When many of us think of the name “concentration camp” we immediately think Nazi Germany and Hitler. But did you know that the concentration camp concept was not created by the Germans? And no it was not created by the British with the Boer War. It was created by none other than Spain. And why Spain? Because their colonial rule in the New World was threatened. Note, the Spanish were the first to colonize the New World via Christopher Columbus.
Since the time of Columbus’ landing, Cuba was one of the prized colonial possessions of Spain with its fertile land and strategic location between the Americas. In the late 1800s, Cuba, after the Ten Years War and many years of rebellion against the Spanish crown, finally was close to freeing itself from colonial rule. A Cuban insurrection began on February 24, 1895 with uprisings all across the island.
Even though the rebels were outnumbered and lacked the same amount of weaponry as the Spanish militia, they were succeeding in getting close to capturing the island thanks to the work of Cuba Libre leaders like Maximo Gomez who knew destroying beloved plantations was one way to get the attention of Spanish leadership. Out of fear that the rebels would succeed, the Spanish Cuban governor, Arsenio Martinez Campos thought of a strategy to kill the movement to independence. Campos wrote a letter to the Spanish prime minister about his idea to isolate rebels by relocating hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants into Spanish-held cities behind barbed wire, which he referred to as “reconcentración”. They would be re-concentrated in an area with no resources and isolated from freedom fighters. By doing this rebels would be prevented from convincing other civilians to join their side and fight for their independence.
However, this idea would not be something that Campos would not execute himself. He wrote to Spain the following:
“I cannot, as the representative of a civilized nation, be the first to give the example of cruelty and intransigence.”
For Campos this would be a moral dilemma as rebels had shown mercy to the Spanish wounded and he could not do such a thing to those who he considered to be honorable therefore he resigned from his position as governor. In his place Spain installed Valeriano Weyler, a man whose nickname was “The Butcher”. As soon as he arrived on the island, The Butcher carried out the act of relocating several hundreds of thousands of civilians like cattle behind barbed wire. 300,000 men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes or else suffer getting shot to death by the the Spanish militia. Within a year, many “concentrados” were near to death or already dead. Disease, hunger, poor treatments, punishments, torture, murder, and horrific living conditions eventually took the lives of more than 150,000 people. Also, by emptying the land of a sympathetic population, and then burning crops, preventing their replanting, and driving away livestock, the Spanish military made the countryside inhospitable to the rebels.
The idea of reconcentración is believed to have come about as a form of forced relocation tactics similar to the Native American reservation or the Spanish colonial mission. When the United States newspapers began reporting on the condition of these reconcentración camps, many Americans shipped goods to the civilians. This is when the United States decided to get involved.
Well this is what we were told was the reason that the U.S. went to war with Spain. But the truth is that U.S. businessmen began monopolizing on the devalued sugar markets in Cuba after the Ten Years’ War. More than 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the U.S. and 40% of imports to Cuba came from the U.S. (sounds similar to Hawaii doesn’t it). Cuba’s total exports to the U.S. were almost twelve times larger than the export to Spain. As unrest continued in Cuba, American import/export with Cuba was threatened with the outcome of Cuba’s uncertain future. So to avoid further disruption to their interests in Cuba, the U.S. would help Cuba gain independence, thereby gaining a closer trading relationship and more say in the political doings of Cuba.
Before going to war, the U.S. government under William McKinley as president, started peaceful talks with Spain towards Cuban independence. Some changes were made and “The Butcher” was recalled back to Spain but on February 15, 1898 the US warship USS Maine exploded and sank on its way to Cuba. The USS Maine’s purpose was to sail to Havana, Cuba to ensure the safety of American citizens and interests, and to underscore the urgent need for reform. However with the explosion, America was ready for war.
The United States led the world to believe that their purpose was to free Cuba from its colonial oppressor, as they had freed themselves from British colonial rule in the late 1700s. Making a call to arms before Congress, President William McKinley said of the policy of reconcentración:
“It was not civilized warfare. It was extermination. The only peace it could beget was that of the wilderness and the grave.”
After defeating Spain in Cuba which would be referred to as the Spanish-American War, in a matter of months (three months, three weeks, and two days), the 1898 Treaty of Paris, negotiated on terms favorable to the U.S. which allowed it temporary control of Cuba and ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine islands. The cession of the Philippines involved payment of $20 million ($610 million today) to Spain by the U.S. to cover infrastructure owned by Spain.
As the American troops arrived in reconcentración areas they could not believe their eyes. One army officer wrote:
“It seems way out of the world without a sight of the sea—in fact, more like some suburb of hell.”
From then on, reconcentración or what we know them now as concentration camps were used to exterminate undesirable populations throughout the world by forced labor, to clear contested areas, to punish suspected rebel sympathizers, and as a punishment against guerrilla fighters whose wives and children were interned. Most of all, concentration camps made civilians into proxies in order to get at combatants who had dared defy the ruling power.
So the truth here is, Germany did not create the concentration camp, they just optimized it to meet their purpose of Jewish extinction only 30 years later. Humans are really terrible man.