Concentration Camps in Poland, 1921

JF Ptak Science Books  

The name of the concentration camp comes to us from the Cuban war of independence (1895-1897) with its first appearance in print (according to the OED) in 18971, when the Spanish imprisoned and impressed Cuban families in large compounds. The idea and the terminology was again used shortly thereafter in the Boer War (1899-1902), this time seemingly with more cruelty and savagery. These were the people who had escaped the systematic and revolting scorched earth policy initiated by Field Marshall Kitchener2 (who was in command of events after 29 November 1900), where the Boers were simply hunted and killed, or if not killed, then imprisoned; farms were destroyed, towns torched, livestock killed.  In general, the country of the Boers (all of whom were seen as guerrillas) was being taken and killed.  The survivors of this onslaught were sent to the concentrations camps.  

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This more modern 1921 reference to a concentration camp comes to us from British Committee of the Russian Red Cross Fund in Great Britain, First report, 1919-1921.  This was a tough time for the people of Russia–the Soviet Union–who were on the beginning of a mostly long-arc downward.  Just seven years beyond the beginning of World War I they were experiencing enormous “hardships” brought about by fighting the war, complicated by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the resulting civil wars.  Then of course there was the end of the war, and the beginning fo the war with Poland in 1919/1920.  And then another in a series of natural/mostly-unnatural famines in 1921.  This particular famine–killing about 5 million people in this year–was brought about mostly by the Revolution and prodrazvyorstka–the practice of forcing peasant farmers into selling whatever “surplus” food they produced to the state at the state’s prices, and also by being forced to supply food to the Red Army and to urban areas.  Add a drought to this mix, and it lead to absolute disaster for the peasantry

Russian Red Cross Fund wasn’t yet concerned with the Povolzhye Famine, not yet, addressing the plight of the country’s response to six long hard years of war, civil war and war again–a poor country made poorer and more miserable, this fund made some attempt at relieving at least a small burden of this impossible situation within the country.  

What caught my eye was in the discussion of providing relief to the camps of Russian refugee expatriates, the report detailing some of those in Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia and Finland.  And Poland.  The Polish camp, however, was different, and described the attempt to send relief to the 140,000 in “the Concentration Camps”, and then describing another of 110,000 “Russians who have been interned according to the Riga Peace Terms, and that the Poles are quite unable to do anything for them”.    (This pamphlet is available for purchase through our lbog bookstore.)                      

The reference took me by surprise–I knew a tiny bit about the Russia/Poland War at this time but hadn’t realized the extent of it, nor the extent of the Russian refugees in the country nor the amount of soldiers (and their families) within the concentration camps.  These are not the extermination camps that would appear in Poland two decades later, but the conditions of the people in the camps led to the deaths of thousands.  


“Concentration Camp”, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

A camp in which large numbers of people, esp. political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution.The term was first used during the Cuban war of independence (1895–8) to denote camps in which rural Cubans were interned by the Spanish military authorities, and was subsequently used of the camps instituted by Lord Kitchener during the Boer War (1899–1902). Concentration camp is now most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe from 1933 to 1945, among the most infamous being Dachau, Belsen, and Auschwitz.

1897   Orleans (Indiana) Progress 20 May   American citizens must not be starved or otherwise executed in Spanish concentration camps in Cuba.
1901   Parl. Deb. 4th Ser. 90 180   The policy of placing the women and children confined in the concentration camps in South Africa, whose husbands and fathers are in the field, on reduced rations.
1927   C. Chapman Hist. Cuban Republic iv. 81   All Cubans (men, women, and children) were ordered to move into garrisoned Spanish towns or concentration camps.
1934   Ann. Reg. 1933 173   Germany..For dealing with the masses of prisoners special concentration camps were opened.
1940   H. G. Wells Babes in Darkling Wood iii. i. 234   The White Paper of Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps and elsewhere.
1941   Manch. Guardian Weekly 31 Jan. 82   They make raids on Jewish families and demand contributions, with the threat that refusal to comply will mean the concentration camp.
1945   M. K. Doherty Let. 16 July in J. Cornell & R. L. Russell Lett. from Belsen (2000) iii. 36   Within a stone’s throw of the unutterable squalor and filth of theconcentration camp..were the magnificent quarters provided for units of the German Army.

2. Kitchener (who full title without his bloody shoes on was Field Marshal The Rt. Hon. Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, ADC, PC) described his vision for ending the Second Boer War in the Parkenham’s history: his aim was to  “flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organized like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly ‘bag’ of killed, captured and wounded, and to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children…. It was the clearance of civilians—uprooting a whole nation—that would come to dominate the last phase of the war.”

By: Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries

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