These immigrants arrived peacefully. Many fled violence in their home countries. And yet they were ordered into the camp, to be held indefinitely. While a more moderate administration had begun these detentions, a new right-wing regime was accelerating them. Packed into the overcrowded camp, many of these immigrants would be sent back to the very countries they fled, in many cases facing death.
Welcome to France, 1940.
In the late 1930s, after years of relatively inclusive immigration policies, the French government began to crack down, preparing a former tile factory as a camp to hold migrants, many of them fleeing Nazi persecution. Rather than finding a haven in France, people were detained in increasingly dangerous, overcrowded conditions at the Camp des Milles.
The history of Camp des Milles is instructive for Americans today as we learn of the horrors taking place in the Border Patrol camps at the southern border. These facilities, holding Central American asylum seekers in deteriorating conditions, have drawn comparisons to concentration camps. Even though the United States has its own long history of using camps — most infamously, those interning Japanese Americans during World War II — many Americans downplay the idea that a democracy could be capable of treating peaceful immigrants in such an explicitly dehumanizing way today. They doubt that the border camps could herald a more insidious campaign of dehumanization.
But what happened at the Camp des Milles should remind us that concentrating migrants into camps is dangerous and deadly — even when done by a democracy. Once the detention camp was built, successive regimes found ways to designate enemies to detain, at first foreign nationals, then “undesirable” citizens.
After Nazi Germany launched World War II by invading Poland in 1939, France responded by declaring war against Germany two days later. Just two days after declaring war, the government of France’s democratic Third Republic released a list of “official enemies” of the state: German nationals, who were promptly gathered and sent to hastily constructed camps, including at the Camp des Milles just outside the picturesque town of Aix-en-Provence in southern France.
The “ressortissants ennemis,” or “enemy aliens,” detained at Les Milles were far from a Nazi fifth column. For the most part, they were the exact opposite, refugees from Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria. Indeed, during the 1930s, France was the only major Western country to maintain an open-door immigration policy, becoming a haven for 3 million foreigners — including up to 60,000 Jews and thousands of other refugees from fascism — by the decade’s end.
But refugees in France faced increasing xenophobia, anti-Semitism and red-baiting. Léon Blum, the Jewish socialist prime minister who advocated a generous policy toward refugees, was nearly beaten to death by a right-wing gang in 1936 and had held office only for a year when his tenuous coalition fell apart amid an increasingly polarized political situation.
By 1938, with German refugees demonized as paradoxically being both warmongers working to undermine the official policy of appeasement and a potential fifth column, a new center-right coalition under Prime Minister Édouard Daladier began taking a harsher stance toward migrants. France had tightened its borders and curtailed the movement of recent refugees, before the war had even begun.
After the war’s outbreak, the government engaged in widespread, indiscriminate internment of noncitizens. Among those sent to the Camp des Milles were leftist and Jewish artists who had fled the Nazi regime, such as the painter Max Ernst and photographer Hans Bellmer. The German Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, whose books the Nazis had burned in 1933, was detained in the Camp des Milles as an enemy of the French state six years later.
In the early months of Les Milles, guards were relatively lenient, allowing detained artists to produce hundreds of works of art, including murals on the camp walls. Some of the most well-known artists and intellectuals detained there, like Ernst, were released after only a few weeks or months, by merit of good connections. In April 1940, the Camp des Milles held only 400 prisoners.
But in May, when the Nazis launched their invasion of France, the Third Republic arrested an additional 3,000 immigrants, most of whom were sent to Les Milles. Then, in June, Paris fell. As a new far-right government was established in Vichy under Marshal Philippe Pétain, it claimed sovereignty over southern France, including Les Milles. Things at the camp took a turn for the worse.
First, under the terms of an armistice with Germany, Vichy agreed to hand over prisoners. People who had been made stateless by the Nazis, fled to France for safety and were detained by the French were now being sent back, to Dachau.
The Vichy regime didn’t empty the camp, however. Replacing the deported detainees were “undesirables” — political dissidents, remaining refugees, Romani people, LGBTQ people and anyone who stood in the way of the hyper-nationalist Vichy regime’s socially retrograde order. By 1942, conditions at the camp were wretched. Even a Vichy inspector was aghast: “Overcrowding had brought about the spread of lice and fleas. … This state of affairs was completely unacceptable.”
As Vichy’s government began voluntarily rounding up Jews, French and foreign alike, more than 2,000 were detained at Les Milles before eventually being sent to Auschwitz. By the time the Camp des Milles was closed at the end of 1942 — German occupiers transformed it into a munitions plant, and after the war, it reverted to being a tilemaking factory — about 10,000 people of 38 nationalities had been detained there.
Were it not for the testimony of detainees like Feuchtwanger (who published “The Devil in France,” a memoir) and the later activism of Jewish organizations to save the site from destruction in the 1980s, few people today would know that some of France’s worst human rights abuses began with the xenophobic policies of a democratic government — not a far-right or wartime one.
The Camp des Milles is open today to the public as a museum. Its walls display images drawn by people detained there. NPR recently reported that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is seeking to add to its collection drawings made by children held in Customs and Border Protection detention. These may serve as a reminder to future generations of the abuses at America’s border camps.
But the camps remain open, and history shows that as long as they do, the detention, persecution and dehumanization of immigrants will only escalate. Close them now.