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Benedikt Kautsky’s Description of the Concentration Camp Hierarchy (Retrospective Account, 1961)

In general terms, the actual purpose of concentration camps was not to rehabilitate inmates, but to punish them through humiliation, torture, and economic exploitation. The standardized brutality of the guards meant that a camp stay often became a death sentence for inmates, whose allegedly hostile political, racial, sexual, religious, or social attributes made them unfit for the general population. The SS created a cruel hierarchy within the camps, assigning inmates to groups of greater or lesser prestige, thereby stoking the competition for internal survival. By pitting various groups against each other, the SS created an extremely effective system whereby inmates controlled and regulated themselves. Colored triangles sewn onto camp uniforms identified inmates by their respective “offenses.” Political inmates, for example, wore red triangles and were referred to as “reds.” Criminals wore green, Jews yellow, homosexuals pink, Sinti, Roma, and “asocials” black, and Jehovah’s Witnesses purple.

The following text by former camp prisoner Benedikt Kautsky (1894-1960) makes clear that an inmate’s chances for survival depended to a large extent on his (or her) ranking within the camp hierarchy. As a Socialist, Kautsky numbered among the political prisoners.

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The Top People

This term was used by the camp to describe the aristocracy. It contained various ranks. There were the camp leaders [Lagerältesten], the office capo, the capos of the work details, of the storerooms (personal effects, clothing, tools), the mail room, and the cashier's office. The kitchen and the canteen (both the ones for the prisoners and the ones for the SS), the men responsible for the sick bay, those from the Commandant's office (Political Department, Photography Department), then a few “great” block leaders and capos, above all those in charge of particular workshops and work details, but also a few people who were well-regarded such as officers' lackeys, sometimes also hairdressers and tailors. All these people, who owed their rank to the most varied causes, constituted a very diverse society. In some cases it really was due to their efficiency, in others it was their ability to curry favor with the SS or with prisoners who had already gone up in the world which proved decisive. There were extremely hard-working and efficient people alongside lazy and incompetent ones. Some shamelessly exploited their office at the expense of their fellow prisoners; others showed complete integrity.

In every camp there was a bitter struggle going on among these people. Since the majority of prisoners continued to have absolutely no influence, these struggles took the form of palace revolutions. The most despicable intrigues were sometimes launched, in which people did not shrink from involving the SS. There were also numerous occasions on which the SS cliques fought out their own battles with the aid and at the expense of the prisoners.

The struggles were particularly tough and ruthless where the Reds and the Greens were fighting for supremacy. The Greens were naturally absolutely unscrupulous in using the most vicious methods. They were particularly fond of doing down their opponents [platzen lassen], i.e. they reported alleged or real offences to the SS and got them to intervene. The Reds naturally had to respond in kind, although they mainly relied on their superior efficiency and honesty. But their opponents liked playing the trump card of accusing them of political unreliability and that worked on more than one occasion.

The prize for the winner was a big one. In the first place, it took a material form: better food, better accommodation, better clothing, more freedom at work, the realization of cultural aspirations even against the background of the most acute need. Many found that attractive. But even more attractive was the social aspect. Power and status had an enormous impact, particularly in these surroundings which were designed to oppress people. Naturally, one could not feel free, but one felt the lack of freedom much less keenly if one could give orders to others. The power that one exercised was incredibly great and the social distinction between this upper class of the top people and the dregs of the prisoners was crasser than that between bourgeoisie and proletariat in a democratic state.

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