and put into detention, some for as long as 27 years.

Between 1935 and 1937, the National Park Service forcibly relocated 437 families from what is now Shenandoah National Park into "resettlements" administered by the Department of Agriculture's Resettlement Administration, then burned or removed their homes.

The term Internment Camp is often used as a euphemistic equivalent in other historical contexts, such as the imprisonment by the United States of German-American people during both World War I and World War II, the internment of enemy aliens, and the exclusion and relocation (much of it forced) of American citizens born of enemy ancestry (including Japanese-Americans) during World War II. The relocation camps (such as Manzanar) in the 1940s did not involve extermination like Nazi death camps. Nevertheless, they remain a severe blot on the human rights record of the United States.

Critics have labeled the incarceration facilities for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay a concentration camp. No government, and few organizations, seem willing to characterize it as such; for instance, Amnesty International has criticized U.S. mistreatment of detainees, but does not refer to Camp X-Ray as a concentration camp.


During World War I, thousands of Ukrainians were put into internment camps as "enemy aliens" to perform forced labor in steel mills, forestry, etc. This is partly because Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, partly because capitalists wanted to exploit them for cheap labor, partly because of racism in Canada. Other Slavic citizens of Austria-Hungary were also interned, such as Serbs, Czechs and Slovaks.

During World War II, Canada followed the U.S. lead in interning residents of Japanese and Italian ancestry. The Canadian government also interned citizens it deemed dangerous to national security. This included both fascists (including Canadians such as Adrien Arcand who had negotiated with Hitler to obtain positions in the government of Canada once Canada was conquered), Montréal mayor Camilien-Houde (for denouncing conscription) and union organizers and other people deemed to be dangerous Communists. Such internment was made legal by the Defence of Canada Regulations, Section 21 of which read:

The Minister of Justice, if satisfied that, with a view to preventing any particular person from acting in a manner prejudicial to the public safety or the safety of the State, it is necessary to do so, may, notwithstanding anything in these regulations, make an order [...] directing that he be detained by virtue of an order made under this paragraph, be deemed to be in legal custody.

There were internment camps near Petawawa, Ontario, Kananaskis, Alberta, and Hull, Quebec.

See Dangerous Patriots: Canada's Unknown Prisoners of War, by William Repka and Kathleen Repka, New Star Books, Vancouver, 1982 (ISBN 0-919573-06-1 or ISBN 0-919573-07-X). This book is a collection of first-hand stories from Canadian political prisoners during World War Two.


During the First World War, internment camps were set up, mostly for Serbs and other pro-Serbian Yugoslavs. Men, women, the children and the elderly were displaced from their homes and sent to concentration camps all over the Empire such as Doboj (46,000), Arad, Györ, Nezsider .

Nazi Germany

Main article: Nazi concentration camps. See also: List of German concentration camps

Buchenwald concentration camp
Buchenwald concentration camp

Concentration camps (Konzentrationslager or KZ) rose to notoriety during their use in by Nazi Germany. The general populace referred to them as Kah-Tzets (the initials KZ in German). The Nazi regime nominally maintained both kinds of concentration camps, labor camps - since the beginning of their regime in 1933 - and extermination camps. In fact, it is difficult to draw a distinct line between the two categories. Prisoners in Nazi labor camps were worked to death on short rations and in bad conditions, or killed if they became unable to work; while prisoners in extermination camps were usually killed quickly in gas chambers or in other ways. Guards were known to engage in target practice, using their prisoners as targets.

The first Nazi camps were within Germany, and were primarily work camps. The worst excesses, including the murder of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, educated Poles, Soviet POW's, Freemasons, and Socialists, were to come later in the war at the area of General Government. (See Holocaust, genocide.) It is estimated that up to ten million people died in Nazi concentration camps, of them six million were killed in the 15 larger ones.

Fascist Italy

Name of the camp Date of establishment Date of liberation Estimated number of prisoners Estimated number of deaths
Arbe (Rab) July 1942 September 11 1943 15,000 1,500
Chiesanuova near Padua June 1942      
Gonars near Palmanova March 1942 September 8 1943 7,000 453; >500
Monigo near Treviso June 1942      
Renicci di Anghiari , near Arezzo October 1942      
Visco near Palmanova winter 1942      
Rab (on the island of Rab) July 1942 September 1943 less than 10,000 2,000

Ustaša regime in Croatia

Name of the camp Date of establishment Date of liberation Estimated number of prisoners Estimated number of deaths
Jasenovac August 23, 1941 April 22 1945    over 78,000
Stara Gradiška 1941 1945   
Pag 1941   8,500


Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime: see the article Democratic Kampuchea.

Russia and Soviet Union

In Imperial Russia, labor camps were known under the name katorga.

In the Soviet Union, concentration camps were called simply camps, almost always plural ("lagerya"). These were used as forced labor camps, and were often filled with political prisoners. After Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book they have become known to the rest of the world as Gulags, after the branch of NKVD (state security service) that managed them. (In the Russian language, the term is used to denote the whole system, rather than individual camps.)

In addition to what is sometimes referred to as the GULAG proper (consisting of the "corrective labor camps") there were "corrective labor colonies", originally intended for prisoners with short sentences, and "special resettlements" of deported peasants. At its peak, the system held a combined total of 2 750 000 prisoners. The number of people who were prisoners at one point or the other is, of course, much larger.

The total documentable deaths in the corrective-labor system from 1934 to 1953 amount to 1 054 000, including political and common prisoners; this does not include nearly 800 000 executions of "counterrevolutionaries" outside the camp system. From 1932 to 1940, at least 390 000 peasants died in places of peasant resettlement; this figure may overlap with the above, but, on the other hand, it does not include deaths outside the 1932-1940 period, or deaths among non-peasant internal exiles.

An extensive List of Gulag camps is being compiled based on some official sources.

A special kind of labor camps, sometimes called sharashka, were for forced engineering and scientific labor. They are treated in Solzhenitsyn's book The First Circle. The famous Soviet rocket designer Sergey Korolev worked in a "sharashka"; so did Lev Termen and many other prominent Russians.

There are three 'levels' of labor camps: Mild Regimen (which were unpleasant), Medium Regimen (which were hard-labor), and Strict Regimen (in which the conditions were - to say the least - very bad).

People's Republic of China

Concentration camps in the People's Republic of China are called Laogai, which means "reform through labor". The communist-era camps began at least in the 1960s and were filled with anyone who had said anything critical of the government, or often just random people grabbed from their homes to fill quotas. The entire society was organized into small groups in which loyalty to the government was enforced, so that anyone with dissident viewpoints was easily identifiable for enslavement. These camps were modern slave labor camps, organized like factories.

There are accusations that Chinese labor camp produce products are often sold in foreign countries with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines.

The use of prison labor is an interesting case study of the interaction between capitalism and prison labor. On the one hand, the downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments increasing pressure for local governments to attempt to supplement their income using prison labor. On the other hand, prisoners do not make a good workforce, and the products produced by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by ordinary paid labor.

An insider's view from the 1950s to the 1990s is detailed in the books of Harry Wu, including Troublemaker and The Laogai. He spent almost all of his adult life as a prisoner in these camps for criticizing the government while he was a young student in college. He almost died several times, but eventually escaped to the US. Party officials have argued that he far overstates the present role of Chinese labor camps and ignores the tremendous changes that have occurred in China since then.

See also: Human rights in China

External Link: Report about products produced under forced labor (focuses on the persecution of Falun Gong)

Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the 1990s, there existed at least the following detention camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sorted in alphabetical order:

  • Batkovica (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Čelebići (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Dretelj (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Hrasnica (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Igman (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Keraterm (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Kozarac (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Luka Brčko (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Ljubuški (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Manjača (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Mostar (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Omarska (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Tarčin-Silos (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Trnopolje (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Visoko (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Zenica (Bosnian Muslim army)

Numerous atrocities were committed against prisoners, subject to ICTY prosecution.

more should be written

North Korea

Camp map

Location of Concentration Camps
North Province of Hamkyong-Life Imprisonment Zone
1. Onsong Changpyong Family Camp No. 12 (relocated in May 1987)
2. Chongsong Family Camp No. 13 (relocated in December 1990)
3. Hoeryong Family Camp No. 22
4. Chongjin Singles' Prison No. 25
5. Kyongsong Family Camp No. 11 (relocated in October 1989)
6. Hwasong Family Camp No. 16
South Province of Hamkyong
7. Yodok Offenders and Family Camp No. 15
 (sectors for re-education and life imprisonment)
North Province of Pyong'an
8. Chonma Family Camp No. 27 (relocated in November 1990)
South Province of Pyong'an
9. Kaechon Family Camp No. 14
10. Pyongyang Seungho Area Hwachon dong Offender's Camp No. 26 (relocated in January 1990)

North Korea is known to operate five concentration camps, currently accommodating a total of over 200,000 prisoners, though the only one that has allowed outside access is Camp #15 in Yodok, South Hamgyong Province. Once condemned as political criminals in North Korea, the defendant and his or her family are incarcerated in one of the camps without trial and cut off from all outside contact. Prisoners reportedly work 14 hour days at hard labor and/or ideological re-education. Starvation and disease are commonplace. Political criminals invariably receive life sentences, however their families are usually released after 3 year sentences, if they pass political examinations after extensive study.

Concentration camps came into being in North Korea in the wake of the country's liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II. Those persons considered "adversary class forces", such as landholders, Japanese collaborators, religious devotees and families of those who migrated to the South, were rounded up and detained in a large facility. Additional camps were established later in earnest to incarcerate political victims in power struggles in the late 1950s and 60s and their families and overseas Koreans who migrated to the North. The number of camps saw a marked increase later in the course of cementing the Kim Il Sung dictatorship and the Kim Jong Il succession. About a dozen concentration camps were in operation until the early 1990s, the figure of which has been curtailed to five today due to increasing criticism of the North's perceived human rights abuses from the international community and the North's internal situation.


About seven or eight internment camps were used in Sweden during World War II.

  • The most famous is probably Storsien outside Kalix in Norrbotten where about 300-370 communists, syndicalists and pacifists were kept during the winter 1939-1940.
  • Naartijärvi south of Luleå,
  • Öxnered at Vänersborg,
  • Grytan outside Östersund and
  • a boat for sailors outside Dalarö .
  • Vindeln: constructed in Västerbotten in 1943
  • Stensele: constructed in Västerbotten in 1943
  • A possible eighth camp.

In May 1941 a total of ten camps for 3000-3500 were planned, but towards the end of 1941 the plans were put on ice and in 1943 the last camp was closed down.

The navy had at least one special detainment ship for communists and "troublemakers". Is this the Dalarö boat? If so, that's only 1, not plural.


In the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, some 75,000 suspected Reds were incarcerated in concentration camps. While 125 Red prisoners were convicted of treason and executed, an estimated 12,000 died of disease and starvation and an unknown lost their lifes after release, some of them shot after return to their home villages.

When the Finnish Army during the Continuation War occupied East Karelia 19411944 that was inhabited by ethnically related Finnic Karelians (although it never had been a part of Finland — or before 1809 of Sweden-Finland), several concentration camps were set up for Russian civilians. The first camp was set up on 24 October, 1941, in Petrozavodsk. The ultimate goal was to move the Russian speaking population to German-occupied Russia in exchange for any Finnic population from these areas, and also help to watch civilians.

Population in the Finnish camps:


The Natzweiler-Struthof camp, in Alsace, was the only concentration camp on French soil during the Second World War. The three departments of Alsace-Lorraine (Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle) were annexed and incorporated into the Third Reich.

During France's occupation of Algeria, large numbers of Algerians were forced into "tent cities" and concentration camps during the initial French invasion in 1830s and particularly during the Algerian War of Independence. During the latter conflict, whole villages which were suspected to have supported the FLN were rounded up in such camps. During the early part of the colonial period, such camps were used mostly to forcably remove Arabs, Berbers and Turks from the fertile areas of land and settle primarlily French, Spanish and Maltese settlers. It has been estimated that between 1830 and 1900 between 15 and 25% of the Algerian population died in such camps.


Under Pinochet's dictatorship, the Santiago stadium served as a concentration camp for political opponents.


During the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, there were about 100 places that served as concentration camps in the Nazi sense, death camps. They were secret detention centres rather than actual camps; a list is to be found in the report cited below. The peak years were 1976-78. Nearly 9,000 people are definitely known to have been killed: see the authoritative 1984 Conadep (Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) Report. Conadep state that "We have reason to believe that the true figure is much higher". A figure of 30,000 is often quoted. Many details and documentation are to be found in the Report.

External links


During WWII, one of few official Nazi concentration camp complexes in western Europe located outside of Germany and Austria was near 's-Hertogenbosch, known in German as Herzogenbusch, see List of subcamps of Herzogenbusch. Still another one was camp Westerbork, which served as a transit camp (Durchgangslager) of Jews (Dutch and refugees) and Gypsies to extermination camps of Auschwitz and Sobibór.

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