Tuesday, July 28

Making a Muselmann

Hannah Arendt’s account, “The Concentration Camps”, offers insight into the horror of the Nazi concentration camps and their systematic degradation of the individual. According to Arendt, the result of this degradation is what the inmates called a “Muselmänner,” - essentially, the living dead. Other Holocaust survivors such as Primo Levi referred to these individuals as “the drowned,” and Jean Améry wrote about his own fight against this kind of inhumane degradation. In her account, Arendt contends that the Nazis began the degradation of the human person with the stripping of the “juridical person,” followed by the eradication of the “moral person,” and ended in the total destruction of the “individuality” of the human person. This Muselmann is the phenomenon that Arendt seeks to explain to the reader.

The term Muselmann (Muselmänner) is a German phrase that actually means “Muslim.” Another aforementioned survivor, Levi, once wrote that “This word ‘Muselmann’, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.” How this Germanic term for Muslims came to refer to the weak and inept in concentration camps is debated among scholars, but there are some scholars who contend that this term may come from the inability of a Muselmann to stand for very long due to the loss of the muscles in their legs, requiring them to spend most of their time in a particular position - much as the Muslims would prostrate during their daily prayers to God.

It seems, then, that the Muselmann lived in a kind of hellish existence. Arendt argues that concentration camps were similar to Hades, Purgatory and Hell of various cosmologies. In each type, we see that “the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead and some evil spirit gone mad were amusing himself by stopping them for a while between life and death before admitting them to eternal peace.” One may even say that the concentration camps - as well as the death camps - were literally hell on earth. Further, Hades is a shadowy existence, just as the Muselmann would face daily.

At this point, one can examine the three-fold degradation of the human person that Arendt describes. The first step, as aforementioned, was to remove the “juridical person” in man. The concentration camps were wholly outside of the penal system. Matters of legality no longer applied there, and there were both criminals and non-criminals in these camps. The presence of these criminals made it clear to others that they had truly reached the lowest level of society. The criminals, in some sense, had a purpose being there. But the punishment of the innocent, however, did not make sense. The worst part of of this, she writes, is that “the inmates identified themselves with these categories, as though they represented the last authentic remnant of their juridical person.” This destruction of their civil rights, of the juridical person, was one way in which the Nazis would begin to dominate the human person completely.

Following this, the Nazis would seek to murder the moral man. They would rob the person of the possibility of martyrdom, rendering their death meaningless. In fact, according to Arendt, “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous... robbed death of the meaning which had always been possible for it to have. In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed.” In other words, robbing someone not only of their legal and civil rights but also now of their moral right to individualism, or rather, to choose how to live and how to die, was a way of degrading the Muselmann. It left the Muselmann without the freedom of choice. What few choices they did have were administrative - they were given the “hopeless dilemma whether to send their friends to their death, or to help murder other men who happened to be strangers.” Their only choice became murder - or murder. 

The process by which each person was degraded is alluded to at various points. Men and women would be packed into a cattle car completely naked, for several days with no food, no idea how long their trip would be - and some never survived the trip. Once arriving at a camp, they would be hoarded like cattle into different areas, split up, and their heads would be shaved, clothes, shoes and belongings would be taken. Each person, piece by piece, would have their humanity stripped away. They would adjust to a new change, and then have more taken away, until even their humanity was not recognizable as anything other than a withered husk. When the SS took over the camps, death very often became postponed, and systematic destruction of the dignity of each person became more focused than it had before.

The actions of the Nazis were motivated by an attempt to destroy the individuality of each person. This is why it is rare that we hear accounts in which someone condemned to death tried to take their executioner down with them. The third aspect of degradation, the individuality, had been so stripped that they began to seem more like a beast than a human. In this light, Arendt argues, to find someone who is actually a “human” is unnatural, and that finding a “beast” was the norm. Indeed, once the juridical person and the moral person was gone, what little individuality was left was chipped away until it was completely dissolved. Footage and pictures of different concentration camps and death camps show the cruelty and the horrors of how inhumanely these individuals were treated.

At one point, Arendt compares the Muselmann, following their experiences during the Holocaust then returning to the outside world, with the Biblical figure of Lazarus. In a sense, the person whose dignity has been stripped away, bit by bit, has gone to the grave, and upon returning to the world - comes back from the grave. However, this person has changed. They are no longer the same as they once had been. Arendt herself was born in Germany, and after she later escaped from a concentration camp, she moved to the United States. Although this parallel is inexact, one can sense a clear shift from the former to the latter. Arendt, in a sense, died in the concentration camp, and like Lazarus was resurrected into life, albeit having gone through various experiences. A person who has had their juridical, moral and individual nature ripped away from them can only be handed back, at best, as clothes that no longer fit. They remain in many ways the “living dead.” 

A final term to bring up is “Thisness.” In Franciscan theology, each person is created with what John Duns Scotus would call “Thisness” (haecceitas). Although Scotus was referring to the particularity of a given thing, responding to the concept of to ti esti in Aristotelian thought, the term has come to refer to the particularity of the human person. This inherent value is in everybody. One thing shared by every human being is just that - their humanity. Regardless of gender, religious tradition, political or social views, economic status, or nationality. Each and every person - is a person. The Nazis sought to systematically deny this basic particularity in each individuality, and each person today is called to remember what took place during the Holocaust, and do their best to prevent the phenomenon of the Muselmann from ever returning from the grave. 

[1] Levi, Primo. If This Is a Man / The Truce. Abacus. 94. Print.
[2] Vashem, Yad. Muselmann definition. Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. 
[3] Arendt, Hannah. “The Concentration Camps.” 52-53. 
[4] Ibid, 56.
[5] Ibid, 57.
[6] Ibid, 58.

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