Commentary Magazine

Teufel und Verdammte, by Benedikt Kautsky; and Der SS-Staat, by Eugen Kogon

The Universe of Terror

Teufel und Verdammte.
by Benedikt Kautsky.
Zurich, Buechergilde Gutenberg, 1946. 328 pp. $4.00.

Der SS-Staat.
by Eugen Kogon.
Stockholm, Bermann-Fischer, 1947. 434 pp. $4.00.


There were already more than a hundred concentration camps in Germany before the war and their number increased rapidly as the Wehrmacht conquered one country after another. Two trained Austrian sociologists who each spent seven years in various KL’s (Konzentrationslager), most of the time at Buchenwald, have now given us a composite and truly analytical picture of the KL as a social and political phenomenon.

The concentration camp was a world with its own laws and logic, mind and motives. For Messrs. Kautsky and Kogon the KL is neither the product simply of a sex maniac’s perverted brain nor a typical result of German Schrecklichkeit; it is the logical and inevitable, the obvious and final, the frankest and most brutal expression of the authoritarian order. For Kogon, who abhorred National Socialism from the standpoint of a sincere Catholic, Buchenwald was the inevitable fruit of a society that had abandoned the moral principles of Christianity and embraced nihilism. For the Marxist Kautsky, it was the horrible last stage in the development of capitalist society, the dire prophecies of the Communist Manifesto come true.

“A KL,” writes Kautsky, “was in reality a world of its own, full of contrasts and abysses, with a hierarchy which, though not stable, could be ascertained at any moment, a hierarchy in which every individual had his rank. He could rise or fall, according to his ability and his fate, but at any given moment he had to occupy his own place and respect the positions of the others. If he desired to improve his status, he had to fight—but only the strongest were capable of fighting. The weak were condemned to remain on the bottom, helplessly waiting for the moment when they would be unfit for anything but the crematoria. But everyone who could fight did fight—for a better job, for some morsel of food, a better bed, a less tattered blanket, a piece of soap, an untorn shirt. It was a fight of all against all, an unending turmoil in an ant-hill—and yet the saying ‘Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose’ could be applied here. For if someone gained something, the other fellow lost something through that gain, and as a consequence of these fights the common cake became smaller rather than bigger.”

A concentration camp consisted of two realms that had, alas, many contacts but otherwise remained separate from each other: the SS super-structure on top, and the community of prisoners below. The SS acted as legislators and judges, but the actual administration of their laws and decisions was handed over to the prisoners themselves; partly because the SS were too lazy or too stupid, partly because limited powers granted to a clique of prisoners served to demoralize the whole prison community. Thus the camps were ruled according to that time-honored adage: divide and conquer. Contrary to common belief, the ordinary prisoner saw the SS-man only rarely—only when one of the black sadists desired to mete out punishment personally.



Kautsky devotes most of his space to analyzing the structure of this “republic of prisoners.” Was it actually a mirror of capitalistic society in decay, as Kautsky seems to imply? Or wasn’t it rather an atavism, a return to the Stone Age, in the terms of Hobbes’ Leviathan: where all desires were dictated by motives of self-preservation, and there arose a war of all against all in which force and fraud became the two cardinal virtues?

The KL society had as its top layers the Lageraelteste (senior trusties) and the Kapos (leaders of the working squads), who, though prisoners themselves, established a terror regime second in cruelty only to that of their jailers, the SS. A step below them were the Stubendienst (room trusties), cooks, barbers and other workers in privileged positions, who used their privileges at the expense of their fellow-slaves. There was finally the great gray mass of ordinary prisoners, but even these were divided into two categories: the strong and the weak, the latter being treated by the former in accordance, as it were, with Nietzsche’s maxim: “Was faellt, soll man stossen (kick anything that’s fallen down).” An almost indescribable gap, says Kautsky, separated the doomed little man of Auschwitz-Buna, a candidate for the crematoria, from the well-fed, well-clothed senior trusty who lived the life of Riley by sharing loot from the murdered Jews with the SS.

There were still other distinctions. A German prisoner was above one from any of the Allied countries; however, these latter enjoyed far greater freedom than Polish and Russian prisoners of war. The real pariahs without any rights whatsoever were the Jews and the Gypsies. Finally, there was a distinction, operating only among the German inmates, between the political prisoners (called the “Reds” because they wore red triangles on their clothes, although they included individuals from all parties, from Communists to recalcitrant Nazis), and the professional criminals (the “Greens”).

The main struggle developed between the Reds and the Greens, for, though the SS had originally entrusted all major positions to the latter, the Reds, dominated by the Communists, tried—often successfully—to wrest them away. The Social Democrat Kautsky and the anti-Marxist Kogon agree that the Communists, who constituted the most active group among the Reds, proved to be efficient administrators who eliminated some of the excesses of corruption, and endeavored to save political prisoners at the expense of criminals; but both also charge the Communists with having time and again sold out to the enemy political prisoners of non-Communist persuasion.



Kautsky’s remarks on the Jews he came across form the least convincing chapter in his book. Himself a Jew (according to the Nuremberg Laws), he seems affected by Jewish self-hatred. Not only does he condemn both Zionism and Jewish Orthodoxy, he also complains that the Jews created anti-Semitism among the leftist workers by resorting to bribery and by failing to see the “positive” aspect of their imprisonment. But was it not logical that the Jews, who fared much worse than the Gentiles and knew what fate held in store for them, should try their utmost—as a rule, unsuccessfully—to escape the death factory? And while a labor leader who had opposed Hitler could feel himself a martyr for his political ideals, why should an ordinary non-political man, imprisoned simply because he had been born a Jew, find any but negative aspects in his captivity? How could he see it as anything other than an unhappy accident?

Curiously, the lessons Kautsky learned in the concentration camp did not make him emerge a more orthodox Marxist than he was before. Despite the flag-waving and editorializing at the very end of his book, he does conclude that man is bound to be bad when vested with unquestioned power, that power is evil in itself, whoever may hold it, and that any dictatorship is deplorable. Summing up, he declares: “The KL became a university where egotism was taught. Some of the more intelligent inmates saw and learned a great deal in the camp; they became shrewder—but no one became better. . . . No one of us survivors is entirely free of guilt.”



Eugen Kogon, on the other hand, shows an insight into the mechanisms of our society such as one would not have expected from a former admirer of Othmar Spann—that Viennese ideologist of romantic reaction—and an editor of the Austrian clerical-fascist Schoenere Zukunft. Kogon is mainly interested in analyzing the nature and functioning of the SS. For Himmler’s Schutz-Staffeln, or SS, formed the core of the Third Reich; they were for the ruling Nazi clique what the Praetorian Guards had been for the Roman emperors.

The SS were recruited from social misfits on the border-line of professional criminality, and the concentration camps were created as much for their benefit as for the Reich’s protection against “subversive” elements. Consisting before the war of fewer than a quarter-million hand-picked individuals, healthy, brutal, and blindly obedient, their number increased as Hitler’s territory widened.

To maintain them as the powerful arm, the weapon of last resort, upon which the Third Reich could count in time of emergency, they had to be kept both satisfied and efficient. Millions of slaves, including some of Europe’s best artists and artisans, built beautifully furnished villas for them and their families outside the KL’s; and the luxury and orgies in which they indulged remind one of the mad Roman emperors (the wife of one KL commander, a former stenotypist, took her baths in champagne only). To whip up their fighting spirit and to teach them how to treat inferior races in the countries conquered by Hitler, the SS were encouraged to maltreat their prisoners and show them no mercy.

The SS did their task “splendidly”: of the eight million people (according to Kogon; whereas Kautsky’s estimate is nine to ten million) who spent some time in a KL, only half a million now survive—and half of these survivors were released by the Nazis themselves. At the same time the SS terror kept even the millions outside the barbed wire paralyzed; for though the SS did not care for publicity about the internal details of their camps (these became known, nevertheless), they could not, and probably did not wish to, prevent the term Konzentrationslager from becoming a symbol of dread all over Europe.

Despite the SS terror, Kogon believes, the German nation could and should have offered some resistance. The Germans, however, had been trained long before Hitler, not only to obey authority, but also to believe whatever authority proclaimed. Hence, the average German was inclined to consider all KL inmates common criminals—until he himself or somebody he loved was arrested by the Gestapo. Whereas in Czechoslovakia the inhabitants of any village through which prisoners of the Nazis were taken would try to help the unhappy ones as much as possible, German nurses refused even a drink of water to KL prisoners engaged in removing debris at Weimar after an air bombardment, and the local hospital would not administer first aid to those of them who were injured. Kogon tells a story of a German Red Cross nurse who long after V-E Day refused to give help to sick ex-inmates of Buchenwald, indignant at the thought that she should care for “tuberculous criminals.” The Germans (though not the Germans alone) are definitely to be blamed for having tolerated such hells on earth as the KL’s, and Germany, Kogon asserts, cannot become a decent land again before having atoned for her crimes.



Both Teufel und Verdammte and Der SS-Staat are soberly written and well documented. Despite their different backgrounds, the authors reach the same conclusion: namely, that the KL was not a puzzling accident, but a logical product of fascist society, and a phenomenon bound to recur unless all fascist tendencies are eradicated. It is at this point that the ways of Kautsky and Kogon part; for while the former sees the remedy in the international solidarity of all anti-fascist workers, the KL constitutes for the pious Christian Kogon an Ecce Homo showing man how far he can go astray without the divine truth which alone makes him free.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.