In the 1940s, the Nazi regime started an international program aimed at “purifying” the racial profile of the European population and establishing the rule of the so-called Aryan race. The powerful instruments of such correction were concentration camps, which combined the functions of labor utilization, development of science and technology, and extermination of the prisoners. The book “Fighting Auschwitz”, written by the former member of Armija Krajova, the Polish Underground, who also became a victim of the Nazi regime and spent several years as an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The present paper is aimed at analyzing the book from a sociological perspective.
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Firstly, it needs to be noted that in his work “Religion in Sociological Perspective” Keith Roberts employs the so-called open systems theory, which is also applicable informing the approach to the structure of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In particular, this paradigm implies that as opposed to the thermodynamic systems, which strive for greater chaos, human institutions and organizations tend to become more differentiated and elaborated over time. In this sense, the internal environment of Auschwitz was extremely diverse. The initial division was based upon the racial background of prisoners and the rank and occupation of SS staff. For instance, in the beginning, Jewish, Polish, and Russian inmates voluntarily segregated from each other, probably because of the language barrier and the historically determined hostility between the three groups.
The two main groups of personnel included military guards and scientists who performed unethical medical experiments with the inmates. As the system was developing, there appeared two subsystems in the group of prisoners, which included the Underground (resistance group), composed predominantly of Poles and the Sonderkommandos (Garlinski, p.245), a predominantly Jewish subdivision, formed by the guard, whose function was assistance in gassing. Interestingly, due to the fact that the Sonderkommandos assumed the responsibilities of the guard, they received additional privileges and their living conditions were similar to those of the low-ranking SS soldiers. For instance, they received much more nutritive food, had an opportunity to skip the exhausting work given to all inmates, and often slept in cleaner beds. However, the term of their service was not longer than six months, afterwards, they were exterminated by the prison guard.
The open systems approach states that the internal structures belonging to the system have a tendency to becoming more complex and elaborate. This principle is particularly workable in the case of AK, the Underground, whose members managed to struggle using the limited resources they had. For instance, they created a small bacteriological warfare laboratory and cultured the species of typhus-bearing lice, which they used to infect the SS guards. (Garlinski, p.54). In addition, the Auschwitz AK was responsible for the flight of two Slovak Jews, who were further safely transported to Slovakia and successfully gave their testimonies to the Jewish officials of Slovakia which seemed to have a critical attitude towards the possibility of mass murders of Jews in the camps (Garlinski, p.233).
At the same time, it needs to be admitted that with respect to the functions of the concentration camps in contemporary Nazi society, the Auschwitz administration sought to prevent the further elaboration of its subsystems in order to avoid diversions and disobediences. For instance, a number of previously loyal Poles and Jews were tortured and subsequently persuaded to become the Gestapo informers. Such practice can be explained by the fact that in such highly hierarchical structures as Auschwitz, inmates were not viewed as individuals’ human beings or “workers”, but rather as livestock, or the resource which can be disposed of without any ethical principles and norms. Therefore, the administrators were interested in maintaining the “homeostasis” of the specified group and prevent its progress. One can also suppose that the formation of the Sonderkommandos subdivision was aimed at excluding the most able-bodied inmates from resistance and isolate this large group of prisoners. Therefore, when the Sonderkommandos started a revolt, they were not supported by the Underground and peer inmates (Garlinski, p.248). The Sonderkommandos were perceived by the prison “livestock” as supporters of the SS guard, as it has been noted above, they performed the regular duties of the lower-ranking soldiers (gassing and cremation).
Furthermore, according to the open systems approach, each system demarks its boundaries and filters the input and output of information and resources. In this sense, the Auschwitz policy was simple and consisted in blocking the penetration of any information which might support its inmates; again, it was useful to keep the “livestock” in the state of homeostasis; one of the elements of this static state was information vacuum. However, news from the world war leaked into the prison cells; for instance, the Sonderkommandos organized the revolt, encouraged by the forthcoming invasion of the red Army in 1943.
Despite the status of the “secret organization”, Auschwitz remained an open system, expected to use the information from the external environment for its good. For instance, when it became clear that German troops were driven away from Russia and additional resources were needed for a successful counterattack, the Auschwitz administration ordered that the labor of each unit was utilized at maximum and stopped the reckless murders inside the camp (Garlinski, p.101). In addition, due to the need for technological advancement, Mengele expanded the scope of his genetic studies, trying to artificially culture the highest race. In the year 1943, when the threat of the Red Army was becoming a reality, as the USSR was approaching, the camp administration responded to this piece of news by resuming the systematic slaughters of the inmates. Therefore, the system to great extent depended upon the specific features and aspects of the external environment, one of which was the success of Hitler’s military effort.
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In his book, Roberts also addresses the concept of racism, which is actually close-knit to the establishment of Nazi rule and the creation of concentration camps. In fact, the idea of the contemporary German officials was the spread of the Aryan rule, as Aryans were viewed as supreme humans. The distinctive features of Aryans included athletic building, good physical and mental health, short and direct nose, fair hair, white skin, and blue eyes. These external attributes were associated with intellectual and moral perfectness as well as with outstanding managerial and leadership abilities. At the same time, the appearance of Slavs and Jews did not comply with this norm, as the former had darker hair and eyes and were generally shorter by height, whereas the latter had such Semitic features as long nose, black hair, and dark eyes, which were not tolerated by the Nazi ideology and considered to be associated with mercantile and petty nature. Jews were also accused of the global conspiracy against Europeans and Americans and charged with the economic recession of the early 1930s. Therefore, the divergence from the Nazi norms of beauty and fitness were viewed as a deviation; again, certain physical characteristics were equated by Nazis to the potential undesired personality traits and behaviors. As Garlinski writes, “Some nations, such as the Jews, and later the Poles and other Slavs, were to be completely, or almost completely, eliminated…”( Garlinski, p.137). Finally, the purpose of concentration camps can be logically derived from their name, i.e. these structures were responsible for gathering the “deviants”, i.e. they served as penitentiary institutions under Nazi social control.
Garlinski, J. Fighting Auschwitz. Fawcett, 1975.
Roberts, K. Religion in Sociological Perspective. Cengage Learning, 2003.