Report: 11th European Summer School at the Ravensbrück Memorial

Camps in the Twentieth Century. Labor, Repression and Forced Migration from the Perspective of Gender History (28.08-02.09 2016)


The summer school took place over a whole week and welcomed several dozens of students, both graduate and undergraduate, as well as scholars at various stages of their careers. The focus was largely on the German-speaking area (both in terms of origin of the participants and their topics of research), but the efforts to add international dimension were also strong.

This report is short and surely far from comprehensive. Here, I reflect on the three main points that jumped out at me over the course of this week.

First, it’s the choice of the research topics; camps, be it labour or concentration camps, are a global phenomenon. They emerge in a wide variety of contexts, and that makes generalisations challenging. Still, acknowledging this variety is crucial in order to understand the conditions that can engender the emergence of camps: assuming that existence of camps was confined to the authoritarian states or to the military situations would be a dangerous simplification. The conference provided some precious movements towards this wider understanding: the presentations dealt not only with the camps that emerged in the 1930-1940s (i.e. Nazi and Soviet camps), but also looked into earlier and later periods  and various geographical contexts (e.g. research on the camps during the WWI by Jens Thiel from HU Berlin or the British camps in the 1950s colonial Kenya by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart from Cambridge). It would be very beneficial to integrate in the following conferences even wider selection of contexts: personally, I’m very grateful for the opportunities to get acquainted with the cases foreign to me, as this has very positive influence on the ways I think and analyse my own case.

Second point concerns the methodology of the camp research. The long tradition of looking at the camps as sites hermetically sealed from the wider society has been crumbling since a dozen of years. The research that challenges this perspective seeks to explore the regimes of labour coercion within and without the camps, connections between the camps and the surrounding communities, the borders of the camps — or a lack thereof. Another focus would be to look at how the ideas present in the society shaped the life of the camp inmates, or how the things that are innocuous or even considered  “productive” in the wider society, in the camps can be used as instruments of violence: Veronika Springmann (Berlin) made a strong contribution discussing sport and practices of violent constructions of gender in the Nazi camps. Presentation of Katherine R. Jolluck (Stanford) on women in the Soviet camps made a particularly strong point in this respect: the researcher looked at the changes of the position of women within the Soviet society and examined how the ideas about the “New Soviet Woman” affected the conditions of women in the camps and the ways the female inmates themselves thought about their incarceration and the work they were forced to perform.

The third observation is about the challenges experienced by some of the researchers compelled to study camps through the gender perspective. Despite the fact that the gender approach —judging from the title of the school — was supposed to be the uniting topic of the contributions, it was not primal for a quite a few of them. It has been noted frequently during the school that the gender perspective is inapplicable in many cases because in certain camps only men were incarcerated. That is a point valid only within the perspective I’ve mentioned before: that is, when we consider camps as completely separate and sealed from the society. However, as soon as we start examining the labour camps, for example, as a part of a bigger continuum of labour coercion, it becomes clear that even in the cases when we can only find men in the camps, the women are still not exempted from the forced labour. It might be exercised on another, less institutionalised or less documented, level and on other sites, but it is still there. Cases of exclusively male internment, for example, show a lot about the gender order and the ideas of maculinity and femininity present in the society. Moreover, the first concentration camps were created precisely to contain civilians, generally women and children (this is the case of the camps during the Anglo-Boer war or the Cuban war of independence). In other words, the gender perspective in camp research goes far beyond the idea of “women in the camps” and can profoundly change our understanding of why and how the camps were installed and run, and surely of how people lived through the camp experience.

It is thrilling to observe the variety of approaches and to get familiar with the exciting research that goes on in the camp studies, and this school was a great opportunity to do so. It was particularly great that the traditionally strong focus on the nazi camps was combined with the pioneering research of the lesser-known cases.

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