Ear­li­er this week, Eric L. Muller wrote about the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Bill Man­bo, mass incar­cer­a­tion and Kodachrome, and asked: What does a con­cen­tra­tion camp look like? He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In my blog posts this week I havewrit­ten about the Kodachrome slides that Bill Man­bo took while impris­oned with­his fam­i­ly at the Heart Moun­tain Relo­ca­tion Cen­ter in 1943 and 1944. Today I return to the ques­tion with which I began: was Heart Moun­tain an American“concentration camp?” 

Con­tro­ver­sy over the use­of the term con­cen­tra­tion camp” erupt­ed in the late 1990s when an exhi­bi­tion about the camps for­Japan­ese Amer­i­cans was slat­ed to open at the Ellis Island Immi­gra­tion Muse­um inNew York. The exhi­bi­tion, cre­at­ed by theJapan­ese Amer­i­can Nation­al Muse­um in Los Ange­les, was enti­tled America’sConcentration Camps: Remem­ber­ing the Japan­ese-Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence.” Some Amer­i­can Jew­ish groups, most promi­nent­lythe Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, object­ed to the title. They argued that using the term con­cen­tra­tioncamp” to describe places like Heart Moun­tain dimin­ished the suf­fer­ing of those(mostly Jews) who lived and died in the Nazi camps in Europe. Even­tu­al­ly a com­pro­mise was nego­ti­at­ed: the exhi­bi­tion would retain its title but­fea­ture an explana­to­ry pan­el dis­claim­ing any attempt to com­pare the Amer­i­can camp­sto those in Europe. 

This did not end the mat­ter. Over the fol­low­ing years, activists in the­Japan­ese Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty and some schol­ars con­tin­ued to encour­age all whos­peak and write about the impris­on­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­can to use the term“concentration camp.” Their posi­tion­con­tin­ued to attract sup­port until final­ly the nation­al Japan­ese Amer­i­canCi­t­i­zens League adopt­ed a res­o­lu­tion endors­ing it as a pre­ferred term

I won’t use the term in myown writ­ing and speak­ing about the Amer­i­can camps, except in sit­u­a­tions where Ihave (and wish to spend) lots of time explain­ing exact­ly why I’m using it.

The best argu­ment for theterm is that it’s his­tor­i­cal­ly authen­tic. Lots of peo­ple called the camps for Japan­ese Amer­i­cans con­cen­tra­tioncamps” at the time. Take a quick look atthese lit­tle clips from sto­ries in the Wash­ing­ton Post and the Los Ange­les­Times from 1942:

Anoth­er argu­ment for theterm – one that I’ve nev­er found ter­ri­bly per­sua­sive – is the dic­tio­nary. Advo­cates for the term main­tain that the­dic­tionary def­i­n­i­tion of con­cen­tra­tion camp” unam­bigu­ous­ly fits places like­Heart Moun­tain. I sup­pose it depends alit­tle on your choice in dic­tio­nary. Accord­ing to Webster’s Third New Inter­na­tion­al Dic­tio­nary, Unabridged(1993), a con­cen­tra­tion camp” is a camp where per­sons (as pris­on­ers of war,political pris­on­ers, refugees, or for­eign nation­als) are detained or con­finedand some­times sub­ject­ed to phys­i­cal and men­tal abuse and indig­ni­ty.” That’s cer­tain­ly in the ball­park, but what ify­ou pre­fer to look at the Oxford Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish (3d ed. 2010)? There you find the fol­low­ing definition: 

a place in which largenum­bers of peo­ple, espe­cial­ly polit­i­cal pris­on­ers or mem­bers of per­se­cut­ed­mi­nori­ties, are delib­er­ate­ly impris­oned in a rel­a­tive­ly small area withi­nad­e­quate facil­i­ties, some­times to pro­vide forced labour or to await mas­sex­e­cu­tion. The term is most stronglyas­so­ci­at­ed with the sev­er­al hun­dred camps estab­lished by the Nazis in Ger­manyand occu­pied Europe 1933 – 45, among the most infa­mous being Dachau, Belsen, andAuschwitz.”

The sec­ond sen­tence ofthis def­i­n­i­tion cap­tures why a dic­tio­nary can’t solve our prob­lem: how­ev­er accu­rate the first sen­tence is inde­scrib­ing the Amer­i­can camps, the sec­ond sen­tence rings true about­con­ven­tion­al usage. You say con­cen­tra­tioncamp” to most peo­ple and what they hear is Auschwitz.”

I believe that many of thead­vo­cates for the term con­cen­tra­tion camp” under­stand this con­no­ta­tion – and thatit’s this very link that makes the term attrac­tive. Right­ly try­ing to cor­rect the mis­per­cep­tion­that the Amer­i­can camps were jus­ti­fied and life in them pleas­ant, they want a word that willjolt peo­ple. I once attend­ed a talk wherea lead­ing Japan­ese Amer­i­can advo­cate for the term con­cen­tra­tion camp”urged the audi­ence to adopt the term because it would get peo­ple in the gut.” Exact­ly. But the major rea­son why the term gets peo­ple in the gut” is Auschwitz.

One oth­er com­mon argu­ment infa­vor of the term con­cen­tra­tion camp” main­tains that the error is in using that term not for Heart Moun­tain but for Auschwitz. The Ger­man camps, this argu­ment goes, were­in actu­al­i­ty death camps,” not con­cen­tra­tion camps. (Koji Steven makes this argu­ment here,for exam­ple.)

In the name of try­ing tocor­rect his­tor­i­cal error, this posi­tion makes big errors of its own. The Ger­mans devised and ran many dif­fer­en­tkinds of impris­on­ment camps in Europe for Jews and oth­ers. I men­tioned four camps in my first post back on Mon­day: West­er­bork, Flossen­bürg,Buchen­wald, and Sobi­bor. Each of these dif­fered­from the oth­ers. Very few peo­ple died atWest­er­bork, and killing was not its spe­cif­ic pur­pose. More and more died at each of the oth­erlist­ed camps in order, and vir­tu­al­ly every per­son tak­en to Sobi­bor­per­ished. But from this list, onlySo­bi­bor was a death camp” – a camp built for the pur­pose of killing peo­ple. To insist that Heart Moun­tain was a con­cen­tra­tioncamp” while the Ger­man camps were death camps” is to col­lapse all of the hor­ri­fic­com­plex­i­ty of Ger­man wartime incar­cer­a­tion into a sim­ple and mis­tak­en idea. It miss­es the point that Buchen­wald, which mygrand­fa­ther sur­vived, was impor­tant­ly dif­fer­ent from Sobi­bor, which his broth­er­did not.

Last­ly, and most impor­tant­ly: all four of the Ger­man camps I list­ed (andall of the oth­ers I didn’t) were points on an impor­tant­ly dif­fer­ent spec­trum­from the Amer­i­can camps run by the War Relo­ca­tion Author­i­ty. The Ger­man facil­i­ties – regard­less of whetherthey func­tioned chiefly as tran­sit camps or forced labor camps or death camps –were in ser­vice of a sys­tem of (at very best) dis­re­gard for the sim­ple human­ityand sur­vival of those who passed through them that nev­er entered the Amer­i­can experience.

Eric L. Muller’s most recent book, Col­ors of Con­fine­ment, is now avail­able.

Eric L. Muller is Dan K. Moore Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor in Jurispru­dence and Ethics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na School of Law and direc­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill’s Cen­ter for Fac­ul­ty Excel­lence. His newest book, Col­ors of Con­fine­ment: Rare Kodachrome Pho­tographs of Japan­ese Amer­i­can Incar­cer­a­tion in World War II, is now available.

What Does a Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Look Like?

Behind Barbed Wire

Mak­ing It Human

Debat­ing the Term Con­cen­tra­tion Camp”