The Concentration Camps

Author of two books of criticism and an anthology of contemporary poetry, A. ALVAREZwas born in 1929 in London, where he now lives as a free-lance writer. He is a frequent visitor to the United States and in 1960-1961 was professor of English at Brandeis University. He has visited Auschwitz twice during the past year.

THE concentration camps have been so much an obsession of our time that it is now hard to distinguish between the figures in them and the landscape. They blur and merge at every moment.

In Poland, where the scenes of Nazi atrocities are scrupulously preserved by a Department of Martyrology, you see only the landscape, a landscape of politics. It is as though the horror had somehow been generalized into a formal warning. When the Nazis destroyed Treblinka it became, literally, a field of skulls; now a large, dignified monument is going up. Auschwitz has been turned into a museum. In winter, under snow and at temperatures below zero, it is an empty landscape of straight lines—barbed wire, decrepit brick barracks, railway lines, and, where the huts have been burned, row upon orderly row of chimney stacks where nothing moves.

But in the thick, marshy summer, excursion-bus loads of workers and their children file through the blockhouses. Among the documents in glass cases, the photographs, statistics, and scale models of the gas chambers, the instruments of torture are discreetly displayed. Behind vast plate-glass windows are mountains of human hair, suitcases, spectacles, artificial limbs. Great mounds of old shoes reach up like rubble after an air raid. The excursionists shuffle silently after their guides and are taught a violent lesson in politics.

Yet despite the mementos of death, the process is abstract and anonymous; it makes even suffering the proof of a political theory. Perhaps this is as well, since the reverse is a psychopathic, chamberof-horrors view, which fixes on the details of pain and torture to the exclusion of everything else. It has made descriptions of Nazi atrocities best sellers in the shady bookshops of Soho. It also makes the camps unimportant; if they were simply playgrounds for sadists who in another society would have been locked away, then they are an aberration best forgotten, for they prove only that our sickest fantasies can be acted out. The Eichmann affair has shown that they were not.


But what remains, besides political museums and sadism? The beginning of an answer is to be found in Birkenau, the subsidiary extermination camp attached to Auschwitz. There the women’s barracks are still standing, cleaned up but otherwise untouched. They are small, low buildings of raw brick and cement, greenish inside with damp, and even in summer very cold. Each contains washing troughs, lavatories, and about 150 slots made of concrete, brick, and rough, gaping planks, 80 inches wide and ranged in tiers of three; these are the bunks.

Into each hut were crammed at least a thousand women, often considerably more. At times they slept nine to a bunk. Cattle live less squalidly, and the horses, which were originally stabled in the men’s barracks, probably lived a good deal better. Altogether 4,500,000 people died there, and all that is left is a kind of historical slum, beyond even pity or indignation.

Yet no one, we were repeatedly told, wants to hear any more about the camps; they have already provoked enough morbidity and sensationalism and paranoia. Even the Israelis look on them less as a martyrdom than as a national shame. “Where,” a Jerusalem child asked during Eichmann’s trial, “was our army?”

But somehow, while all miseries of World War II have faded, the image of the concentration camps persists. Perhaps it is because we are drifting irresponsibly toward another war that we compensate by feeling obscurely responsible for that last massive atrocity. But there is another reason. In the middle of If This Is a Man, the most moving of all the records of Auschwitz, Primo Levi inserted a curious generalization: “If from the inside of the Lager, a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”

As our distance in time from the camps grows, the figures in the landscape, both captives and captors, begin to seem increasingly like our own. L’univers concentrationnaire is no longer what David Rousset, another survivor, called “a world apart.” It is, instead, our own world in concentrated form, our own predicament come very close.


At Palmiry, in the forests outside Warsaw, is a national cemetery for the victims of the Nazi mass executions. Its rows of graves have a certain dignity, and even a certain innocence, now that trees have grown over the trenches in which the corpses were once piled.

But at least those who died at Palmiry were important enough to be singled out. Their deaths were given meaning, and that in turn made some sense of their lives. For everyone, I suppose, believes that death, however haphazard, in a way sums up, even perversely, the inner logic of his personality; that at least within his own tiny circle his name will survive as history. So the dead at Palmiry have their own graves and headstones; they have become national martyrs.

But in the twenty months of the executions there, only 1700 people were killed. The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were designed for 2000 at a time; in theory, they could “process” 40,000 victims a day. Of those, not one was able to vindicate himself as a man. Anyone who even attempted martyrdom, self-sacrifice, or escape endangered the lives of everyone else and so was hated by his fellow prisoners. The final standard of behavior in the camps was the anonymity of bare survival.

At that point death itself is annihilated. The only adequate word is “extermination.” Instead of names, the victims had numbers; instead of history, their story was told by statistics. In the last stages, when the crowds on the transports were never registered and their personal documents were destroyed, statistics themselves were inadequate and oblivion took over.

There are, however, no limits to the inflationary spiral of destruction. From 1940 to 1945 nearly 4,500,000 people died in Auschwitz. The same number would die in minutes if a hydrogen bomb landed on London. The gap is very small between the comforts of our affluent society and the bare, animal squalor of Birkenau, or the finality of the Auschwitz crematorium, with its rasping iron trolleys. So perhaps the concentration camps have kept a tight hold on our imaginations not because, as Hannah Arendt suggested, they were the laboratories in which the totalitarian states proved that all things are possible, but because, accepting as we do that all things are now effortlessly possible everywhere, we see them as a smallscale trial run for a nuclear war.


The corridors of the blockhouses of Auschwitz are lined with photographs of prisoners who died there. Men on one side, women on the other, they stare at each other as the guided tours file past. They might as well be staring in a mirror: all are in identical poses against the same blank background; all wear the same uniforms of striped cotton; all have their heads shaved. They represent the triumph of the totalitarian superstate: people without identities, without past, without future, and without faces; “a monstrous equality,” Hannah Arendt called it, “without fraternity and without humanity, an equality in which dogs and cats could have easily partaken.”

It is as though, by industrializing human values themselves, democracy had become lunatic. Instead of all men being equal before the law and equal in opportunity, they became equal simply in usefulness: as equal as any commodity turned out by a mass-production line. In some of the experiments carried out by SS doctors, the limbs of prisoners, and their lives, were used literally as interchangeable spare parts.

The defenses of the personality are frail. They rely heavily on a pact of mutual responsibility and respect between society and the individual. So the first step into the lunacy of the concentration universe was to remove the prisoners utterly from the sustaining world of responsible public sanity. The totally innocent were arrested for no reason they could understand. They were stripped of all legal rights, and their social status was turned upside down; the more respectable the prisoner had been, the more brutally the SS treated him. The Jews, who were guilty of nothing except their Jewishness, found themselves at the bottom of a camp hierarchy, the apex of which was formed by common-law criminals, murderers, and thieves.

Once reason goes, nightmare follows inevitably — a nightmare guided by the perverse logic of the camps’ machinery and accelerated by the instinct for self-destruction that is hidden in everyone. The process was one of organized regression. It began in the transport trains when the prisoners, already bewildered by their very innocence, were herded into cattle trucks, without food or water or space, and subjected to a continual gross brutality. According to the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, “The purpose of this massive initial abuse was to traumatize the prisoners and break their resistance; to change at least their behaviour if not their personalities.” This was the precipice between the world of accustomed sanity and that of gratuitous suffering.

When the prisoners had passed this point, the paradoxes of insanity began. Over the gates of Auschwitz was written not “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here” but Arbeit Macht Frei. The words of greeting were:

You have come here not to a sanatorium but to a German concentration camp from which there is no other way out than through the chimney. If someone doesn’t like it, he may go at once to the barbed wire; if there are any Jews in this transport, they have no right to live longer than two weeks; if there are any priests, they may live one month, the others — three months.

Those who were not sent straight to the gas chambers were stripped, shaved, deloused, beaten, and overborne on every side by meaningless orders, the only purpose of which was to persuade them that they neither had nor deserved a hope of survival.

At this point, adult bewilderment gave way to the sheer incomprehension of childhood; the sense that some kind of pattern lies behind this idiocy, but it is not to be perceived — perhaps is not even possible to perceive. The process of regression and disintegration had begun. The prisoners were thrust into the terrible intimacy of the blockhouses, each with its own petty hierarchy and jealousies, and its own senseless rules, which depended entirely on the whim of the guards and Kapos and regulated every detail of their lives.

Like children, says Bettelheim, they were stupidly bullied and slapped; they suffered afresh the degradation of rigid toilet training; they were allowed to see and hear only what the authorities directed. They were starved and worked into the ground senselessly, moving rocks from one place to another, piling earth with their hands. Their strongest emotion was the impotent rage of a child in a world hopelessly beyond his control.

Once an adult has been degraded into childishness, of however terrible a kind, the final regression into death follows easily. In the last stages of the concentration process, all spontaneity and will ceased. Like tiny infants, the prisoners noticed no one around them, reacted to nothing except food, and became in themselves the living dead. At that point, they would walk indifferently to the chimney.

The continual, casual suffering of the camps may be imagined only in terms of some medieval inferno. But it was hell with a peculiarly modern refinement: the victims not only underwent apparently endless suffering; at the same time they were made to consent to their own damnation. When a man who is totally innocent finds himself in hell he must, in order to understand what is happening to him, manufacture his guilt — if necessary, from his inner life. So he is not only in hell; he has also enacted on himself the Last Judgment.


There is an eerie similarity between the drab, unfinished brick of the blockhouses at Auschwitz and some of the older tenements in Nowa Huta, a big steel town not far off. It is eerie but understandable; as Nowa Huta processes steel, so Auschwitz processed human beings. And to do so it used all the complex skills of organized modern business.

In The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon has set out the figures collected by SS Lieutenant General Pohl to show the average profit made from “the mass utilisation of human bodies on an efficiency basis.” The daily farming-out wage paid to the camp is balanced against the cost of food and depreciation of clothing, then multiplied by 270, the average life-span of a prisoner in days. To this is added the profit to be made from the prisoner’s personal effects, including dental gold, and the utilization of his body after death — hair sold to make cloth, fat for soap, bones and ashes for glue and fertilizer (less, of course, two marks for the cost of cremation). The death factories apparently were profitable concerns.

There also exists a series of formal letters exchanged between the commandant of Auschwitz and a large, still thriving drug firm. They are all written in conventional business jargon; both sides haggled over the price and worried over the details of shipment. But the commodity in question was “150 females.” These letters, Pohl’s calculations, and Eichmann’s obsessive coordination of the transports all belong to the same world, that of efficient modern big business.

Even the mass persuaders were the same. At the extermination camp Treblinka, the victims were cajoled into walking quietly by the thousands to the gas chambers by a kind of super advertising campaign. With the camp orchestra playing, they were shepherded toward the “baths” down an ordinary town street, complete with restaurant, café, and hospital. There were even plush armchairs in the station waiting room. But, as in some Western frontier town, the whole thing was a false facade. To make them accept their extermination docilely, the Nazis sold them the image of normal life, just as they sold Greek Jews the title deeds to nonexistent shops and land in the Ukraine before transporting them.

The techniques are those of our own industrialized mass society. Only the moral framework is different. Once that is changed, by whatever mass persuasion or hysteria, the system runs itself. Even the prisoners could imagine no alternative, for their survival depended on accepting the lunacy for what it was in order to preserve, by cunning, their own vestiges of sanity. A Polish Jew who came through Auschwitz told me that one of the lagerführers was known, almost affectionately, as Tom Mix, because, he said, “not a day passed without his shooting someone.”


“Take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.” The force of Primo Levi’s warning is to deprive us of the easy ways out — shock and indignation. The more we know of the camps, the more they seem like a mirror thrust into our faces. But it is a distorting mirror in which the image is warped by all the pain and horror. And this is a consolation; it helps us not to recognize our own features.

Hence our anxiety to picture Eichmann as a monster. It is easier than believing him guilty while accepting his defense. For if he were simply an administrator who obeyed orders and ran his corner in destruction as efficiently as he could, then his crimes could not be shrugged off as the psychopathology of a particular man or a particular moment in history. Instead, they would look startlingly like the psychopathology of everyday life now.

Sadism, like most other perversions, ends up by seeming contemptible, even a bit childish. The concentration camps, however, were a peculiarly adult outrage. All those straight lines — the precise rows of blockhouses, railway sidings, and barbed wire — are the product of some very sophisticated planning. Equally sophisticated was the morality behind them, the choice which replaced human values with the ideal of efficiency.

But at a certain level of sophistication, innocence and guilt become indistinguishable. The prisoners finished as obscurely convinced of their crimes as their captors were of their own righteousness. No doubt the man who finally presses the button to start a nuclear war will have a mind and finger as stiff with right reasons as any member of the Department of Racial Affairs.

So the camps possess our imagination still because they remain unavoidably our responsibility. In one sense, we are all victims; we all suffer at some time the temptation to hand over our identities and lapse back into hopeless passivity. We merely lack the machinery of gross violence which would transform private annihilation into public outrage. But we might be equally at home on the other side of the barbed wire. Certainly, we daily handle and are handled by much the same principles of efficiency.

To add to the confusion, these often have great functional beauty. The bombers, missiles, computers, and even the huge, smoothly working businesses have an impersonal perfection that is easily mistaken for a high civilization of their own. In comparison, the inefficient beauty of the arts and shifting, tentative discriminations of the intellect seem hopelessly fragile and far less appealing. But the moral sense and the whole related structure of our civilization are based on them. And when they fail, the step into the concentration universe is short and easy. “Take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.” Or, as Henry James once wrote:

Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.