Why are Nazi Camps Different from Other Camps? Part I

This Essay will be published in six parts daily in remembrance of the six million Jews and other victims of the Shoah.


In the past US administration, both, media and politicians, assigned the same Nazi lexicon of “concentration camps” to the immigration crisis of the US-Mexico border. This hyperbole created a revisionist polemic of the comparison of border camps with the Nazi concentration camps which misappropriated a terminology that pre-dated the Holocaust -the British invented the term- but it acquired a new meaning after the Nazis turned them into genocide camps. Therefore, The moral equivalency between camps is not only unfair but it is a show of historical ignorance that minimizes the evil actions of the Nazis and the human suffering of the Jews and other minorities. Since there is no available definition that can satisfy the loaded meaning of concentration camps during the Holocaust, this essay will instead establish the factors that preceded the establishment of Nazi concentration camps that led to the Jewish genocide, making them unique in human history.

In order to differentiate the Jewish experience in Nazi concentration camps as a unique phenomenon in all of history, this essay will examine the a priori factors that led to the establishment and use of concentration camps for the Jewish genocide. These factors include ideology, laws, propaganda, accomplices, local and international reactions, followed by a conclusion highlighting the differences between Nazi camps and other camps, proposing a rethinking of the misappropriation of the Jewish experience and lexicon and exhorting individuals currently using the term “concentration camps” to find their own original vocabulary that matches the unfortunate immigrant experience without making parallels with the Nazi camps which only exacerbates an already compromised situation at the U.S. border.


The history of concentration camps of Nazi Germany did not start with Dachau but with Mein Kampf. Hitler’s anti-semitic and racial ideology which began an era of division between inferior and master races. Upon becoming leader of Nazi Germany, Hitler brought his ideas in Mein Kampf to reality through carefully orchestrated laws and actions that gave him the supreme judgement over life and death. How Hitler attained political power through bending the constitution to his will, led to the “Final Solution,” his plan for the extermination of all European Jewry. He became the absolute ruler by merging the offices of President and Chancellor to avoid power sharing. Then, he formulated his doctrine of racial hygiene —eugenics—, and anti-semitism combined with political pan-Germanism, expansionism, and living space (Lebensraum) with the goals of disposing of all non-Aryans in order to spread the Aryan seed all over Europe. Later, he surrounded himself with loyal accomplices in all branches of government who could execute his will unquestionably. This legal infrastructure was needed to promulgate the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of rights, property and citizenship that led the Nazis to incarcerate them in concentration camps. To give credence to these laws, Hitler created the Ministry of Propaganda to spread libels and conspiracy theories about Jews and justify their demise. He later began World War II after invading Poland to expand his reach of the majority of Jews in Europe where he established more deadly camps. And in a downright disgrace, Hitler was passively aided by an inexplicable indifference of ordinary Germans and international apathy.

Concentration camps were not born in a vacuum. They are the result of a legalized, maniac, demonic, anti-semitism that preceded them, and therefore, unique in history. While other nations, specifically Britain, had already introduced concentration camps in the nineteenth century to contain, rehabilitate, punish or impose forced labor on their perceived or real enemies, but not to exterminate them, the Nazi camps main objective was to wipe out a whole people from the face of the Earth. The Nazi obsession with the Jews is unlike any other anti-semitic animus seen in the history of the Jewish people. Since Biblical times until modernity, Jews were enslaved, attacked, converted, expelled by nations which never attempted their total extermination despite their intense tribal, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic hatred.


At the core of Nazi concentration camps lies Hitler’s racial ideology as formulated in Mein Kampf which like many of Hitler’s ideas is not original but borrowed from Social Darwinism, a late nineteenth century belief in the superiority of certain races whose physical characteristics shaped their intelligence, inner and outer strength, creativity, military power and so on. In this theory, all groups, races, or peoples carry within them traits that are passed from one generation to the next. No individual could overcome the qualities of race. When Charles Darwin produced The Origin of the Species and his theory of the “survival of the fittest,” he granted racist empires the tool of oppression, imperialism, and colonization with the Nazis using it for genocide of the “inferior races.” The Nazis adopted Darwin’s evolutionary theory and interpreted it as the need for the Aryan race to reproduce and multiply for their survival; its accumulation of land (Libenraum-living space) to support and feed that expanding population; and its vigilance in maintaining the purity of its gene pool to preserve the unique racial characteristics with which nature had equipped it for success in the struggle to survive.


Besides Darwin, Madison Grant, an American racist and anti-semite, also influenced Hitler’s eugenics beliefs. Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race (1916) inspired Hitler’s ideology and subsequent policies against Jews and other races. Together with Social Darwinism, Grant’s eugenics revealed the type of racism prevalent in America and Europe in the early twentieth century. For Grant, the caucasian race sat atop the hierarchical pyramid of races, while the negroids, mongoloids, and mediterraneans were at the bottom. By including Jews within the Mediterranean races, Grant automatically labeled the Jews a lower race with substandard qualities and intellect, unfit to mix with the superior Nordic races. His racial theories exacerbated the ancient anti-semitism in Europe and gave Nazi Germany further racial justification for the “Final Solution”. Grant’s racial hygiene was endorsed by Hitler who once in power expanded both eugenic research and a program of sterilization that became the first step towards racial experimentation and ultimately the murder of millions of Jews. “After becoming Fuhrer, Hitler wrote to Grant thanking him for his momentous work, stating that the book was “his Bible.” Grant’s book was widely read in Germany by eugenicists who founded societies such as the Heinrich Himmler’s Lebensraum Society to Preserve Typical Nordic Genes.

Hitler’s policy of expansionism to find Lebensraum or living space for the Aryan race was based on Grant’s ideas of the proliferation of the “master race” which embodied beauty, strength, and intelligence and was competing for survival with inferior races. Since each race sought to expand, and since the space on the Earth was finite, the struggle for survival resulted naturally in violent conquest and military confrontation, hence war was a necessary part of nature and the human condition. Hitler formulated the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor within the Nuremberg Laws based on his belief that assimilation of a member of one race into another culture or ethnic group was impossible because the original inherited traits could not change but they could only degenerate through so-called race-mixing. Therefore, Nazis conducted a perpetual purge of racial threats to the Aryan race through webs of organized terror to exterminate inferior races which they believed it was their duty to do if the Aryan race was to survive and propagate.

According to scholars in this survey, there is no analogy in any other country in the nineteenth or twentieth century of the phenomenon of the cult of racial purity at the total exclusion of other races. Britain, France, and Scandinavian countries who colonized Africa and Asia did not plan to exterminate races but dominate them and extract their natural resources. “None of the varieties of European nationalism —which were beginning to compete with each other at the time— assumed this biologically oriented form.”

During his rise as Fuhrer, Hitler exponentially heightened this racial ideology through legislation that divided the world into inferior races and superior races. More than any other people, the Jews were Hitler’s major obsession. He did not view Jews as a religious community, but as an inferior race. The problem with labeling the Jewish people as a race is not that is a blatant fallacy, but that in his view a race could not be converted, expelled, or fixed, but only exterminated. Hitler’s “Jewish Question” —what to do with the Jews— was not like the medieval question about what to do with the Jewish religion because its solution entailed conversion or expulsion; it was not like the French Emancipation question about Jewish allegiance to French nationhood because its solution was to deny rights to disloyal citizens, not extermination. For Hitler, Jews were a race and there was only one “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”: total annihilation. With the extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry, Hitler nearly succeeded where the European expulsions, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Eastern European pogroms had failed. Historian Yitzhak Arad best describes Hitler’s mind set: “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe, is a Hitlerian euphemism for the extermination of the Jewish people through a legal, military, and bestial plan that started in 1933 and continued with growing extremism with labor camps where Jews were worked and starved to death; mass shootings for which Jews were forced to dig their own graves; and ultimately, with concentration camps where Jews of all ages were gassed until their death. Six million children, women, men, elderly, were killed by Hitler and the Nazis’ intense hatred towards the world’s most ancient scapegoat: the Jew.” 


About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).