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“To Break the Will of Men: Life Inside the Concentration Camps”

Book Essay on: Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the Systems Behind Them
( New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950), 326pages.
UCSB: DD256.5 K614

by Leanne Wilder
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at amazon.com

About Leanne Wilder

I am a third year transfer student to UCSB from Santa Monica Community College. I am a history major looking to attend law school. My interest in the subject stems from curiosity, having only learned the basic facts about the Holocaust. I wanted to explore the subject in more depth and obtain a broader knowledge about the Holocaust, specifically, the concentration camps. Life inside the concentration camps is rarely explained in such way as to understand not only survival stories but the system behind them. Kogon’s book allowed me to obtain the deeper understanding that I had been looking for regarding the concentration camps.

Abstract (back to top)

Eugen Kogon was a political opponent and prisoner in Buchenwald. From his experiences, and other testimonies he was able to examine life and death inside a Nazi concentration camp. He argues that the SS and other Nazis built and designed the camps in order to break the prisoners with a systematic regime of terror. Throughout the book Kogon describes living conditions, experiments, and other mechanisms that broke the will of the prisoners, allowing them to be submissive towards the SS hierarchy. By breaking down the chapters into specific areas of torment, Kogon is able to expose the repulsive details of life within a Nazi concentration camp. It is the analysis of these details which allow readers to reach a better understanding of the system within the camps and its affect on the prisoners. The system was meant to humiliate and break the will the prisoners so that they would succumb to complete control. The captors wreaked havoc on their bodies and souls. The book is still used today as a seminal work on the concentration camps.

Essay (back to top)

Eugen Kogon’s book is a personal account and analysis of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. However, this book is more than an autobiography, in that it uncovers and explains the inner-workings of the camps and how they affected the prisoners they held. Kogon believes that he needs “to show the camp in all its horrific detail,” thus uncovering the way the camps worked, their structure and social organization. Kogon states that “nothing but the truth can set us free,” which helps to answer many of the common questions people have about the concentration camps and how one could survive them (Wachsmann, xv). Kogon himself is a political opponent, specifically Catholicism, and was held at Buchenwald, a Nazi labor-camp. Each chapter is designated to elaborate on and answer certain questions, such as the scientific experiments, daily routines and organization of the camps. As the chapters unravel they are supported by testimonies of people within the camps, SS documents, and the first hand experience of Kogon himself. Kogon argues that the concentration camps were created in order “to break [the will of] prisoners with a systematic regime of terror.” Through this analysis of horrific details Kogon experienced; we are able to acquire a deeper understanding of how the structure and social organization of the camps broke the will and the resolved to killing the men of the labor-camp. By Kogon’s extreme detail about the mechanisms used, such as their treatment, experiments, punishments, and the actions of the SS we learn what specific mechanisms were used to break the will of, and kill the prisoners.

The book seems has an obvious beginning, middle and end; it first explains how the concentration camps and its leaders came to be, who populated the camps, then how they were treated and the conditions of the camp, and finally how the camps came to an end. The book is broken down into twenty-four chapters. Each chapter represents a significant element of the camp. However, the title itself, The Theory and Practice of Hell, prompts readers to think about the differences between the theory and practice in the concentration camps. For example, in the chapter on food there is a chart of food rations showing that even when the full ration was available it was not always issued how it was supposed to (Kogon, 111). This shows how theory is different from practice by showing that they were not distributed as the rations should have been.. Kogon incorporates his personal experience and testimonies from other prisoners to show the conditions and treatments of the prisoners. For instance, while elaborating on the sanitation and health of the prisoners, he tells the story of when Franciscan Monks came into the camp. During this time rumors spread that they had crabs, and the monks were made fun of and endured kicks and blows from the officers (Kogon, 137). It is personal experiences like this that allow us to see how crudely the prisoners were treated for no reason at all. However, because Kogon was only held in one camp, an all male camp, there is little he can describe from the other camps and or experiences of female prisoners (Wachsmann, xix).

The chapters represent a grouping of three main ideas where Kogon explains the structure, the social organization, and the conditions, and the unbelievable aspects of the camps. Towards the beginning Kogon uncovers the physical layout of the camp, which paints a picture for readers of the area where the prisoners were kept. For example, “each concentration camp had three main areas: the headquarters area, the SS residential settlements, and the compound surrounded by barbed wire” (Kogon,41). Kogon wants readers to get a detailed sense for the environment that he will be speaking of. In order to obtain a deeper understanding of the camps, explaining the layout guides us to understand the conditions much better. Not only does Kogon speak of the physical structure, but he also discusses how the camp functioned and their organization. There are different departments, such as admissions and the labor records office, and each department performed a different job and was in charge of completing certain tasks to keep the camp organized. Systematically, the SS and even some prisoners made up the camp’s hierarchy. There were camp police, block leaders, SS officers, detail leaders, and many others (Kogon, 54). There was a leader for almost every task in the camp. Sometimes it was prisoners when it came to regulating the other inmates during work detail, and in the barracks. But when it came to the more important tasks, such a roll call and executions, they were in the hands of the SS officers and other Nazis. This hierarchy enabled the men to not be able to trust fellow prisoners as well as the SS officers. This specific organization of the camp and hierarchy of the leaders, show how the prisoners were always under scrutiny, even from their fellow inmates.

By looking further into the mechanisms that broke the will of the men, we are able to get a deeper understanding of the lives of the men while inside the camps. For example the conditions of working conditions, sanitation and health, and mail and food shed light on aspects that they prisoners were deprived of and overworked.. For instance, under the chapter about working conditions, “the Jews, especially, often had to build walls, only to tear them down the rest of the day, rebuild them again and so on” (Kogon,83). This backbreaking job was just one of the horrible working conditions forced upon the prisoners. The prisoners did not deserve such horrible treatment, but to the SS it did not matter, and most of the jobs, according to Kogon, were “pointless” because there was no economic value for their labor. This relentless, unnecessary, unbearable labor was a way in which the SS men were able to physically breakdown the men’s will. Furthermore, depending on what skills one had, “Intellectuals and white-collar workers, especially if they wore glasses, were inevitably launched on the path of doom … “survival of the fittest” (Kogon, 81).Upon entering the camps, the men were put into groups, in which the skilled men could have a better chance of living and “better” working conditions than the others. The others were worked from dusk till dawn and many till death. One of the most horrid work details that wreaked havoc on the men’s will was the stone splitting detail. “In rain and snow, heat and cold, these prisoners had to squat in rows on bricks, ‘making little ones out of big ones’” (Kogon, 89). Relentless working conditions such as these tore down the men’s will and created an environment that the SS officers could easily control.

When it came to sanitation and health, most of the “doctors” and “dentists” were not even qualified for the position, thus when one was sent to the infirmary they were not likely to receive the care that they needed in order to get better. In fact going to the hospital was not always smart because “deliberate killings in the hospital on the part of the SS was even more widespread than experimentation” (Kogon, 143). The prisoners were terrified of the hospital, which was supposed to help them, and make them well. The knowledge they had gave them no hope in the “benefits” of the hospital. Also “‘there are no sick men in my camp’ Koch used to say. ‘They are either well or dead!’” (Kogon, 138). When the prisoners had to deal with officers’ attitudes such as Koch’s, the will to survive, if sick, was minute. If a man was to get sick, he did not dare go to the hospital to get help because of the conditions. There was a constant fear of being killed, even when going to the hospital, which allowed the SS to have terrorizing control over the prisoners.

As Kogon’s breakdown of the camp continues, the unbearable conditions and shocking actions from the SS continue to give readers to have a deeper understanding of what took place in the camps and certain mechanisms used to break the will of the prisoners. Some of the most jaw-dropping information that Kogon shares with us is about the scientific experiments conducted on the prisoners. This is where Kogon speaks of different camps and also some of the female experiences. For example, “At the Ravensbruck camp…women inmates had a section of muscle excised from the thigh from time to time to establish whether and how regeneration might take place in the cast” (Kogon, 168). Horrific experiments like those were conducted on the prisoners on a regular basis. The idea of these experiments was so devastating because they did not have any economic benefits. They were being conducted in order to find ways of killing more people. In addition, “Dr. Schuhmann got a hold of able-bodied Jews, aged twenty to twenty-four, and exposed their sexual organs to X-rays for fifteen minutes…two to four weeks later the remaining victims were castrated, so their testicles could be dissected and examined under a microscope” (Kogon, 163). Like the hospitals, the experiments were a constant fear among the prisoners, which in turn breaks down the men slowly because of the constant stress and idea of death on their minds. Kogon’s discussion of the Nazis’ organized experiments to sterilize the “inferior” population allows readers to somewhat understand how the concentration camps were systematic regimes of terror constructed to demonstrate their total disregard for human life.

Kogon continues to prove his argument by explaining how the different groups of prisoners were treated. Kogon first establishes that there are “Primarily four groups of people: political opponents; members of ‘inferior races’; criminals; and ‘shiftless elements’…” (Kogon 30). From the time the men first entered the camp, there were mechanisms used to break their will. For instance, “All prisoner categories in the concentration camps had to wear prescribed markings sewn on their clothing – a serial number and colored triangles, affixed to the left breast and the right trouser leg” (Kogon, 35). At once the men were categorized and belittled. Sometimes the categories given were incorrect; however there was no way the man could change that. Individually, the men lost all personal identity and were now named by numbers and other marks. As the book comes to a close Kogon explains how the different prisoners were treated and killed by the SS. Jews were killed in extremely high numbers, for instance, “soon after the ghetto was liquidated, the inmates of the labor camp were mowed down with machine guns to the last man” (Kogon, 177). This sheds light of how the SS went to great lengths to exterminate these people without mercy, but also how one’s nationality either increased or decreased a chance for survival. The spectrum of treatment among the different nationalities was a mechanism in itself, because Jews had little hope of surviving, while others could possibly find a way around the hate and disgust. For example, the Russians and Poles, who were some that made up the “other inferior races” in the camps. The treatments against them by the SS were a little bit different than the Jews, but inevitably they were killed because of relations with German women, or for the Russians, having communist ideas (Kogon, 196-197).

The chapter on underground struggle elaborates on the corruption within the camps. For example, “certain prisoners profited from their positions of power to such an extent that they lived like kings, while their comrades died by the hundreds” (Kogon, 261). This allows readers to understand the corrupt activities of prisoners and the SS which resulted in special circumstances, and ultimately their survival. Furthermore, “mail censorship was entirely at the whim of the SS men detailed to it” (Kogon, 126). Some prisoners were able to write letters home, and recive letters, but what they received and if their letters got to their families was a different story. It was “this war of nerves [that] represented one of the ost demoralizing hazards of camp life” (Kogon, 126). Not being able to hear from families, and not knowing whether they were alive or dead, especially their child was devastating to the men. The one reason why they continue to fight for survival was barred from them completely. The corruption and restrictions on mail destroyed the men’s attitudes, and their will to survive because their lives in the camps were drastically unfair.

The statistics chapter puts into perspective how devastating life in the camps was. For example, some statistics from Auschwitz are “from 1943 to the Spring of 1945, approximately 20 large concentration camps with about 25,000 inmates each, 65 smaller [camps] with about 1,500 inmates each, total: 600,000 inmates [were killed]” (Kogon, 247). One does not fully grasp the horrible conditions until they are faced with the numbers, only then does the vast devastation become apparent. Furthermore, “After 1940 there were concentration camps in the east which can only be described as extermination camps. Chief among these was Auschwitz…” (Kogon, 247). Some camps were only used as extermination camps, the men taken there were not given the chance to survive like Kogon had in the labor-camp. The statistics about the extent of the devastation connects the stories and personal experience of Kogon and others.

All aspects of the camps were not as horrible and devastating as Kogon shows. In fact there was an X-ray Battalion organized by the SS, “it even visited concentration camps, [x-rays] were made for every prisoner, and the cases that were diagnosed, far from being killed on the spot, were actually given medical treatment” (Kogon, 222). Furthermore, according to the author of the introduction, the perspective of the camps is given by Kogon, who was a German-speaking political prisoner who had risen to comparatively influential positions in the camp (Wachsmann, xix). Thus, there is a skewed perspective about the camps because he did not always have to endure the conditions that he speaks of. In addition, “by contrast, the description of other groups of inmates is uneven” (Wachsmann, xix). The uneven description of the other groups of inmates inhibits readers from getting a complete understanding of the life they lived in the camps. Even with the personal testimonies, the SS documents, and Kogon’s first hand experience, not all of the aspects of the camp can be explained. “Kogon could not possess anything near full knowledge of the Nazi terror apparatus and extermination policy, and inevitably some of his assertions have been qualified” (Wachsmann, xviii). But the majority of information absorbed gives a deeper understanding of how the concentration camps were during the Holocaust.

In comparison, Kogon’s story is similar to Vladek’s from Maus by Art Spieigelman. Vladek was able to bribe himself into higher, better positions in the camp, which led to his survival of the camps. Kogon explains how obtaining a better work detail enhanced ones chance of survival. Foe example “skilled workers were assigned to the various shops, a preliminary for of life insurance” (Kogon, 81). Furthermore, on the idea of bribery “getting a better job within a detail depended entirely on the prisoner foreman and his assistants. Usually they could be bribed” (Kogon 81). This connected with Vladek’s action in Maus because he bribed a foreman in order to have his wife transferred from another camp detail to be closer to him at Auschwitz. Also, both Vladek and Kogon were reunited with their families after the war. How both men manipulated their situations to survive were quite similar, even though their personal stories of the camps are drastically different.

The Theory and Practice of Hell is an important contribution to the knowledge that we acquire about the concentration camps. Kogon does a good job in explaining all of the different aspects of the camps that have been misunderstood..Today the book is a great read for one to get an accurate account of the camps, “For many years Kogon’s book remained the seminal work on the concentrations camps, leaving a profound impression on public memory…”(Wachsmann, xviii). Within the chapters, Kogon is able to expose the mechanisms used by the Nazis and SS men to break the will of the men, and which created a controllable environment. Kogon uses personal testimonies to show how the camps were a systematic regime of terror meant to break the will of the prisoners they held. The book is significant because it allows readers to come to an accurate understanding of the inner-workings of the camps, and see how the prisoners were treated and the mechanisms used in order to break their will.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • , Curled Up With a Book (2006)

    The article begins by explaining how the book compares to others and how it is a “glory of a book” and ranks “far superior” to others. It goes on to explain Dr. Kogon’s story, and how he searched to discover the layout of the social structure and social organization of the camp. Gruesome details shared about events that took place at the camps allow the reader to catch a glimpse of what Kogon spoke of in his book. It ends by stating that the book must be read by the young, in order to inform them of the atrocities of WWII, and the old, who have forgotten the past. The author explains some details in order to convince the reader to read the book, and why one should read it. It has high praise towards the content of Kogon’s book. The review sheds a positive light in favor of reading the book, in fact, it argues that it is an essential reading.

  • Seymour, Fiddle, American Sociological Review 2006, Oct. Vol. 16 Issue 5, p. 734-735 <Academic Search Complete Database>

    The article begins with a short biography of the author, Eugen Kogon. It points out that the subtitle of the book shows that the book goes beyond the author’s own experiences and seems to present a detailed account of the concentration camps. Fiddle briefly explains the social structure of the “colony” along with the prisoners involved. The review goes on to explain certain details about aspects of the Holocaust in hopes to shed light on the contents of Kogon’s book. The review does have a negative ending towards Kogon’s findings and draws the conclusion that it has a possible “inadequate utilization.” However it does not negatively condemn the book.

Books and Articles

  • Browning, Christopher, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010). UCSB Library D805.P7 B76 2010

    Browning uses testimony from the court cases he was involved with in Germany, more specifically, for this book, the case of Walter Becker; chief of the Polish Police in Starachowice. He also draws on the “rich” testimonies of survivors of the Sarachowice slave-labor camp. The book examines the survival techniques and personal experiences of the Jewish prisoners. He also sheds light on the policies and personnel of the Nazi guards. Browning succeeds in revealing both sides of the camps, from the view of the prisoners and of the Nazis. He shares stories of heroism, corruption, desperate choices and love between husbands and wives and parents and children. He argues that it is the family ties are what helped people pull together and allowed them to survive. This book is a great source to get information about a specific camp and its inner workings.

  • Aroneanu, Eugene, Inside the Concentration Camps: Eyewitness Account dog Life in Hitler’s Death Camps (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996).

    This book consists of statements taken from testimonies of 100 witnesses. It breaks down the concentration camps into parts, such as daily routine, sanitary conditions, and others, and lists several personal quotes about each section. There is not much background information to embellish the accounts, just straightforward factual information. Aroneanu’s book is a factual report of the shameful deeds of the SS and other Nazis’. It was written to convince the reader to not persecute or murder people because of political views, race or nationality. It is somewhat difficult to read because there is only quote after quote, it does not flow easily, and there are so many different accounts from so many different people it is hard to follow. However, it puts into perspective just how many people, and how horrible their lives were within the camps.

  • Cohen, Elie A., , Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp (London: Free Association Books. 1988).

    This book was written to provide an explanation for what happened in the concentration camps. It is based on authoritative written sources and personal accounts. Cohen himself is a survivor and wanted to create a better understanding for his fellow sufferers. He breaks down the book into several different aspects, such as the general aspects, medical aspects and organization aspects; or the SS. It is within the general aspects that we obtain most of the information about the camps themselves. Subheadings such as: the aim, organization, layout, the prisoners, and extermination allow the reader to understand what Cohen and his fellow sufferers went through during their stay at the concentration camp. He argues that the aim of the camps was to isolate, defame, humiliate, crush, and annihilate the prisoners. He offers a similar breakdown of information as Kogon does, however, the reader is able to get a different perspective and different ways to understand what took place. Cohen does a good job in describing the details of the camp and going into further understanding by using personal accounts.

  • Hartmann, Erich, In The Camps New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1995).

    This book is not full of information about the organization or social aspects of the camps. Instead it is a book of photos of Auschwitz. Most books do not have photos of the camps, and if they do it is very few. This book allows for one to grasp the horrid details explained by Kogon and other authors about the concentration camps. The pictures included are ones of the layouts of the camp, surrounded by barbed wire and lookout towers; as well as walls, barracks, piles of belongings, sanitary conditions, and places of experiments. It is these pictures that really show how the concentration camps were, because pictures are worth a thousand words. Hartmann does a fantastic job capturing the aspects within a camp in order to allow the reader to reach a full understanding of what took place.

Relevant Websites

  • Borade, Gaynor , "Life in Concentration Camps" (4/2/2009)

    Gaynor Borade begins the article with an overview of the Nazi concentration camps. He explains why they were created, which was to retain “enemies of the state” and exploit their services. Borade offers a good, yet brief, overview of the life within camp as well. He also condenses a broad topic into specific and necessary information to share about the concentration camps. It reveals the inhuman behaviors of the Gestapo and other members of the Third Reich. However, this website should only be used as an aid for a quick overview of life in the camps. It does not go into tremendous detail, yet the author does get his points across.

  • Haas, Werner, , "Life in the Concentration Camps" (November, 29, 2006)

    The article focuses of explaining aspects of the camps such as disease, death toll, and daily life, with embellishments from personal accounts and quotes. He also shows how women were treated at Ravensbruck . Werner does a splendid job in tying his arguments together with personal stories of survivors. The personal accounts he uses allows the reader to grasp the information he has written about the camps. Ultimately, he focuses on the “how” rather than the “why” of the concentration camps. Werner does very well in explaining the treatments and systems of the camps. The article is well written and gives substantial, reliable information about concentration camps.

  • Yad Vashem, “Concentration camps” (accessed 3-5-2010)

    This article briefly describes the types of concentration camps used. It argues that there were three periods of concentration camp use and rise, and depending on which period the camp was built, the conditions varied, and so did the prisoners in the camps. It states that during the third phase camps were built in mass numbers to keep up with the growing numbers of prisoners. It goes on to explain, in scarce details, what conditions were present at the different stages of the concentrations camps. The article offers a diverse look at the concentration camps, and shows different perspectives of why certain camps were build, how they treated their prisoners and how they functioned. It is a unique argument, so it allows readers to see a different perspective and possibly use is in comparison to other works.

  • Katie Coulston, Book essay for Hist 133DR not available yet

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Leanne Wilder on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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