I don’t really know what to say to Rep. Liz Cheney.
She lashed out yesterday after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that the American government was operating “concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” Mobilizing all of the self-righteous condescension elite WASPs usually aim at those they consider racial inferiors, Rep. Cheney tweeted back:
“Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”
… And I really don’t know what to say; I don’t know where to begin. Rep. Cheney’s comment was a masterpiece of disingenuous ignorance at whose core is the most demeaning imaginable insult to the memory of the Six Million. Maybe I would begin by saying “Please Rep. Cheney. do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history.”
Is it too much to expect an elected official to actually know the history she publicly accuses others of ignoring? Indeed, the representative from Wyoming and former second-daughter makes an error typical of Gentiles who have learned just enough about the history of the Holocaust to know that it is important and pass the SAT, but not enough to truly understand it. She conflates the Death Camps with concentration camps.
The Nazis began setting up a vast network of special prison camps for political prisoners, “undesirables,” and enemies of the state from the moment they came to power in Germany in 1933. They ultimately built more than 12,000 special holding facilities, ranging from concentration camps (Konzentrationslager) like Dachau to labor camps (Arbeitslager) like Kodichevo, in Belarus. These were places of horror, where Socialists, Communists, homosexuals, political dissidents, Slavs, Polish prisoners of war, and people of many ethnic and religious backgrounds were systematically starved and worked to death for the glory of the Third Reich.
But the vast majority of these concentration camps were not Death Camps, and the vast majority of the inmates were not Jews.
Of the thousands of Nazi camps, only eight were extermination camps (Vernichtungslager), and every Jew knows their names, even if a conservative Christian like Rep. Cheney does not. They were Treblinka, Bełżec, Chełmno, Sobibór, Majdanek, Maly Trostinets, Sajmište, and the most dreadful of them all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. These were “special camps” built to implement the Nazi Final Solution after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.
The Death Camps might have been concentration camps, but not all concentration camps were Death Camps. Most were not. The first Nazi concentration camp opened near the Bavarian town of Dachau in March 1933 to hold political prisoners arrested in the Nazi rise to power. This was two and half years before the Nuremburg Laws stripped Germany’s Jews of their political civil rights, more than five years before Kristallnacht, and almost a decade before Wannsee.
The horror of the Holocaust is so vast that it is all but unimaginable, and that might be why people like Rep. Cheney are so inclined to reduce it to broad, simplistic categories. However, this is not a luxury that Jews enjoy. The Holocaust is complex, and both its history and our memory of it defy simple reductionism. The Nazis murdered about 11 million non-combatants, including 6 million Jews and anywhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million Roma. They also murdered some 4 million Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, political dissidents, disabled people, and “undesirables.”
The Nazi genocide was vast, and claimed not only Jewish and Roma lives. However, only Jews and Roma were intentionally exterminated. The Nazis explicitly reserved these two groups for “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung). Make no mistake, the Polish and LGBT victims of the Holocaust suffered and died in unimaginable numbers, but the Nazis only had a policy for the intentional extermination of Jews and Roma. Many people, of many identities and backgrounds, were victims of Nazi brutality in concentration camps, but the experience of the Death Camps, and of intentional extermination, was a uniquely Jewish and Roma experience.
Roughly half of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust died in the Death Camps. The rest, and most of the Roma, were massacred in places like at Babi Yar in 1941, and systematically executed in the field as part of Operation Reinhardt after 1942, as Christopher Browning documented in Ordinary Men. Many others died of starvation and disease in the ghettos and Arbeitslager. Neither Death Camps nor concentration camps are the whole story of the Holocaust.
And this is important because concentration camps weren’t even a Nazi invention. The Spanish Empire established camps they called reconcentrados in Cuba to imprison rebels and runaway slaves during the Ten Years War in the 1870s. Between 1899 and 1902, the British built more than a hundred facilities that they called concentration camps in South Africa to intern Boer and Zulu rebels, as well as noncombatants, in order to control the local population during the Second Boer war and, as one official noted, to “break the will” of the resistance.
Concentration camps were an explicit part of American Policy decades before Nazis even existed. After the United States reneged on a promise to recognize the independence of the First Philippine Republic after it helped us win the Spanish-American War in 1899, American General J. Franklin Bell ordered the creation of concentration camps to control the potentially-rebellious local population. Testifying before the Senate Philippines Committee in 1902, the US Army’s Assistant Adjutant-General Col. Arthur Wagner blithely noted that Bell’s men torched villages to drive Filipino civilians into the camps that eventually held almost 300,000 people “for their own protection.” More than 8,000 died of disease and starvation.
Wagner testified under oath that the US campaign in the Philippines was a “civilized” war. “I have known General Bell intimately for twenty-eight years,” he said, “and I have never known a braver or more humane man.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that term “concentration camp” had a wholesome American ring to it long before the Nazis – inspired by British and American practice – built their own. Nothing could be more American, in fact. In 1920, the New York Times approvingly reported on a War Department decision “designating Camp Upton as a concentration camp” to hold “Reds” captured in the Palmer Raids, pending their immigration hearings and inevitable deportation. The camp, located on Long Island, NY, also held undesirable “Red” immigrants detained immediately upon arrival at Ellis Island.
A little over two decades later, the Army reopened the concentration camp facilities at Camp Upton to hold almost a thousand Japanese Americans as part of the East Coast component of Executive Order 9066. Some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in places like Camp Upton, Manzanar, and Topaz. ICE has even repurposed one of these camps – Fort Sill, where Geronimo and his Apache people were incarcerated – to hold the overflow of immigrant detainees from the southern border.
So I would tell Rep. Cheney to take her own advice and spend a few minutes learning “some actual history.” Despite the example set by the president she supports so passionately, facts matter. There is nothing specifically Nazi about concentration camps; in fact, they are as American as apple pie. Displaying such abject ignorance of history to score political points is both disingenuous and dishonest.
Bust mostly, I would say:
“Rep. Cheney, just stop. Your righteous indignation nauseates me. Your sanctimonious ignorance of history is bad enough. But do not appropriate the suffering of my people to score political points.”
The Holocaust, antisemitism, and the horrors of Jewish history are not the property of elite, white, conservative Christians like Rep. Cheney to cynically deploy as a political cudgel against women of color like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. People like Rep. Cheney were the same people – the General Bells and Colonel Wagners – who commanded the US Army in the Philippines, built the concentration camps, and killed as many as a million Filipino civilians. These were the A. Mitchell Palmers and Woodrow Wilsons who placed “undesirable immigrants” with names like Goldberg and Martino in a concentration camp and deported them without trial. These were the Franklin Roosevelts and Cordell Hulls who turned away Jewish refugees from American ports and sent American citizens to camps in Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma during the Second World War.
These are, as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has noted, the same people who hold children in cages and whole families in the reactivated concentration camps of American history.
I would say: “Rep. Cheney, neither you, nor the white supremacist bigot you serve has the moral authority to rewrite history and deny the brutal reality of the America you have created. You demean the memory of the Six Million.”
It is a disgrace. And it must stop.