If Godwin has a law clerk, she is working overtime this week. I refer to the truism Godwin’s Law: that all arguments eventually end with Hitler and the Holocaust. Everyone, it seems, is hurling comparisons between the American detention centers housing refugee children at the Mexican border and Nazi concentration camps. Former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted an image of Auschwitz-Birkenau with the message, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”
While Fox News personality Laura Ingraham called the detention centers “essentially summer camps” and conservative commentator Ann Coulter simply decided that these minor prisoners are “child actors weeping and crying,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declared that the United States “isn’t Nazi Germany,” implying that the border separations suggest otherwise. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed comparisons by saying they were “a real exaggeration” and that “in Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.” He nonchalantly added, “but this is a serious matter,” as if the Holocaust were not.
We should all take deep breaths and examine the facts so that we can make a judicious comparison between U.S. policy and that of the Nazis. It can be done, but both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of abusing history here.
Hayden’s comment, for example, that he had walked the ramp at Birkenau where women and children were separated, is essentially false; Jewish women with children arriving at Auschwitz were generally all murdered immediately upon arrival. After seeing the inside of the U.S. refugee facilities, we can also safely say they aren’t the kind of summer camps we would send our children to, either.
Sessions’s characterization falls into a nether region between truth and falsehood. Perhaps his is the best comment to begin with precisely because it is a half-truth. Yes, after 1941, concentration camps held Jews to prevent them from leaving Germany — but also to consolidate them for extermination. However, for more than eight years earlier, the camps generally were used for the opposite purpose: to force Jews to emigrate from Germany by making life intolerable, in part by separating men from their families. This is precisely the kind of important historical nuance lost in the hysteria surrounding Trump’s callous immigration policy. There are valuable comparisons to be made, but they must be historically informed.
These detention facilities for refugee children can rightly be labeled “concentration camps.” The Nazis do not own the term irrevocably, as it refers to prisonlike facilities where individuals are forcibly detained because of who they are. That meaning was applied to the British camps in South Africa where the term was coined during the Boer War. It would also be appropriate for the U.S. “internment camps” for Japanese Americans during World War II. We can call today’s U.S. border detention centers “concentration camps” and be within the realm of historical accuracy. By the same token, they are not Auschwitz. These children are undergoing terrible trauma, but they are not being murdered.
A useful analogy requires that we move beyond a Google image search and truly interrogate history. If we do, we may arrive at the Camp de Rivesaltes, an ad hoc facility created from an empty military camp in southern France. Its first prisoners in 1938 were not Jews but Spanish refugees who had fought against Francisco Franco’s victorious fascists. They were fleeing inevitable persecution from the Spanish dictator. The goal of that temporary concentration camp was to prevent the further dispersion of the Spanish refugees and their settlement in France while a repatriation solution was found. It never was.
Between 1940 and 1942, the French interned Jewish refugee families fleeing Nazi oppression elsewhere in Europe in Rivesaltes for the same reason. Lists of those incarcerated include a transport of Czech Jewish children: Brothers Salomon and Abraham Davidovic were 13 and 14 when they arrived. Conditions deteriorated. Directors complained in 1941 of no heat. Illness spread. Babies and the elderly died. The situation worsened when the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime assumed control of the camp in 1942 and began deporting its 7,000 foreign Jewish refugee prisoners to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There, mothers and children were not separated but instead went to their deaths together.
The similarities between the Rivesaltes camp and the Trump administration’s camps for children should already be apparent: a temporary, insufficiently conceived facility designed to prevent foreigners from entering the country. And, as with Rivesaltes, officials have no real plan for what to do with them. Moreover, as historian Terrence Peterson emphasized, Rivesaltes “remained the go-to space for the French government simply because it existed. The infrastructure was in place that allowed the French state to simply shift unwanted populations into a controlled space rather than dealing substantively with changing migration policy or dealing with the human consequences of bad policy.”
Peterson, who is researching the long history of the Rivesaltes camp, also told me that the camp remained more or less in operation from 1939 through 1967 and then after 1985. Prisoners and refugees after the war included POWs, collaborators, Algerians and, in the 1980s, migrants waiting to be expelled from the country. The French government did little in the meantime to improve facilities from their wartime conditions.
What does Rivesaltes tell us about the current crisis in the United States? First, the problem with maintaining temporary facilities for holding large groups of people is that they often become permanent, without improvement, readily available for unknown future purposes. Second, Rivesaltes illustrates the dangers faced by interned populations: They remain unseen, isolated within a country, and subject to all manner of abuse with little oversight; children are, of course, the most vulnerable.
Last, and perhaps most ominously for our comparisons with the Holocaust, the camps can be the first step toward darker developments, as some have already argued. These “concentration camps” will not lead to gas chambers, but their existence may well lead to the erosion of respect for human rights, the rule of law and government accountability that characterized the Third Reich. Unless, of course, the children are all actors.