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The Problem with “Better than Buchenwald”

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Those currently claiming to “protect” the memory of camp survivors conveniently forget those survivors who fought to ensure all concentration camps would be properly identified.

Emma Kuby, an expert on the political afterlives of Nazi concentration camp survivors, has a great piece in Dissent on the International Commission against the Concentration Camp Regime, an activist group formed in 1949.

First, the obligatory reminder that invoking the term “concentration camps” is not just an offhand way to call your political opponents Nazis:

This charge is puzzling—and not simply because the Nazis did not invent concentration camps, do not possess a historical monopoly on their use, and did not primarily carry out the Holocaust within their confines. (They employed a generally distinct set of extermination sites, including death camps such as Treblinka. Ocasio-Cortez, who understands this, did not refer to the Holocaust in her original tweet.)

The big takeaway from Kuby’s analysis:

the story of the group’s precipitous fall offers a cautionary tale about how treating Nazi atrocity as an impossible-to-reach benchmark for moral outrage has worked to excuse the inexcusable.

French Resistance heroine and legal scholar Elisabeth Ingrand, who headed the group’s 1952 on-site inquiry into the prison system of right-wing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, fretted that the “extreme” historical example of Nazi Germany made even reprehensibly harsh penal regimes like Spain’s look benign in contrast. Hitler’s camps set too high a bar for moral condemnation: “better than Buchenwald” was a dismal standard for praise.

The commission eventually fell apart over its work during the Algerian War for Independence. Their 1957 investigation of the network of internment centers run by the French state as a means to suppress Algerian nationalists formally determined that those camps weren’t really “concentration camps.” Rhetorically speaking, a 1955 French law forbade the creation of “camps” in Algeria (hence “centers”). The Algerian camps, though terrible, were missing certain qualities that had marked the survivors’ own experiences. But commission members were also caught by an argument that has direct echoes in our current conversations:

the commission’s members—especially the patriotic French Resistance veterans among them—struggled to believe that the abuses they were witnessing added up to a pattern of systematized wrongdoing. France, they reasoned, was not a totalitarian dictatorship but a proud democracy; it had more or less invented “the rights of man.” Surely any violations of those rights in Algeria were temporary, localized “errors,” the product of an “extraordinary situation” that had originally been brought about (some members believed) by Algerians’ own unlawful acts of rebellion.

Much to the commission’s chagrin, the French state pounced on this verdict to gleefully proclaim its moral righteousness.

Many participants in the commission recoiled in shame and horror from these unforeseen (if, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely foreseeable) consequences. The celebrated French ethnographer and Ravensbrück survivor Germaine Tillion is a case in point. A leader of the commission from its earliest days, Tillion believed that its verdict had been correct: France was not replicating the Nazi camp system in North Africa. But if this finding was intellectually honest, it was beside the point in moral terms—and politically disastrous.

This is our exact problem today. Tsk-tsk-ing that we shouldn’t use the phrase “concentration camp” to describe the horrific facilities that cage children and adults on US soil because it might offend some sensibilities is a cheap attempt to score political points and avoid the actual moral issue–and the actual playing out of atrocity before our eyes–altogether.

It is still true, as one French commentator observed in 1957, that in our imagined moral geography, concentration camps mark “the line of demarcation that separates democracy from dictatorship.” Thus to label today’s U.S. detention centers as concentration camps is not only to mark these facilities as morally unacceptable—a task that might be just as effectively accomplished by highlighting the trauma and bewilderment of the caged, hungry, and frightened small children that they contain. It is also to offer an explicitly political condemnation of American state power as authoritarian—as having crossed that demarcation line.

Of course, the immense oratorical charge possessed by the term “concentration camp” also marks its peril, as the commission learned the hard way. Because these paired words continue, unavoidably, to evoke the world-historically extreme Nazi case, they threaten once again to lead us into the trap of exculpatory comparison (“better than Buchenwald”) …

Those of us who study human atrocity and its aftermath are not in the business of demarcating exceptional evils so that we can pat ourselves on the back every time we don’t quite manage to reach a particular level of violence and horror. A sense of moral responsibility and a heightened awareness of the “trap of exculpatory comparison” explain the outpouring of support in recent days for the open letter from scholars in response to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s puzzling statement that Holocaust analogies are forever inappropriate.

Detainment facilities that violate the fundamental human rights of a certain population do not need to be run by Nazis to be called concentration camps. Countries that claim a national history of democracy and freedom are not automatically incapable of abusing state power. The words we use matter. The US is currently operating concentration camps. Our only real claim to a history of democracy and freedom rests on the legacy of those who actively fought injustice, including all those now dedicated to eradicating the policies that created the camps.

It’s the 4th of July. We’re “better than Buchenwald” is no cause for celebration.

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