By the spring of 1945, the Second World War was drawing to a close in Europe. Allied troops were sweeping through Nazi Germany and discovering the atrocities of SS concentration camps. The first to be reached intact was Buchenwald, in central Germany. American soldiers struggled to make sense of the shocking scenes they witnessed inside. They asked a small group of former inmates to draft a report on the camp. It was led by Eugen Kogon, a German political prisoner who had been an inmate since 1939. The Theory and Practice of Hell is his classic account of life inside.
Unlike many other books by survivors who published immediately after the war, The Theory and Practice of Hell is more than a personal account. It is a horrific examination of life and death inside a Nazi concentration camp, a brutal world of a state within state, and a society without law. But Kogon maintains a dispassionate and critical perspective. He tries to understand how the camp works, to uncover its structure and social organization. He knew that the book would shock some readers and provide others with gruesome fascination. But he firmly believed that he had to show the camp in honest, unflinching detail.
The result is a unique historical document—a complete picture of the society, morality, and politics that fueled the systematic torture of six million human beings. For many years, The Theory and Practice of Hell remained the seminal work on the concentration camps, particularly in Germany. Reissued with an introduction by Nikolaus Waschmann, a leading Holocaust scholar and author of Hilter’s Prisons, this important work now demands to be re-read.
Book Review: ★★★★★★
Most people, even today will still have memories of the images that originated out of the Holocaust — particularly the horrifying images of the liberation of the concentration camps as Nazi Germany fell. And there are still survivors of those hellish camps that are alive today — but their numbers are getting fewer as that generation passes on. It is the losses of these survivors that makes the written history of this time period so important. It is imperative that we remember these troubling times, and learn the lessons that have been left to us, so that we can prevent another criminal episode of this magnitude from ever happening again.
Just as most people know the historical background of the Holocaust, the tremendous loss of life, the coined term of “genocide,” and even the concept of bigotry and racial hatred — both of which took on new meaning in the wake of these troubling years — few people realize the depth of the Nazi’s criminal mentality. It is not commonly understood that the concentration camps were more than just a place to gas thousands of people at one time, and then place them on a conveyor belt of incineration. What is not realized, especially by upcoming generations that are much farther removed from these events, is that these camps were designed to systematically destroy more than a race of people. These camps were conceived, designed, built, and enacted with the purpose of mental, physical, emotional, and psychological destruction in mind.
From the moment of arrest within the Nazi machine one was subjected to a systematic process that would eventually leave the individual — those that survived — stripped bare of any mental, moral, ethical, or physical attachments to the outside world. Cut off from the lives they knew so intimately, victims would be traumatized with a deliberate brutality that was designed to destroy in every human way conceivable — leaving the victim, as well as the Nazi keepers reduced to nothing more than animal instinct. And it is this result that gives us such a profound insight into the dangers that exist in this type of criminal action.
Kogon gives us an intimate insight into how these camps were conceived, created, established, and eventually developed into well run killing machines. But he also offers insight into the much more subtle nuances that made these camps of internment the living definition of hell on earth. Objectively presented, Kogon paints a picture that incorporates both the damaging effects found in not only the Nazi enforcers, but the prisoner population as well. This book also gives us a look into what happens to men when they have been reduced to the natural instincts of the bare essentials, and allows us to see to what extent men will go, in order to survive in the face of brutality and psychological devastation.
This book is one that I would consider a must read for any student of the Holocaust years. But it is also something that should be taught in Psychology classes, and history classes the world over. For more information about this book, and its author be sure to visit the following websites:
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