Camps – Spaces of Exception

A review of Giorgio Agamben’s article “What is a camp?” (1994) In: Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg (ed.) The Holocaust – Theoretical Readings. Rutgers University Press 2003. pp. 252-256

By Emil Kjerte

It is a common view that what happened in the Nazi concentration camps was something completely unique, defying all logic. The Holocaust-survivor Yehiel De-Nur famously described Auschwitz as another planet “where people breathed according to different laws of nature.” 1 However , others argue that such an emphasis on the incomprehensibility of the camps obscures how they actually came into being. This is a point in case in the works of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who in the essay “What is a camp” locates the genesis of the camps within the context of modern politics. To be sure, it is not his goal to trivialize the Holocaust; rather he addresses how the Nazi-German camps emerged as spaces of exception, where the suspension of law made it possible to remove the legal rights of human beings, a feature he sees reproduced throughout the modern worldWhile some of the arguments in the article Verbs and the -s endinglack empirical grounding, he nevertheless addresses some important questions concerning the tendency of the modern nation-state to exclude groups of people from the realm of legal obligations.[/annotax]

In his essay, Agamben analyzes the Nazi concentration camps not as a historical object of the past but as something embedded in the political space of modern times, linked to the state of exception and the nation state’s regulation of human life. He argues that the first concentration camps evolved not out of ordinary law but instead through the suspension of the law, the state of exception, and this made it possible to deprive human beings of every political status, degrading them to the point where killing them would no longer constitute a crime. The author then contends that the birth of the camp is a modern phenomenon and directs attention to other camps such as the stadium in Bari where the Italian police herded illegal migrants in the early 1990s, suspended their rights, treating them not as political beings but instead as naked human life before sending them back to their host countries, or the detention zones of French international airports where foreigners seeking refugee status are kept. Agamben stresses that what unifies all these camps is that, in the absence of any legal rights, the well-being of the inmates is dependent solely on the civility and moral ethics of the captors. Consequently , he argues that since the camp is something intrinsic to the political system of our modern nation-states there must be a deep malfunction in the regulation of human life within this system.

Agamben’s universe of philosophical abstractions and legal concepts is highly complex, even bordering on the esoteric, and it is difficult to evaluate his essay without recourse to a comprehensive outline of a large body of theoretical works on the modern nation-state and bio-politics. However , for the sake of space only two points of criticism will be emphasized in this evaluation.

Firstly, Agamben’s assertion that the emergence of the extra-legal space of the Nazi concentration camps was the paramount necessary condition for the Holocaust to take place is somewhat simplified. As Timothy Snyder emphasizes, the image of the concentration camp as the worst element of Nazism is a misconception deriving from the images of the famished prisoners and decaying bodies of the camps discovered by the American and British troops as they invaded Germany in 1945.2 The majority of the Jewish victims died not in a concentration camp, but rather in the extermination facilities in Poland or by the bullets of the SS killing units in the German-occupied Soviet Union, a process which pertains more to Nazi-Germany’s involvement in the Second World than to the extra-legal spaces carved out by the concentrations camps that emerged inside Germany in 1933. While the advantage of Agamben’s essay is that it allows for other ways to conceive a camp than merely as a clearly delineated space enclosed by barbed-wire, Personalhis own focus on the concentration camps actually distracts focus from the larger zone of exception provided by the Nazis’ self-proclaimed “War of Annihilation” against the Soviet-Union[/annotax] .

Secondly, it have to / have got tohas to be emphasized that[/annotax] the disparity in the civility and moral ethics displayed by the captors in the various modern camps can be vast. While killings in a Nazi concentration camp are / werewere common, even normative, direct killings of migrants, in for example the detention zones of French airports, would constitute a transgression that would effectively nullify the legal impunity provided by the state of exception[/annotax] . It have to / have got tohas to be considered whether[/annotax] the nature of the various camps is not historically contingent on so many specific factors that Agamben’s focus on the state of exception and the state’s regulation of life merely appears as distracting overarching reductions.

Nevertheless , Agamben offers an interesting perspective, which scrutinizes the idea that democracy and totalitarianism constitute two fundamentally different entities, and he invites the reader to reflect upon the dark side of the modern nation-project in a compelling fashion.

Although a broad contextualization of the Nazi concentrations camps can always be criticized on empirical grounds and can also be accused of diminishing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Agamben’s efforts to develop and promote a mode of thinking aiming to resist exclusion and violation of human lives serve as valuable input in a world where barbed-wire fences, extrajudicial detentions and xenophobic rhetoric are ubiquitous. Echoing Hannah Arendt, he has understood that the crimes committed by the Nazi regime cannot simply be bracketed off as a historical aberration but rather concern all of humanity. In the same manner it is important to remember the words of the Buchenwald survivor David Rousset, written shortly after his liberation in 1945, “the existence of the camps is a warning … Under a new guise similar effects may appear tomorrow”.3


Engel, David The Holocaust, The Third Reich and the Jews. Harlow 2000
Snyder, Timothy Bloodlands – Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Vintage Books London 2010
Waxman, Zoë “Testimony and Representation” in: Dan Stone (ed.) The Historiography of the Holocaust. New York 2004. pp. 487-507


[1] Quoted in David Engel p.5
[2] Timothy Snyder p.382
[3] Quoted in Zoë Waxman p. 500