Internment, imprisoning people without trial, was not new in the era of totalitarian regimes, but it was the vast scale and systematic organization of the ‘camps system’ that symbolized the bureaucratic terror imposed on Europe in the ‘Age of Dictators’. Stalin consolidated his grip on the USSR by the use of terror against potential opponents. Vast prison camps in Siberia were used both for punishment and to exploit forced labour. The camps became the integrated system of repression known as the Gulag. During the Great Patriotic War from 1941 to 1945, the repression slackened slightly; but it was re-imposed after 1945. Even after the death of Stalin, it remained present in the Soviet Bloc until 1989.
In the Third Reich, concentration camps were built as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. As Hitler expanded his Nazi Empire from 1938, the system of repression spread across occupied Europe and became more and more extreme in ideology and methods. The machinery of terror: identifying ‘enemies of the state’, deportations, internment, forced labour, and ultimately death camps. As the Cold War developed after 1945, the ideological divisions between East and West were used to justify the continued use of repression, even by those acting in the name of democracy.
This was the historical context of the ‘camp system’: a system in which being innocent made no difference, in which the rights of the individual were submerged and dehumanized by political and racial ideologies, in which the lines between ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ became blurred. The former camps where all this happened, sites such as Łambinowice and Buchenwald, are now sites of remembrance where we come face to face with the painful issues of memory and commemoration.
This unit is made in the "Multi-faceted Memory: learning onsite and online about Nazi and Stalinist internment and concentration camps" project with the support of the Europe for Citizens programme of the European Union.
This module is published under the CC BY 4.0 licence.