A Project of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in Cooperation with the Einstein Forum, Potsdam

Berliner Colloquien zur Zeitgeschichte

Berliner Colloquienzur Zeitgeschichte

The World of the Camps: Exclusion, Social Control, and Violence in Transnational PerspectiveInternational Conference
Hosted by Christoph Jahr, Alan Kramer, Claudia Siebrecht
and Jens Thiel

14-16 April 2011

This conference located camps as a modern phenomenon within a longer historical perspective, linking them with much older topics of exclusion, social control, and violence. Camps are an invention of ›classical modernity‹, emerging in context of the global expansion of colonialism around 1900. They functioned as sites of detention for entire groups of population, often defined as aliens or enemies, frequently in the course of deportation. The camp has become a symbol of violence and warfare in the 20th century, not least since Giorgio Agamben’s dictum that the camp is ›the nomos of the modern‹, as matrix of the ›state of emergency‹. While mass internment could have genocidal consequences, the conference does not seek to focus on this radical culmination; instead, the phenomenon of the camp is to be investigated in the context of its origins.

In the first two sessions the main questions concern the emergence and function of camps in the colonial territories. Camps were the means to violent ethnic exclusion inside newly drawn borders; they served the purpose of social discipline and economic exploitation of the colonized. As in all other sections, the question will be discussed whether there were transnational learning processes as from the establishment of the first camps in Cuba in 1896.

Notwithstanding the advances in international law achieved by the turn of the century to ‘humanize’ war, non-combatants in camps had hardly any legal protection. This affected prisoners of war as well as those populations who lived outside the borders of nation states, which was the case both in colonized spaces as well as in the situation of unlimited violence in the First World War, as will be seen in the third session. After 1918 the militarized model of camps was not infrequently deployed for the control of migrants and refugees.

The origin and shift in function of camps in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stand at the centre of the fourth section. Here camps were the sites of repression and terror, and ultimately also the location of physical annihilation. However, alongside this camps also had an educative function. In the fifth session concentration camps are compared with other forms of camps in Nazi Germany in the Second World War; the relationship between forced labour and the camps will be analysed, and the history of the Japanese camps in occupied Korea will be compared with the camp systems of other authoritarian states.

After 1945 even post-fascist and democratic states could not do without the establishment of camps for very varied purposes. Thus camps arose for Displaced Persons, refugees, for the internment of insurgents in colonial liberation struggles, or for terrorist suspects. Is it thus possible perhaps to speak of the ›success story‹ of an institution that proves to have a certain continuity from the end of the 19th century to the early 21st century?


We would like to thank the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S. for their generous support.

Advisory Committee: Bernd Greiner: Hamburg Institute for Social Research Gerhard Hirschfeld: Library of Contemporary History, Stuttgart; Michael Wildt: Humboldt University Berlin.

Conference languages were German and English.

Speakers and Chairs


Interview with Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer and Richard Overy in Mittelweg 36 (in German)