During the twelve years from 1933 until 1945, the concentration camp operated as a terror society. In this pioneering book, the renowned German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky looks at the concentration camp from the inside as a laboratory of cruelty and a system of absolute power built on extreme violence, starvation, "terror labor," and the business-like extermination of human beings.
Based on historical documents and the reports of survivors, the book details how the resistance of prisoners was broken down. Arbitrary terror and routine violence destroyed personal identity and social solidarity, disrupted the very ideas of time and space, perverted human work into torture, and unleashed innumerable atrocities. As a result, daily life was reduced to a permanent struggle for survival, even as the meaning of self-preservation was extinguished. Sofsky takes us from the searing, unforgettable image of the Muselmann--Auschwitz jargon for the "walking dead"--to chronicles of epidemics, terror punishments, selections, and torture.
The society of the camp was dominated by the S.S. and a system of graduated and forced collaboration which turned selected victims into accomplices of terror. Sofsky shows that the S.S. was not a rigid bureaucracy, but a system with ample room for autonomy. The S.S. demanded individual initiative of its members. Consequently, although they were not required to torment or murder prisoners, officers and guards often exploited their freedom to do so--in passing or on a whim, with cause, or without.
The order of terror described by Sofsky culminated in the organized murder of millions of European Jews and Gypsies in the death-factories of Auschwitz and Treblinka. By the end of this book, Sofsky shows that the German concentration camp system cannot be seen as a temporary lapse into barbarism. Instead, it must be conceived as a product of modern civilization, where institutionalized, state-run human cruelty became possible with or without the mobilizing feelings of hatred.
The Nazi concentration camps illustrate the Dostoevskian doctrine that where there is no God, everything is permitted. While the camps had many rules, there were no laws, and certainly no justice. In this lucidly translated volume, award-winning German sociologist Sofsky sets out to analyze the organization of dominance in the camps and concludes that they were places of "absolute power; not a means to an end, but an end in itself." Indifferently ruled by the SS, which delegated responsibility for the day-to-day running to prisoner-functionaries, the lagers were divided into classes, with German political prisoners at the top, and Jews, Poles, and Russians at the bottom. Whether beaten, worked to death or left to die of disease, their lives were worthless, and their pain meaningful only in the pleasure it provided to the torturers. They were nothing, so nothing done to them mattered. Sofsky emphasizes that the murderers, ordinary people who were suffused with a spirit of "camaraderie" and a faith that they wouldn't be punished, did more than was required. "They did what they were permitted to--and they were permitted to do everything." Despite Sofsky's vast and painstaking research, his admirable and horrifying book leaves the reader convinced that the Holocaust is not a subject for sociologists but for theologians. Illustrations not seen by PW.