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Kogon book cover

"The Psychology of Inferiority and Power"

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 Rachel Pena
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
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About Rachel Pena

I am a senior sociology major and history minor at the University of California Santa Barbara. I was originally a psychology major but soon realized that I was more interested in studying social interactions than brain chemistry. I became interested in studying the Holocaust when I watched a film about the concentration camps in junior high school. I was deeply affected by what I saw and, after a trip to Germany in 1999, I knew that I wanted to learn more about how the camps were able to function as they did. As a result, I chose to read a book by Eugen Kogon because I was interested in learning more about the first hand experiences of inmates inside the camps and the social dynamics which came to play not only among inmates but between inmates and SS guards as well.

Abstract (back to top)

inmates being registered in Buchenwald
Buchenwald inmates being registered

Eugen Kogon attempts to explain how the primitive psychological mechanisms at work in the minds of the SS, coupled with the mental decline and adaptation to camp life by the inmates, allowed the concentration camps to function as they did. He argues that almost all members of the SS were the epitome of National Socialism and possessed a natural sense of inferiority which often translated into arrogance and absolute power in the camps. The inmates, on the other hand, found themselves thrust into a world of devaluation which proved to be detrimental to their mental capacity. Kogon argues that the mental instability of the inmates, after entering the camps, allowed them to be compelled to succumb to the power that the SS guards were implementing. Therefore, Kogon explains that it was the psychology of the SS combined with the psychology of the inmates that allowed the concentration camps to function as they did.

Essay (back to top)

The systems behind the German concentration camps and the experience of those living behind the barbed wire fences have long been a mystery to those who were not there. In order to put the mystery to rest and explain the success of the Nazi state, Kogon outlines everything inside the Buchenwald camp, from the political strife between the SS guards themselves to the lethal injections that claimed thousands of unknowing lives. Pursuing accuracy and detail in his work, Kogon relies largely on his own first hand experience and observations as an inmate to present such a vivid account of the life and system behind the camps. Consequently, since he served as a ward clerk in the camp from March 1943 to April 1945, Kogon was also able to draw from documents written by SS guards and other Nazi political leaders. During his time as a war clerk he had access to secret documents, such as those that listed the names of prisoners selected for experimentation and execution. All this information was compiled in order to begin to explain how such a large task, the creation and maintenance of concentration camps in relative secrecy, was able to be carried out for so many years. Kogon argues that the primitive psychological mechanisms at work in the minds of the SS and their lack of conflict between instinct and reason, coupled with the mental decline and adaptation to camp life by the prisoners, allowed the concentration camps to function as they did.


Eugen Kogon was a German political prisoner who lived as an inmate in the Buchenwald concentration camp from 1939 to 1945. There he witnessed the horrors of the camp system, learning its secrets and its structure until its end in 1945 when the Second World War was drawn to a close and the Allied forces liberated the camps. After the liberation Kogon was commissioned to use his experience in order to produce a ‘tell all’ historical account of Buchenwald. His historical account is organized to briefly outline the organization of the camps before examining the larger psychological forces as work which explain how the camps were able to maintain themselves throughout the duration of the war. Kogon begins with a detailed site plan of Buchenwald camp. In this diagram he labels all the buildings and describes their purposes, referring to them often in subsequent chapters. He then sets the stage for his powerful story by introducing readers to the aims and the organization of the SS state. He discusses in detail that the purpose of the Nazi state was largely to develop and protect, with all methods of power, a German system of rules based solely upon race. He also gives a description of the qualifications one must have in order to apply to the SS. The qualifications largely correlated with the innate characteristics of the types of individuals who were already drawn to such a position and rank to begin with. After describing the nature of the SS state, and the SS themselves, Kogon begins a description of the purpose, character and number of the German concentration camps. Closely tied to such an analysis is his discussion of the inmates who were imprisoned in any one of the numerous camps. Here he discusses not only the types of individuals who were forced into camps, but also the relationships that these individuals had among themselves and with the SS. The discussion of such intimate and important relationships turn into stories of personal strife. His description of the daily routine of the inmates brings awe to readers because of the vigorous activities that such unfortunate individuals had to endure. Here readers learn that working in various shops was the preliminary life line that could keep an inmate from execution. Other, less fortunate inmates were arbitrarily assigned to the quarry and excavation work that would inevitably lead to their death. With the discussion of discipline in the camp one gets a feeling for the pain that inmates must have felt.

Maintaining a theme of death, the discussion of experimentation inside the camp shows the realities of the dreaded wards 46 and 50 in which Dr. Ding-Schuler, who often helped Kogon hide individuals on the list to be executed, injected typhus strains into unknowing individuals. Strongly connected to experimentation are the direct reprisals against the Jews and other inferior races that were housed inside the camp. The liquidation of undesirables shows an in depth investigation on how the SS were able to camouflage their mass murdering. Often pushing individuals past the guard towers, the SS justified their shootings by claiming that the groups were trying to escape. Others were taken into building 61 in which they were gassed in private or given lethal injections. These inmates were called ‘lethally ill’ and were justified as humanely put down. Building 61 killed between 15 and 30 individuals a day. Although the camp is discussed with little attention paid to instances of resistance, in fact Kogon says it rarely happens, but he examines the underground struggles that did exist. The ending of the historical account is focused on the psychology of both the SS and the inmates. This analysis of the psychology perhaps serves as his attempt to explain how the concentration camps were able to function as they did.

Psychology of the SS

Kogon believes that the minds of the SS are closed except for a few fixed, dogmatic and effortless concepts. Kogon believes that this led to a lack of soul-searching, enabling the SS to disregard any questioning of the mind, except to see if their instincts actually corresponded with the prescribed SS goals. Furthermore, inquiry into the origins of the SS would indicate that almost all members of the SS were men who were ‘frustrated and maladjusted, whom circumstances had deprived of success, who were often enough total social failure’ (Kogon 286). In this respect the SS were the epitome of National Socialism. Consequently this natural sense of inferiority which the SS possessed was closely tied to their fostered hatred of men who held real prestige in society, who held firm to their political convictions or who had any real and substantial form of educational achievement. Thus, according to Kogon, SS were men who had been bred to hate man who were not helpless and uneducated like themselves.

The sense of failure that the SS had often translated into arrogance, which Kogon describes as the ‘veneer of hatred.’ However, the failure was often very real. The intellectual capacity of the SS members, even that of the highest leaders, was well below the average of other German citizens. In fact, the factual knowledge that they possessed rarely exceeded that of an eighth grade level. However, knowledge was not an essential part of recognizing and reaching the SS goals. All that was truly needed was the awareness that as a members of the SS, they were members of an elite and master class. They needed only to do as they were told and never doubt what their leaders told them. Thus, any guard who committed atrocities within the camp, such as shooting down a prisoner, was only carrying out orders that served to protect the Reich. Kogon writes that the SS were simple examples of basic psychological laws in the evolution of interior minds. It was inferiority that led these men into the SS where they readily found refuge and an opportunity to assert their superiority. The behavior of each individual SS member, whatever his rank, typified the system and its basic orientation (Kogon 298).

Psychology of the Inmates

Contrasting greatly with the psychology of the SS, the inmates of the camp were forced to deal with the toll that being taken from the outside and put on the inside would take on their mental capacity and ability. Upon being driven into the camp, inmates had two choices. According to Kogon, within three months in the camps, the inmates would come to identify with one of the two choices and topologies. Thus, a man could either fall into extreme mental decline, if he had been lucky enough to not already perish physically, or he could begin to adapt himself to the life in the camps. Unlike the low mental capacity of the SS, the low mental capacity that the inmates found themselves in upon liberation was far from an innate characteristic; it was the result of the process of devaluation the SS used in order to extirpate the prisoners of positive aspects of character in order to keep them under control.

Not only did the prisoners have a general difference in psychology with the SS, but different classes of inmates had mentalities that often threatened or rivaled those of the SS. There was an obvious contrast between the development potentials of the SS, asocials and the convicts on the one hand, and the political and ideological inmates on the other. With the former, social and individual origins suggested the nature of their behavior in camp. The latter, however, were unable to derive from their former relatively high social position, any useful knowledge for life inside the camp. Indeed, what they brought with them hindered rather then helped them in the eyes of the SS (Kogon 302). For instance, the SS were known to single out political prisoners in order to make them select other ‘socially unfit’ inmates who would be executed. Refusal of the selected would entail death for that political prisoner. Consequently, social class on the outside meant nothing on the inside, and political prisoners who had great autonomy and respect on the outside were brought down to the lowest levels, receiving abuse by the SS at every turn. The mental and physical abuse was so excessive that the mental capacity of the average inmate could only decline. Indeed, mental capabilities declined at alarming rates as the SS further dominated their minds. In fact, many prisoners, upon being liberated in 1945, could only overcome their forcibly acquired sense of inferiority by reverting, much like the SS, to a sense of superiority to cope with the losses incurred while incarcerated.

It is clear that the psychology of both the SS and the inmates of the camps played a large role in how they interacted, not only within their exclusive groups, but also between groups. As Kogon wrote, the insecurity that the SS had about their inferiority in the greater society played a large role in the development of the power they employed over their inmates. Consequently, the mental stability of the inmates, after entering the camp, was greatly distorted, allowing them to be compelled, in most cases, to succumb to the power, often without any resistance. More often than not, prisoners would show a strong mental decline by creating a whole system of mimicry toward the SS. This was a camouflage and protection put up by the inmates that indicated to the SS that ‘everything was okay.’ This deception ranged all the way from the stereotyped ‘yes sir’ to disarming smiles and blind obedience (Kogon 311). More interestingly, the power that the SS exerted over the inmates was shown in their inability, or unwillingness, to resist the SS at any time, even when being led to their deaths. Political prisoners often permitted themselves to be led to execution without offering any form of resistance. Kogon rarely discusses instances where, prisoners being led to execution did fight back, even when they were being led in large and often unmanageable groups which greatly outnumbered their SS guards.

Presentation of Validating Arguments

Kogon’s analysis of the psychology of both the SS and the inmates was based on first hand experience and knowledge as well as through the examination of various documents. Therefore, when looking for evidence to refute his claims of the psychology of such minds, one runs into much difficulty. However, though there is a lack of available conflicting evidence which might be reputable, there is an abundance of supporting evidence which confirms Kogon’s claims to be valid, not a product of his own mental decline while in Buchenwald. Robert Koehl, who also focused on the psychology of the SS, writes that Kogon’s interpretations of psychology of the SS are valuable for their insight, particularly because he is dealing with what he knew: the inner workings of the concentration camp. Koehl focuses on a prominent friend-foe dichotomy which existed among the SS themselves; all friends are seen as potential foes and a threat to the individual SS standing and self esteem. Therefore, all SS have to bind potential friends together and destroy all other groupings (Koehl 279). This confirms Kogon’s assertion that the SS as composed of men who felt inferior and who desperately wanted to find a way to raise their social status; even if it meant competition among their own ranks. Helen Fein also presents herself as a woman who understands the stereotypes produced about inmates and what truth lay in them. She agrees with Kogon that there was variation in the extent of competition versus solidarity among prisoners, which may be related to sex, nationality, type and concentration of prisoners, and camp variability. She also emphasizes the variety of adaptations that inmates could choose. Similarly she also focuses on conveying the message that the Nazi plan effected the morale of the inmates and thus their mentality.


Like Kogon, Koehl and Fein both emphasize the impact that the psychology of the SS had on the psychology of the inmates. If the Nazi SS did not have the primitive psychological mechanisms at work that they did, the inmates in all camps may have fared very differently then they did. Through his own personal experience and detailed observation, Kogon was able to vividly paint and explain the dichotomy that existed between inferiority and power not only in the SS group itself, but between the SS and the inmates. Backed by two other researchers, it is clear that the psychology of the SS, coupled with the mental decline and adaptation to camp life by the inmate, did allow the concentration camps to function as they did.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/08)

Book Reviews

  • Everitt, W.A. International Affairs, Vol. 27, No.2. (Apr., 1951). P. 241
    This review states that Eugen Kogon’s book was written with integrity and knowledge and should be regarded as an ideal description of the psychology of the camp leaders and policy makers as well as the inmates.
  • Fiddle, Seymour. American Sociological Review. Vol. 16, No.5. (Oct., 1951), p. 734- 735.
    This review supports the claims made by Kogon, the concentration camp system was serving a dual purpose and the SS themselves were a social political system He also argues that being deported to the camps did in fact entail subordination and devaluation of the inmates being sent there.

Books and Articles

  • Fein, Helen. ‘The Holocaust and Auschwitz: Revising the Stereotypes of their Victims.’ Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 9, No.4. (July., 1988), p. 495-498.
    Fein writes about the stereotypes produced about inmates and the truths that lay within them. She agrees with Kogon that there was variation in the extent of competition versus solidarity among inmates, which were related to camp variability. She also emphasizes the variety of adaptations that an inmate could choose.
  • Hackett, David. The Buchenwald Report. Colorado: Westview Press Inc, 1995. 388 pages.
    This book is very similar to Kogon's. He discusses a wide array of details about the concentration camp systems such as the antifascist struggle against the SS as well as the conditions that the inmates must endure while incarcerated. It is a good book to read because his arguments stress the psychology of the SS and the inmates as the key to the camps being able to function as they did.
  • Koehl, Robert. ‘The Character of the Nazi SS.’ The Journal of Modern History, Vol 34, No. 3 (Sep., 1962), p. 275-283.He focuses on the psychology of the SS in this article. He also writes about a prominent friend-foe dichotomy which existed among the SS. His article seems to confirm Kogon’s assertions that the SS was composed largely of men who felt inferior and who desperately wanted to find a way to raise their social status; even if it meant competition among their own ranks and the devaluation of other humans.

Web Sites

  • Allen, Michael. ‘The Business of Genocide.’ Spring 2002
    Analyzes the spread of concentration camp labor and the purpose of devaluation and dehumanization that lay behind the act of labor. He also discusses how all of the labor done by the inmates of concentration camps only provided a small part of the total German war economy and how those who witnessed the labor helped give power to the SS by not speaking out against the immorality of the system.
  • Newman, Leonard. ‘Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust.’ 2002. http://www.questia.com/pm-qst?q=o&a=103206146
    Written to provide a deeper understanding of the personal, social and cultural factors that can interact in such a way as to trigger the horrors of the genocide. Useful in order to understand the psychological mechanisms at work in the minds of those who started and carried out the Holocaust.
  • ‘Mind of the Age: Concentration Camp Psychology.’ Theosophy, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Nov., 1948). http://www.blavatsky.net/magazine/theosophy/ww/additional/MindOfTheAge-Series/ConcentrationCampPsych.html
    Description of the plan of systemized dehumanization of persons in Buchenwald. Explains that the process of devaluation that was implemented by the SS guards which was largely conceived of and executed with a scientific acumen. It also discusses how, over time, the world outside of the camp commonly ceased to exist for the inmate as they fully assimilated with camp society.
  • Pingel, Falk. ‘The Destruction of Human Identity in Concentration Camps: The Contribution of the Social Science to an Analysis of the Behavior Under Extreme Conditions.’ USA: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1991.
    Examines the possibility of using the social sciences as a way of analyzing the behavioral patterns most often found among the inmates of the concentration camps. He also describes the possible emergence of social groups who utilized different physical and psychological mechanisms to try and enhance their chance of survival in the camps.
  • Straub, Ervin. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. UK: Cambridge University Press,1989. 352 pages.
    Explores the psychological, cultural and societal roots of group aggression. He sketches a conceptual framework for the many influences of one group’s desire to harm another. He also considers the behavior of perpetrators and bystanders as they related to the Holocaust.
  • Hist 133d review of Kogon by Christina Hawkins
  • Hist 133d review of Kogon by Victor Fernandez-Murillo

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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.

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