Camp psychology: human processing in death factories

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Camp psychology: human processing in death factories
Camp psychology: human processing in death factories

The task of the Nazi concentration camps was to destroy the person. Those who were less fortunate were destroyed physically, those who were "more" - morally. Even the name of the person ceased to exist here. Instead, there was only an identification number, which even the prisoner himself called himself in his thoughts.

Concentration camp


The name was taken away, like everything that reminded of a past life. Including the clothes they were wearing when they were brought here - to hell. Even the hair that was shaved off both men and women. The hair of the latter went to "fluff" for pillows. Man was only left with himself - naked, as on the first day of creation. And after some time, the body changed beyond recognition - it grew thinner, there was not even a small subcutaneous layer that formed the natural smoothness of the features.

But before that, people were transported in cattle wagons for several days. They had nowhere to even sit, let alone lie down. They were asked to take with them all the most valuable - they thought that they were being taken to the East, to labor camps, where they would live peacefully and work for the good of Great Germany.

Future prisoners of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other death camps simply did not know where they were being taken and why. After arriving, absolutely everything was taken away from them. The Nazis took valuable things for themselves, and "useless" things, such as prayer books, family photographs, etc., were sent to the trash heap. Then the newcomers were selected. They were lined up in a column that was supposed to move past the SS man. He glanced at everyone and, without saying a word, pointed his finger either to the left or to the right. Old people, children, cripples, pregnant women - anyone who looked sickly and weak - went to the left. All the rest - to the right.

“The first phase can be described as 'arrival shock', although, of course, the psychologically shock impact of a concentration camp may precede the actual entry into it,” writes in his book Say Yes to Life. Psychologist in a Concentration Camp "former prisoner of Auschwitz, famous Austrian psychiatrist, psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl. - I asked the prisoners who had been in the camp for a long time where my colleague and friend P., with whom we had arrived, could go. - Was he sent the other way? “Yes,” I replied. - Then you will see him there. - Where? A hand pointed to a high chimney a few hundred meters away from us. Sharp tongues of flame burst from the chimney, illuminating the gray Polish sky with crimson flashes and turning into clouds of black smoke. - What is there? “There your friend soars in the sky,” was the stern response.


The newcomers did not know that those who were told to follow "left" were doomed. They were ordered to undress and go to a special room, ostensibly to take a shower. There was no shower, of course, although shower openings were built in for visibility. Only through them did not water flow, but crystals of cyclone B, a deadly poisonous gas, covered by the Nazis. Several motorcycles were started outside to drown out the screams of the dying, but this could not be done. After some time, the premises were opened and the corpses were examined - were they all dead. It is known that at first the SS men did not know exactly the lethal dose of gas, so they filled in crystals at random. And some survived in terrible agony. They were finished off with rifle butts and knives. Then the bodies were dragged to another room - the crematorium. Within a few hours, only ashes were left of hundreds of men, women and children.Practical Nazis put everything into action. This ash was used for fertilization, and among the flowers, red-cheeked tomatoes and pimpled cucumbers, unburned fragments of human bones and skulls were now and then found. Part of the ash was poured into the Vistula River.

Modern historians agree that from 1, 1 to 1.6 million people were killed in Auschwitz, most of whom were Jews. This estimate was obtained indirectly, for which the deportation lists were studied and the data on the arrival of trains at Auschwitz were calculated. The French historian Georges Weller was one of the first to use data on deportation in 1983, based on which he estimated the number of those killed in Auschwitz at 1,613,000, 1,440,000 of whom were Jews and 146,000 were Poles. In a later, considered to be the most authoritative work of the Polish historian Francisc Pieper, the following estimate is given: 1, 1 million Jews, 140-150 thousand Poles, 100 thousand Russians, 23 thousand Roma.

Those who passed the selection process ended up in a room called "Sauna". It also had showers, but real ones. Here they were washed, shaved and the identification numbers burned on their hands. Only here they learned that their wives and children, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who were taken to the left, were already dead. Now they had to fight for their own survival.


Black humor

Psychologist Viktor Frankl, who went through the horror of the German concentration camp (or number 119104, with which he wanted to sign his book), tried to analyze the psychological transformation that all the prisoners of the death camps went through.

According to Frankl, the first thing that a person who gets to the death factory experiences is shock, which is replaced by the so-called "delusions of pardon." A person begins to take possession of the thoughts that it is he and his loved ones that should be released or at least left alive. After all, how can it be that he could suddenly be killed? And for what?..

Then suddenly comes the stage of black humor. “After all, we realized that we had nothing to lose, except for this ridiculously naked body,” writes Frankl. - Even under the shower, we began to exchange playful (or pretending to be) remarks in order to cheer each other and, above all, ourselves. There was some reason for this - after all, water really comes from the taps!"


In addition to black humor, something like curiosity also appeared. “Personally, I was already familiar with such a reaction to emergency situations from a completely different area. In the mountains, during a landslide, desperately clinging and climbing, for some seconds, even for a split second, I felt something like a distant curiosity: will I stay alive? Got a skull injury? Broken bones? " - the author continues. In Auschwitz (Auschwitz), people also for a short time developed a state of some kind of detachment and almost cold curiosity, when the soul seemed to turn off and thus tried to protect itself from the horror that surrounded the person.

Each bunk, which was a wide bunk, slept from five to ten prisoners. They were covered in their own excrement, and everything around was teeming with lice and rats.

It's not scary to die, it's scary to live

The every minute threat of death, at least for a short time, led almost each of the prisoners to the idea of ​​suicide. “But, proceeding from my worldview positions, on the very first evening, before falling asleep, I gave myself the word“not to throw myself on the wire”. This specific expression of the camp indicated the local method of suicide - by touching the barbed wire, to receive a fatal high voltage shock,”continues Viktor Frankl.

However, suicide as such, in principle, lost its meaning under the conditions of a concentration camp. How long could his prisoners expect to live? Another day? A month or two? Only a few out of thousands reached the liberation. Therefore, while still in a state of primary shock, the prisoners of the camp are not at all afraid of death and regard the same gas chamber as something that can save them from the worry of suicide.

Frankl: “In an abnormal situation, it is the abnormal reaction that becomes normal. And psychiatrists could confirm that the more normal a person is, the more natural an abnormal reaction is for him if he gets into an abnormal situation, for example, being placed in a psychiatric hospital.Likewise, the reaction of prisoners in a concentration camp, taken by itself, shows a picture of an abnormal, unnatural state of mind, but considered in connection with the situation, it appears as normal, natural and typical."

All patients were sent to the camp hospital. Patients who could not get to their feet quickly were killed by an SS doctor by injecting carbolic acid into the heart. The Nazis were not going to feed those who could not work.


After the so-called first reactions - black humor, curiosity and thoughts of suicide - a second phase begins a few days later - a period of relative apathy, when something in the prisoner's soul dies off. Apathy is the main symptom of this second phase. Reality shrinks, all feelings and actions of the prisoner begin to concentrate around one single task: to survive. At the same time, however, there is an all-encompassing, boundless longing for family and friends, which he is desperately trying to drown out.

Normal feelings fade away. So, at first, the prisoner cannot endure the pictures of sadistic executions that are constantly performed on his friends and comrades in misfortune. But after a while he begins to get used to them, no scary pictures any longer touch him, he looks at them completely indifferently. Apathy and internal indifference, as Frankl writes, is a manifestation of the second phase of psychological reactions that make a person less sensitive to the daily and hourly beatings and murders of comrades. This is a defensive reaction, armor, with the help of which the psyche tries to protect itself from heavy damage. Something similar, perhaps, can be observed in emergency doctors or trauma surgeons: the same black humor, the same indifference and indifference.



Despite everyday humiliation, bullying, hunger and cold, the rebellious spirit is not alien to the prisoners. According to Viktor Frankl, the greatest suffering for the prisoners was not physical pain, but mental pain, indignation against injustice. Even with the realization that for disobedience and an attempt to protest, some kind of response to the torturers of the prisoners awaited inevitable reprisals and even death, every now and then small riots still arose. Defenseless, exhausted people could afford to answer the SS men, if not with a fist, then at least with a word. If it didn't kill, then it brought temporary relief.

Regression, fantasies and obsessions

All psychic life shrinks to a rather primitive level. “Psychoanalytically oriented colleagues from among the comrades in misfortune often talked about the“regression”of a person in the camp, about his return to more primitive forms of mental life, - the author continues. - This primitiveness of desires and aspirations was clearly reflected in the typical dreams of prisoners. What do prisoners in the camp most often dream about? About bread, about cake, about cigarettes, about a good hot bath. The impossibility of satisfying the most primitive needs leads to an illusory experience of their satisfaction in ingenuous dreams. When the dreamer awakens again to the reality of camp life and feels the nightmarish contrast between dreams and reality, he experiences something unimaginable. " Obsessive thoughts about food and no less obsessive conversations about it appear, which are very difficult to stop. Every free minute the prisoners try to talk about food, about what their favorite dishes were in the old days, about juicy cakes and fragrant sausage.

Frankl: “He who did not starve himself will not be able to imagine what internal conflicts, what willpower a person experiences in this state. He won’t understand, he won’t feel what it’s like to stand in a pit, hammer through the stubborn earth with a pickaxe, all the while listening to see if the siren will sound, announcing half past nine, and then ten; wait for that half-hour lunch break; persistently think whether they will give out bread; ask the foreman endlessly,if he is not angry, and for civilians passing by - what time is it? And with swollen, stiff fingers from the cold every now and then feel a piece of bread in my pocket, break off a crumb, bring it to my mouth and put it back convulsively - after all, in the morning I made an oath promise to endure until dinner!"

Thoughts about food become the main thoughts of the whole day. Against this background, the need for sexual satisfaction disappears. In contrast to other closed male establishments in concentration camps, there was no craving for obscenities (apart from the initial stage of shock). Sexual motives don't even appear in dreams. But the longing for love (not associated with physicality and passion) for a person (for example, for a wife, girlfriend) manifests itself very often - both in dreams and in real life.


Spirituality, religion and love for beauty

At the same time, all "impractical" experiences, all high spiritual feelings die off. At least this is the case with the overwhelming majority. Everything that does not bring real benefits, an extra piece of bread, a ladle of soup or a cigarette, everything that does not help to survive here and now is completely depreciated and seems like an unnecessary luxury.

“The exceptions from this more or less natural state were two areas - politics (which is understandable) and, which is very remarkable, religion,” says the author. - Politics was talked about everywhere and almost without hindrance, but it was mainly to catch, spread and discuss rumors about the current situation at the front. The religious aspirations that made their way through all the local hardships were deeply sincere."

Despite the obvious psychological regression of the prisoners and the simplification of complex feelings, some of them, although a few, on the contrary, developed a desire to withdraw into themselves, to create some kind of inner world of their own. And, paradoxically, people who were more sensitive from an early age endured all the hardships of camp life a little easier than those who had a stronger psychological constitution. The more sensitive natures had access to some kind of escape to their spiritual world from the world of terrifying reality, and they turned out to be more persistent.

These few have retained the need to perceive the beauty of nature and art. This helped to disconnect from the camp reality at least for a short while.

“When we moved from Auschwitz to the Bavarian camp, we looked through barred windows at the peaks of the Salzburg mountains, illuminated by the setting sun. If someone saw our admiring faces at this moment, he would never have believed that these are people whose lives are practically over. And in spite of this - or is it precisely why? “We were captivated by the beauty of nature, the beauty from which we had been torn away for years,” writes Frankl.

From time to time, small pop concerts were held in the barracks. They were unpretentious: a couple of songs sung, a couple of poems read, comic scenes played out. But it helped! So much so that even "unprivileged", ordinary prisoners came here, despite the enormous fatigue, risking even missing their soup.

Just as some have retained a passion for beauty, some have retained a sense of humor. It seems incredible in the conditions in which they found themselves, but humor is also a kind of weapon of our psyche, which is fighting for self-preservation. At least for a short while, humor helps to overcome painful experiences.

In psychology, there is a special term describing the symptom complex of those who went through the death factories - the concentration camp syndrome. It belongs to one of the variants of the so-called post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Often, the disorder becomes chronic with a certain set of symptoms: asthenia, headache, dizziness, depression, anxiety, fears, hypochondria, decreased memory and concentration, sleep disturbances, nightmares, autonomic disorders, difficulties in interpersonal contacts, loss of activity and initiative. But the main symptom is the feeling of guilt of the survivor.

Devaluation of one's own "I"

The thoughts of the majority, however, were exclusively concerned with survival.This devaluation of the inner spiritual life, as well as of the human life itself, the numbering system instead of names, constant humiliation and beatings gradually led to the devaluation of the person, himself. Not all of them, but the overwhelming majority.

And this majority suffered from a peculiar sense of inferiority. Each of these sufferers in a past life was "someone", at least they thought so. In the camp, however, he was treated as if he were truly "nobody." Of course, there were people whose self-esteem was impossible to shake, since it had a spiritual basis, but how many representatives of the human race generally have such a solid foundation for self-esteem?..

Viktor Frankl: “A person who is incapable of opposing himself to reality with the last upsurge of self-esteem generally loses in a concentration camp a sense of himself as a subject, not to mention the feeling of himself as a spiritual being with a sense of inner freedom and personal value. He begins to perceive himself rather as a part of some large mass, his being descends to the level of herd existence."

A person really begins to feel like a sheep in a herd, which is forced to move forward and then backward, like a sheep that only knows how to avoid the attack of dogs, and which is periodically left alone for at least a minute to give it a little food.

The same phenomena are also highlighted by another Austrian psychiatrist - Bruno Bettelheim, who also visited Nazi concentration camps (M. Maksimov retells the observations of the specialist in his article "On the Edge - and Beyond It. Human Behavior in Extreme Conditions"). Artificial infantilization and stupefaction of the inmates took place through instilling in an adult the psychology of a child, chronic malnutrition, physical humiliation, deliberately meaningless norms and work, the destruction of faith in one's future, the inadmissibility of individual achievements and the possibility of somehow influencing one's position.

“So that state of a person in the camp, which can be called the desire to dissolve in the general mass, arose not exclusively under the influence of the environment, it was also an impulse for self-preservation. The desire of everyone to dissolve in the masses was dictated by one of the most important laws of self-preservation in the camp: the main thing is not to stand out, not to attract the attention of the SS for any slightest reason! " - says the author.

Despite all this, there is a real longing for loneliness - a natural feeling for any human being. This is understandable, because there is simply nowhere to retire, to spend a short time with oneself in the camp.

The first experiments with gas were carried out at Auschwitz in September 1941, before the Birkenau camp was built (Auschwitz II, which will be twice the size of Auschwitz I and will become the largest death camp in history).


Another psychological feature of the prisoner. It appears due to constant hunger and lack of sleep, which cause it in everyday life. In the camp, insects were added to all the troubles, which literally swarmed with all the barracks with prisoners. The already small amount of sleep was dramatically reduced by blood-sucking parasites.

The entire system of concentration camps was aimed exactly at this - to force a person to descend to the animal level, a level where he can not think about anything except food, warmth, sleep and at least minimal comfort. It was necessary to make a humble animal out of man, which would be killed immediately after his working resource was exhausted.

Lack of the future

Nevertheless, the camp reality influenced the changes in character only among those prisoners who descended both spiritually and in a purely human sense. This happened to those who no longer felt any support at all and no meaning in later life.

“According to the unanimous opinion of psychologists and the prisoners themselves, the person in the concentration camp was most oppressed by the fact that he did not know at all how long he would be forced to stay there,” writes Frankl. - There was no time limit! Even if this period could still be discussed, it was so indefinite that it practically became not just unlimited, but generally unlimited. “Non-futurelessness” penetrated so deeply into his consciousness that he perceived his whole life only from the point of view of the past, as the past, as the life of the already deceased."

The normal world, the people on the other side of the barbed wire, were perceived by the prisoners as something infinitely distant and ghostly. They looked at this world, like the dead, who look “from there” to the Earth, realizing that everything they see is lost for them forever.

The selection of prisoners did not always take place according to the principle of "left" and "right". In some camps, they were divided into four groups. The first, which made up three quarters of all new arrivals, was sent to the gas chambers. The second was sent to slave labor, during which the overwhelming majority also died - from hunger, cold, beatings and disease. The third group, mostly twins and dwarfs, went on various medical experiments - in particular, to the famous Dr. Josef Mengele, known by the nickname "Angel of Death". Mengele's experiments on prisoners included dissecting live babies; injecting chemicals into the eyes of children to change the color of the eyes; castration of boys and men without the use of anesthetics; sterilization of women, etc. Representatives of the fourth group, mainly women, were selected to the “Canada” group to be used by the Germans as servants and personal slaves, as well as to sort the personal belongings of prisoners arriving at the camp. The name "Canada" was chosen as a mockery of Polish prisoners: in Poland the word "Canada" was often used as an exclamation point at the sight of a valuable gift.

Lack of meaning

All doctors and psychiatrists have long known about the closest connection between the body's immunity and the will to live, the hope and meaning that a person lives with. You can even say that those who lose this meaning and hope for the future, death awaits at every step. This can be seen in the example of still quite strong old people who "do not want" to live any longer - and rather soon really die. The latter will surely find people ready to die. Therefore, in the camps, they often died of despair. Those who for a long time miraculously resisted diseases and dangers, finally, lost faith in life, their bodies “obediently” surrendered to infections, and they left for another world.

Viktor Frankl: “The motto of all psychotherapeutic and psycho-hygienic efforts can be the thought that is most vividly expressed, perhaps, in the words of Nietzsche:“Whoever has a “Why” will withstand almost any “How”. It was necessary to the extent that the circumstances allowed, to help the prisoner realize his "Why", his life purpose, and this would give him the strength to endure our nightmare "How", all the horrors of camp life, to strengthen internally, to resist camp reality. And vice versa: woe to the one who no longer sees the purpose of life, whose soul is devastated, who has lost the meaning of life, and with it the meaning of resisting."



When white flags began to be hoisted over the concentration camps, the psychological tension of the prisoners gave way to relaxation. But that's all. Oddly enough, the prisoners did not experience any joy. The campers so often thought about will, about deceptive freedom, that it lost its real shape for them, faded. After long years of hard labor, a person is not able to quickly adapt to new conditions, even the most favorable ones. The behavior of those, for example, who have been to the war, even shows that, as a rule, a person can never get used to the changed conditions.In their souls, such people continue to "fight".

This is how Viktor Frankl describes his release: “We trudge to the camp gate with sluggish, slow steps; our legs literally do not hold us. We look around fearfully, look inquiringly at each other. We make the first timid steps outside the gate … It is strange that no shouts are heard, that we are not threatened with a blow of a fist or a kick with a boot. We get to the meadow. We see flowers. All this is kind of taken into account - but still does not evoke feelings. In the evening everyone is back in their dugout. People come up to each other and slowly ask: "Tell me, were you happy today?" And the one to whom they addressed, answered: "Frankly speaking - no." He answered embarrassedly, thinking that he was the only one. But everyone was like that. People have forgotten how to rejoice. It turns out that this still had to be learned."

What the freed prisoners experienced, in the psychological sense, can be defined as a pronounced depersonalization - a state of detachment, when everything around is perceived as illusory, unreal, it seems like a dream, which is still impossible to believe.

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