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From Identity to Excrement: An Investigation into the Application and Influence of Psychological Principles Within Camp Life
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
I am a fourth year History major and English minor. While my interests in history primarily focus on Europe prior to the twentieth century, the Holocaust proves an anomaly. During my late elementary school years, I became fascinated with the Holocaust, reading any book I could find on the subject. I was fortunate enough to travel with my family, and visits to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and throughout Europe furthered my interest. I am very interested in sociology and psychology as well, which prompted my interest in the use of psychology within camp life.
Abstract (back to top)
This paper discusses the presence of psychology throughout the Nazi death camps. Sleep deprivation, exploitation of the body through excrement, the reality of nightmare, and loss of identity are discussed. While these things are meant to dehumanize prisoners, it becomes apparent that resistance through organizing and social interaction helped prisoners retain their humanity.
Essay (back to top)
Under Nazism, the influence of psychological principles was present in many aspects of daily life. From the indoctrination of children in the Hitler Youth to the delegation of power to socially unsuccessful and maladjusted people in the SS, it is clear that Nazi rule and practice was greatly influenced by psychological principles. This application was also present within the concentration and death camps, where psychology often influenced the layout of the camps in order to further psychological torment of victims of Nazism. Degradation, humiliation, and dehumanization were all common psychological mechanisms used throughout camp life. Prisoners within the camps experienced the application of such principles in various ways, including exploitation of hygiene and bodily functions, sleep deprivation and the reality of nightmare, and the elimination of identity. The use of such psychologically influenced practices was meant to break the spirit of the prisoners, which the Nazi regime recognized as crucial to the demoralizing process. In this paper, in addition to showing the various ways psychological principles were used in the camps to dehumanize prisoners, I argue that some prisoners were able to resist the loss of their humanity by participating in social exchanges of goodwill.
Purpose and Layout of the Camps
During Nazi control, the concentration camp underwent numerous shifts in focus. In the early years of Nazism, the camps were meant to eliminate any opposition to the state (Pelt & Dwork, 172). From 1934-1936, the camp administration and the system of detention within the camps was standardized, stabilizing the camp structure, which would for the most part remain in place until the end of the war (Sofsky, 31). This foundation fueled the development of the behavioral patterns influenced by the “quasi-military movements: esprit de corp, camaraderie, personal allegiance, the mentality of the emergency situation, corruption, and the lust for the kill” that fostered the use of psychology (Sofsky, 278). The camp model contained four components: classifying prisoners; terrorizing through labor; a system of punishments that could be inflicted both formally and informally; laws for offenses such as attempted escape or mutiny (Sofsky, 32). Such a model allowed for flexibility from camp to camp, enabling officers to carry out specific actions according to their own impulse. After 1936, the camps changed from a place of political repression to a location where ethnic and racial social policy could be enacted (Sofsky, 33). The outbreak of war affected camp function and social structure among prisoners. “Detention was intensified, food rations were reduced, everyday routine was rendered more strict, [and] time for roll call was extended at the expense of free time” (Sofsky, 34). Groups of prisoners varied from camp to camp and internationalizing led to a national hierarchy, where German prisoners were often on top (Sofsky, 35).
Previous to 1939, the concentration camp’s intention was to eradicate political opponents, segregate social outcasts, and terrorize the population. As the war escalated, deportation as a solution to the ethnic cleansing of Europe began to appear improbable, and the eradication of Jews, “cleansing Europe of them, was an end in itself…it was a project all its own” (Pelt & Dwork, 327). A shift to mass extermination, specifically of the Jews, became the primary focus of the camps (Sofsky, 37). The use of camps to fulfill needs of labor did not take hold until 1942, and even then was open to various misgivings within the Nazis regime (Sofsky, 40). Auschwitz became a production sight for sand and gravel, and later labor was used to produce synthetic rubber (Pelt & Dwork, 351). Yet this use of labor, in Auschwitz and elsewhere, did little to alleviate the possibility of annihilation, as it, too, became a mode of death. Such shift in purpose often intensified the psychological principles employed within the camps, as it destroyed human beings by humiliation and psychological murder, by dissociation and repression, by labor, starvation, and epidemic” (Sofsky, 214).
The physical layout of the camps, too, amplified psychological principles. The camp itself was meant to remain isolated from the outside world, yet close enough to urban places so SS could retain access to supplies (Kogon, 48). From the outset of all camps, power ruled the design. Strict order was ensured, and anything that stood in the way, whether forest or swamp, was eliminated. Each camp was “zoned,” so that spaces of differing functions could be spatially separated (Sofsky, 48). Each camp had 3 main areas: Headquarters (administration, SS barracks, residences and gardens); SS residential settlements (constructed by prisoner labor, occupied by families of lower ranking SS); the compound (a barbed-wire, bare enclosure, surrounded by guard towers every 250 ft., filled with dirt and mud and barracks for prisoners) (Kogon, 48-52). Such segregation allowed for extreme surveillance, which intensified violence. The camp itself was completely self-contained, and the zoning described above was used as an instrument of separation, misery, and death (Sofsky, 53). Kogon describes the camps as “a world unto itself, a state within a state, a society without law. Men were flung into it to fight for their naked lives, for mere survival” (Kogon, 11). Indeed, the layout of the camps, with their barbed wire and strict systems of order and segregation acted as the perfect stage for the SS to utilize psychological principles of torture.
Members of the SS
Before I go on to discuss the psychological principles themselves, it will be beneficial to better understand the perpetrators and prisoners themselves. The SS was established as Hitler’s “black-uniformed bodyguard” of 250 men in 1929. Just two years later the SS, which would come to control the concentration camps, contained upward of 10,000 members (Kogon, 17-19). At the creation of the SS, rules were enforced relating to the physical appearance of the guards in order to depict a strong and intimidating Nazi force. SS guards initially had to be at least five feet, eleven inches tall, but as Nazism spread, and especially after the start of the war, this qualification was waved (Kogon, 17). While Wolfgang Sofsky asserts that members of the SS were not particularly brutal individuals, and were in fact easily reintegrated into society after the war, it appears that some elements of cruelty were present (Sofsky, 277). The SS actively encouraged brutality, and many in the upper levels of the SS system owed their advancement to an affinity of sadism (Rees, 23 & Kogon, 31). (Link to Chelsea Evan’s Essay on Commanders) Being part of the SS “afforded [members] the additional gratification of seeking compensation for the compulsion which drill occasionally imposed on them by ‘taking it out’ on others, even on their own kind, with a great show of strength and virility” (Kogon, 260). While cruelty was obviously present, Sofsky’s claim of normalcy could be based on other factors. Indeed, SS were often maladjusted, frustrated, and socially inept members of society. They were rarely successful prior to becoming SS, and this sense of inadequacy may have fueled their desire for power (Kogon, 260-261). In addition, their factual knowledge rarely exceeded that of an eighth grader, which Kogon implies helped to prevent any opposition to Nazis leadership (Kogon, 266-267). The Nazi regime undeniably had goals in mind when accepting men into the SS. Through the system present in the concentration camps, the SS were free to act, behave, torture, and kill as they wished, “guided by Teutonic concepts of power and virtue” (Sofsky, 278 & Kogon, 31). Already present personal characteristics, along with the freedom provided within the camp system, enabled members of the SS to inflict psychological principles on prisoners within the camps.
The prisoners of the camps were much less homogenous than the SS illustrated above. Within the camps, prisoners typically fell into four groups: political opponents, members of inferior races (including Jews and Gypsies), criminals, and “shiftless elements” (Kogon, 39). Moral and religious motives were often considered in conflict with the Nazis state, and thus Jehovah’s Witnesses and other clergymen were also sent to the camps (Kogon, 41). The prisoners were marked both by a tattooed serial number and colored triangles, which were assigned according to the categories above. Yellow signified Jews, green signified criminals, purple signified Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. These groups often overlapped, so a Jewish Communist would be considered both inferior and an opponent of the state, and thus would wear multiple triangles (Kogon, 44). These differing groups were often assigned to live together. Political prisoners were meant to feel degraded by being mixed with the “scum” of society, and conflict between differing groups was encouraged and often instigated (Kogon, 45-46). Jews, however, were often segregated into different barracks, which proved detrimental to their survival. Being segregated from the rest of the prisoners heightened the danger of annihilation, as SS guards would single out Jews to fulfill their every whim of brutality (Kogon, 39). According to Sofsky, the prisoners were made into victims, “labeled outsiders, enemies, superfluous human beings, so that they could be persecuted, tormented, and killed” (Sofsky, 277). It was through the use of psychological principle that the SS attempted to victimize and dehumanize camp prisoners.
Exploitation of Hygiene and Bodily Functions (As adapted from previous essay)
In order to strip prisoners of their humanity, an environment of extremity, greatly supported by psychological principles, was created. Extremity is defined by Des Pres as “a situation in which men and women must live without accommodation” (Des Pres, 181). The life in the death camps, where normal bodily functions were often used against the prisoners and manipulated into a means of torture, certainly falls under this description. One way in which extremity was established was through the exploitation and control of the body and hygienic needs. Sanitary procedures, like everything else, were manipulated by the SS as an excuse for terrorizing and evil acts (Kogon, 133). Debasing people to live in their own excrement, causing severe embarrassment and self-loathing, became a key feature of the death camps. This subjugation to filth and excrement was systematic, as seen by the layout of the camps. Cleaning facilities were nowhere to be found, and the latrines consisted of open pits with a wooden plank and railing for prisoners to squat upon (Des Pres, 62, 58). Prisoners were never allowed to relieve themselves at will, which proved difficult since diarrhea and dysentery plagued most prisoners. Officials would frequently stop prisoners for questioning right before they reached the latrine and require them to perform squats until the movement caused the prisoners to defecate on themselves. Such action gave the officials an excuse to beat prisoners for disobeying orders (De Pres, 57-58). In explaining the psychological detriment such conditions caused, Des Pres notes the cultural relationship between cleansing and purification to morality and respect; corruption is commonly likened to dirt and contamination (Des Pres, 68). Subjection to such circumstances caused greater turmoil to prisoners than hunger or fear of death (Des Pres, 66). One prisoner illustrates just how important hygiene was to retaining a sense of decency when describing how multiple prisoners used their morning ration of coffee to wash themselves instead of to gain nourishment (Des pres, 64). It becomes clear to readers that while the muck of blood and excrement created unbearable, disease-ridden conditions, the systematic exposure caused psychological affects as well, which led many prisoners to feel degraded and inhuman.
Termination of Identity
The exploitation of the body and self, as depicted above, was also administered through the exploitation of identity. By stripping prisoners of their individuality, the camps forced them to lose all differentiating characteristics of the self and become one of the masses. Upon arrival to the camps, “newcomers were subjected to a processing procedure that devalued their past instantaneously” (Sofsky, 82). The sequence of entry into the camp included humiliation, violence, and mutilation, transforming prisoners into different people and was designed “to engineer the collapse of their personal and moral integrity” from the beginning (Sofsky, 82). Sofsky likens initial loss of individuality to a ritual of passage, which usually occurs in the three stages of separation, marginalization, and reaggregation. He claims the camp entry process had the same structure, yet differed vastly in function. While rites of passage typically mark a social or cultural shift, whether in status or otherwise, the entry process at the camps transformed the prisoner’s personal experience into one of permanent degradation—regulating not only biographical transition, but destroying the solidity of the self (Sofsky, 83). Des Pres maintains that extremity strips people of their spiritual identity, and thus material symbols and acts of defilement become the medium of morality of the spirit (Des Pres, 69). Continuing this belief, it becomes apparent why the entry process was so traumatic and became almost ritualistic within camp life.
Prisoners were literally stripped of their clothing and possessions—all private things relating to their inner identities—becoming both a material and symbolic loss. This was also the first physical symbol of identity loss: nakedness. Prisoners were subjugated to extreme shame and were deprived of the ability to cling to objects of their identity to differ them from the rest (Sofsky, 84). After undressing, all hair (face, head, and body) was shaved and then scrubbed with dirty rags drenched in disinfectant (Sofsky, 84). Such procedures not only acted as a physical transformation to uniformity, but also degraded the individuals who were made to feel polluted and impure. The distribution of uniforms, too, completely leveled and erased the differences of appearance among the prisoners. After being issued their uniforms, the prisoners were hardly recognizable as themselves, but instead looked the same as everyone else (Sofsky, 84). In relation to the final stage of the entry process, assigning a number to each prisoner, Sofsky asserts that “to be dispossessed of one’s own name is among the most far-reaching and profound mutilations of the self” because it symbolizes the annihilation of all previous history. The tattooed number “signified the metamorphosis of the individual into an element of the mass, the transformation of personal society into the serial society of the nameless” (Sofsky, 84). The personal degradation and humiliation experienced by prisoners upon camp entry had immediate affects on their destiny based on their reaction to extremity. Within three months, prisoners would have either undergone great mental decline if they had not already died, or would have adapted to life within the death camps (Kogon, 274). The prisoners’ initial loss of identity was only an introduction into other psychological principles used throughout camp life.
Sleep Deprivation and the Reality of Nightmare (As adapted from previous essay)
The trauma of the entry process could deeply affect prisoners, driving them into states of shock. Sleep deprivation and the trauma they experienced caused many prisoners to feel they were living a nightmare. The day itself was long and exhausting; prisoners were expected to work at least fourteen hours each day, including Sunday (Kogon, 56). Prisoners were deprived of adequate sleep which caused them to lose self-control and the ability to distinguish what was real (Des Pres, 78). Figurative sleep also became dangerous for prisoners upon entering the camps. The terror of the death camp began even before prisoners arrived, most often being arrested in the night and thrown into a cattle car for an extended period of time (from 12 hrs to 12 days). During this horrifying journey of unknown, prisoners dealt with hunger, deficient sleep, cold, heat, and lack of toilet facilities (Kogon, 66-67). Such suffering no doubt amplified the traumatic ordeal of witnessing camp life for the first time. The reality of the death camps shocked many prisoners on arrival; what had been reserved to the pages of books, the stages of plays, or the canvases of paintings had somehow sprung to life. Death within the initial period of arrival, beyond being sent directly to the gas chamber, was extremely common. Bruno Bettelheim claims that this was due in large part because the prisoners lost the will to live. Des Pres refutes this assertion, countering that death was actually caused by a lack of information about, or preparation for, the horrors of the camps (Des Pres, 79). What truly affected the rate of survival was when prisoners were able to wake from their shocking nightmare of extremity and begin to make a conscious effort to stay alive.
The psychological principles of the camps were intended to isolate and reverse any sense of social relation, which Sofsky claims is key to individuality and identity, among the prisoners (Sofsky, 281). Yet there were ways in which the prisoners rebelled against this intent, most notably through acts of communal good will. The will to survive and the actions of many survivors has frequently been criticized and condemned by those who claim that self-interest and disregard for others ruled the actions of survivors. While self-interest was present within the camps, Des Pres makes it obvious that helping others was in truth a regular occurrence, furthering his claim that retaining aspects of civility was an element of true survival. Contradictions of self-interest and helping others are in fact widespread throughout survivor testimony. Sim Kessel, a survivor of Auschwitz, asserts that there was little concern for others within the camps, yet he relates how two strangers helped him after he collapsed in the snow (Des Pres, 98). While actions of some prisoners are often viewed as selfish and uncompassionate, these actions are frequently misconstrued as giving in to the system of evil. As illustrated above, the conditions of camp life were meant to debase and kill the spirit of prisoners as a precursor to killing the body. The extremity of camp life repeatedly motivated survivors to manipulate camp systems in acts of retaliation and revolt. Taking jobs within the SS administration could be viewed negatively, but these prisoners were often crucial to the survival of other prisoners. The Orderly Room, the corresponding headquarters of the Roll Call Office within the prisoner zone, was in control of internal camp administration and run entirely by prisoners (Kogon, 61). This enabled workers to tamper with papers, switching names of prisoners to safer lists (Kogon, 237). Nurses supplied medicines, and those in clerk or office positions were able to warn others when selection would take place (Des Pres, 120). So, the seeming submission to camp manipulation actually proved beneficial to the goodwill of prisoners.
“Organizing,” a camp euphemism for any illegal act, be it stealing food or obtaining clothing, also became a way to resist and was extremely widespread in the death camps (Des Pres, 105). In Auschwitz, prisoners lucky enough to work in “Canada,” an area where the sorting of prisoners’ seized possessions occurred, often risked severe punishment by smuggling goods back to their comrades in the main camp (Des Pres, 106). Through testimonials, Des Pres describes the importance of gift-giving, which became important not only in the sharing of real aid and boosting morale, but also in asserting solidarity and forging irrevocable links (136, 139). Prisoners became inventive, and created goods, such as needles, that would benefit themselves and others as well (Des Pres, 112). While egotistical behavior may appear present within the camps, it is crucial to remember the immense effort prisoners put forth to help others while they, too, were fighting to survive. Ultimately, gift-giving and the realization of communal good became significant elements of humanness, and such behaviors were present throughout the camps simply as the means to life (Des Pres, 147). The constant threat of death created an even greater need for solidarity, not an individualistic outlook.
The psychological principles present under Nazism took on an extreme role within camp systems. All aspects of life, from uncontrollable functions of the body, to the human desire for individual recognition, were exploited by psychological principles intended to render all prisoners superfluous and inhuman. Entry to the camps resulted in an immediate loss of prisoners’ identities, adding to the trauma experienced upon witnessing the conditions of camp life itself. Such shock frequently caused prisoners to become apathetic, often resulting in a swift death. The unbearable conditions, created by blood, urine, and excrement, led to epidemics and feelings of shame and humiliation among prisoners. Despite the SS’s intent to dehumanize and isolate prisoners by coercing them to withdraw from the social construct of camp life through the utilization of psychological principles, prisoners were able to retain decency and morality. Indeed, “there was in all the camps a significant drive toward decency, a persistent tendency to transcend the amorality of initial conditions and to establish modes of interchange which were life-supporting and a basis for relations truly social” (Des Pres, 111). Prisoners learned to manipulate the very systems the SS used for exploitation, from administration positions to medical work. Prisoners took extreme risk in order to provide extra goods for others within the camp and sabotage within factory work was not uncommon. The demolition of sociality desired by the SS was in fact not as complete as they wished. Through organizing and subversive action for the goodness of the camp community, prisoners were able to resist the complete affects of the psychological principles used, and thus remain as human and as decent as the extremity of their position allowed.
Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)
Books and Articles
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: