Who first invented concentration camps?

Who first invented concentration camps?

Concentration camps are often associated with Nazi Germany during World War II, but in reality they were not invented by the German Nazis. They existed much earlier on other continents and in other countries.

International law defines concentration camps as specially equipped centers for the mass forced confinement of citizens for a variety of reasons of a military or political nature. Most scholars believe that such "centers" first appeared during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

"Surprise" from South Africa.

The Boers, descendants of the Dutch colonists, created two states, the Transvaal and the Orange Republic, on the territory of the modern South African Republic in the mid-19th century. Having subjugated the local population, they lived quietly and peacefully on isolated farms until the world's largest diamond deposit and then the richest deposits of gold were discovered on their lands. England, which owned the neighboring Cape Colony, intended to annex these territories to its possessions, but the Boers rose up to fight for independence. After suffering a series of defeats at the hands of a numerically superior enemy, they turned to guerrilla warfare, launching surprise strikes in unexpected places.

Unable to cope with the elusive bands of Boers, the British used scorched earth tactics: destroying crops, burning, homesteads and farms. And to deprive the guerrillas of any support from the local population, they scoured the "unruly" areas and drove men, women, children and farm workers into concentration camps set up in the controlled territories. At the same time, male Boers were sent to India, Ceylon, and other British colonies.

In all, about 200,000 people - about half the entire white population of the Boer States - were behind the barbed wire of the concentration camps, which the British hypocritically called "places of salvation. The attitude of the "benefactors" towards them is eloquently demonstrated by this fact: the British were not ashamed to officially publish the death in a concentration camp of the eight-year-old son of the commander of one of the guerrilla units. And this was not an isolated incident. In a camp near Johannesburg, for example, some 70 percent of young children died of starvation and disease. All told, at least 26,000 prisoners died in "rescue sites" for the same reason.

The progressive European public denounced the inhumane practices of the British, but few remembered that they had predecessors, perhaps because they had done so far away from Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic.

From Cuba to the United States

During the Cuban War of Independence, the Spanish colonial authorities, in order to fight the rebels, decided to cut off their connection with the local population, which supplied the guerrillas with arms, food, medicine and military information.

On October 21, 1896, Governor General Valeriano Weiler y Nicolau, nicknamed the Butcher, issued an order directing all civilians to report to the fortified towns and villages occupied by government troops. From then on, anyone outside of such fortifications was considered a rebel and was liable to severe punishment.

Over time, more than 80 strongholds sprang up all over the island and some 400,000 men, women and children were concentrated there. They were housed in hastily made huts and abandoned warehouses and because the colonial administration could not guarantee a steady supply of food and medicine, famine and epidemics broke out in the "concentration camps. The total number of those who died of malnutrition and disease is not accurately known, but according to some modern scholars, there were several tens of thousands.

However, the Spaniards were not the first to create special places to isolate large numbers of people either, as historical evidence suggests that the Americans had priority in this innovation.

The first concentration camps in the United States

In 1861, the Civil War broke out in the United States between the North and the South. At first, both sides periodically exchanged prisoners of war, but by 1864, passions had heated up so much that the exchange came to a virtual halt. As a consequence, the question arose as to where to hold the ever-increasing mass of prisoners of war. To solve this problem, Colonel William Hoffman, the Northern Army POW commissioner, ordered a concentration camp to be set up at a former training camp for recruits at Elmira, New York. Major Henry Colt, brother of the inventor of the legendary revolver, was appointed commandant of the camp. Although the major proved to be a decent man, conditions at the camp were such that the inmates called it "Hellmira," from the English word for hell.

The stuffed barracks could only accommodate half of the 12,000 prisoners, the rest lived in tents. During rainy autumns and freezing winters, when temperatures dropped to -27°, the tents offered little protection for southerners unfamiliar with the cold. Food rations were repeatedly reduced due to supply shortages, and prisoners were forced to hunt rats. There was only one doctor for the entire camp, with a very limited supply of medicine. As a result, by the spring of 1865, some three thousand men, one in every four, had frozen to death and died of disease.

Death rates were not much better in other concentration camps organized by northerners. Thus, in the largest of them, near Chicago, one in six prisoners died by the end of the war. Nor was the treatment of prisoners of war by Southerners humane.

Invention of the Confederacy

The largest and most famous concentration camp on Confederate soil was Andersonville, near the city of the same name in Georgia.

Unlike Elmira, which already had barracks for recruits, Andersonville was built from scratch. First, they built barracks for the guards and surrounded the "building site" of 10 hectares with a double, five-meter-high fence, and then they placed about 10,000 prisoners of war in tents and dugouts on it. Although this was the maximum capacity of the camp, new "replenishments" were arriving every day, and soon the number of prisoners more than tripled. Andersonville was so overcrowded that many prisoners were forced to sleep outdoors among rats, cockroaches, and other vermin.

The meager daily ration consisted of a few potatoes and a handful of cornmeal, which had to be eaten raw for lack of firewood and lack of utensils.

The situation of the prisoners was further aggravated by rampant insanitation and the almost total absence of medical care. The water supply and sewage systems were replaced by two ditches that ran through the camp. The shallow gradient of the ground resulted in the stagnation of drinking water, while the "sewage system" soon overflowed with sewage. The inevitable consequence was gastrointestinal disease and a high mortality rate of around 100 deaths per day.

On top of that, some of the inmates had formed two gangs that terrorized other fellow inmates.

Andersonville's commandant, Southern Army Captain Henry Wirtz, looked the other way, confining himself to leaving the whole camp without food for days at a time for the slightest offence.

He saw his main task as preventing prisoners from escaping. He ordered the guards on watchtowers to shoot without warning anyone who happened to be in the six-meter "dead zone," bounded on the inside of the camp fence by a low fence, and often prisoners deliberately climbed over it, not being able to stand the unbearable suffering ...

Andersonville existed for about a year, but during that time more than 13 thousand people died there.

It is noteworthy that after the war, of all the individuals involved in the mass deaths of POWs in American concentration camps, only Henry Wirtz was convicted. In November 1865, in the presence of 200 spectators, he was hanged in Washington Prison.

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