In the days since U.S. border protection agents released video of immigrants being kept in cages, and the first detained children began arriving behind the barbed-wire fences of a new government camp at Tornillo, Texas, people across the country have been struggling over how to think about what the Trump administration is doing. Some, horrified by the images and a leaked recording of children plaintively crying for the mothers and fathers from whose arms they’d been torn, have drawn comparisons to concentration camps of the past—particularly the most notorious ones of all, those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. For others that comparison is going too far. “Stop already with the Nazi and Hitler analogies. Really. Stop,” conservative writer John Podhoretz tweeted. “What’s happening is its own kind of bad and you court discrediting the seriousness of your complaints about it by overstating things so tastelessly and wrongly.”
This is not just a debate over semantics. How we categorize what is happening on the Southern border has everything to do with how the public and lawmakers will respond. That is why Trump administration officials have spent so much time trying to justify, lie, and shift blame for their new policy. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to confront the concentration camp label on Fox News, which he tried incoherently to deflect. It’s obviously true that the Customs and Border Protection camp at Tornillo is no Auschwitz. But in dismissing any such historical comparisons out of hand, people are making the common mistake of reading history backward—looking only at the endpoint of a decadeslong process and ignoring the hard lessons humanity has learned, again and again, about where a policy like the one President Donald Trump and his supporters are now implementing can go. To see what I mean, you have to start at the beginning of the short and brutal history of the concentration camp.
Concentration camps were born out of war—not in Europe, but Latin America. In 1896, the Spanish empire was trying desperately to hold onto one of its last remaining colonies, Cuba. Independence wars had been raging there for three decades, and the fight wasn’t going well for Spain. Cuban revolutionaries, known as mambises, used ambushes, dynamite, and their deep knowledge of Cuba’s mountainous countryside to defeat colonial reinforcements. Believing the mambises’ advantage lay in the support and intelligence they received from rural communities, the island’s Spanish governor, Gen. Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, declared a new policy he called, euphemistically, reconcentración. Starting on Oct. 21, 1896, all civilians had to move behind the barbed wire of a handful of garrison towns controlled by the Spanish army. Any Cuban found moving freely or transporting food through the countryside was subject to execution. Knowing from the start that controlling the people required controlling information, Weyler also set out to aggressively censor any news critical of what he was doing.