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The Order of Terror

The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp

Wolfgang Sofsky
Translated by William Templer
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Order of Terror
    Book Description:

    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    Based on historical documents and the reports of survivors, the book details how the resistance of prisoners was broken down.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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2218-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)

    • 1 Entry
      (pp. 3-15)

      March 22, 1933. The first prisoners arrive in Dachau.¹ 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...

    • 2 Absolute Power
      (pp. 16-27)

      Absolute power is a power structure sui generis.¹ The concentration camp cannot be integrated into the history of despotism, slavery, or modern discipline. Organized terror cannot be mapped onto a continuum of domination. The differences are not gradual, staggered along a cline of coercion, but fundamental. To describe the power system operative in the concentration camps using the customary conceptions of social power is a category mistake. This historical and anthropological rupture in the history of power calls for a radical shift in the theoretical point of departure. Even a cursory look at other forms of power reveals essential differences....

    • 3 On the History of the Concentration Camps
      (pp. 28-44)

      The organizational history of the German concentration camps began in an atmosphere marked by improvisation, rivalry, arbitrary decisions, and revenge.¹ On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was set ablaze; the following day, the Emergency Decree for the Protection of the Nation and State abrogated the rights to freedom enshrined in the Weimar constitution. This created the legal basis for putting political opponents behind bars for longer periods. The secret police and their auxiliaries in the SA (Sturmabteilung, the elite paramilitary “storm trooper” units of the Nazi Party) and SS were empowered to orderSchutzhaft(protective custody) without...


    • 4 Zones and Camp Plans
      (pp. 47-54)

      Every power of any duration organizes space and time. These constructs are not marginal conditions of social existence, but forms that allow reciprocity. Temporal and spatial orders guide social action and relations. Absolute power exploits this. It transforms natural space into a space of social coercion, barricading all exits, marking out the areas for control. The concentration camp is a system of rigorous surveillance, a receptacle for violence. The interrelation of human beings and space has been abrogated, discontinued. The possibility for prisoners to appropriate space for themselves has shrunk to virtually nil. Absolute power destroys space as a domain...

    • 5 Boundary and Gate
      (pp. 55-64)

      Several boundaries separated the camp from the outside world. Because prisoners were not incarcerated in individual cells, but confined within geometric fields, the security problem was shifted to the external boundary lines. The SS required extensive, mobile barriers to prevent escape, smuggling, and mass breakouts. It thus transformed the boundary into an insurmountable partition, a dangerous, taboo barrier that none dared approach. Only after space was sealed off totally, hermetically, did the camp become that closed locus where absolute power could unfold freely, unhampered by limits.

      Sealing off the camp served several functions. First, it marked out a domain of...

    • 6 The Block
      (pp. 65-72)

      Absolute power compresses space, destroying the territories of the person. Prisoners were only confined individually when they were sent to the detention cells in the bunkers; in the wooden barracks and stables that were on the plots of the grid, hundreds were crowded together. The camp regime sliced prisoner society into segments and distributed the inmates to the various blocks, jamming them into the narrowest spaces. There they had to remain penned in from the end of the evening roll call until morning roll call. Their living quarters were a site of social control, a place of constriction, compression, and...

    • 7 Camp Time
      (pp. 73-81)

      Spatial order determines sites and localizes events; temporal order marks ruptures and generates sequences. Space is structured in terms of distances and extensions; time is structured according to intervals, periods, duration. Spatial control distributes bodies, guiding their movements; temporal control jackets action into recurrent sequences. Social time is an objective, imposed standard time of organization, but power can arbitrarily expand, slow down, or accelerate it. Camp time was more than the external compulsion characteristic of all social time.² Camp power permeated inner time-consciousness, sundering the internal band that laces together memory, expectation, and hope. Absolute power far surpasses the familiar...

    • 8 Prisoner’s Time
      (pp. 82-94)

      Control over social time is only one element of the total overpowering of the human being. Absolute power does not merely seek to control the external time of bodies, their movements, postures, and positions. It aspires to remold or eradicate any form of individual time: the time for action, for the spirit, for the soul. Just as it varies social time, accelerating and retarding it in order to cage a human being in an eternal present, it obtrudes into identity, penetrating one’s mental and practical relation to oneself. It permeates the biographical time of the individual; it wipes out memory;...


    • 9 The SS Personnel
      (pp. 97-116)

      The world of the concentration camp was divided into three regions: the society of the prisoners in the mass blocks, that of the elite of prisonerfunctionaries, and that of the surveillance and administrative personnel of the SS. These zones formed a complex power configuration bristling with diverse dependencies and rivalries. The social structure of the camp certainly cannot be reduced to two spheres. It is true that a deep boundary line divided personnel from inmates. But in between lay a gray zone of power delegation and collaboration, protection and corruption. Absolute power is a structure that pervades the social field,...

    • 10 Classes and Classifications
      (pp. 117-129)

      The society of the concentration camp was a system of glaring differences and extreme inequality. Although countless prisoners starved in misery, a small number led a life of veritable luxury. Although many were literally worked to death, others did not need to work at all. Although most lived in constant fear of violence, others could torment and murder with impunity. Social position was not dependent only on a prisoner’s will to survive, power of resistance, and unscrupulousness. The camp was not a porous social field. Personal resources are only useful if there are opportunities for their use; social circumstances create...

    • 11 Self-Management and the Gradation of Power
      (pp. 130-144)

      Absolute power is a structure, not a possession. The camp leadership organized its regime on a broad base, investing an accessory band of prisoners with considerable powers. The “self-administration” of the prisoners did not diminish power; it augmented it by means of organization and delegation. By making a small number of victims into its accomplices, the regime blurred the boundary between personnel and inmates. At the same time, it reduced the amount of power it expended. Its accomplices relieved the regime of the detailed work of terror; in return, they were given temporary protection from persecution. The power configuration in...

    • 12 The Aristocracy
      (pp. 145-152)

      The aristocracy had everything the other prisoners lacked: enough to eat, warm clothing, sturdy shoes. The Prominents had longer hair; the men were clean-shaven. They did not need to work and had beds for themselves. When they were sick, they were given preferential treatment at the infirmary. The brothel was open to them, and when they felt bored, they were entertained by boxing matches, bands, or drama groups. During the day, they spread terror in the camp, supported and admired by their servants and lackeys. In the evening, playing cards, they consumed the day’s loot—a bottle of liquor, some...

    • 13 Mass, Exchange, Dissociation
      (pp. 153-164)

      Beneath the regime of the SS personnel and the aristocracy, the prisoners existed in a tertiary social region, a world of misery and namelessness. The aristocracy and its clientele were only a minuscule upper class. The other prisoners had no access to privileges, no part in power. Although they made up the overwhelming majority, their situation was marked by hunger, powerlessness, and disorientation. The “normal” prisoners were housed in mass blocks, worked under the open sky, were protected by no one, and had little chance for advancement. They were the helpless objects of power. Surrounded everywhere by death, they were...


    • 14 Work and Slavery
      (pp. 167-172)

      Work is not “liberty.” The motto above the camp gates (“Arbeit macht frei”) was utter mockery. The prisoners received nothing for their labor, neither money nor bread. It was not exploitation; no unequal exchange took place. The prisoners were not made use of—they were hounded, driven until they were drained. All the prisoners received in return was a short postponement, a temporary reprieve until their total depletion. Work was an instrument to shatter them, wear them down, break their power to resist. It was a means not of survival, but of absolute power and terror.

      Prisoner labor shares little...

    • 15 The Beneficiaries
      (pp. 173-184)

      Numerous organizations profited from the labor of the prisoners. The concentration camp was integrated into a complex field of offices and firms that expanded over the course of the years. Two parallel developments can be discerned in the organizational history of prisoner labor. After the concentration camp system had initially sealed itself off from the outside, it gradually opened up to external beneficiaries—first to the plants locally, then to the economic enterprises of the SS, and finally to the interministerial special staffs and the private arms industry. At the same time, the Economic Administration of the SS expanded its...

    • 16 Work Situations
      (pp. 185-196)

      Not only does absolute power permeate social relations; it also saturates the objective relation to work. It shapes the content and course of activities. Terror is not a marginal condition of the work situation, but constitutes its very core. A sociological pathology of prisoner labor must proceed from this fact: in the concentration camp, work too was terror. Terror determined the structure of work, transforming it into a lethal situation. Consequently, one of the greatest privileges was to be freed from work. Prisoners who had recognized the true meaning of work tried their best to slow the murderous tempo and...

  9. PART V: Violence and Death

    • 17 The Muselmann
      (pp. 199-205)

      TheMuselmännerare persons destroyed, devastated, shattered wrecks strung between life and death. They are the victims of a stepwise annihilation of human beings. Before absolute power kills using immediate physical violence, it pursues a policy of deliberate misery, the transmogrification of theconditio humana. The mere external appearance of theMuselmännerbespoke profound dehumanization. In a final stage of emaciation, their skeletons were enveloped by flaccid, parchmentlike sheaths of skin, edema had formed on their feet and thighs, their posterior muscles had collapsed. Their skulls seemed elongated; their noses dripped constantly, mucus running down their chins. Their eyeballs had...

    • 18 Epidemics
      (pp. 206-213)

      Many of the overcrowded concentration camps were ravaged by epidemics during the war. Camp society was a society of the sick. Along with edemas from hunger and pneumonia, there were epidemics of scabies and deadly infectious diseases.² In the winter of 1941–42 in Dachau, some 250 prisoners suffering from scabies were isolated in a quarantine block; their rations were reduced and they were left standing naked in front of the showers. Many contracted pneumonia and died. At the end of 1942, an epidemic of typhus and typhoid fever broke out. The camp doctor placed the camp under quarantine for...

    • 19 Terror Punishment
      (pp. 214-222)

      The camp destroyed human beings by humiliation and psychological murder, by dissociation and repression, by labor, starvation, and epidemic. But power also took direct action in countless incidents of excessive violence, massacre, and industrialized mass murder. Yet before it shed all restraining fetters, power resorted to the social mechanism of sanction. It made threats, imposed sentences, and carried out punishments. Nonetheless, in the great majority of cases, it was not what could be called a rule-bound, orderly procedure. Despite the existence of a formal disciplinary code, the transition from a penalty according to the rules toTerrorstrafe(terror punishment) was...

    • 20 Violent Excesses
      (pp. 223-240)

      Human bestiality is inventive. It appeared in countless variants in the camps. There was spontaneous killing, routine flogging, tormenting of prisoners out of a sense of tedium, and collective massacre during searches. Nonetheless, murders for reasons of passion were relatively rare. Many acts of brutality took place without aggression, rage, or feelings of revenge. For that reason, they cannot be likened to the mad frenzy of those who run amok or the bloody deeds of soldiers who overcome their battlefield anxieties by cutting down anything that moves. Ecstasy and panic were alien to the excesses in the camp. Few perpetrators...

    • 21 Selection
      (pp. 241-258)

      The scene at the ramp in Auschwitz is familiar: the first station in industrialized genocide. However, selection did not take place only in the forced ghettoes and when transports arrived at the extermination centers. It was a more common procedure: a general organizational schema by which “superfluous” human beings were sorted out from workers and then liquidated. Selection also took place within the concentration camps, in the overcrowded infirmaries, and in the external subcamps. Its scope was broad: for that reason, in any attempt to grasp the magnitude, process, and function of the selections, the focus should encompass the entire...

    • 22 The Death Factory
      (pp. 259-275)

      A death factory is a work organization whose purpose is the annihilation of large numbers of human beings, without a trace. On a twenty-four-hour basis, victims were murdered, their corpses disposed of. Kommandos of prisoners collected the belongings of the dead and brought them to the sorting sites. The bodies were checked for gold teeth and thrown into mass graves or pits or burned in cremation ovens. Mass annihilation was organized on the basis of a division of labor. The process was integrated into a kind of assembly line, its stations coordinated in temporal sequence. Killing was mechanized by the...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 276-282)

    The concentration camp is part of the history of modern society. The destructive power of modern technology was tested on the battlefields of mass war, with the slaughterhouses of the concentration camps serving as a proving ground for the destructive power of modern organization. The modern era liberated humanity from incomprehensible forces, yet at the same time immensely increased the power of human beings to kill. Measured against this hypertrophy, earlier forms of power seem fragmentary, irrational, crude in their means, and limited in scope. Born on the threshold of the twentieth century, organized terror reached its most extreme form...

  11. Selected Glossary and Abbreviations
    (pp. 283-288)
  12. Abbreviations Used in Notes and Bibliography
    (pp. 289-290)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 291-342)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-356)