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Living through Extermination

James Wickham

 Inside Concentration Camps: Social Life at the Extremes, by Maja Suderland, transl Jessica Spengler, Polity Press, 300 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0745663364

This is a rather tedious book about an absolutely terrifying topic – life in the Nazi concentration camps. Maja Suderland follows the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and sees the Holocaust as laboratory that can reveal the “hidden possibilities of modern society”. According to her, most historians believe that the camps were shaped entirely by terror. Suderland by contrast concludes that this was not the case: inside the camps the prisoners created their own social life within and against the terror system. Entering the concentration camps thus reveals what Suderland terms the “basic concepts” of modern society.

This is therefore a sociological rather than a historical study. The book is about a sociological issue – the nature and the limits of modern society ‑ rather than about the concentration camps in themselves. This should make it all the more interesting, but unfortunately it does not. Over seventy pages are devoted to an abstract discussion of “Sociological Avenues of Enquiry” and these read as if they were submitted for a sociology PhD. That is to say they are long-winded and self-regarding. There is an extensive exegesis of the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu which will bore the general reader and irritate the specialist; there is a discussion of the relationship between history and sociology which shows only a limited knowledge of either discipline. And let us be honest, the writing is turgid in the extreme.

Suderland wants to discover the social life within the camps. She reports that she considered interviewing survivors, but – in my view quite rightly – decided not to do this. This would have involved enormous personal stress for both interviewer and interviewee. Survivors’ stories are also problematic because they are now well-rehearsed and being told decades after the actual events. Instead her source material is survivors’ accounts, especially those written soon after liberation. One of the features of the Holocaust was that so many of those few who survived felt impelled to write down their experiences, even if at the same time they felt that normal words could not describe what they had gone through. There is therefore extensive material which can be interrogated to reveal the social reality of life in the camps. Curiously however, Suderland never considers whether these memoirs present the experiences not of all the prisoners, but only of those better educated among them who were most likely to leave behind written accounts.

A recurring motif of these Holocaust memoirs is that the prisoners entered what they experienced as a “topsy turvy” world. Normal meanings and normal hierarchies were completely disrupted. There are repeated accounts of pointless work. Homosexual prisoners (marked with the pink triangle) arriving at Sachsenhausen camp had to shovel snow with their bare hands and move it from one side of the road and back again until they were replaced by the next batch of arrivals; in Ravensbrück women shovelled sand from one pile to another in a circle, so that it ended up where it had come from. Work was almost always totally exhausting and carried out without remotely adequate clothing. Violence from the SS was continual and random. Punishments were sadistic and savage. And sooner or later, and mostly sooner, came death.

The concentration camps were extermination camps: when prisoners were not immediately murdered, they were subjected to a regime which few could survive for long. Yet this is not so “unprecedented” (her term) as Suderland thinks. In the Caribbean in the eighteenth century slaves were not only routinely subjected to the most sadistic punishments but also worked to death: the continual replenishing of the work force was the main reason for the slave trade.

Other parallels are closer to hand. Suderland’s account of the emergence of the camps is a routine account of Nazism. Like much writing on the Third Reich it treats Nazism’s victory as inevitable and also claims an inexorable rise of anti-Semitism in twentieth century Germany. This ignores countervailing tendencies in Weimar Germany, a society in which Germans of Jewish background played an enormous economic and political role. She also ignores recent scholarship that locates the extermination camps in the wider context of mid-twentieth century mass murder. Thus Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire shows how the genocide of the Jews and gypsies was part of a planned racial hierarchy of Europe within which Poles and Slavs were to be ground down to semi-literate slaves barely able to reproduce. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands gives a figure of approximately 14 million people killed through “purposeful policies of mass murder” by both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships in the territories that now lie between Germany and Russia ‑ policies which started with the famines in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. Finally Anne Applebaum’s exemplary Gulag analyses the Soviet system of mass incarceration, forced labour and terror that lasted into the 1950s. Although slave labour was more and more important to the Third Reich as it went to its end, the objective was always to exterminate Jews and gypsies as soon as possible. It is this that makes the camps the most extreme version of a more generalised horror.

How did people live under these conditions? Unlike the “theoretical” sections of the book, many of the accounts of camp life and camp society are vital and sometimes brilliant. However, for better or for worse, what makes the book distinctive is that this material is not simply re-told, but used for a general argument. Using evidence from the memoirs, Suderland shows how inmates created their own social world. As she continually reiterates, much of her argument develops the work of Paul Martin Neurath who was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald camps before being released in 1939. He subsequently emigrated to the USA and in 1943 completed a dissertation at Columbia University analysing social life in the camps. For Neurath, the concentration camps showed how the “basic concepts” of social life continued, or as Suderland says, “the structural characteristics similar to those of any normal society were prevalent in the camps”.

The most basic element of society is the individual and the camp was designed to eradicate this. When prisoners entered the camp, the SS stripped them naked and took all their own clothes away. The prisoner was not a name but just a number sewn onto their ill-fitting striped camp uniform (in Auschwitz the number was also tattooed on their forearms). Yet, following Bourdieu’s concept of “social libido”, Suderland suggests that individuality could not be destroyed. Within what Bourdieu terms a “social space” any individual stands in a distinct relation to all others: each individual continually therefore recreates a distinct social identity. She quotes survivor Robert Antelme:

The SS who view us all as one and the same cannot induce us to see ourselves that way. They cannot prevent us from choosing.

The most readable chapter of the book describes “camp life”: the routines, the rituals, the exhausting work, the random violence. She also describes the little ways prisoners would help each other, for example a woman fainting during yet another interminable roll call would be held up by her comrades. At an individual level prisoners recounted how they silently recited poems from memory to survive. She quotes another survivor, Ruth Klüger:

Schiller’s ballads became my roll call poems as well. Thanks to them I could stand for hours in the sun without falling over … if you couldn’t remember a line, you could spend time thinking about it instead of thinking about your own weakness. By then the roll call would probably be over and you could turn off the gramophone record in your head.

The maintenance of such basic human dignity was, so Suderland argues, interwoven the maintenance of distinctions. She searches the memoirs to locate the basic categories used by prisoners themselves. Living close to starvation and in chronic bad health prisoners’ physical conditions deteriorated. One consequence was that the most physical distinctions atrophied: women stropped menstruating, few men could have an erection. Yet paradoxically this appeared to reinforce the most fundamental category of society, that of gender. For men it became more and more important to demonstrate that they were men by their silent self-mastery in surviving the physical brutality of the SS. By contrast women used every opportunity to enact the female body (for example covering their shaven heads with shawls) or female identity (survivors report continual exchanges of fantasy recipes).

The SS categorised prisoners by their gender, but also of course as criminals, as politicals, as homosexuals, as Jews or as gypsies. The last two were not only at the bottom of the hierarchy, they were, like gender, inescapable. Furthermore, Suderland argues that these categories were not just ones used by the Nazis, but also by the inmates themselves. For non-Jews, “the Jews” had a certain irredeemable characteristics that made them different and dangerous – they were “sly”, “cunning”, “greedy”; gypsies too were seen by non-gypsies as inherently “savage” and uncivilised.

Prisoner society also rested on two other forms of distinction, social class and what Suderland insists on calling “ethnic affiliation” (this seems to be just nationality). Entry to the camp should have removed all outward signs of such differences, yet in order to make sense of the upside down world in which they found themselves the prisoners classified each other in these terms. Prisoners brought with them from the world outside these differences, and re-asserted them inside the camp. The latent social life of the camp, its surreptitious celebrations, its black market, all required these distinctions. As the quotes from the memoirs show, the camps were truly part of Western and modern society. Social life, Suderland shows, involves differences, and these, although she does not develop the argument, must be specific to a time and place. Even as they were murdered, concentration camp inmates were not and could not be simply victims: they used their differences to assert their humanity. Despite all its problems, the book does show that. And to the extent that it achieves this objective, the book does indeed give voice to the murdered.


James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies at Trinity College Dublin where he founded the Employment Research Centre.  Hid doctoral thesis was a social history of working class politics in Weimar Germany.  He has researched and published on employment, mobility and migration in Ireland and Europe.  He is now finishing a book on the end of the European Social Model.