Often when people think of the word “concentration camps” the first thing that comes to mind is the genocide of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population and other disadvantaged groups in the mid-20th century. However, historians and activists dispute restricting the usage of the term to the Holocaust, claiming that “death camps” is a more appropriate description of places like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. While this may seem like simple semantics, the issue lies in the efforts to accurately represent the history of other sites of exclusion and imprisonment, such as the camps at Tule Lake and Heart Mountain—two of the places where United States government detained Japanese Americans for the duration of the Second World War. Histories of this dark chapter in America’s history favor “internment,” but some complain that this term is too euphemistic. Below I have included the definitions of internment, intern, concentration camp, and death camp from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
- Internment: the act of interning someone or the state of being interned
- Intern: to confine or impound especially during a war
- Concentration camp: a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard —used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners
- Death camp: a concentration camp in which large numbers of prisoners are systematically killed
These definitions do not provide concrete answers as to whether a certain event in history can lay claim to terminology whose existence precedes the historical event itself. Yet, examining trends in the usage of these terms can explain how and why this semantic dispute became part of the memory of the Holocaust.
Using distance reading software like Google Ngram, MALLET, and MediaCloud I will examine the trends in usages of internment, concentration camp, and death camp, and combine my findings with research into public disagreements over describing camps not affiliated with the Holocaust as “concentration camps.” Some of the questions I plan to answer are
- When did people begin challenging the use of “concentration camps” to describe camps not affiliated with the Holocaust?
- Why did this shift occur?
- What can this tell us about the historiography of the Holocaust?
I hope that through this paper I can discover more about Holocaust memory and how Holocaust memory affects our remembrance of other instances of exclusion, imprisonment, and genocide.