Rees-Mogg's obfuscation around imperial nostalgia is a cynical ploy to romanticise the atrocities commited under the British Empire, argues Dominic Alexander
It should be a minimum requirement of taking part in public life to exercise some degree of care and honesty about the facts, most particularly when these involve wartime atrocities and crimes against humanity. Rees-Mogg’s defence of the British use of concentration camps in the Second Boer War of 1900-02, and his rejection of the comparison to Nazi concentration camps, certainly fail the test in terms of accuracy and care, while raising disturbing questions about his commitment to honesty in debate.
In defending Churchill’s reputation on BBC One’s ‘Question Time’ programme on 14th February, Rees-Mogg downplayed the significance of the deaths of Boer women and children in the concentration camps into which they had been corralled, claiming that the death-rate was the same as in the city of Glasgow in the same period. He went on to express outrage that ‘from the comfort of the twenty-first century’, the British camps were being compared to Hitler’s concentration camps.
It doesn’t take much research to show that this claim about the death rate in the British camps is outrageously inaccurate.
Readily available statistics for the death rate in Glasgow in 1900, show that it was about twenty per thousand of the population, or 2%, while the overall death-rate in Scotland in the same period was 18.5 or 1.85%, showing a significantly higher rate for the predominantly working-class city.
In contrast, the figures for the dead in the British concentration camps in southern Africa show that, of the total white Boer population, about 10% died over the two years. The total number of white Boers in the camps was about 115 000, and the number of those who died was up to 28,000. Depending on the exact figures, this gives a rough death rate of at the very least one fifth, and up to 24%, or nearly a quarter. It is worth noting also that these figures do not include the numbers of black Africans who were interned in separate camps and also endured terrible conditions. The estimated deaths in these camps range from over 14 000 to 20 000. This is a very long way from the death rate for Glasgow at the time.
A possible source of Rees-Mogg’s obfuscation of these facts would appear to be a Wikipedia article on the subject, which says:
‘The civil authority took over the running of the camps from Kitchener and the British command and by February 1902 the annual death-rate in the concentration camps for white inmates dropped to 6.9 percent and eventually to 2 percent, which was a lower rate than pertained in many British cities at the time.’
Whatever the accuracy of this statement, it does not support Rees-Mogg’s claim which clearly intended to cover the entire period of the camps. Taken as a whole, the death-rate was obviously much higher than just in the closing period, when the policy had changed, and civilians were no longer being rounded-up from areas the British military were occupying.
Rees-Mogg makes the further claim that the camps were there purely for the protection of the people involved, and that people ‘were being taken there so that they could be fed’. ‘You’ve got to understand the history of what was going on’, he says, and yet he clearly only knows the British propaganda of the time, and is wilfully unaware of the real history. The British conducted a scorched-earth policy, taking the civilians into camps, so that they would not be able to provide support for the Boer guerrillas. Those who died in the camps, of whom the great majority were children, died of extreme malnutrition, and of epidemic diseases caused by overcrowding and squalid conditions.
This is what Adam Hochschild, a careful historian, has to say about British actions, in the book To End All Wars:
‘… wherever the guerrillas attacked, British soldiers ruthlessly destroyed Boer farm buildings, crops in the field, and food stocks for dozens of miles in all directions. From some 30,000 farms, black pillars of smoke rose into the sky and flocks of vultures swooped down to feast on more than three million slaughtered sheep. French, Haig, and other commanders ordered troops to cut down fruit trees and poison wells, to use their bayonets to slash open bags of grain, and to torch families’ furniture and possession along with their homes (pg. 33)’
If the Boer civilian population needed to be brought into concentration camps to be fed, the reason and the responsibility is very clear. The intention was not to exterminate the Boer population, but the result was genocidal. These actions constitute reprisals against civilians, a type of action for which the Nazis were held responsible after the Second World War. A serious-minded look at the history of warfare and atrocity shows that the comparison between the British and Hitler’s concentration camps is not outrageous but one that should be made.
All things have an origin, and the origin of the Nazi atrocities does lie in the brutal and cavalier treatment of populations under the colonial rule of the British, the French, and others. A disregard for human life that leads to mass death is a moral failure of the worst possible kind. This is certainly what the British were guilty of in the Boer War, and it provided the institutional example upon which the Nazis were to build.
In defending the British concentration camps, Rees-Mogg is a brazen defender of British colonial atrocities, and a recycler of specious propaganda. He enters even darker territory when he tries to fend off the obvious comparison with the Nazi concentration camps. Here he claims that his opponent is ‘confusing concentration camps with Hitler’s extermination camps’. Unfortunately, this skirts a dangerous obfuscation that has historically been used by far-right elements to deny the Holocaust altogether. Rees-Mogg was not trying to do that, but his argument resembles exploitation of the same confusion.
This is the distinction between the concentration camps and the extermination camps. The Nazis set up concentration camps immediately after taking power in 1933, mainly to hold political prisoners, many of whom died there. These developed into the camps, such as Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, that held very large numbers of Jewish people, and which are familiar from the horrendous images of piles of emaciated corpses. These were not what are termed the extermination camps. Those were the death factories that were developed later, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka or Sobibór, where the gas-chambers enabled the rapid killing of far larger numbers of people than in the concentration camps.
About one million Jews were starved to death, or died of disease and mis-treatment, in the concentration camps. About three million were murdered in the extermination camps. The rest of the six million were killed in massacres, or by the mobile gas trucks that were a precursor to the gas chambers.
The tactic of Holocaust deniers has been to rely on confusion and ignorance about the distinction between concentration camps and extermination camps, in order to inject doubt about whether the numbers involved in the Holocaust really stack up. It is absolutely vital to be clear about which is which.
Rees-Mogg claimed that ‘it was not systematic murder’ that was involved in the British concentration camps. However, the scorched earth policy that made them necessary could only have had the result of mass death. A moral distinction between the British failure to provide for the people it had forced into camps, and the deaths in the Nazi concentration camps, exists, but is on a continuum of responsibility for crimes against humanity, not of a different order. Another comparison that could be made is with the man-made Ukrainian famine under Stalin’s rule; as with British actions, this was the result of a deliberate policy that deprived people of food and resources. Would Rees-Mogg feel better for the British to be on a moral par with Stalin?
Rees-Mogg poses as a man of erudition and sober rationality, but he is a transparent charlatan. His statements at best demonstrate a very superficial grasp of the history he so patronisingly claims to understand better than others. At worst, he shows a cavalier and deeply irresponsible approach to the facts about the worst genocide in world history, for which he should be held to account.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
More articles from this author
- The South Sea Bubble: England's first stock market crisis 300 years ago
- Liberalism At Large: The World According to the Economist - book review
- Democratic history challenges imperialist and racist history
- Invisible Leviathan: Marx’s Law of Value in the Twilight of Capitalism - book review
- Crisis capitalism: why state intervention is not socialism
- Why are key workers so low paid?
- Winston Churchill: he fought for his class, never ours