the civilization behind wire


The idea that the concentration camp was a defining institution of Hitler’s Third Reich became a commonplace of the 1930s. So too did the idea that the German camps were more brutal instruments for breaking the spirit and body of their human cargo than any other form of internment. In 1940 the Hungarian writer and journalist Arthur Koestler published an account of his experiences as a communist and a Jew in a French concentration camp for enemy aliens, set up at Le Vernet, near the frontier with Spain, in September 1939, from which he had been fortunate to emerge before the Germans arrived. He compared the camp, a grim work camp with little food or medical help, with the most notorious German camp at Dachau: The scale of sufferings and humiliations was distorted, the measure of what a man can bear was lost. In Liberal-Centigrade, Vernet was the zero-point of infamy; measured in Dachau-Fahrenheit it was still 32 degrees above zero. In Vernet beating up was a daily occurrence; in Dachau it was prolonged until death ensued.[1] Like Koestler’s Scum of the Earth, other books which focused on German terror were best sellers. Stefan Lorant’s I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, published as a cheap Penguin Special in January 1939 was reprinted every month that year and sold around 100,000 copies.[2] The idea of the camp as a unique arena for ‘Nazi’ terror became embedded in the cultural discourses of the democratic West. The novel by the South African writer John Coetzee, The Life and Times of Michael K, first published in 1971 as a commentary on the terror of apartheid, is based on the cultural idea of the camp, but it mentions only one, Dachau.

more from Richard Overy at Eurozine here.