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Mortal calculations

Studies on the "diplomacy of the camps" and the "Holocaust economy" reveal the banal subtleties of evil


Even after the “invention” of the banality of evil proposed by Hannah Arendt, it is difficult to think about concentration camps, whether past or present, as areas born out of pragmatism. Recent domestic and foreign research, however, has revealed that such camps, above all, serve the practical purposes of totalitarian governments, either as a source of forced labor, in the name of the modernization of societies, or as a means of isolating the people regarded as “undesirable”. Unfortunately, this was not a German “privilege” and it also occurred in Brazil. “As a result of the genocide in concentration camps, the expression started representing the ‘hell’ of the Nazi and Stalinist camps. This representation has been fixed in our imagination, keeping us from thinking about other concentration camps as limbo or purgatory, as preceding stages of the passage into hell,” warns historian Priscila Perazzo, whose doctoral thesis, “Prisoners of War: the ‘subjects of the Axis’ in the Brazilian concentration camps,” was supported by FAPESP  and defended at the University of São Paulo (USP), has just been released as a book (Humanitas/FAPESP, 384 pages, R$ 40).

The researcher reveals that the internment of German and Japanese immigrants in Brazil, during World War II, was a pragmatic “element of the negotiation of interests between Brazil and the United States in the field of international relations,” besides being an opportunity for Brazil’s New State to enhance its extremist nationalistic policy, by excluding the “undesirable elements” of races that were not white or that kept themselves to themselves within their foreign communities. Although it recognizes the immeasurable difference between the European extermination camps and the Brazilian concentration camps, Priscila warns us about what she calls the “imagination trap.” “We, the human rights militants, often insist that camps only existed as part of Hitler’s and Stalin’s terrible experiences. We must not fall into this trap, because in this struggle, it is not up to us to measure human suffering, but to avoid it, regardless of its intensity,” she ponders. After all, Brazil not only resorted to camps but did so early. Back in 1915, it opened the Alagadiço concentration camp in the state of Ceará, where more than 10 thousand migrants who were fleeing that year’s drought were interned inside barbed wire fences, being given little food and under the watchful eyes of soldiers, a procedure that was repeated, in a rationalized version, during the World War II years.

“The expression ‘concentration camp’ became associated solely with the ferocity of the Holocaust and the power of this imagination kept us from seeing  similarities with the investments of the Brazilian State in the Ceará concentration camps,” states historian Frederico de Castro Neves, from the Federal University of Ceará, and coordinator of the research group in charge of the project “Drought and the City”, that plans to identify the social control mechanisms that were put in place to regulate behavior and the free movement of the migrants within Brazil during dry spells, including the concentration camps. It was the way found to isolate the city of Fortaleza [capital of Ceará] from the “undesirable” migrants, as well as providing a good source of forced labor for the Vargas regime from the 1930’s to the 1940’s. “What about you? Have you seen many horrors in the concentration camp?” inquires the backwoodsman Vicente, a character in Rachel de Queiroz’s novel O quinze (1930), about the 1915 drought, in which the arrival of these migrants and their internment upon leaving the trains evokes Auschwitz: “They were excited at the sight of the descending wave, and saw themselves carried through the sandy square, and they walked along a rocky pavement, to be chucked into a wire corral where an endless number of people moved.” At Alagadiço, the dead bodies piled up waiting for transport. In the words of one witness, “The concentration camp made me feel certain that we would soon have a cemetery over there.”

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Holocaust economy
The Brazilian studies, in a way, are part of an international academic trend that started, a few years ago, to discuss the so-called “Holocaust economy,” a model employed by the Nazis to “modernize” Germany through a complex industrial structure with the imprint of Nazi capitalism, based on concentration camps, as well as a means of covering the manpower shortage during the war effort. “The economic benefits derived from the appropriation of the Jewish community’s assets and the exploitation of the prisoners into forced labor by various companies are factors that helped to postpone Germany’s economic collapse during World War II,” writes the historian Ania Cavalcante in her doctoral thesis, “Holocaust and capitalism”, recently defended at USP. “The war changed the concentration camps objectives. The Holocaust was not a linear process, because there was no consensus among Nazi leadership as to whether the prisoner extermination policy should take precedence over the use of forced labor.”

The labor camps system in Germany and in the occupied countries brought together 2,498 firms, 20 thousand “civilian labor camps” and some 10 to 12 million people who under inhuman conditions were driven into forced labor to keep up the German war economy. “Thus, in 1944, when Germany felt it was losing the war, massive extermination was reduced because of the war effort demands.” Auschwitz was the symbol of the “Holocaust economy.” “This concentration and extermination camp represented, on one hand, a productive aspect of an industrial and banking structure associated with the sort of capitalism that Nazism preached. Its industrial structure was based on having prisoners forcibly work for German firms (IG-Farben, Siemens and Krupp), in particular in the manufacturing of the synthetic rubber provided by IG-Farben, Europe’s largest chemical cartel at the time, whose affiliate Degesh produced the Zykon B gas used in the concentration camps’ gas chambers,” notes Ania. “Auschwitz’s banking structure, in turn, was based on financing provided by Deutsche Bank for building the camps’ structures, such as the Buna plant, the crematoriums and the SS sheds. The camps’ crematoriums were supplied by Topf & Söhne, whose engineers planned them for maximum efficiency, with a direct association between technology, modernity and industrial-scale murder, the destructive aspect of which Auschwitz is also a symbol,” states the researchers.

Estimates indicate that Himmler’s camps provided the Nazi war machine with at least 500 thousand workers at the end of 1944. “To this end, even the mortality of the camps was controlled, as up to 1942, it was of such a frightening level that it kept the SS from reaching the objectives that Himmler demanded. The camps’ medical services were reactivated and prisoners’ rations increased.” Private-sector German industry “invited” the SS to set up a partnership agreement whereby it would supply camp prisoners, given that the cost-benefit ratio of forced labor, even with the “rates” charged by the SS and the productivity of the prisoners, was highly favorable to the employers, although the Reich did not allow the companies to keep all the extra profit. To comply with the companies demand for labor, the SS increased mass deportations from the occupied countries in order to come up with an increasing number of workers and to replace those who died from illness or exhaustion. “It is astonishing to realize the pragmatic concessions that the Nazis made to the detriment of their ideological imperatives when circumstances dictated it, a compromise between work and destruction,” states historian Wolf Gruner from the University of Southern California and the author of the study Jewish forced labor under the Nazis: economic needs and racial aims, recently published by the Cambridge University Press.

“The Third Reich’s leadership improvised a new strategy that combined the industrial mobilization effort with some of the most destructive components of the Nazi ideology. At the same time, in a terrible paradox, the forced labor of concentration camp prisoners, while killing thousands from exhaustion, enabled many to survive extermination, the guaranteed fate of those regarded as unfit for forced labor,” analyzes Gruner. “Clearly, means were found to reconcile the ideological genocide drive with a rational exploitation system, totally functional from the viewpoint of the individual employer, although not so from the perspective of the economy as a whole.” A labor camp system was born out of this scheme that benefited 2,500 German companies, thanks to the enslavement of 12 million people. Thus, strategic and economic concerns were important in the implementation of this policy, overriding racially driven mass murder. “Up until the first half of the twentieth century, the situation of civilians during wars was not the subject of human rights discussions. It was the horror of World War II that left posterity with a concern about individual guarantees, although over the course of the last 60 years we continue to witness such situations,” notes Priscila. The concentration camp concept, actually, is born out of a pragmatic and prosaic need. “The idea of the internment of civilians considered ‘undesirable’ in concentration camps arose in the Boer War (1899 to 1902) between the English and the Afrikaners in South Africa. It was then that for the first time a system of custody on an ‘industrial scale’ was employed, with the excuse that these were people ‘whose offenses could not be proven and who could not be convicted through standard legal procedures,’ as Hannah Arendt observed.”


Almost 30 thousand Boer men, women and children died of disease and hunger in these camps that Lord Kitchener, the commander of the British troops in South Africa, justified as a “practical need”, far from condemning them as inhuman. The national concentration camps, openly defined as such by our authorities, were also set up for pragmatic reasons. “Officially, the camps arose because of the impossibility of the federal and state governments to accommodate the entire contingent of imprisoned foreigners as from 1942. The official line of discourse always referred to them as concentration camps. After all, as they were regarded as prisoners of war by the State, the so-called ‘subjects of the Axis’ had to be interned as ‘enemies’ in these enclosures, although the conditions in these places were far removed from those stipulated in the 1929 Geneva Convention,” explains Priscila. A substantial effort was even put into divulging, in Brazil and abroad, an image of the humanitarian treatment that, contrary to what the Germans did in their camps, was allegedly dispensed to the prisoners in Brazil. This was done to keep the Americans happy, as they were a fundamental player and a very practical one in the creation of the camps. “The Brazilian government embraced the repression of Nazi-Fascism to align itself with the Allies, so that the treatment given to the ‘subjects of the Axis’ ceased to be merely a domestic issue to become an element of international negotiation,” she observes. Treating these foreigners as prisoners of war was what drove the dialogue with the Allies, a negotiating element for the inclusion of Brazil in the world scene. “What was sought was US support for the achievement of a hegemonic position in South America, a position that Argentina was also vying for, although it had turned down the possibility of cozying up to Washington. Vargas was aware that he could draw advantages from the disputes in this continent in order to build a national and modern State with international status,” she analyses.

Meanwhile, according to the researcher, regarding the nationalism that the Vargas administration pursued, this internment was equally interesting, as it enabled the nationalist policies to become effective, taking out of free circulation those elements that the State regarded with suspicion because, generally speaking, they were reluctant to give up their national values or did not fit in with the Vargas plans for a ‘white’ Brazil. “If the persecution of the Germans formed an integral part of the ethnic and political project of the Vargas administration and, until 1942, had little to do with the war in Europe, the Japanese were the victims of domestic policy, which intended to contain the ‘yellow peril.’ Since 1934, they had ceased to be ‘desirable’ immigrants, as there was a wish to reconstitute the Brazilian race through ‘whitening it.’ This also explains why the Italians were less persecuted: by and large, their integration in the country was far better and they were aligned with the standards of the New State.” For Priscila, just as it is impossible to be certain that the Japanese immigrants confined within American camps (some 110 thousand of them were imprisoned by the Americans, who claimed that this was a “military necessity”) would have engaged in acts of treason had they remained free, interning the “subjects of the Axis” had a pragmatic political meaning that was linked to both the field of Brazil-US negotiations and the New State’s pre-1942 policies, rather than expressing a true need to intern these foreigners in concentration camps as a form of repression.

Government initiative
“The establishment of the Brazilian concentration camps, by adapting jails and penal colonies that had already existed in São Paulo, Rio, Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Sul, was a Brazilian government initiative to satisfy US desires and its pressures on Latin America.” This becomes evident in the careful legal measures that the Vargas government took. “There could be no incompatibility between the internal legal measures concerning the foreigners from countries that were at war with Brazil and the international provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention. If the country wanted to win US support as a South American power, it was necessary to comply with the institutions and the rules.”

Hence the need, Priscila continues, to deal with the “enemies” as interned civilians and to submit them, by extension, to the same treatment reserved for prisoners of war, a condition for Brazil to show itself “with dignity” among the major powers. “As a result, the foreigners started getting international protection, contrary to Brazilian intentions. If the war, on one hand, harmed these foreigners, on the other, it ensured that their imprisonment complied with the international rules that the Vargas administration claimed it wanted to comply with, leaving them less vulnerable to the arbitrary decisions of the New State’s domestic policy,” she says. This is notably analogous to the survival of the German concentration camp prisoners turned into slaves. One must also keep in mind that taking such “care” of prisoners was a showcase for the Americans to see and a far cry from the typical cruelty with which Brazilian political prisoners were treated, for instance, at Ilha Grande, a prison adapted for the internment of some “subjects of the Axis;” or, alternatively, totally incoherent in relation to the New State’s cruel anti-Semitic policy of selecting the foreigners that could and could not take refuge in Brazil. Even the label “subjects of the Axis” allows one to glimpse the more direct interests of Vargas nationalism, because, besides resorting to the jargon of war propaganda, it highlighted that these people answered to a power other than the Brazilian dictator and that, therefore, they must be kept apart, for political reasons, from the totally Brazilian society that was to be invented. Thus, the camps became the platform of a domestic and international project.


The experience, as we have already mentioned, was not novel, having been employed in Ceará during the drought-driven social movements. “However, in 1932, for the first time, the State’s intervention during a drought in the Ceará semi-desert was conducted in a coordinated and centralized fashion. From 1877 to 1932, a new structure was put in place to deal with the poverty to which the drought had lent visibility, as a result of which a new relationship was established between the migrants, the government and city inhabitants,” analyzes Neves. Thus, he notes, a broad program of concentration camps was created, which the migrants were encouraged to enter but prohibited from leaving; this was implemented with the full support of the Federal Intervention Office of the State of Ceará. To avoid the “tumultuous inflow” of starving migrants into Fortaleza, five camps were set up near the main points of access to the capital, drawing those farm workers who had lost their crops. Two smaller camps were located at strategic points within Fortaleza, linked to the train stations that brought in these famished people, and keeping them from freely moving about. “Once at the camp, the migrant was obliged to remain there throughout the drought and to submit himself to the housing, behavior and work circumstances dictated by those who directed such places.” At one point, the largest of the camps, in the town of Crato, housed 60 thousand people. The possibility of Brazil becoming involved in World War II strengthened the State’s direct intervention. “It was an element that favored direct intervention in the market for jobs and food, as had occurred in 1932. The war climate favored authoritarian solutions,” states Frederico. As was the case in Europe, the migrants were transformed into a work force, but, contrary to Germanic precision, here there was an excess of workers, which led to unexpected disturbances in the work routine. “There was the confrontation between a technical rationality geared toward high productivity and making the most of the available resources at the lowest cost, on one hand, and the need to ‘step up aid,’ on the other.”

The Amazon Region
Now the technically oriented people entered the scene. “In their view, the migrants should be distributed around the country in construction projects and services to be defined solely by the appropriate technical body,” notes the researcher. From this rational perception, the notion of a “rubber army” arose, with the transfer of the northeastern migrants to the rubber-producing areas of the Amazon Region, in keeping with the “war effort” spirit, using cheap or free labor. The shipments were only suspended after Brazilian ships were torpedoed, as ships were the form of transport for this almost-forced contingent of workers. “At the same time, new concentration camps were organized in the capital, to avoid the traffic of undesired migrants and, in October, the Alagadiço camp was reopened.” From 1930 to 1945, notes the historian, the pattern of the relations between the interned migrants and the authorities was based on the principles of economic liberalism, on the “free market”, combining authoritarian paternalism elements (the presence of the authorities at these sites, control of the job market, and practices similar to “the protection of the poor”) with a classical liberal approach. Whether in the field of diplomacy or of economics, the concentration camps fulfilled their practical and productive functions. The prisoners’ only consolation with such “forced utility” can perhaps be expressed by the verses of Balada dos mortos nos campos de concentração [Ballad of the dead in the concentration camps], by Vinicius de Moraes: “Corpses of Belsen and Buchenwald!/ Thou art the humus of the earth / From whence the tree of punishment / Shall give the gallows its timber / And from which the fruit of peace / Shall drop onto the ground of war.”