The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them (Der Ss-Staat: Das System De Deutschen Konzentrationslager)

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Memoir and Study by Eugen Kogon, 1946

The Theory and Practice of Hell (1950; originally published in 1946 as Der SS-Staat: Das System de Deutschen Konzentrationslager ) was one of the most significant sociological studies of the concentration camps to emerge in the first decade after the war. Eugen Kogon's psychosocial portrait of SS and prisoner behavior still stands out for its sophistication, and Kogon did not allow his proximity to the events and persons described to weaken the objectivity of the commentary he provided. As Holocaust historian Harold Marcuse has noted, The Theory and Practice of Hell is still in some ways unsurpassed as a firsthand record of life in camps like Buchenwald. Nevertheless, while Kogon's dedication to objectivity and his reliance on other eyewitness accounts make this book more than a straightforward memoir, his experience of life in Buchenwald gives a distinctive shape to the book's description of relations between perpetrators and camp inmates, and personal anecdotes throughout the text suggest his conviction that a level-headed inmate could survive the camp experience without great difficulty. The book sold half a million copies and was translated into eight languages.

Like Bruno Bettelheim , Kogon argued that the concentration camp was an extreme example of the state of terror created everywhere in the Reich by the SS state. The book details the main actors in the Nazi machine responsible for the camp system, the categories into which prisoners were forced, and the daily conditions that they faced. Examples are largely taken from his own experience in Buchenwald, and other camps are viewed through short extracts of survivor testimony or by dint of assumptions based on developments in Buchenwald. For Kogon the camps were primarily designed to enable the SS to deal with their "opponents." At the same time, the book gives separate treatment to the attempted liquidation of the Jews, other so-called inferior races, homosexuals, and other undesirables. Aware of the indescribable proportions of the fate of the Jews, Kogon made clear that of all the groups in the camps, their position was the worst. Nevertheless, writing so soon after the liberation, Kogon was only able to give limited coverage to the experience of the vast majority of Jewish victims during the Holocaust. Conditions in the larger death camps, in ghettos, and on shooting grounds often bore little resemblance to Kogon's portrayal of a Buchenwald-style camp system.

The enduring value of The Theory and Practice of Hell lies chiefly in the extent to which Kogon cast light on the speedy degeneration of SS and camp inmates into a corrupt, chaotic, and brutal hell. Kogon only used the testimony of inmates and painted the amorality of the SS in the camps with a broad brush rather than seeking to distinguish between individuals or groups in positions of power. Nevertheless, he did succeed in showing that the camps attracted a German elite willing and eager to commit atrocities long before the war years sharpened the camp system into a haven from the front and a bonanza for profiteers and pleasure seekers. Once in the camps, a prisoner was at the whim of guards who often did not care for which category of offense he or she had been condemned. There were some groups of prisoners who were able to work for more favorable treatment from guards and the camp command, particularly by helping to keep order and communication with the prisoners. The primary means for self-preservation described in the book, however, was to take part in or facilitate the corruption and sexual profligacy of the SS.

Kogon was at his best in describing the processes of moral degeneration among camp inmates, the battles that they fought against each other, believing firmly that their survival depended on it, and the intergroup animosities deliberately sharpened by the SS in order to divide and rule. One of the main grounds for criticism of Kogon's work has been his reliance on communist testimony. Thanks to the opening of the archives of the East German Socialist Unity Party, Lutz Niethammer has uncovered testimony that reveals a far more serious level of complicity on the part of the Red kapos of Buchenwald than Kogon acknowledged. Nevertheless, The Theory and Practice of Hell does not shrink from describing in general terms the principles on which politicals accommodated some of the operations of the SS, particularly with the aim of preventing the camp from being turned over to the control of criminal elements among the inmates. More important to the thesis advanced in the book is Kogon's description of a process of mental hardening in the face of the horrors and challenges of the camp, which he asserted even the most civilized inmates could not avoid. If the camps differed in practice from the theoretical designs of the architects of the Final Solution in Berlin, Kogon suggested that this owed as much to the moral failings of the inmates as it did to the incapacities of the SS who ruled over them.

—George R. Wilkes

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The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them (Der Ss-Staat: Das System De Deutschen Konzentrationslager)

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