Social Life in an Unsocial Environment

The concentration camps of Nazi Germany were, arguably, societies that were as far from normal, natural social situations as a society can get and still retain the name. Disparate individuals and groups of people were forced together into a situation in which they felt they had to vie with one another for their very survival. As in any human society, a system of complex social arrangements and customs, never clearly discernible or intelligible by outsiders, arose as a means by which communication and cooperation between the society’s members could be facilitated. Because of the extraordinary circumstances of these particular kinds of societies, however, the social system within the concentration camps developed unique features which often appear to be a kind of caricature of a healthy human society. In his essay “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” Falk Pingel traces some of the features of society within the concentration camps, including both the developments natural and universal to human societies and the degenerative aspects unique to the concentration camps.1His overview of concentration camp society includes a discussion of the hierarchies of power that developed within the camps, the social divisions within concentration camp societies, and unique features of concentration camp language and interaction between prisoners.

Power hierarchies within the concentration camps largely relied upon the reason for which inmates had been interned in the first place and the order in which they had been interned. Communists, for instance, were among the first to be placed into the concentration camps, which, according to Pingel, “probably explains why, in later years, communists were often successful in gaining positions of ‘power’ within the system.”2The Communists also, like other political prisoners who were interned later, were able to create a sub-group for themselves and to draw upon their past to exercise the kind of political resistance they had practiced previous to their time in the concentration camp. In addition, if an inmate from among their particular political faction was chosen for a position of responsibility by the camp authorities, he could use his position to benefit the other members of his group. This created an environment of solidarity among members of their political faction and a means by which to ensure survival of the individual via the group. In this way, social affiliations and obligations which one had developed before the camp continued into the camp and could grant one an advantage in the conditions of the concentration camp.

The political situation outside of the camp also influenced relationships in the camp in other ways. The eugenics agenda of the Nazis, for instance, influenced where certain groups of prisoners were placed within the camp system and how these groups were treated both by the authorities and by fellow prisoners. Jews, for example, “were individually targeted and often segregated from the other inmates.”3Social taboos that had been present on the outside also continued to influence interaction and treatment on the inside. Homosexuals, for instance, who were forced by the camp authorities to identify themselves with a pink badge on their uniform, were treated as social outcasts by their fellow inmates and kept from entering the mainstream of camp society. What might have been mere disapproval and avoidance outside of the concentration camps, however, could spell certain death within.

The position and activities of those who were able to gain some measure of power within the camps is also demonstrative of the simultaneous adoption of natural social relations and institutions coupled with the perversions of these social features that were unique to the concentration camps. Camp functionaries selected by the Nazi authorities for positions in inmate leadership or in administrative positions were able to enjoy special privileges which resulted from their closer proximity to the guards, such as a lower chance of being selected for extermination or transfer to another camp and the ability to secure certain benefits through bribery. They also were able to exercise authority over their fellow inmates, “including through intimidation and violence through their superior position.”4The unnatural and impoverished circumstances of the concentration camp also led to egregious abuses of this power. Some of these functionaries, for instance, “used their position to demand sexual favours from their fellow prisoners.”5Whether through bribery or intimidation, camp functionaries often used their powers to secure a variety of comforts and even indulgences for themselves in the camps.

In addition to the social hierarchies and divisions that developed within the camp, a further notable feature of camp social life as outlined by Pingel is the unique linguistic pattern that emerged among inmates. Concentration camp language was characterized by a certain terseness and forcefulness, limited largely to “short, sharp commands and responses.”6Pingel describes this use of language in the concentration camp as “primitive.”7Much as the social hierarchies in the camp devolved to the point of merely attaining personal privilege through dominance rather than the affective use of power to achieve social cohesion, the use of language also reflects a degraded form of social relations. Pingel, in fact, identifies the two institutions and their mutual devolution to a primal stage, claiming that “camp language reflects the hierarchy of power and social life within the camp itself.”8

As the language of the Nazi camp authorities was German, German necessarily became the lingua franca of the concentration camp system. For the many prisoners of other nationalities, this posed a particular challenge as they found themselves excluded from the positions of authority through which they could benefit themselves and their fellow countrymen. The Babel-like nature of the concentration camps also led in a large degree to the terseness of the German spoken in them. All that was required and often all that was possible was learning to comply with and respond to basic orders and commands. This limited use of language fostered a limited purview of concern. The prisoners were prevented by their linguistic differences from developing social relationships more complex than what was required for mere survival. In this way, the language of the concentration camps served to reinforce the rigid hierarchies and social divisions as well as the corrupted use of power which marked camp life.

The inmates of the concentration camps were almost entirely ordinary people forced into extremely extraordinary circumstances. The breakdown of normal social relations among these inmates provides insight into the nature of human societies in general. The prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps were forced into a situation in which they saw themselves as competing against other prisoners, many of whom they would not have associated with outside of the camps, for any comfort or convenience they desired and often even for their own survival. In addition, the Nazi ideology of eugenics and extermination suffused the atmosphere of the camps. Any acquisition of any measure of power was seen as an opportunity to secure personal safety and succor for one’s compatriots, a group that never consisted of all of one’s fellow inmates in general but only of those with whom one might have had an relationship previous to or outside of the camp system. Normal social cohesion was further impeded by the multiplicity of languages within the camps and the terseness of language that camp life necessitated. As a result, a spirit of corruption, suspicion, despondency, and division permeated the fabricated society of the concentration camp. Reduced to a fight for survival, the prisoners’ personal outlooks and social interactions degraded remarkably quickly to a remarkably primitive level.

1 Falk Pingel, “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, ed. Jane Caplan and Nikolaus Wachsmann (New York, NY: Routledge), 58-81.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 61.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 70.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

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