Any large organization charged with a purpose it successfully carries out ought to be subject to a sociological analysis, yet no one before Wolfgang Sofsky has ever tried to write the sociology of the concentration camp. It is not hard to understand why. Pick any term from the classical tradition in sociology-whether its origins are attributed to Marx, Weber, or Durkheim-and its irrelevance to the camps is immediately obvious. Classes were not organized according to their position in a means of production. Charisma, honor, status, and prestige were rendered unnecessary by arbitrary power. There was no such thing as an individual conscience, let along a collective one.

Of all of sociology’s concepts, the most important in the modern world, but the least necessary in the camps, is legitimacy. Modern forms of political power are nearly always conceptualized as two-way streets; power flows from the top down, but must be concerned with the bottom up. No rulers, even the most authoritarian, we generally believe, can exercise power in a vacuum; modern totalitarian regimes, in both their Fascist and Communist forms, relied on propaganda as well as terror, as if winning the hearts and minds of their subjects were as important as coercing their obedience.

The concentration camp, in that sense, marks a break with all previous forms of social organization, for, according to Sofsky, it, and it alone, organized power in one direction only. To understand it sociologically, one must abjure all previous accounts of power, even the most radical. The concentration camps were neither the total institutions described by Erving Goffman nor examples of the disciplinary power analyzed by Michel Foucault-both of which still assume some appeal to a standard outside themselves to legitimate their rule. Sofsky challenges us to accept the existence of something called "absolute power," a form of domination so thorough that it is accountable only to itself-and not always even to that.

Human beings have a broad repertoire of means by which they can resist power. No matter how oppressive the present or hopeless the future, we cling to memories of better times in the past. Even in the most cramped quarters, we struggle to carve out space for ourselves. Because no form of political power can ever stop the sun from rising and setting, we can mark off days and, in monitoring time, convince ourselves that we have not lost all forms of control. Absolute power understands these things, Sofsky argues. It wages an unremitting struggle against space, time, and memory, determined to wipe out anything upon which its prisoners could rely to locate themselves in the world around them.

Because absolute power is unprecedented, none of our terms, even those developed to explain power, will do. The camps were not bureaucratic, because bureaucracies organize time and space whereas the camps destroyed them. The aim of the camps was not to humiliate people because humiliation involves rituals-public displays of hierarchy surrounded with symbols of domination-whereas absolute power has no interest in demonstrating its power; there is no public, for one thing, that it need impress. No one in the camps was punished, because the purpose of punishment, as we know from Durkheim, is to set an example for those who obey the rules. Why set examples if accountability never enters your mind? Not even the concept of exploitation gets right what took place in the camps, for exploitation assumes an unequal exchange, and while inequality surely existed in the camps, exchange, at least in labor, did not. work was not organized to transform labor power into a product but as one more means of torture and violence.

Before the camps, slavery was the most one-sided form of power ever marshaled against human beings, but compared to the camps, even slavery, Sofsky argues, must be understood as reciprocal in its deployment of power. Slaves belonged to someone else; one does not have to accept Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to recognize that even fully coercive forms of belonging nonetheless are premised on relationships between people. Prisoners in the camps, by contrast, "belonged to no one," Sofsky writes, with the result that "the prisoners were subjected to a far more radical reification than any victim of slavery ever experienced." No matter how oppressive, slavery was still rational, in the sense that it was a system of production designed to produce a surplus. The camps were "radically different" because what went on within them served no goals related to "functionality and productivity."

Wolfgang Sofsky’s brilliant book is written, at least in translation, in a spare, analytic, and emotionless tone which perfectly captures the brutality and horror of the camps. His purpose, he tells us, is not to understand the genealogy of the camps, nor to develop a theory of how central they were to the objectives of the Nazis. Sofsky instead takes the sheer physical reality of the camps as a given and asks how they functioned. It is, he implies, insufficient just to document the existence of evil. We also have an obligation, especially when evil relies on social organization to carry out its will, to understand the small details and everyday structure of its dynamics.

Yet the very task of describing absolute power sociologically is problematic, for understanding how evil functions assumes a purposeful order in the world which the concentration camp denies. "Can sociology really do this?" one wants to ask of Sofsky. If power can be absolute, it will resist our efforts to understand it. If, in turn, we can understand it, we strip it of its absolutism-after the fact, to be sure, and not in a way that can be of any assistance to its victims, but still premised on the assumption that we the rational have the last word over you the perpetuators of brutality. The mystery remains: how can a world that produces The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp also have produced the concentration camp? One is a model of reason dedicated to truth, the other a model of power dedicated to human destruction.

If Sofsky, despite his ability to convey the horror of the camps, runs the risk of making them less frightening by making them more understandable, his sociology of the camps swings perilously close to the professional folly of the discipline he and I share: By attributing power to social organizations, sociology at its worst absolves human beings of responsibility. As it happens, this concern is especially compelling at this time because Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners has made it impossible to ignore it [see, Commonweal, May 9].

Sofsky wrote his book in German well before Goldhagen’s book was available, and it is only a coincidence that at the moment Goldhagen appears in German, Sofsky appears in English. Yet as if anticipating the arrival of Goldhagen’s book, Sofsky raises the question of personal responsibility in his epilogue. "Certainly, Auschwitz could only have come to pass in the special circumstances of German social history," he writes, but then he goes on to add one qualification after another: "Yet not everything in the system of the German concentration camps was unique. The camp system evinced features that also appear elsewhere. The German executioners and their accomplices were not unusual individuals."

Goldhagen might agree that the executioners were not "unusual," in the sense that, heirs to a long history of German anti-Semitism, the most brutal of the Nazi killers were all too usual (although, of course, anti-Semitism as virulent as that of the Nazis would have to be considered "unusual" compared to other times and places). But Sofsky’s stress is more on the term "individuals" than on the term "unusual." His machine of absolute power takes on a life of its own in the course of his book. Because his focus is so strongly on forms of social organization, the individuals who are making the machine run, all too often, drop out of sight. Rarely are they given names and faces. We are not presented with the biographies, except in the collective; we are told, for example, what racial, physical, and age-related characteristics the regime prized in its executioners, but not the towns they came from or the friends they left behind.

Sofsky rejects explanations of the Nazi horror which attribute it to "specifically German traditions of authority and authoritarian obedience." The camps, he writes in the epilogue, contradicting, it seems to me, the argument which comes before it, relied on modern techniques of discipline and surveillance to carry out their objectives. One is left with the disturbing impression that modernity brought the camps into being and not specific people who happened to be German.

Sofsky’s epilogue inadvertently makes it apparent why Goldhagen’s book is so important. Sociology is not only about power; it is also about people; indeed the one cannot exist without the other. But concentrating so much on the former and so little on the latter, Sofsky’s sociological account of the camps, one of the most important books about the Holocaust yet written, is nonetheless incomplete. From his book, we now know how power in the camps was exercised. We await more accounts like Goldhagen’s before we know who exercised it.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: View Contents

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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