Books

The invention of concentration camps

david wilson for the boston globe

Most of us, when we think of the term “concentration camp,” immediately picture Auschwitz, Treblinka, or another chilling relic of the Holocaust. But in “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” author Andrea Pitzer would like to expand our understanding of what a concentration camp is, explore how they developed, and think about what they mean.

“My working definition is the mass detention of civilians without trial,” said Pitzer, whose book traces their history from 1890s Cuba. She thought it was useful, she added, “to go back to where the phrase ‘concentration camp’ actually emerged and then follow it forward in time.”

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The impulse to expel, imprison, or otherwise rob others of their land and freedom is as old as human history. But what made concentration camps possible, Pitzer said, were a series of technological advances — including barbed wire and automatic weapons — at the end of the 19th century. “Now you can not only force people off land, which has happened for millennia, but you can make them stay somewhere else under barbed wire,” she said. “If you have automatic weapons you can hold them there with a really small number of people.”

“It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” said Pitzer, whose first book was about the writer Vladimir Nabokov. “Not just the deaths, the murders, the atrocities. It was hard to wrestle with the idea that all different kinds of countries — from ones you might expect, to democratic nations, to independent countries in the post-colonial era — would turn again and again to this.”

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The saving grace, she added, was “a chance to see the people who found ways to resist, the ways that people made their own small worlds within the camps. There’s an incredibly creative force, a humanity, that persists through a lot of this.”

Pitzer will read 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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