The Current

On anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, writer calls attention to modern-day concentration camps

On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, journalist Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, has a warning about how contemporary internment camp systems could lead to a repetition of atrocities like Auschwitz.

Mass detention of Uighurs in China, migrants in U.S. 'seeding the ground' for future atrocities: Andrea Pitzer

The entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau with the lettering 'Arbeit macht frei' ('Work makes you free') in Oswiecim, Poland is pictured on January 25, 2015. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

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On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, a journalist who has studied the history of concentration camps has a warning to the world: it could happen again.

"We're setting the stage for, and seeding the ground with, some of the very same things today that led to Auschwitz back then," Andrea Pitzer told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Pitzer is the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, which traces the history of such internment camps from 1890s Cuba until today.

She defines the term "concentration camp" as "the mass detention of civilians without trial, usually on the basis of ethnicity or religion or political affiliation.

"So people rounded up on the basis of who they are, rather than something that they've done."

By that definition, concentration camps had existed for more than 40 years before the Second World War, she said.

But Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps were not solely concentration camps, Pitzer explained: they were the first-ever extermination camps, built with the express purpose of eliminating entire ethnic groups — primarily Jewish and Roma people.

"There were many lethal camps [around the world], but ones that were designed specifically for the mass extermination of people is really a singular thing," she said.

Pitzer said that there are a number of current-day internment systems that she would describe as concentration camps, including the facilities where more than one million Uighur Muslims are being detained in China's Xinjiang province and the mass detention of migrants on the United States-Mexico border.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence last year of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. The centres have come in for condemnation from the West. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

While she said that these internment systems are far from the extermination camps of Nazi Germany, she felt it was important to point them out as part of a dangerous continuum.

"Even Auschwitz rose out of exactly these other kinds of camps that we're discussing," she said.

"Let us not imagine what other unimaginable horrors we can't yet picture that could develop out of these situations that are happening in broad daylight right now."

Here are some of the historical and current-day internment systems that Pitzer identified as concentration camps.

Cuba, 1896 

Pitzer traces the origin of the modern concentration camp back to Cuba in the 1890s.

Cubans had been rebelling against the Spanish colonial government for decades, and the Spanish government decided that to quash the rebellion they needed to "sweep the countryside bare of peasants … and then shoot the rest as rebels," she explained.

"They literally cleared the civilian population out of whole sections of Cuba and put them behind barbed wire, and they called it reconcentración. And so concentration camps became the name for it."

Many Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes along the West Coast and relocated to internment camps in the B.C. interior and across Canada during the Second World War. (Tak Toyota/National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

Japanese internment camps in Canada and the U.S.

The forced resettlement of an estimated 22,000 Japanese Canadians and 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment facilities during the Second World War was a form of concentration camp, said Pitzer.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the B.C. government seized the homes of Japanese Canadians along the West Coast and relocated them to internment camps in the B.C. interior.

Pitzer noted that many of the Japanese Americans uprooted were American citizens.

"And even those who weren't [citizens] were arrested against the wishes of military intelligence at the time. It was really a political decision that was made to do this."

This June 20, 2019, frame from video shows the entrance of a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. A legal team that interviewed about 60 children there said young migrants being held there were experiencing neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government. (Cedar Attanasio/The Associated Press)

U.S. border

In September, the Guardian and The Marshall Project called the detention of more than 50,000 migrants in facilities along the southern border of the United States "the largest immigrant detention system in the world."

Earlier that year, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stirred controversy when she called the facilities concentration camps, citing Pitzer's work among others.

"I had been calling what was happening on the border, with putting detention at the heart of this immigration policy, a concentration camp approach for months before she did, so I would not disagree with what she said," said Pitzer.

"I think if you hear what she said and you think she is saying that these camps are like Auschwitz, then it's reasonable to be upset and concerned," she continued.

"But I think that response is because people that don't actually know the larger history, they don't know that Auschwitz and these other camps were extermination camps, but that concentration camps are a much larger, much more ongoing project, which is quite dangerous."

Protestors demonstrate against the separation of migrant children from their families in front of the Federal Building on June 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Uighurs in China and other border regions

In 2019, leaked secret documents revealed the detention of as many as 1.8 million Muslim minority Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province.

The official Communist Party documents from 2017 described the use of 24-hour surveillance, forced ideological lessons and psychological modification at the detention facilities called "vocational training centres" by the Chinese government.

Researcher Adrian Zenz called it "probably the largest internment of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust."

Pitzer agrees with Uighur activists who refer to these facilities as as concentration camps.

"I think you see [the term] used more and more, and I think it is raising the profile of those camps, which, with more than a million people detained in them, I hope that we will be able to raise it further," she said.

Pitzer said that the targeting of a minority group in a border region, as is happening in Xinjiang, was a phenomenon that she observed around the world while researching her book. 

She pointed to examples like the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, many of whom are living near the border in camps and "urban ghettos," under conditions which a UN official likened to the treatment of Jewish people under the Nazis.

"We have a border camp [and] concentration camp detention crisis rising in the world right now that we really need to be paying attention to," she said.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.