How Did They Survive? Mechanisms of Defense in Nazi Concentration Camps

By Bluhm, Hilde O. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

How Did They Survive? Mechanisms of Defense in Nazi Concentration Camps


Bluhm, Hilde O., American Journal of Psychotherapy


How Did They Survive?

Mechanisms of Defense in Nazi Concentration Camps*

Death in a Nazi concentration camp requires no explanation. Survival does. Detailed knowledge of the techniques of torture and extermination has made us "understand" the outcome of nine to ten million dead. What bewilders us are the survivors. Through the flogging and the shooting, the cold and the hunger, the sixteen hours working day and the epidemics, through individual tortures and mass murder, thousands of them lived for years, three, five, eight years, and longer. What was it that enabled them to survive? Death reached out for them ever so often. How did their urge to live win over the wish to die? What kept them from suicide and insanity? Some of the survivors have begun to speak. In books and articles they have tried to communicate an experience which "is impossible to communicate"-as one of them put it (Rousset).

The following study is based on twelve such autobiographical accounts. (For a complete list see Bibliography). They have been written by authors of greatly different background: among them a German poet (Wiechert), an Austrian economist (Kautsky), a French professor of philosophy (Rousset), a Polish-Jewish businessman (Szalet), a British officer (Burney), two psychologists (Bettelheim and Frankl), two journalists (Karst and Kalmar), a Polish girl student (Szmaglewska). The authors include political and non-political prisoners, Germans and non-Germans, men and one woman; the terms of their imprisonment range from several months to seven years.

The character of the books is as different as the background of their authors. There are grim accusations, such as Kalmar's Zeit ohne Gnade ("Time without Mercy") and Karst's Beasts of the Earth, there is Wiechert's Forest of the Dead,-a poetic story which is like a stream of never ending sadness; there is Kautsky's Teufel und Verdammte ("The Devil and the Damned")-actually a comprehensive sociology of the concentration camp, written in a highly detached and scholarly way; there is, furthermore, Szalet's Experiment E, a detailed and realistic report of facts, and Bettelheim's revealing psychological analysis My Life in a Concentration Camp.

Apart from the books on which this study is based, other biographical reports on concentration camps have been written and still more are coming out. They may add to the insight to be gained from our selection; the essence of this insight, however, does not depend on the completeness of the underlying material.

The topic of this study is the mental mechanisms of survival, i.e., the mechanisms of defense developed by the ego in order to protect the individual from physical death and mental disintegration. But this prevalence of psychological interest must not make us overlook the great number of other circumstances on which survival in a concentration camp has depended, circumstances which have little to do with mental phenomena of the type mentioned. There was, first of all, the factor of physical stamina: the sick, the old, and the weak were those most likely to perish; there was also the difference in locality and time: in some camps, the food, housing, working, and hygienic conditions were much worse than in others, and it also happened that in the same camp periods of deterioration alternated with periods of improvement. Likewise significant was the kind of work to which the inmate had been assigned: Wiechert, for instance, seems to owe his life to the fact that he was transferred from working in a quarry to mending stockings. Of greatest importance was, furthermore, the official classification of the prisoner. The camp was a rather complicated setup of many divisions and sub-divisions, and every prisoner belonged to several official categories.l As far as living conditions were concerned, it made all the difference, whether the internee was a German or a non-German, an "Aryan" or a Jew.

In general, German "Aryans" fared best. …

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