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Kogon book cover

"Hell on Earth: The Concentration Camps Under SS Rule"

Book Essay on:
Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell:
German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them

(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006 ed. [1946]), 307 pages. UCSB: Main Library DD256.5 .K614

by Victor Fernandez Murillo
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$10 & searchable
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About Victor Fernandez Murillo

I am a junior history major concentrating on U.S., Mexican, and European history. In the sixth grade I took a trip to the Museum of Tolerance, and from that day I been engrossed with the treatment of Jews by the Nazis during the WWII era. After I heard Tomas Blatt speak in class earlier this year, I became more concerned with the issue of concentration camps, therefore I decided to do my report on this book.

Abstract (back to top)

An overall image of the book regards the issue surrounding the involvement of the SS in the concentration camps. Since the SS was the main reason why the camps remained for so long, as well as the reason for its atrocities, the book starts with a background check of the SS and Himmler. From there, it branches off into different categories of the camps. It starts by stating why the SS wanted the concentration camps, and the locations where they would be built. The book does a great job explaining the involvement of the prisoners in these camps. It goes into depth regarding the prisoners’ ranks, their everyday tasks, what was expected from them, and their treatment in these places. However, the most eye catching aspect of this book involves the treatment of the prisoners. The book portrays the harsh reality of the brutality these prisoners endured on a daily basis. It examines work, nutrition, to experiments, and executions. However, as I mentioned, the book focuses on the fact that the SS had a great involvement in the camps. The author does a great job portraying the thesis of the book through the title, because that’s exactly what this book is about, a better understanding of why and who was responsible for the camps, as well as a clear description of the prisoners inside them. This book gave me an answer based on explanations of the question, why this issue occurred? Regardless of how stupid or inhumane the SS's reasons were, we gain insight into their actions.

Essay (back to top)

During the Nazi regime, people who were not considered true Aryans were belittled, taken advantaged of, and treated in the most un-humane way possible. By far the most infamous tool of brutality the Nazis carried upon these minorities was the use of the concentration camps. The first chapter of Kogon’s book pertains directly to the creation and involvement of the SS towards the concentration camps. The SS can simply not be mentioned without the name Himmler in the same sentence. Himmler was the creator of this sacred order, “The SS was established in 1929 as Hitler’s black-uniformed bodyguard. Originally it numbered but 250 men” (Kogon, page 6). By the end of the war, this unit approximated the one million men mark. All of these men were sworn into secrecy, as well as carrying the mentality that “>From five to ten percent of the people, their finest flower, shall rule; the rest must work and obey” (Kogon, page 4). Looking back, the treatment of the people in the concentration camps by Himmler and the SS is simply not surprising.

The next four chapters pertain to the breakdown and organization of the camps. Chapter two focuses primarily on their purpose, as well as the number of concentration camps that there were. These camps had three main purposes. Purpose one (the main one) was to exterminate all those who could, have or will oppose Nazi rule. Purpose two “was the collection and exploitation of the SS labor slaves.” Finally, purpose three, and in my case, the worst one of them all, was the so called scientific experiments conducted on these poor slaves. As the book states “Himmler was prepared to be the object of universal hatred=so long as he was also the object of universal fear.” (Kogon, page 20). Chapter three deals with the four categories of prisoners that were inducted in the camps. These categories were decided by the Gestapo police. These four groups consisted of: political opponents; those classified as “inferior races,” such as Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals; criminals; and those who Germans believed to be “asocial.” Chapter four pertains mostly with the geography of the camps. In short, the SS chose the locations of the camps preferably in areas surrounded by forests or moors, and not that distant from any large city. This was so that the area could be isolated, but at the same time close to access to supplies. Chapters five and six mentioned how the camps were organized and how the prisoners were detained. Each camp was organized into three major sections. Section one dealt with the headquarters of the camps. The headquarters dealt with all the decisions of the camps from the guards, type of food the slaves were given, and deaths. This section of the camp was established in Berlin. Section two dealt with the staff within the headquarters. In this section the Lagerfuhrer (officer-in-charge) duties and roster rotation are explained. Besides the Lagerfuhrer, each barrack of the camp had its own block leader. These block leaders were bullies that reported to their superior. However, this did not mean that they were under any restraint. They were encouraged to be brutes to all slaves without any severe punishments. Finally, section three was the camps’ administration. This section deals with the overall administration of the slaves in the camps from the first steps off of the train to the room where they were gassed. Pertaining to the arrests, people were usually arrested at their homes during the night. After that, they were interrogated, which meant that they were beaten and tortured. Then they were shipped by the hundreds to the camps. At their arrival, they were met with a “welcoming ceremony,” which of course meant a welcoming of hits, kicks, and blows.

The following eight chapters talk about the daily life that these inmates went through day after day inside the camps. The slave routine was harsh. During the summer, they were awakened by guard soldiers between four and five in the morning, and between six and seven during the winter. They were only allowed half an hour for washing, dressing, eating and making their beds. Morning roll call followed, then a hard day of labor continued. Around noon, they would receive a half an hour for their meal, which was the only one of the day. Work continued, which usually ended around five during winter or eight during the summer. The worst part of the day came during the evening roll call. Slaves were forced to stand up for hours until every slave was accounted for. Imagine how hard this had to be for these slaves. First of all, they were malnourished. According to SS records, the slaves received about 1,800 calories a day. This amount was already low for the type of labor they did. Second, each camp never gave the slaves the amount recorded, and the food that they did receive was tampered with so that the nutrients in them were taken out. Then, having to stand up after an extremely labor intense day was just inhumane. If slaves were unaccounted for, the rest had to wait for hours until they were found. On one occasion “…two convicts turned up missing at Buchenwald. The temperature was five degrees above zero, and the prisoners were thinly clad=but they had to stand in the roll call area for nineteen hours. Twenty-five had frozen to death by morning; by noon the number had risen to more than seventy” (Kogon, page 76). Their working settings were those of a true slave. They worked with no pay and suffered harsh beatings for those who did not comply with the rules of the camps. The punishments these slaves went through are as infamous as they were brutal; sadly, to get an idea of such horrors, all that’s needed is a sentence or two. Disciplinary acts led to a couple of actions, all ending with physical abuse. One was a whipping or a prison cell, hanging from a rope, being gunned down, beating with a club, starvation, standing in the cold, pretty much all forms of torture. Lastly, the last trip of their lives, a trip to the crematory.

One of the most interesting chapters to read was the chapter dealing with sanitation and health (chapter 13). Unsurprisingly, sanitation in the camps was of the most horrifying conditions imaginable. Due to the great amount of water shortages throughout the camps, slaves were only allowed to shower once every two weeks or once every month. Dental treatment, well, it was simply a joke. Those slaves that had dental issues, if the problem was found, the tooth was simply removed. The main purpose dentists were held in these camps was to remove the gold and silver from the slaves’ teeth. However, the worst part pertaining to the slaves’ health dealt with the scientific experiments conducted upon them. Such experiments consisted of electro-shocks, injections of unknown serum, freezing women and trying to revive them with warmth, and x-rays. In one experiment, a woman was put under freezing conditions and revived by sexual intercourse, “Rascher was able to report in detail how revived subjects practiced sexual intercourse at 86 to 90* F and that this proved to be the equivalent of a ‘hot bath’” (Kogon, page 160). These experiments were authorized by Himmler himself, and were primarily conducted at the camps in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, Ravensbruck, and Auschwitz.

With the exception of chapter eighteen, I found the remaining of the chapters to be somewhat repetitive. Earlier in the book, the Poles were mentioned, and the stats of the Holocaust are mentioned throughout the book. Due to the shortness of this paper, I will jump to chapter eighteen. The execution and disposal of the slaves was without a doubt one of the hardest chapters for me to read. The details concerning such events are just difficult to take. On page 226, you have a description of how a male’s testicles were dipped into boiling water and then into cold water, until the skin peeled off. Then, the author describes how slaves were hanged from their hands and feet and how most slaves who were subjected to this treatment, withstood it for no more than twenty minutes. The author describes death by hanging as the “simplest” form of death. Forms of deaths included deadly gassing, shooting, starvation, freezing, beatings, lethal injections, and the list goes on and on and on. Then, on page 234, the author describes the importance of the crematories to these killings. Body after dead body was piled on top of one another, to be cremated. As if that person never existed, as if they did not deserve a proper burial after the hell that the SS made them go through. This was just heartless.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/08)


  • Wikipedia, article “Concentration Camp,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_camp
    This page gives a quick introduction to the Holocaust and the concentration camps.
  • Holocaust Encyclopedia, February 19, 2008 (last day updated), http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005263
    This page gives both a quick overview of the concentration camps and the Holocaust, as well as links to personal stories of people who were in such camps as Sachsenhausen. It also states some of the things the SS were involved in.
  • Eugen Aroneanu, Thomas Whissen, Inside the Concentration Camps: Eyewitness Accounts of Life in Hitler’s Death Camps, Praeger, 1996, 176 pages;
    This short book presents actual confessions of those who survived the concentration camps. Their testimony gives us insight into their life during this period of time.
  • Hackett, David, The Buchenwald Report, Westview Press, New England, 1997, 424 pages.
    This book gives an insight regarding the abandonment of the Buchenwald camp by the SS, as well as all the information they left behind regarding the treatment of the inmates. It also gives interviews with inmates.
  • Hist 133d review of Kogon by Christina Hawkins
  • Hist 133d review of Kogon by Rachel Peña

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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 Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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