The Order of Terror

The Order of Terror
The Concentration Camp
by Wolfgang Sofsky, translated by William Templer
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 356 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and the author of Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf).