“Concentration Camps” and Holocaust Memory: Using Distance Reading to Understand the Semantics of Memorialization (Print Project Proposal)

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

  1. When did people begin challenging the use of “concentration camps” to describe camps not affiliated with the Holocaust?
  2. Why did this shift occur?
  3. 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.

3 Replies to ““Concentration Camps” and Holocaust Memory: Using Distance Reading to Understand the Semantics of Memorialization (Print Project Proposal)”

  1. I love that you’re diving into this topic, as controversial as it can be. If anyone can untangle the semantics of death camps/concentration camps/internment camps, it’s historians!

    My question is, what sources would you use for this project? Books? Newspaper reports and op-eds? Blog posts? And do you anticipate that usage of these terms changes depending on the medium (e.g. print versus digital)?

  2. Hi! I love to see someone interested in topics like this because sometimes historians stray from the controversy and what is deemed dark and painful just to avoid anything difficult. That being said I actually wrote my first research seminar paper on the memory of the Holocaust and Zionism specifically in concentration camp survivors so seeing this project almost feels like a validation of the importance of this topic.
    Some questions I had: will you be looking into Zionist/American Jewish representation of Diaspora Jews and how they discussed the camps as, post-liberation, Jewish people began to pour into Israel? And will you be using specifically more modern, mainstream media? Or will you be looking into the way non-Holocaust survivors discuss the camps vs. actual survivors? And, if the language is different (i.e. non-survivors prefer death camps but survivors prefer concentration camps), how do we decide which term gets used?

  3. I think you have identified a context where google n-gram could be useful for exploring history and memory. Overall I think you are already delving into a great set of questions and you have identified a relevant set of terms for doing this research.

    If you were to run with this as your course project, I think your best bet would be to round out your term list and go deeper into exploring relationships between terms over time in google n-gram instead of thinking of ways to also use other tools like MALLET. For many of those other tools you need to extract and then load sets of texts into the systems and that would likely be a lot of work.

    If you did run with this as an n-gram project, I think you could take the walking in London paper that we read that used n-gram as a model for your research. If you went that way, I think you would want to generate some longer lists of one and two word terms and phrases that have strong relationships to how the holocaust is discussed and how it is referenced in relation to genocide and human rights and then look to see if you can identify some particularly interesting trends in the corpus over time.

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