HIS-20092| The history of the camp

Information about the module and resources for preparation over the summer

Module overview

When we hear the word ‘camp’, we normally think of the Nazi concentration/death camps or the Soviet labour camps. So camps are linked to some of the darkest periods and forces of the 20th century. But think of this: we use the same word about refugee facilities to indicate ‘shelter’ and protection. So what exactly is the camp? And why focus on the modern uses of the camp? For sure camps have existed for millennia, in one form or another. Yet something did change from the late-19th century that made the camps more pervasive, more brutal, and/or more destructive. Why?

The 20th century has been widely seen as a ‘dark’ period, where the forces of modernity were combined with sovereign political power to produce new, unprecedentedly brutal and destructive technologies of violence. This violence has taken place in specific, physically and socially demarcated spaces, usually invisible to, or deliberately concealed from, the rest of society.
Such dedicated ‘spaces of violence’ have always existed - in the form of detention and confinement facilities (for example, prison, asylums, labour camps). However, starting from the late-19th century and continuing into the 20th century, modernity supplied a set of very different, much more extreme technologies of confinement, punishment, and retribution.
This module will examine the origins and (modern) history of the modern camp, exploring a range of theoretical perspectives and case studies from the last hundred years. The first two weeks deal with theoretical approaches and tools for the analysis of camps. The rest of the module is organised chronologically, with each week focused on a specific place and theme.

Weekly themes

The camp in history
Some theory: modernity, discipline, and the ‘state of exception
Colonial camps: laboratory of the modern camps?
The Soviet GULAG system
The Nazi camp system
Internment camps in WW1 and WW2
Cold War (1): the camps of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
Cold War (2): camps and detention centres in Latin America
The refugee camp: shelter or prison?
Refugee camps as spaces of violence: Shatila (1982) and Srebrenica (1995)
Democracies and the uses of the camp

The camp in history: introduction
Modernity, discipline, and the ‘state of exception’
Colonial camps: laboratory of the modern camp?
The Soviet GULAG camp system
The Nazi camp system
Internment camps in WW1 and WW2
Cold War (1): the camps of the Khmer Rouge
Cold War (2): Camps and detention centres in Latin America
The refugee camp: shelter or prison?
Refugee camp as space of violence: Shatila (1982) and Srebrenica (1995)
Democracies and the uses of the camp


Portfolio: 40% [c. 2000 words in total]
The portfolio is a series of small tasks, to be completed every two weeks. These vary from commenting on a source (text or image) to creating an exhibition on a camp chosen by you to recording to writing a review of a secondary/online source to producing a short slideshow.
Take-home exam: 60% [c. 2000 words in total]
This is a 24-hour exam paper featuring a combination of theoretical/comparative questions and textual/visual sources to comment on.

If you want a head start...

You do not need to do any reading ahead of the module. However it is always helpful to do a little bit of reading and thinking ahead of the beginning of the module. If you are curious, try the following.


Items in bold are very highly recommended and will be used extensively in the course of the module.
Stone, Dan. Concentration Camps: A Short History. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Møller, Bjorn. Refugees, Prisoners and Camps. Cham: Springer, 2014.
Manz, Stefan, Panikos Panayi, and Matthew Stibbe, eds. Internment During the First World War: A Mass Global Phenomenon. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.
Wachsmann, Nikolaus, and Jane Caplan, eds. Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
Mühlhahn, Klaus. “The Concentration Camp in Global Historical Perspective.” History Compass 8 (2010): 543–61.
Totten, Samuel, and WIlliam S Parsons, eds. Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Think about ...

Why are we using the same word (‘camp’) for something as brutal as a concentration or a death facility and a refugee space?
Are camps prisons? Are prisons camps?
How important are the following standard features in a camp
a demarcated space, usually with a wall or fence?
a watch tower?
the camp’s hierarchy?
Are the modern uses of the camp different to earlier historical periods?
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