JONATHAN BOYARIN: Good afternoon. My name is Jonathan Boyarin. I am the director of the Jewish Studies program, here at Cornell. In addition to Cornell Jewish Studies, this afternoon's program is co-sponsored by the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, the Institute for German Cultural Studies, and the Department of History.
Our guest this afternoon, Andrea Pitzer, is a journalist who writes that she loves to unearth lost history. In addition to her new book, One Long Night, A Global History of Concentration Camps, just published last month by Little Brown, she is the author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. And just before we came into this room, I took her up to the second floor, so that she could see the Nabokov shrine on the second floor. Took a picture.
Andrea's writing has appeared in various places, in print and online, from Vox, Slate, and USA Today, to Longreads, Lapham's Quarterly, and McSweeney's. She's also spoken on her work at venues, including the 92nd Street Y, and to the Smithsonian associates, and to academic conferences, as well.
Events and ideas that were once common knowledge but have fallen from public memory fascinate her, as does humanity's tendency not to learn from history, a subject that is of concern to us all. After archival research and reporting on four continents, she feels most at home in libraries.
She took her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University's school of Foreign Service in 1994, later studied at MIT and Harvard as an affiliate of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. In 2009, she founded Neiman's Storyboard, the narrative nonfiction site for the foundation, which she edited until 2012. Before that she was a freelance journalist, a music critic, a portrait painter, a French translator, a record store manager, and a martial arts and self-defense instructor.
She grew up in West Virginia, and currently lives with her family near Washington DC.
Her talk tonight is titled Harbingers and Echoes of the Shoah, A Century of Concentration Camps. Thank you so much for coming to Ithaca today. Thank you.
ANDREA PITZER: Thank you.
So I want to thank Cornell at large you for being here. Jonathan for first developing interest in bringing me in, and for then finding so many wonderful partners, along with Jewish Studies here, to make the trip possible. You know, if there were seat belts, I would tell you to sort of strap in, because we're going to do, in the next 40 minutes or so, a global approach to more than a century of history. And so I'll start with a caveat that I'm going to be, you know, moving from point to point fairly quickly. There will be questions and answers at the end, so if there's anything that you're like, wait a minute, or you have a question about that wasn't clear, please, I encourage you, at the end, we will have time for you to ask about that.
Before I talk about exactly what I would consider a concentration camp, I want to speak just a little about how they came into the world. And the very first appearance of the phrase concentration camps, in connection to civilian detention, was in late 1890s Cuba, and the story of how this first camps came to be is, in some ways, the story of two generals.
And the first general was Arsenio Martinez Campos, who was sent to deal with a rebellion in Cuba. And the rebellion in Cuba under Spanish rule had been happening on and off for the whole second half of the 19th century. But the rebels declared independence, again, and Arsenio Martinez Campos was sent to deal with the matter. And he had been there before and was actually part of the beginning of the triggering of the abolition of slavery on the island. And so he had been involved both in fighting war there and also in negotiating there, and so he seemed like an ideal person to send in that moment.
But one of the problems with that became apparent in the late 19th century, and across the 20th century, of course, is that when you are dealing with insurgents, with guerrilla fighters, and you have a traditional army, this is not always an easy battle to fight. And so he kept trying to draw the fighters out into the open into a traditional battle, and he kept failing. And snipers would plague their columns with fire. You don't need to have very many snipers to unsettle an awful lot of marching soldiers. They would dynamite their supplies, they would steal their supplies. So basically, they spent that spring harassing the Spanish forces there, and they did that across the summer.
And finally, later in the year, Arsenio Martinez Campos was able to get a strong battle encounter on the field, and his forces were roundly defeated and it was a really humiliating thing for Spain. This is the battle he had tried to set up, this is the battle he pulled off, and he was defeated. Now, all of Spain was not defeated in that moment, but he realized that the approach that they were taking was not a functional approach.
And he wrote to Spain to say he thought several measures needed to be put in place in order to guarantee victory, and that only by making much harsher measures could victory for Spain be won. And one of those measures was what he called the reconcentration, which was to sweep the peasants out of the countryside, and used barbed wire fortifications and block houses to clear certain sections within that countryside and basically empty it of people. And then the only people left in the field would be shot as insurgents. So it was a way, instead of people in the countryside feeding or giving shelter or intelligence to the insurgents, there would not be people in the countryside anymore. The idea was to sweep them behind barbed wire into Spanish loyalist cities, and he understood, in that very moment, that to do so would have a horrific toll.
And so he wrote to Spain and said that, as the member of a civilized nation, he can't-- he could not bring himself to take this measure, because he believed that horrible hunger and misery would follow in its wake. So Spain accepted that letter and recalled Martinez Campos, and in his place they sent a man named the Butcher, Valeriano Weyler, also a general, also who had been in Cuba before. And Valerio-- Valeriano Weyler did not come up with the idea for reconcentration, but he was more than happy to implement it, and he actually asked for free license to use the terms he thought appropriate to secure victory. So he was sent with a mandate to do what he felt was required. And he came in, in 1896, and the first Cuban concentration camps were born, in that moment.
Now, from there, I want to back up a little bit and talk about what is a concentration camp, because we have this idea now in which the Nazi death camps loomed very large, looking backwards through history, as well they should. They remain this singular moment in which we have a developed nation bending its resources, bending its technology, bending its-- some of its military apparatus in the midst of wartime, actually pulling resources from some of that wartime apparatus to aim it at the destruction-- the most efficient destruction of a people that it can muster.
And so when we look back, of course, that is what we see and what we recall, and in its wake, that is what we call concentration camps. But I think it's important to start at the beginning, which is why I do start with Cuba, to know what was a concentration camp before that, because how we get to that point and what comes after are also really, really critical, if we are concerned about anything like that happening again. And so for the purposes of my research, I defined concentration camp as mass civilian detention without trial, usually on the basis of ethnicity, political identity, race, or some group characteristic along those lines.
Now, by outside-- by extrajudicial or without trial, I don't mean that none of them ever saw a trial. Sometimes they were group trials, where a magistrate would say, oh, you 300, you have five years in prison. But it's not the kind of trial or the kind of legal process that was normal for the given place and time in which the detention occurred. So that is my working definition of the concentration camp for purposes of this book.
And the idea didn't spring out of nowhere. The concentration camp idea has roots in a lot of different things from around the world. So under an ancient China, imperial China, there were forced labor, generally in service to the emperor. So not necessarily punitive, although the work could be very dangerous. You also had forced labor in the Roman Empire.
And there were many examples of punitive labor that function at different places, and different times, and different societies, different ways, but you don't really have this kind of mass detention of people until fairly late in history, where feeding people and housing them actually takes a lot of resources. And if you have to guard those people too, it can be really problematic and very draining to hold them. So what was often likely to happen before is you would kill people, you would exile people, you would deport people. There were different approaches that were taken, but after the rise of prisons, then you do start seeing detention as another option. The thing that makes concentration camps possible, in the form that we know them now, is actually some technology, because right before concentration camps emerge, we do see some things that are quite similar.
We see, particularly, Native American reservations, which have this key aspect of you relocate a group of people from one place to another, and you want them to stay there, but it's the stay there part that was sometimes problematic with Native American reservations. There were some places in which they were able to be detained successfully for a period of time, often transit camps in deportations westward, but there were lots of reservations that had more porous boundaries and borders that were reinforced sometimes, and not at other times. But what makes it possible to really lock down that population is, in the 1890's, by then you have mass production of barbed wire. And so when I was doing research for the book, I actually found the contract-- a record of the contract from Oliver Brother in Pittsburgh, who supplied the Spanish empire with all this barbed wire that they were going to use to fortify buildings and things, but also for these concentration camps.
And so once barbed wire is patented in mass production and shippable, and shortly after that, you have mass production of automatic weapons and distribution of those two, you still have to deal with the housing people and the feeding people part. But you only need a small guard force to detain large numbers of people, so it becomes efficient to do this concept. And so while things like the Spanish mission system, in some places where it evolved, and some Native American reservations, come quite close to what we think of later as concentration camps, there is this sort of moment where we tip over into it. There's also a little bit of public health and hygiene from the 19th century, where the government begins taking a role in keeping societies healthy and clean, and dealing with disease and identifying threats. And this actually has many positive sides, germ theory of disease. There's lots of good things that come out of this, but you also have the government then starting to take a hand in making decisions about what's safe and healthy for populations in some ways that can become quite problematic, given a lot of eugenic outlooks that were quite common at the time.
So into this setting, we have this Cuban experiment that begins, and everybody knows, right away, that it's going to be really bad. The New York Times, before the Butcher even arrives in Cuba from Spain, writes about, if he can't make war on the soldiers, he can make war on the noncombatants. So it's understood what he's going to do, that this is going to be a punitive thing against the peasants. And while there are some historians that don't really count these first ones that I'm talking about tonight as concentration camps, because the people are behind barbed wire in fortified cities with Spanish loyalists-- they're not isolated by themselves-- they are, in many ways, effectively isolated, because they have no access to food, they have no access to work, and they are living on the borders of-- behind those fortifications, the borders of the towns, in unbelievably horrific conditions. And over time, more than 150,000-- that's the best estimate that we have, at this point in time-- died as a result of less than two years of these camps being in operation.
This is-- technology also plays a role very early on too, in this moment, because newspapers, for the first time, can generate photos. The technology to reproduce photos, in a substantially accurate way, is available to many papers, at this point. And so you have syndicated stories of people describing these starving people, and in photos, in some cases, of these people spreading. And the US reacted horrifically to this, calling Spanish butchers and monsters. And the Cuban rebels actually had an outpost in New York that they used to do PR for their own rebel cause, which they were quite effective with, and so American sympathy was very much with the Cuban rebels.
And these camps, these first camps, were a really important part of why we went into the Spanish-American War in 1898. And in his call to Congress for war, President McKinley said this is not war by civilized means, this is extermination. And basically said, it leads to nothing but the wilderness in the grave. And so this was the moral justification for going to war, and that is why we landed on that spit of land at Guantanamo Bay in 1898 and the US forces have never left it.
And so from there, we defeat Spain by the end of the summer, and then we inherit the Philippines, where there is another insurgency underway. And by 1901, the end of 1901, the US military, in recalcitrant areas, begins using concentration camps themselves. Again, domestic outcry was huge. Why do we go to war for or against the butcher in Cuba to turn around and do this in the Philippines.
And there were, at first, arguments, we didn't know this was happening, and then it's fine. And then it's only terrorists. There were different arguments that were put forward. The main surrender happened very soon after they were implemented, so they only existed a few months. But about 11,000 people died in these camps, again, mostly women and children, as was the case with the Spanish camps.
And so you have a parallel phenomenon that's happening in the same moment, which the Boer War in South Africa, the British do-- and some people date these to the first true camps, because you have the bell tents, you have the barbed wire, you have-- in almost all cases, not every single one, but almost all cases-- isolation from local populations, and once again, you have the same kind of result though. You have the Boers, who are descendants of the Dutch, and they are fighting the British. And so in order to cut those insurgents, who are on commando, off from their support, they bring the women and children, and some men who were not fighting, into these camps, and you have horrific rates of deaths through-- again, they're not shooting people, they're not killing people, but starvation, poorly situated camps, bad water supply, lack of medical care, preventable things.
And so the British are horrified. Of course, there's very little mention-- there's some mention, but very little at the time-- that a significant number of black Africans have also put in camps-- have been put in camps that are even worse. And because of the racial prejudice of the day, the argument is made that the allotment of calories that they need for sustenance is actually half what the Boer settlers need, and so you have much worse complications that arise, also, out of that even worse food supply.
And so in a very short period-- and then, of course, right next door we have Southwest Africa with Germany, which actually, in 1904, puts out an extermination order. There's a general extermination order on the Herero people. And in this case, the concentration camps come in the wake of that extermination order, when it's rescinded, and they are basically put into forced labor camps that effectively become like early versions of the death camps.
So in a space of one decade, concentration camps sort of enter the world and are used in these colonial outposts around the globe, and their reputation is terrible. It is really seen as a shameful thing, that respectful-- respectable and civilized countries would not do this, should not do this. In the case of the Boer War, the number of combatant deaths was less than half of the deaths of the women and children in the camps, and some 80% of those were children. So you know, the reaction in London was awful. So camps for a while subside and they're seen as dishonorable, and countries wouldn't use them.
But when the world-- first World War begins, there is a new problem that hasn't faced quite so many countries in quite this way before, which is, with the advent of universal conscription, if you are a military age male, you are expected to fight. So if you were in Berlin and you were British, and the war broke out, if they send you back to Britain, you are going to come back in a uniform to fight their army. So that became a not attractive option. What had often happened before was you could give parole, and you might be left alone, if you weren't somebody who was already thought to be a spy, deeply involved in military strategy, serving in the military at the time. I'm making some broad generalizations here, but in general, you would not have been incarcerated before. If you were a greengrocer who had moved there 20 years ago, and had been operating a small business.
But what happened with World War I is, in addition to that conscription issue, there was a tremendous amount-- and this had been building up across the first part of the century-- propaganda machines began to take root. And so it wasn't enough that you were at war with this nation, there was an active demonization of the other people. And so a lot of rhetoric that would be familiar to us today you can actually go back and see in World War I. The Germans were called Huns, and baby killers, and monsters. And there was actually a Scottish newspaper, I remember, that had an article called Do Germans Have Souls? These things were asked as serious questions.
And so this demonization made people start to resent that there were people from this country in their midst, and as the war ground on and this battle lines are not moving the way they thought they would-- the war isn't resolving, it's going to stretch on for some time-- there's more and more pressure, in some publications that are a little more hysterical, are suggesting there's vast spy networks that are undermining the country. And the home secretary, at the time, actually, was quite level headed. And there were these cries in parliament. They would bring him before parliament to speak, and he would say there's nothing more to the danger from most of these Germans than there is from your ordinary bad Englishman, that's how he framed it.
And so he said we're going to go with the rules that we have. But then the Lusitania was sunk by a German u-boat, and more than 1,000 civilians died. They were already locked in this brutal war effort, and there's nothing they can do in that moment to ramp up the war effort. They're already doing what they can there, and so this mass detention of civilians becomes a feasible strategy.
Now, they had already locked up several people that they had suspicions about before, but after the sinking of the Lusitania, which coincides with a change in government, as well-- a new coalition government is formed-- then you end up with mass civilian detention. And because it's Britain, Germany retaliates, and then Germany does France as well. And then Britain decides it's going to extend it out to colonies and possessions. And once that happens, then everyone is counter locking up everyone else. And when you have a World War, suddenly you have dozens of countries detaining people around the globe.
And then this bureaucracy of detention rises, and you can send packages, you can receive letters, you can send money, in some cases, you can send books. There were book drives to donate books to these people who were detained. And you were even-- I haven't found evidence of anybody getting one of these yet, but I've repeatedly seen evidence that you could, in theory, study for Oxford and Cambridge. Like if you were in Berlin in detention, you could study materials there toward a degree. Now, I have yet to find anybody who actually got one, but there was this idea of like we have to help these people, but also that it was a time where you could better yourself, you were biding your time until the war ended.
And it became this tremendous-- as opposed to the early decade, the first decade of the camps, it became this quite normal thing. With that first series of camps it was shocking. I mean, newspapers were horrified you would lock up innocent civilians. But in this World War I framework, it becomes quite normal to register, to be counted in a certain group, to be told when to turn yourself into the police, to be taken to one camp, to be transitioned to another camp, to get a prisoner number, to be given that number, it travels with you. And you do your time, as a pariah group during a crisis or national emergency, and then you'll be let out at the end.
And of course, that's what happened in World War I is, outside of a few camps-- and there were some starvation issues later in the war, but those were also issues that faced the themselves, because this ground down, you know, much of Europe, so there was not deliberate starvation, for the most part. There were not atrocities committed on those in the camps. Some of the camps that were near the battle areas and front lines, where control traded back and forth between countries, there were some things that happened, but overall, the people in Australia, and the people in Canada, and the people in South America. And it was over 800,000 people all together around the globe, and then a few 100,000 more that were sort of sent into exile, particularly in Russia.
Most of them went home after it ended, and they went home scarred. It does-- to be in indefinite detention and not know when you'll be released, for nothing that you've done wrong, does have tremendous mental consequences. But it's not what we think of as the worst toll of the camps, and so at the end of the war it became completely normal to do this to people, and it just kept happening. So some countries never stopped doing it at all.
In Russia, Russia leaves the war early, makes its separate peace, and the camp, they begin releasing some, but not all, of the POWs and people they been detaining as enemy aliens. And then they start locking up political opponents, because you have the Russian Civil War in short order. And so you have early civilian detention now, not of foreigners, but of people within your own country.
And this transitions, over time, to this idea of re-education through labor. You're going to remake this person by forced labor. You're going to make them an ideal Soviet citizen, and this is something that happens almost from the very beginning of the Soviet state. 1923, we have records of people being sent to Solovki, which is an island north of the Russian mainland, and becomes kind of the camp for what, a few years later, will turn into the Soviet gulag. And so the Russians never stop with the camps.
The British also, they use these wartime enemy alien laws that have been set up to do some of the very same kind of detention with Irish Republicans, who soon become the IRA, and you have mass detention without trial. And the British also then begin using similar camps in China-- I mean, sorry, in India, particularly, but also in some other holdings.
And so in the 1920's, in the US, a white mob burned down the Black Wall Street, as known as, the black community-- a middle class black community in Tulsa itself. And the people who survived, the African-Americans who survived that assault, were put into what was called, in the newspapers at that time, a concentration camp. They were not allowed to leave without a white employer coming to claim them, and the white employers often, it turned out, didn't know the names of their servants, which presented a lot of problems.
They were used to break textile strikes in the US. They were just used everywhere. They became ubiquitous after World War I.
And so while we have the Soviet gulag rising in 1933, we also come to Nazi Germany. And in the beginning, the Nazi camps were not what we think of now as Nazi camps, but it is important to say, right from the beginning, that concentration camps were part of the strategy from the beginning. Dachau, as the first purpose built camp-- not the first camp. There were many impromptu camps that were set up.
In fact, there's a story that I tell in the book about the camp at Nora, which is sort of generally dated by historians to be the first concentration camp. Several communists were rounded up and held in this facility that was a decommissioned officers school from World War I, and they were held in there and it was still not certain where this was all going. And so a few days after they were arrested in March 1933, they were actually taken to this little town of Nora, into the village, to vote, because there was an election. And there was, apparently, this huge spike in communist representation, like votes in this little town of Nora, because these communists were allowed to vote. So this thing that seems very weird later, we can't imagine it happening in the Nazi camp. In the beginning, it was much less certain which way it was going, but it was going to happen.
So in March 1933, you do have Dachau being considered and then being rebuilt. It was a factory from World War I, and it's rebuilt into a purpose built concentration camp. But in the beginning, it really is political opponents. There's been street fights and killings, and the Germans are looking to solidify political control, so it becomes part of that strategy.
It quickly expands to address other undesirables that the Germans want to deal with. So you have what we wouldn't call gypsies today, but were then known as gypsies, so Roma and Sinti populations. It's important to notice that there were, in fact, camps outside towns in Germany for gypsy populations before Hitler ever came to power. They were not as restrictive as we think of the concentration slogger system, but they were in fact, set up to keep gypsies from being in towns at night.
So this is part of a tradition that's kept on in the world, also in Germany. But the first formal setting up of this system, Dachau begins that. And then you have vagrants, you begin to have some disabled, so this population of who is going to be in the camp expands.
But it is not in these first years Jewish populations that are specifically targeted. The Jewish populations in Germany are targeted legally. It becomes legally very hard to exist as a Jewish person in Germany. But in terms of who's the camps are focused on in this moment, that's not who they're focused on initially. And what the Germans want, in this moment, is they want the Jews to leave. And so this isn't happening, the world is not interested in taking these Jewish refugees, and some just are waiting out this time and hoping that things will resolve.
And so what you end up with is, in 1938, you have Kristallnacht, and with Kristallnacht, of course, it's orchestrated violence in response to the assassination of Ernst Vom Rath. And you end up with Jewish businesses targeted, bombs going off, mass arrests. Some 40,000 Jews are detained in this time period. Some 30,000 of them are sent to concentration camps.
But the interesting thing that happens, among many other moments in this turning point, are that-- by fall of 1939, so less than a year later, in the whole concentration slogger system, only 1,500 Jews are in the system, by the fall of 1939. Many are released with the expectation they will leave the country. So at this point, the German Nazi administrators and rulers, at this point, are wanting-- still expecting and wanting the Jewish community to basically deport itself.
And one thing that happens as a result of Kristallnacht-- the Evian conference on refugees was shortly before that, but even after this, there are no major overtures. There are some minor ones, there are some discussions, but nobody says, we know how to solve this refugee problem. The Germans realize, these other countries are still not going to take the Jews, and they've just tormented this community horrifically and the world didn't really do much. I mean, there were protests, of course, but I think, at this point, the Nazis began to realize that if they want to solve this issue, they're going to need to do something else to do it, and that the world may not act against them if they do. So it becomes this sort of window onto this horrific possible future. When you couple that with the beginning of war, the German population of Jews was quite small. As they invade Poland and they're moving eastward, they are encountering places where the populations of Jewish communities is quite large.
And Hitler is very aware of concentration camp history. In his own writings, he has been talking since 1919 about concentration camps. He specifically mentions the Boer camps that I described, and the shame of this Dutch people, who he sees his aryan, the descendants of these Dutch people being put in these camps. And if the British can do it, then we'll do it too.
But also, what's really formative for him-- and the camps of World War I of course he's quite aware of those. But he's also talking about the Native American reservations, and he sees-- he actually frames, this in terms of US Western expansion, their eastward expansion in the same way. And he sends 300,000 copies of the most popular German author who is a writer of westerns-- which is a strange thing, but-- with a note in them comparing the two situations. So he himself is aware of this history, and is sort of actively seizing that in this argument.
And so what you end up with, as we come to the final solution, and the decision to do that, is strategies that were evolved with other populations; with Russian POWs, with disabled people, where they looked to find out how to most effectively and quickly exterminate groups of prisoners. They began to turn that to, instead of creating these reservations, because that quickly turned out, they were going to send them to Madagascar. There were several policies floated. It became clear that that was not going to be effective.
And so then what they ended up doing was adapting these extermination ideas that had been developed for other populations, and then turning the full weight and the full malice of the anti-Semitism, they'd spent, at that point, in their party documents and everything else, two decades creating-- and you know, almost two decades-- creating and reinforcing. And they turned the might of the entire nation into this-- you know, if regular concentration camps are atomic weapons, then you know, the Nazi camps become a hydrogen bomb. This thing that could not have been imagined.
And one of the things that I found that was heartbreaking was people were covering this in the moment, and they were writing things, their headlines, like, Liquidation Day Set for French Jews. But as they're writing them they're describing what they think is happening, and they still think they are going to a reservation. So they're using the words that are what is actually happening, but they can't wrap their heads around the reality of it. Because even when you have those facts, it becomes-- and even today, of course, it's this unfathomable unknowable thing.
So when people ask me, do people know? Did they not know? Of course, they knew, and of course they couldn't fully understand, at the same time. And so we have to be able to balance both of those things. Not to release anyone from accountability, but to say that even people who were covering it, who had some of this information-- not the perpetrators, but others-- you know, it was, in some ways, an unknowable, unacceptable thing.
But so we have, you know, the end of the war and the millions of dead. We have the institution of-- separate from the concentration camp system that was already in place in Germany-- extermination camps set up. Auschwitz plays both roles, but the other death camps that you know of were specifically engineered simply for that. But there are also many deaths that don't even happen in the camps themselves, of course. There are, you know, a million Jews who die in Eastern Europe in ditches and through different executions. And so all this together we know of as resulting in the Holocaust.
And so there's a singular moment in history, and in the larger picture, the arc of concentration camp history, what it ends up doing is it resets the bar. And so concentration camps become what the Nazis did. Anything less than that becomes something else, and concentration camp is no longer used for that phrase and is no longer used for that kind of camp.
And so after the war you have two strands that continue. One is Eastern Europe comes under Soviet influence and control, and there are also a number of organic or imposed revolutions. And in communist states, you see the rise of camp systems that sometimes take on local characteristics, but very much emulate Soviet gulag model, in some form or another.
And then on the former allied side, you have a return to the fights of colonialism, so camps that look much like the early camps. You have the British in Kenya detaining more than a million Kikuyu altogether, either in new villages or and interrogation camps, and there's often trade in those populations. People are pulled out of the new villages into the concentration camps for interrogation and tortured in horrific ways.
And Britain just did a settlement-- I don't know if any of you have followed this, but just in recent years-- with survivors of that torture. So this is stuff that is still very much playing out today. In fact, the German extermination in 1904 effort against the Herero, I just saw a photo this week of Herero descendants on the federal courthouse, the steps of a courthouse in New York, and they're bringing a lawsuit against the German government. So again, this is not dead history. This is still very much with us.
And so you have the British in Kenya, you have the French in Algeria. You have the French and then the Vietnamese, and then the US and the Vietnamese together, repeatedly, cyclically trying to use camps and failing, and the most famous iteration of that is the strategic Hamlet approach. And so what you end up with is this mass effort around the globe, once the Cold War begins, of both sides using camps in ways that look familiar, but kind of begin to be a new thing.
The '70s and '80s, you have in South America Cuban-- sorry, not Cuban-- Chilean coup, in 1973, and some of you may have seen people being herded into the Estadio Nacional. And I actually interviewed some people who were detained there and tortured there. And for a time, I think because Chile had such strong support from the US, they didn't try to hide what they were doing, and-- but there were a lot of demonstrations around the globe against this. And so by the time you get to Argentina, a few years later, it's done much more clandestinely. And that's when the camps sort of shift to be-- involve a lot of clandestine detention, atomize detention-- so instead of large buildings with barracks, necessarily, you're going to have smaller groups, you're going to hold them in a restaurant, in the basement of a house, and you're going to hold them in several different locations while daily life goes on around them torture becomes an integral part of detention in a way that is more significant than it was before.
And then you have finally-- and I realize I'm going very quickly here. But you finally have this turn, after 9/11 in the US, in which you end up with a lot of that same stuff that we saw in the '70s and '80s in South America; so super-national cooperation, black sites, torture, a use of the word terrorist that is not within the legal definition of how these things have normally been dealt with the judicial system. And so I went to Guantanamo twice. And of course, this is Guantanamo, which is where we landed in 1898 to address the camp issue, at that time. In the book, I talk about Guantanamo as sort of this crown jewel sitting atop this massive global system of detention, the biggest parts of which were in Afghanistan and Iraq, since we had the military presence there.
But what I found, as I looked into it, was that people who were sent to Guantanamo, of the hundreds that were sent there, since the law of war was not followed in that moment, we didn't do the normal Geneva Convention process for identifying who we were holding and under what circumstance. Because there are different names for how you hold people, and each of those names accords certain rights.
There was a big fight, in the beginning of our detention there, what were we even going to call these guys. And so for a long time the government only called them detainees, because they didn't want to give them any of the rights that POWs would have. So we ended up with this undifferentiated mass of some people who probably did some very bad things, some people who were mistaken identities, and people who were turned in for bounties.
Some of the first interrogators I interviewed, who had been at Guantanamo when people were first brought in, were like we didn't know who we had. We didn't even have the right interpreters, we didn't have the right translators. We didn't know who we had at all. And another guy, who was in the Bush administration, talked about there's-- you know, let's say there's a captain who's 23 and he is in Afghanistan. And they're two fold there, they need to bleed off some of the population. Are you going to be the guy that lets the person who turns out to be Osama bin Laden's right-hand man go. Do you want to be that guy? No. Boom. They go to Guantanamo.
And so we end up with this mess that we can't quite deal with. But what I would say about that is because courts have addressed it, then the Congress has come back and to legalize the parts that the court said were illegal, and then we aren't going to use torture anymore, and then we're not going to use evidence from torture. But they were just debating, over the summer, how long after somebody-- of course, they didn't use the word torture-- but had the enhanced interrogation techniques used on them do you have to wait before you can basically consider they're untortured. And then you could interrogate them again, but not using torture.
So you end up in these incredible twistings and turnings that you can't square with democracy. And so the courts are still choking on that system. And I think that Jeanne-Marie, who was caught as helping with the resistance in Belgium and was at Auschwitz briefly, and survived the war but then did not-- he ended up taking his own life-- he said that whoever is tortured stays tortured. And I think that's an important thing to keep in mind with all this.
But it is not this evolution of camps that I'm talking about, over time, does not mean that traditional camps haven't also continued. So when we think of the Balkans in the '90s, these were familiar camps, you know, these look like concentration camps. I don't know if any of you have been following this story in Myanmar of the Rohingya, but I also I went to Myanmar and went into the Rohingya camps. Not recently, it would be too hard to go now.
But I went in 2015, and it was a fascinating moment, because it was right after the-- Trump had declared his candidacy and no one there knew who he was, because he wasn't well-known in Myanmar, at that point. But the rhetoric of about Muslims, about immigrants, about terrorists, and the rhetoric I was hearing when I actually interviewed the people who supported having these Rohingya Muslims segregated into these camps outside town, it was the same rhetoric, which was fascinating to me.
And I asked them, have you heard of him, do you know? No, they don't know who he is. But by the time the election happened, the day after the election, I saw a picture, they had hung a banner congratulating Donald Trump. So by the time the election happened, the gap between there, they knew who he was and they approved of this.
And so what had happened with those camps was there was a intercommunal violence in this part of Western Rakhine State in Myanmar. And as a result of that violence, a few hundred died, and the Rohingya were moved outside of the communities, where they were living in any kind of integrated communities. If they were living in separate villages, checkpoints were sent around the villages. So you effectively had a million people in some kind of detention in that community.
And the rhetoric that grew out of it then, and the denormalization of them as actual members of the community-- which had been going on off and on for decades, but picked up tremendously in the wake of that. Even though these camps are not where the exodus you've been hearing about, of half a million people crossing the border, these camps are not there, but concentration camps are very much part of this larger strategy that you see unfold, and it often involves people outside of the camps, as well. Because, of course, when you think of the Soviet Union, the camps were not just a way to reform or control people that were in the camps, they were a way to control the society. So camps become this tool of the larger society. In effect, if they proceed for long enough, then this society comes to kind of reflect the camp.
But also the camps themselves had this tremendous society's growing inside them. I don't have time to talk a lot about it today, but they put on lectures, they sang to each other, they exchange recipes, they did whatever they could. They did circuses. I interviewed one guy in Chile who they put on the circus every week. He was the circus director. They had some professional actors, because a lot of people wind up in camps are like intellectuals and artists, right, so they did beautiful productions. And the camp staff, after a while, would want the guards and administrators would come and watch.
And this guy that I interviewed was the director, in one week he was in solitary confinement, and all the players refused to put on the circus, the camp, you know, that they normally perform without him. That week they just refused to perform. So they-- you know, you think of them as totally helpless, but they were really crafting their interior lives and their communal lives in some startling ways. And sometimes they did things like they could switch prisoner identities, when you had big camps that we're focused on prison numbers. If somebody died and somebody else was in trouble, then OK, let's say the guy who's in trouble is the dead guy and let's make the dead guy the guy who wasn't in trouble, and then he maybe won't be killed. He won't-- they came up with amazing solutions to all these problems.
So I don't want to leave you with the idea that there's like no hope at all. I mean, it's a very dark thing, but people do resist internally. People do resist in the community. And by popular request from some Cornell people I talked to earlier today, for the first time, I am actually going to share a list of, not just common traits of camps and things to watch out for, but also some of the things that are functional in resisting this kind of stuff, because there is some resistance that has happened.
And I do have people sometimes say to me, do you think this could happen in the states? And the answer is yes and no. It could happen anywhere, so sure yes. Is it going to happen tomorrow in a significant way, the way we imagine concentration camps? No, we've been a democracy for a long time. We have a lot of rights and ability to act politically.
But Antonin Scalia said that, before he died-- would be strange if he said it after he died, but-- Antonin Scalia, when asked about Japanese-American internment, said, you're crazy if you think the same thing won't happen again. And he was specifically talking about in the wake of a terror event, in the wake of something, people panic.
Historically, what usually happens is military-- control is ceded to the military, because they have to fight the bad guys, and you don't want to tie the hands of the military. Who wants to be the guy who ties the hands of the military, and is responsible for military defeat or a military problem. But this is not a great way to respond to terror, as opposed to conventional battle. But we still have this legacy where we see that control very readily. So I don't think it could never happen here, for sure, but there's a lot that can be done.
So I want to go over just a few characteristics, first, and then some of the things that can be done. So first, every political ideology is susceptible to this kind of detention. There is no political ideology that it won't happen, if it's already happened at all. I mean, if you look today, you know, some of the asylum seekers detention we have going on that the court has already ruled you can't hold children in these circumstances, you can't hold parents in these circumstances, you can't make people wait this long in order to be processed, to have due process, it happens. It's happened under Obama, it's happened under Bush, it's happened, probably, under Clinton-- although I didn't I don't remember exactly when that began-- and it's happening now.
So that kind of detention is already sort of in the ether, it's just applied to a small, vulnerable group, right now, that's not citizens. Historically, things that are applied to non-citizens eventually become applied to citizens. So no ideology is immune.
But if there is a long history of democratic institutions, then usually the duration, the ease of undoing the camps, and the effects of the camps are much mitigated. So Japanese-American internment does not look anything like Auschwitz, although it's one of our greatest moments of shame. It does not look like Auschwitz, and that's because there are still breaks on the system. So the difference is any place can have them, but they have local aspects and effects.
And legislatures rarely help in fighting and undoing camps as if an executive, or a leader, or an authoritarian is instituting them, for various reasons. Sometimes they're complicit, sometimes they're too weak, but legislatures rarely are the ones that take a stand against this. Generally, if the country has a functioning court system, that's going to be the thing that makes the difference.
Also public protest. I talked in a class earlier about the grandmothers in Argentina, Plaza de Mayo grandmothers who went out and protested every week. And even under a military dictatorship, you couldn't arrest and kill all the grandmothers who were asking about what had happened to their children who had been kidnapped. So there are ways, that even in places where political protests may not be obvious or easy, that it can still happen.
Usually, camps rise after a state of emergency. There are rarely instituted instantaneously. There is usually a time period, particularly, if the country-- the more tilts toward democracy, the more there's actually a discussion that goes on.
But even if you look all the way back to those first camps in Cuba, that I told you about, the one guy says, I'm not doing this, before they send the second general in. That's a common phenomenon. There's often somebody who says, this is a really bad idea. So ideally, if people are watching, they can help to catch it at that this is a really bad idea stage. But even later, there's usually a point where there's some question of whether the camps win.
Even in Nazi Germany, there was a period where they were looking to abolish the camps. It would be horrific rule of law, it would not be something that you or I would consider an ideal living condition at all, but they were looking at using the traditional German institutions-- no doubt, ossified in its own horrible ways-- but bringing the camps down and having this extrajudicial aspect taken away. But Himmler was able to persuade Hitler to undo many of the releases that he had done, and to back him that people wouldn't get lawyers, they wouldn't get representation, and he could re-arrest whoever he wanted. So there was actually a battle, even two or three years after they came to power, there was still this question.
So it's not like it happens and it's over. There is still this process that it's generally gone through. And to that degree as well, it's not an inevitable part of human nature. What I found was-- the good news is I don't think people inherently want this to happen or want to be part of it. In fact, people avoid it.
But governments who take a role in promoting fear, and hatred, and division, it's pretty easy to manipulate a population. So that's the bad side. The good side is this doesn't automatically spring up on its own. The bad side is people are really vulnerable to propaganda. But there almost always has to be a period of propagandization before people will tolerate this kind of detention.
So what can you do? You can notice local erosions where letter of law is exceeded. So if people around you are going beyond what the law is, stopping that early is a great way to start making people feel watched and more cautious, and less able to exceed that. Where the laws themselves are being changed about detention-- and again, in the US, I'm talking right now mostly non-citizens vulnerable groups, but be aware that there may be citizen issues for detentions on drug related matters. There may-- I mean, there are certainly detentions in the African-American community where people don't see a judge for a really long time. These are the kinds of things that are entry points for this kind of attitude and this kind of abuse that comes later.
So notice legal shifts. Document legal shifts. Bring attention to them before new laws are passed.
Look for critical moments to sort of break the back of extrajudicial detention. Where I was saying where there's these moments where it could go either way, you know, you can organize, you can run for office, you can be a journalist, you can report, you can just pass information along from your neighborhood. There's lots of things that you can do. So I just don't want you to feel helpless.
Shore up judicial support. A strong judicial system is really critical to keeping this kind of stuff from happening here or abroad.
Record stories of what's happened. This is in some ways the easiest thing. I don't know if you saw there was just a guy who reported that a young woman-- this was on Twitter the other day.
A young woman, who had been put into forced labor as a girl in Germany, went back to the town where it was done to her. And the house that she was kept at, there was a guy who was a former Nazi, quite an old man who was there, and he was still there, he was still alive. And she told the family there what had happened to her, and he couldn't even look at her. And she forgave him, which that's its own whole issue, but which is, I think, quite extraordinary.
But the town had not been told this. The older people in the town had not told anybody, the young people, that this had been done, that children were brought in as forced labor during the war in these conditions. And so now, because of her, everybody knows it, they made it public, they've talked to neighboring towns, they've changed their history, they've made themselves accountable to this. So I think listening, reporting, documenting things, even if it's just writing down somebody's, story sharing somebody's story, you know, this kind of thing. Memory, truth, not buying into things that are distortions, you know, things that are verifiable things. There are roles that all of us can play to keep this kind of thing from happening.
I don't think it's going to go away in the world anytime soon, but I do think that, in our case, the system was very much choking on places like Guantanamo. There's still all these flurries of rulings. It's 15 years after 9/11, the 9/11 five still haven't been tried. You know, we're wrestling with it. As long as the society is wrestling with it, I think-- I was saying last night to Jonathan, it's not so much there's hope as there's work to do. You know, there's things that can be done.
So that's the globe in 40, 45 minutes. So I wanted to run you through all of that, but then also to answer your questions, because I'm sure there's some points that I sort of steamrolled through that may not have been clear, or things that you'd like to know. So are there any questions?
Oh. Thank you.
So are there any questions? And I'll repeat them aloud, so that we'll have them on the tape. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Well, thank you for that excellent overview. I was wondering if in the course of your research you came across cases of Jews who survived the Nazi camps yet still found it difficult to find places to go, fleeing Germany.
ANDREA PITZER: Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: And what happened in between there.
ANDREA PITZER: Well, there's--
AUDIENCE: For example, the-- I know many of them were in Italy for a long time. They-- the British were restricting a lot of their settlement in Palestine. The Americans still weren't that enthusiastic. There was still a lot of antisemitism after, even after the war and what happened there.
But in particular, I understand that there were resettlement camps on the island of Cyprus their people spent a lot of time on. And I wondered if-- did you interview survivors, what their experience of going from that horrible situation in Nazi Germany to still a kind of confinement after all they had experienced. Just something about that.
ANDREA PITZER: That was something that wasn't just after the war. That was during the war. That was there-- this was a real tragedy of a number of different camps, even during the war.
So when Britain panicked and interned enemy aliens, again in World War II, they deported-- you know, because enemy aliens were Germans, because they were fighting the Germans. But many of the people who were enemy aliens, who were in their country, were Jewish refugees who had fled Hitler. And they were afraid that they were going to mount an invasion from within Britain, and so they deported a bunch of them to Canada, to Australia, to different places, alongside Nazis. So people in barracks who were Jewish refugees, some of whom had been in early concentration camps in Germany, were put on steamers with Nazis and then held in Canada, or in different places, in the same barracks as Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. And so even during the war, you had this phenomenon.
After the war, it was particularly horrific, because many of the camps, even after they were liberated, there was no place to put people. So you had millions of forced laborers, you had people liberated from camps. You had this and there were still wartime needs for the train routes. And so it became an impossible logistics issue.
And I actually interviewed a woman who was a forced laborer. She had been sent from Germany-- she had been sent from the Czech Republic to Germany, and waiting to go home. She was held in a former concentration camp. They just had to keep them in those camps. Now, mind you, they understood they were liberated, so it wasn't-- but it's still furthering the trauma.
And waiting to be sent home, her baby-- she had a newborn infant. She had been raped in the camp, and the newborn infant died of starvation. She like didn't have enough to nurse and there wasn't food, that the child was too young to eat.
And you did have displaced persons camps in Italy. You know, there's the whole question of Zionism that rises in this moment of what is the future of the Jewish people? Where will it be? Which has already existed before this day, but then becomes that much more pressing.
But there is no simple answer, and people end up still detained in camps, sometimes for years. Most people not for years, but some of them did go on for years.
And the woman in my book, who was the witness to Auschwitz, was born in-- I didn't interview her, she was already dead, but a long time ago. But she was born Sonia Landau, in Poland, and she became-- she escaped the Warsaw ghetto and became part of the resistance. And when she was arrested by the Nazis, she took on a Christian Polish identity so that she would be protected, because, by this point, it was already understood you would be killed if you were Jewish and you were caught. So she took on this Christian Polish identity, and she watches the destruction of her people at Birkenau, because she's an office worker there.
But after the war, she doesn't take back her Jewish identity. She stays-- Christina [? Jevoska ?] is the name that she took-- for years in Poland, because of exactly this thing you're talking about, that in Germany and in Poland people did not feel safe, they did not feel comfortable. And eventually, she was purged from-- I don't know if it was just from the writer's group or from the party, in Poland, once she does come back out as a Jew. So she-- you know, there were real concerns long after the war had ended.
You had a question, I think.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. Thank you very much for your presentation. But when I was listening to it, I had a hard time telling whether, from your perspective, the camp was an exceptional feature of modernity, or it was a normal feature of modernity. So I was wondering how you perceived, perhaps, the historical phenomena in relation to the [INAUDIBLE] aspect [INAUDIBLE]. Or even through [INAUDIBLE] that, you know, [INAUDIBLE]. You know, that this is how each I.
ANDREA PITZER: I think that-- I don't want to go too deep into theory, because I know we have people from the community here. But I do say that the state of exception idea, that the camps are rooted in-- I think camps arise very much as part of modernity they're very much an enlightenment phenomenon. It's a dark side of enlightenment, certainly. But many of the modern-- many modern innovations are what crafted-- I mean, it's the physical aspects itself fall into that camp.
But I do think that it is the making is something that is both exceptional and normal. I mean, I think it is a fusion of both, and I think that it oscillates between the two. And it becomes less acceptable at certain points, and more acceptable at certain points, but it is always there sort of tessellating. It never goes away. I would say it is a-- in the 1920's and '30s, it becomes very-- I mean, it's a modern phenomenon throughout, but it becomes very much rooted in normal piece of society. But it is pushed to the exterior, and then welcome back.
So I mean, I think that it's both is the answer. I mean, that's the short answer. It's kind of a cheat for theory, but I think it's both. It is this thing that manages to do both.
Was there another question? Yes.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, you started--
ANDREA PITZER: Oh, and wait. Before you do, I just want to say, we're going to do about 10 more minutes of questions, but there are books out there. So if you have to leave, don't feel bad about leaving. If you want to buy a book, buy it, and I can sign it afterward. But I will answer like 10 more minutes of questions.
AUDIENCE: So you started your narrative, the history, [INAUDIBLE] concentration camps, or the development of barbed wire as a technological enabler, a different way [INAUDIBLE]. And then I didn't hear anything else about technology-- technological evolution for the entire rest of the presentation. Then, of course, there's all kinds of technological--
ANDREA PITZER: Yes, there's tons.
AUDIENCE: --that, particularly in the history of Nazi Germany, which was the most [INAUDIBLE] the most industrialized leading Western [INAUDIBLE]. Which is part of what, some people would say, makes the holocaust [INAUDIBLE] exceptional. [INAUDIBLE]. So I'm just wondering if that's a deliberate choice.
ANDREA PITZER: Well, there's more in the book, but it's partly trying to get through all the different comments. But technology plays a role throughout. And even in recent years, the idea of outsourcing, you know, business practices even-- like so it's technology also, but just in time detention. You know, things that are in other parts of the world-- because this is now really a fabric of our society-- get imported into the camp. So technology continues to play a role.
You know, we didn't get much into the rail car system. There were rail car systems used in-- by Germany in southwest Africa. But really, by the time you get them in the Nazi system, it's a whole other-- you know, the use of early computers to streamline the process of the destruction of European Jews is very much a technological story.
Now, I don't know how many of you read IBM and the Holocaust. I don't agree with everything he says there, but I think he does an interesting job of bringing to bear the ways that technology facilitated this. And where the technology wasn't available, it didn't occur quite the same way, and I think that's really interesting. But technology is critical all along the way.
After World War II, there's a step back from that, because the Soviets were quite poor and less, honestly, like technologically adept in that period right after the war. When you hear the stories of Polish prisoners being brought in to the Soviet camps, and like the Soviet prisoners, these guys are incredibly worldly and sophisticated, and they haven't seen bras, and they haven't seen-- you know, some of the stories are no doubt a little apocryphal, but it was a cultural explosion. And the idea that you might strike. And the idea-- the stuff that had been beaten, and tortured, and executed out of what had been the political resistance in Soviet Union, suddenly gets imported full force.
So technology, after the war, doesn't play so much a role there, and in the Allied camps either. They kind of move away from that because they're going out to the colonial era, so you see a resurgence of a lot of the same interrogation techniques that are quite old. So it's another thing that does both, it goes forward and back.
But as you get new technologies, they do often make their way into, you know, surveillance is one area that I think we can think of. You know, the French in Algeria, they promised people moving into new villages, you're going to have plumbing and you're going to have lights. And they get there and it turns out they don't have plumbing and the only lights are outside, and the camp is laid out so that one person in a watchtower can see all the roads in the camp, you know.
So technology continues to have a role, but whether it's a leading role of the most cutting edge technology, depends kind of locally on the time and place we're talking about. But it does play a role intermittently throughout. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Can you say briefly on-- you talked about modernity, and with all this stuff going on in the Middle East with the resettlement camps now. And the condition of the [INAUDIBLE], et cetera. And then you also brought up the issue of mass incarceration. Is that, by your definition, considered a network of concentration camps?
ANDREA PITZER: OK. So--
AUDIENCE: You know, modern judiciary roles are significantly contributing to that.
ANDREA PITZER: The short answer for that-- because a long answer would be really long-- is there a page--
ANDREA PITZER: No, no. The page in my book where I list, with regret, all the things I wanted to include that are related phenomena, that in order to put some kind of boundary around the term that I'm not going directly into. And it's a variety of reasons for each of-- like things you named, and there are several more.
And also, I'm sure, because it's happened in every talk I've given, there's somebody out there thinking, what about Andersonville? Andersonville was a POW camp. So I didn't do POW camps either, even though there was a lot of cross pollination. I only dealt with where there were civilians or an undifferentiated military civilian population. All those things are related and they are important, but they-- I didn't include them, because I didn't have room. But they have tendrils that go in, and I think are important to look at, because they-- these things don't stand in perfect isolation from each other.
The other thing I want to make sure to address, because I always get this is a question too, is slavery. People ask me, what is slavery then? And when I went to look at it, the conclusion I came to-- and there could be arguments made for a different answer-- but that the-- instead of bringing a populate-- pushing a population away from you and detaining it somewhere, normally, as sort of outside the bounds of regular society, slavery is about the-- slave trade was about importing a labor population and it was the driver of an economy, and detention was a secondary aspect of it.
Camps are the opposite. Detention is the priority. And then, especially as you go further into the 20th century, hey, we've got a whole bunch of people detained here, let's force them to work. So then the labor and the potential profit motive there-- which never really turned out to be much profit, but nonetheless was utilized a lot-- is the secondary. So they're sort of inverses of each other. But also, certainly, not an totally separate phenomena. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for your talk and your work. I'm wondering if we can just change gears briefly, and if I could ask you a little bit about writing.
ANDREA PITZER: Oh sure.
AUDIENCE: I'm part of a group here of historians and other scholars who try to think about writing in more creative ways. So I just thought maybe you could say something about your background in narrative nonfiction, and how you think about that in relationship to academic history.
ANDREA PITZER: Thank you. This is such a great question. And it's-- I should have said this, so it's even better that you brought it up. And I think we'll end with this, but people can come up and ask me questions.
AUDIENCE: Can I add one more thing to that--
ANDREA PITZER: Oh, sure.
AUDIENCE: --specific to the back, which I haven't read yet, but I really look forward to. It seems like-- I'm just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you thought about your book in particular, as a narrative, and maybe some of the problems of genre that could arisen for you.
You've already suggested, I think, that you're worried that people will just be depressed by it. I think another genre problem might be just one concentration camp after another. That comes up for any of us who are historians and think about how do we write the history of x over 100 years. So things like that.
ANDREA PITZER: Well, the chief difference between the talk I've given you today and the book is that the book is largely told through the stories of prisoners. And you-- the chapter on the Nazi camps, and also the chapter on the gulag, have more than one prisoner that you follow. They're much longer, because they're longer, because those systems were so vast. Although, the Chinese system certainly was incredibly vast, as well.
But in most chapters, you follow one person through their experience in the camps, through their-- and sometimes it's, you know, quite a lead in. Sometimes it's, you know, they're arrested, they're detained, they're tortured, they're held in a prison for six months, and then they're finally shipped 2000 miles away to a camp. And so this is all part of that process, so I take you through their process with them.
To answer your question about the depressing thing, I hope that that won't stop you from buying the book, because-- here's the secret, like almost everybody I pick lives. Which is a little bit of a cheat, but actually, I think, makes it possible to read it without falling into total despair.
But this information, the facts are all still in there. And the way I approach it-- and there's lots of ways that you can-- both of my books had offers from academic presses and trade presses. Well, I don't make it sound like tons, but I had interest from both sides, and I like that for myself. I want the rigor of the accountability, but I think, without the narrative, you're just not going to reach very many people.
But it's also-- this is the-- somebody actually wrote me and said the book is written so lyrically, which normally would be a compliment, but I think he wasn't sure it was a compliment. He said, how can you do that? Are you instrumentalizing these people's suffering and turning it into something beautiful?
And I said, the ugliness-- and there's plenty of ugliness in the book-- is there to honor the history, and the beauty is there to honor the people that died. And so, for me, that's-- it's OK to do both of those. I'm not instrumentalizing their suffering. The only risk I do think about sometimes is, if you use it too much to frame the present, then you can be in instrumentalizing other people's losses and suffering, if you say this is exactly like this. Because it's never exactly like this.
But I think it's not a cheat to recognize patterns. It's not a cheat to tell stories. I personally try very hard not to make-- I was telling somebody this earlier, I tried not to make people representative, because that's not fair. You can't make somebody's individual story a symbol for a whole thing. That's too much weight to bear.
Just tell their story, then have an interstitial section that talks about what happened to everybody. Don't make one person bear that weight. That, I think, is the unfair thing to do.
There's an author named Katherine Boo, who won a Pulitzer for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is a beautiful example of that. And I don't remember where the interview was, but she very specifically said, when she writes about these people, she doesn't want them to be anything except the human beings that they are.
And so for the stories I picked for the book, for the prisoners, some of them have done dodgy things. Some of them were politically active with militant groups. Some of them were, you know, newborn innocent. Some people were-- I wanted to get that whole range, because it shouldn't just be we only want to talk about the nice people who are in the camps. The problem is the existence of the camps. So I try to make them human.
And at one point, one person did write and say, you know, well, was this person guilty or not? It's like they didn't go to trial, they're not guilty. You know, we don't know. I mean, and this is a difficult thing, because if something bad has happened, and we think we might have the right person, it's normal to want to do that. But what I'll tell you is that excuse, you know, the excuses of anarchists and terrorists, has been warped and used again, and again, and again. And we're much safer, as a society, with staying with the rule of law to address that.
But as far as the writing goes, I tend to have one major story I'm telling in each chapter. Even in the book about Nabokov, there was still one part of his life that was each chapter, so there's a narrative that's binding that. In this case, it's the prisoner with this book. And then have interstitial sections that are giving you more background and panoramic view, but immediately then going back to the personal.
And where you do it-- there are people who write more cinematically than I do, and I actually like sometimes resist that too. And I think I'd sell more books if I did it. It certainly is a way to be much more popular. But I think you can use a dose of that. If you do too much of it, I think, sometimes you warp it toward manufactured drama.
So there are times where I could have made things more dramatic, but I do have that sense of accountability to the history, that you don't always go for the thing that will necessarily make the most impact. You have to be accountable to the history that you're writing about too.
Even if you could pick a story that like would be really-- it's like, well, I'm not really sure that happened. There were several places where I tried to say, reports say. Not that it happened, but there were reports of this, because that gives you an idea it was talked about it in these terms, but some of this is apocryphal, you know, where you try to give the hint of that. But still gives you the idea of what language was being used around it at that time. You can still get the drama, but you got to reel it in a little bit sometimes.
So I'm happy to sign books. I'm happy to answer questions down here. Thank you for coming out.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
After the term "concentration camp" appeared in the 1890s, camps played a number of roles in wartime control of civilians. Internment during WWI normalized the concept globally and helped to usher in the Nazi system, which inaugurated the machinery of extermination. Even as the world tried to reckon with the singular nature of the Shoah, other camps persisted in its wake.
Andrea Pitzer, journalist and author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," explored this phenomenon and its staggering toll, October 17, 2017 at Goldwin Smith Hall. The event was sponsored by the Cornell Jewish Studies Program with support from the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Society for the Humanities, Institute for German Cultural Studies, and the Department of History.