Latin Roots and Universal Suffering

A Review by Dalia Wassner

latin roots

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

In One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, Andrea Pitzer offers a thoughtful combination of investigative journalism and historical analysis that identifies the roots and commonalities across global iterations of concentration camps throughout the 20th century. The book lends poignant testimony to what it means for private citizens to be corralled time and again into spaces where human rights, legal processes and social relations dissolve. Claiming witness to the multiple—and multiplying—systematized instances of removal of human beings from their homes, and demanding accountability from the nations that have hosted the torturous machinations of the ensuing captivities, Pitzer diagnoses the past century as “the lost century.” 

Beginning in 1890s, Cuba and later the U.S. control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, extending of course to Nazi Europe and Soviet Russia of World War II, Communist China of the 1960s and ’70s, and the Southern Cone of Latin America during the Cold War, the book concludes finally in our current 21st century with a searing condemnation of North Korean prisons alongside ongoing U.S. use of Guantánamo Bay. Invoking Elie Wiesel’s harrowing testimony of the Holocaust, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed,” alongside Primo Levi’s assessment that the Shoah was not a singular occurrence, “It can happen, and it can happen everywhere,” Andrea Pitzer upholds the moral imperative to remember the Holocaust in its specific manifestations while also remaining aware and responsible to the concentration camp phenomenon writ large.  

Through extensive interviews of historians, activists, soldiers and lawyers, as well as accounts by survivors and camp guards alike, Pitzer demands that her audience reckon with the immoral and often illegal tactics that modern regimes have repeatedly adopted in service of civil wars. These are tactics of inhumanity that steadily exclude “the other” not only from participation in polity or society, but from a collective consciousness. To her study of the emergence and functioning of camps, Pitzer then adds the complicated aftermath whereby survivors and perpetrators again live together in societies once defined by the violent separation and abuse of the former by the latter. 

Pitzer’s journalistic fire is balanced by a grounded historical inclination, one that impels her to begin her book by tracing the reconcentración of indigenous Americans by Columbus, a pattern continued through the Spanish and Portuguese conquests to the south and the British and French conquests to the north. Subsequently describing the period of post-independence in the United States, Pitzer notes that the Lieber Code of Conduct, which gave Civil War generals the right to remove all suspected sympathizers from their homes, set an important precedent within U.S. and international law courts—including The Hague in 1899 and the Second Geneva Convention in 1906—one that lent the American Civil War some of its most devastating aspects, and which was instructional for the mass deportations and detentions of Nazi Germany. Pitzer thus demonstrates that as instrumental as bureaucratic efficiencies such as census taking and the invention of barbed wire and automatic weapons were to creating the infamous camps that would mark the 20th century, so too were the historical precedents that paved way for each subsequent iteration. 

Providing a clear moral judgment in the context of the first concentration camp studied in the work—the case of Cuba in the wake of its independence from Spain—Pitzer notes: “History is full of moments in which hindsight provides the only clear view. This is not one of them” (20). The author explores the deliberate tactics of cleansing the Cuban countryside of its inhabitants through a policy enunciated on October 21, 1896, summarily accomplished within only two weeks, and describes the Spanish agenda to ensure control of the island as the European country tried desperately to maintain its final foothold in the Americas. The very pursuit of such terrorizing practices influenced U.S. involvement in the war in defense of Cuba—an involvement as much pursued for U.S. political and economic interest and popularized at home in defense of human rights. Pitzer then shows how similar concentration camp tactics were imposed by U.S. troops in the Philippines. Thus, the same war that marked the finality of Spain’s overseas empire transformed the United States from a past colony to an imperial power that adopted the repressive policies of its vanquished foe. Pitzer’s global history of concentration camps, from its inception, thereby demands that the United States confront its own checkered past as it consolidated a national identity through “reconcentrations,” civil war and imperial ambitions, all in preparation to become a global power of the 20th century.

While the book traces many important connections across the globe, I would like to focus on the section covering Latin American concentration camps of the military dictatorships of Chile (1973-1990) and Argentina (1976-1983). In the chapter titled “Bastard Children of the Camps,” Pitzer describes how national public spaces such as sports stadiums were converted into concentration camps: “Agüero headed from the gallery to the closest entrance gate and waited for the guard to let him through. Stepping onto the track he had run as a child, he walked the straightaway and the curve as he circled the soccer field. At his assigned spot he stood waiting for his torturers, taking in the grass, the sky, and tens of thousands if seats, row after empty row” (333). On the same landscape of his childhood, Agüero now faced the embodiment of “atomized terror:” “Illegal detention, it turned out, could be tucked away in the every day world, carried out with few people being the wiser” (354). Through such testimony, the reader witnesses the appropriation of public spaces in service of the dissolution of democracy: “friends pretended to be strangers to protect themselves and each other” (329). These spaces of terror, claims Pitzer, were the “illegitimate offspring of Western democracies,” since the dictatorships of the Southern Cone were supported in secret by the United States as part and parcel of the Cold War within the Global South, including in the case of Latin America, the Guatemalan and Paraguayan coups of 1954, Brazil in the 1960s and Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and ‘80s. 

In the example of Felipe Agüero, a victim of Pinochet’s coup in 1973 Chile, Pitzer observes that he tried as much as possible to maintain a notion of humanity not defined in terms set by his captors. Thus, instead of stealing a glimpse of his torturers when he had a chance, Agüero opted to turn away, “frightened to see the face of someone willing to do these things to him” (336).  Pitzer thus lends testimony to the determination of the detained to resist the forces and justifications of inhumanity enacted on them. While describing the historical precedents to these camps, as well as the international coordination that at times was instrumental to their existence, Pitzer additionally notes that victims of concentration camps too carried in their minds global and historical frameworks for understanding their own circumstances. In Agüero’s words: “the prisoners, looking at the ground and covered with blankets, appeared markedly worse than any prisoners he had seen thus far. Their shattered aspects brought to mind images of Nazi camp survivors. He wondered where these people had been and what they had gone through to look like that” (339). 

In my own research, I have studied subversive culture created by women of the Southern Cone who have urged the importance of post-Holocaust collective memory in bringing reckoning—if not justice—to the humanitarian abuses enacted in their own lifetimes. Creating subversive journalism and theater, producing novels and poetry, women of Argentina and Chile have dialogued with the ghosts of the Holocaust to bring truth to the horrors of their own lifetimes, experienced a generation and ocean apart. As Pitzer outlines the multi-generational and international aspects of the camps themselves, so too has a cadre of Latin American feminist figures emerged to emphasize the multi-directionality of culture in bringing an end to the global proliferation of camps and their goals of genocide. 

Recalling Hannah Arendt’s now famous phrase “banality of evil,” which emerged in relation to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Pitzer outlines the repeated instances in which people around the world have been removed from their homes and treated “as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead and some evil spirit gone mad were amusing himself by stopping them for a while between life and death” (7). And yet, Pitzer shows that prisoners or detainees of the multiple camps of the last century have fiercely struggled to maintain their own humanity even while experiencing systematized machinations of de-humanization. Pitzer’s work implores of the current generation: How will the 21st century be defined?

 

Dalia Wassner, Ph.D. is a Research Associate and the Director of the Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.