Concentration Camps

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1953 Article

Concentration Camps in Soviet Russia existed as long as the Soviet Union itself. Without them Soviet Communism was unthinkable. They played an extraordinary role in internal politics as well as in the national economy. Concentration camps were used as a means to secure Communism in power, to silence the entire country, burying all its liberties, and in part to attain to its present economic status.

The removal of opposing political elements from the middle classes and military circles and their concentration in complete isolation in remote regions of the gigantic nation began while the struggle of the Communists against the counterrevolutionaries under Yudenich, Kolchak, Denikin, and Wrangel was still in progress. During those early years (1917-1925), opposing elements were often simply shot. But later, when it became apparent to many sympathizers that their aims were being betrayed, they turned hostile to the party; these former comrades could not be simply shot; hence the party in power reverted to the czarist practice of banishing them to remote places.

Solovetsk, an ancient monastery, with an extensive complex of land and buildings on various islands of the White Sea, had already in the 1920's become notorious as a place of exile and a symbol of the system. Though other concentration camps were reopened in Siberia, Solovetsk was the most used and acquired a certain tragic notoriety.

Since the original purpose of these camps was the isolation of dangerous elements, the work done by them was of minor importance. In those early years of political and economic instability the care of the prisoners was very primitive and brutal; there was practically no hope of release. After some years, especially after 1929, when the reign of terror and violence was established throughout the entire country, concentration camps were thoroughly reorganized and turned into slave labor camps. Ordinary criminals were also sent here. Now the work performed by the prisoners became as important to the camps as the concept of exile and punishment; the work was also an important factor in the economy of the nation.

No statistics had been assembled by 1950, but it is known that large numbers of Mennonites were sent to the concentration camps, particularly from 1928 on, and that thousands of them perished under the terrible conditions in the camps.

The notorious concentration camps of the German National Socialist government 1933-1945 (Dachau, Belsen, Oswiezcim, etc.) were not forced labor camps but actual mass prisons for the mass slaughter of Jews and detention of political prisoners and enemies of the regime. So far as is known, no German Mennonites were detained in these camps, except Hermann Epp, a member of the Danzig church board. Two Dutch Mennonite ministers, however, died in German concentration camps; they were A. Keuter of The Hague (1943) and A. du Croix of Winschoten (1943). The prisoner of war camps, and refugee camps operated by all governments during the war and after, are not properly called concentration camps.--Jacob A. Neufeld

1988 Article

Governments have at all times attempted to suppress and eliminate unpopular persons (through imprisonment, ghetto, exile). At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the practice of combining larger groups of people into "concentration camps" for the purpose of dominating them or for misusing them as hostages began (Spain in Cuba, 1895; United States in Mindanao [[[Philippines|Philippines]]], 1900; England in the Boer War, 1901). Whereas concentration camps in countries with a democratic, rule-of-law constitution can be maintained only temporarily, due to the protests of the population, totalitarian states (Soviet Union, Germany from 1933 to 1945, military dictatorships or "one-party-states") grasp at this method permanently in order to isolate or to terrorize (supposed) opponents on racist, idealistic, or political grounds; to exploit labor forces; and, in the worst case, to annihilate entire groups of people (genocide). Concentration camps are just such an instrument of power for depriving the rights of and exterminating opponents and for the intimidation of the people.

In only one case did Mennonites in Germany under National Socialism come into some contact with a concentration camp. In Stutthof, located approximately 30 km. (20 mi.) east of Danzig (Gdansk), near a main Mennonite settlement area, a concentration camp was set up in 1939. From here, in the later war years, prisoners were sent as laborers to surrounding farms, among them Mennonite farms. According to oral reports, these laborers were as a rule treated fairly by Mennonite employers; on the other hand, Mennonites expressed no concern about the concentration camps, nor did they render resistance of any kind. In the years 1973 and 1980 German Mennonite youth organized work camps on the terrain of this former Stutthof, within the framework of Aktion Sühnezeichen, a German Protestant peace service organization.

Together with millions of other people Mennonites suffered in the concentration camps of the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and 1930s, chiefly men (the more prosperous farmers, preachers, teachers) were arrested; as a rule they never returned. In the World War II and following, Mennonites were exiled into central Asia as members of the German minority; many of them were put into camps. In the 1970s and 1980s leading members of Christian church bodies judged to be illegal were sentenced to long and often multiple terms in concentration camps.

By the late 1980s there were, in many countries of Africa, Asia, and South America, arrangements comparable to concentration camps for the liquidation of alleged political opponents. It is not known whether Mennonites have to suffer in these camps; certainly in some countries Mennonites, as members of an ethnic or tribal minority (Chinese Mennonites in Indonesia, Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe), are victims of measures of suppression. The internment of people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II, to whom Mennonites, among others, ministered; or the frequently wretched or brutal treatment of prisoners-of-war in World War II by Germans, Japanese, and Allies (in Germany in the summer of 1945); cannot, strictly speaking, be compared to actual concentration camps.--Peter J. Foth

See also: PersecutionSpetskomandantura


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Fast, G. Im Schatten des Todes. Winnipeg, MB: Regehr's Printing, 1956.

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Neufeld, Herta. Im Paradies der Arbeiter und Bauern. Hannover: Karl-F. Bangemann Verlag, 1986.

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Töws, A. A. Mennonitische Märtyrer. Winnipeg, MB, 1949.

Annual reports and country reports by Amnesty International.

Author(s) Jacob A. Neufeld
Peter J. Foth
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neufeld, Jacob A. and Peter J. Foth. "Concentration Camps." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 21 Feb 2024.

APA style

Neufeld, Jacob A. and Peter J. Foth. (1987). Concentration Camps. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 February 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 662-663; v. 5, p. 177. All rights reserved.

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