What comes to your mind when you hear World War II? Most likely, you think either of Hitler, Nazism, or the Holocaust. So many things happened during the war, but these three are probably the worst and the ones that make us wonder how can human beings be so despicable. We think of Hitler as the incarnation of evil, as if he had been the only one in history committing such atrocities. Perhaps that idea comes from the fact that World War II and all the tragic events that happened are still quite recent, so they affect us more directly than if we think of the millions of victims of the Inquisition. My point here is that, before the Holocaust, before Nazism, and way before Hitler, these inhuman treatments towards people were already a thing. The Nazis, as well as the Russians, the British, and the many countries that have used concentration camps, got the idea from events that happened years before and that definitely shaped what the world would turn into.
When someone mentions concentration camps, again, it’s impossible not to think of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and many other camps built by the Nazis. But sometimes we tend to believe that these extermination places were exclusive of this group of power or that they inspired the ones that, sadly, still exist, when that’s not the case. Actually, concentration camps, as we understand them, were created in the last decade of the nineteenth century in Cuba, and the model was replicated throughout the world as a means to control and exterminate a part of the population. Now, forced labor has always existed, and for centuries it had been a war technique used by the military to punish war prisoners and traitors, and they were also as deadly as concentration camps, but the idea of a secluded area surrounded by barbed wire to conceal civilians wasn’t a thing until 1896 during the Cuban Independence war.
For the first time in history, the ones in power decided to infringe punishments and horrible atrocities to regular civilians to prevent rebels from convincing them to join their side and fight for their independence. Cuban history is actually quite interesting and explains a lot of their current situation, especially the emergence of characters such as Fidel Castro. The island was one of the first territories that Christopher Columbus and his men set foot on, and since then, it became an important spot of the New Spain. Like many other countries in America, Cuba endured centuries of colonization, and being one of the last countries to achieve their independence, it was just natural that the way to achieve it would be brutal and devastating.
But that’s not it. Thanks to their localization in the map, for decades the US government tried to adhere that territory to theirs in a constant battle with Spain. Actually, there was a point in which, even when Spain owned the land, the island actually depended economically on the US, which only meant that the Cuban population didn’t get anything for themselves. Since many of the other Spanish colonies started their independence movements, the idea of becoming a sovereign state was impregnated in the minds of many, but somehow they were discovered and executed or they didn’t get the support that was needed to raise a revolution. The main reason was that slavery that still prevailed and left so much money for local businessmen who weren’t going to let their gold mine be taken away. Still, by February 1895, many had had enough and the official insurrection began. The governor of the island, Arsenio Martínez Campos, had spent years fighting against tiny groups of rebels and had succeeded so far in dissolving them, but this time it was different. For the first time, these rebels were more organized and heading somewhere.
Cuba’s main activity was the cultivation and exportation of sugar and tobacco, so one of the main leaders of the revolution, Máximo Gómez, knew that one way to take the Spanish government out of control was by destroying the plantations and thus, gain control of the rural population. Not knowing what else to do, governor Campos, wrote a letter to the Spanish prime minister, telling him that he had come up with a decisive idea to defeat the rebel army, but that his morals and convictions didn’t allow him to do so, since it would end up harming innocent people through cruel methods. So he resigned to his post. Instead, the Spanish government named Valeriano Weyler – nicknamed “the Butcher”– as the new governor of the island. Weyler didn’t mind about morals when war was at stake. He followed the idea of his predecessor and started moving people like cattle to fenced areas.
Why would people just go? Simple: this man was ruthless and the instructions were clear. He told his soldiers to shoot people if they refused to go, so they had no choice. About half a million of people were sent to these camps, and estimation says that more than one hundred thousand died out of diseases, hunger, poor treatments, punishments, torture, and murder. Unlike the concentration camps of the Nazi, here it was more an issue of neglect rather than a will of extermination. The Spanish government had no interest in getting rid of the Cuban population, as they needed them to produce and work the land, but they did commit endless abominations that ended in a terrible massacre.
The idea was taken by the British from the Spanish, and in 1900, when the Boer War started, the British army implemented this system of barb-wired spaces throughout South Africa. This conflict ended in 1902, but the concept was getting fashionable and it was soon incorporated in Namibia in 1904 by the German army. Here concentration camps would start to resemble the ones made by the Nazis. The ruthless man in charge of these methods was General Lothar von Trotha, who not only used the camps to control the population. For him, it was just a tool to carry out an extermination scheme of the Herero people, which nearly succeeded. Until the camps were dismantled in 1907, about at least 70,000 people had died there. His orders were, “Every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot.” From then on, concentration camps became a thing in every armed conflict.
In his article, “The Invention of the Concentration Camp,” Jonathan Hyslop explains that there’s a very important connection between the concentration camps of the late nineteenth century that emerged from colonialism and the ones created in the twentieth century out of totalitarian governments. One of his main points is that the military industry got professionalized, which means that in the past only aristocrats and middle-class men could follow this as a profession. Now, anyone could become a professional soldier. This not only gave the industry more trained and devoted soldiers, but also encouraged the idea that any means of violence was justified if it was for the sake of a greater good. Besides, media was so advanced by now that these methods traveled the world faster. As you can see, it only took few years after the creation of the Cuban concentration camps for this terrible method to become a success among the strongest countries in the world. Hitler was indeed, a monster, but he didn’t invent the ways to get rid of those he considered his enemies. He just followed and optimized a scheme that had become fashionable decades before him.