The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp

The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp

The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp

The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp


A book that will fundamentally enrich our knowledge of human nature, the organization of power, and the execution of terror.--Der Spiegel 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 Based on historical documents and the reports of survivors, the book details how the resistance of prisoners was broken down.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 culminates 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 has now become possible with or without the mobilizing feelings of hatred.


March 22, 1933. The first prisoners arrive in Dachau. The abandoned powder factory looks dreary and depressing: more than twenty flat stone buildings, half-dilapidated, dot the grounds. The only structure that appears usable is the former administration building. It has just been fenced in with a triple barrier of barbed wire. Down in the basement, the police officers, newly arrived for work the evening before, prepare a list, recording the names of the inmates. There is no set uniform for the prisoners. The procedure is orderly: no hitches, no shouting, no one is mistreated. No one thinks of shaving the heads of the newcomers. That evening, the first meal is distributed: tea, bread, a chunk of liverwurst for every inmate. In the rush of the moment, that is all the food that can be put together. Afterward, the prisoners are led upstairs to makeshift sleeping quarters on the first floor. Because there are no cots and there is no straw, they have to bed down on the concrete floor. The thin blanket each prisoner is given from police stocks is meager protection against the cold.

The next day, the prisoners search through the empty buildings and factory halls, rummaging for material. From scattered boards they piece together the first beds. A joiner is given permission to set up a workshop. The inmates fend for themselves; they make do. No one is forced to work against his or her will. But there are few tools, and there is not enough barbed wire to close off the grounds. The hoes and spades that are gradually amassed are kept in a storeroom administered by an inmate together with a camp official. Surveillance is correct and proper. Guards and prisoners converse; they even discuss the political situation. Some inmates are slipped cigarettes on the sly; rations are adequate and tasty. Prisoners get the same meals as the security personnel.

But this lasts only for a few days. One night, the sleeping inmates are awakened by the thud of marching feet, the clang of weapons. An SS unit, militiamen in brown shirts and black caps, has formed up in front of the administration building. Its commander gives the men a pep talk that terrifies the prisoners:

Comrades of the SS! You all know what the Führer has called upon us to do. We haven't come here to treat those swine inside like human beings. In our eyes, they're not like us, they're something second-class. For years, they've been able to pursue their criminal devices. But now we've got the power. If these swine had taken over . . .

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