Concentration camps have been in existence for more than a hundred years. What’s more, every country has at some point used them.
Andrea Pitzer arrests her reader with these two startling facts at the beginning of her grueling yet engrossing study, “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps.” Trawling archives and drawing on testimonies from prisoners and guards, Virginia-based Pitzer reveals how concentration camps evolved over the course of the past century and became not a desperate measure for safeguarding a nation but a byword for injustice and a blight on humanity.
Pitzer opens in 1890s Cuba with Spanish forces implementing the extreme strategy of reconcentración. Three hundred thousand Cuban civilians were herded into makeshift camps, or “miniature citadels of suffering.” There they battled disease and starvation and, like future concentration camp prisoners, faced an uncertain future.
The book’s standout chapters focus on the devastation wreaked by Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The first gulag was established in 1923 on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, after which whole archipelagoes proliferated across the land. In these frozen-over hells, inmates worked until they dropped.
Pitzer notes that, “For the rest of the century the Gulag would serve as a model and a muse for other revolutionary states,” and in later sections she examines the “stepchildren of the Gulag” in Cambodia, North Korea and China. As Mao Zedong chillingly pronounced in 1927, “it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area.”
Pitzer’s other prominent chapter tracks the ugly expansion of the Third Reich and the grotesque development of its Konzentrationslager system. We go from the first camp, which opened a mere month after Hitler assumed power in 1933, to bigger fortresses such as Dachau, and then arrive at the Final Solution and “the apotheosis of horror,” the death camps, where the detainee was reduced “not to a number but to nothing.”
“Anything was possible at Auschwitz, and nothing made sense,” Pitzer writes. Concentration camps should have died after the abomination of Auschwitz. Instead they multiplied, rearing their ugly heads in the likes of Kenya, Chile and Myanmar. The book ends where it began, in Cuba, specifically Guantánamo, a place which Pitzer argues has gone from refugee camp to detention camp to concentration camp.
For some, this will be a contentious claim. It isn’t the only one. This critic was unconvinced by the inclusion of World War I internment camps for enemy aliens — hardly comparable with, say, Bergen-Belsen. There are also notable omissions: Pitzer devotes only two paragraphs to the bloodbath that was the Balkans in the 1990s, and doesn’t venture at all into the Middle East.
But what Pitzer does relate is consistently fascinating. Her book is at its most absorbing, and affecting, when it follows the fates of individual prisoners — real people who suffered, endured and articulated the unspeakable.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
One Long Night
By: Andrea Pitzer.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 480 pages, $30.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 27, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.