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February 12, 2012

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Alfred Brophy

As I recall -- it's been a number of years since I worked on this -- the Tulsa newspapers used the term concentration camp to describe the places where Greenwood residents were detained after the 1921 riot there.

John Kang

I remember reading in a book written by Michael Rogin, my college prof, that the term "concentration camp" was used by FDR to refer to the Japanese American camps. So I looked it up and found it: page 55 of MR's Ronald Reagan, The Movie (the weirdest and coolest book on politics that I've ever read, if I may add).

If Rogin was right, his account wouldn't settle, of course, the moral issue of whether to use the term in contemporary parlance for the JA camps, but there would be a historical basis for doing so.

Kevin Jon Heller

Eric,

I'm curious, what's wrong with the traditional distinction for Nazi camps between "concentration camps" and "death camps" (or "extermination camps")? That distinction allows us to include Japanese internment camps in the former without blurring the lines between them and (most of) the Nazi camps.

Eric Muller

This is a very useful question, and it gets to the heart of the issue. "Most of" the German camps were not in fact "extermination camps" or "death camps." A relative handful of them were "death camps": Sobibor, Belzec, Birkenau, Chelmno, Treblinka. Most of the German camps (Dachau, Ebensee, Mauthausen, Westerbork, Gurs, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and on and on and on) were either ghettos where people were warehoused or various kinds of slave labor camps. And none of them -- not a one -- can meaningfully be compared (in their living conditions, or in the policies of the governing authorities toward the inmates) to the camps run by the War Relocation Authority in the United States.

Jason Mazzone

This was an issue also at the Supreme Court in the Korematsu case. Justice Roberts in his dissent referred to the case as involving "convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp." This prompted Black to write in his majority opinion: "[W]e deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps, with all the ugly connotations that term implies."

Harwell Wells

I think the term "concentration camp" had different meanings pre- and post-45. The OED online says that the term was first used in the Boer War, to describe the camps that the British forced Boer families into. From what little I can remember, the camps were appalling, but not really comparable to the WW2 death camps. I would think that older use explains why FDR and Roberts used the term.

A Coot

This is a good example of History hijacking a term. "Concentration camp" was, I believe, first used to describe the camps set up by the British during the Boer War. It simply meant a camp in which civilians were gathered or concentrated. The Brits did this to deny the Boer Commandos logistical support from the sympathetic population.

Bill Turnier

Although the term concentration camp may have made its debut in the Boer War, we did the same thing as the Brits then did in Vietnam and called then "Strategic Hamlets." Oh, what a little wordsmithing can do.

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