The first time I encountered the term Muselmann or its plural Muselmänner in relation to the concentration camps was in Primo Levi’s extraordinary book If this is a man. The term Muselmann (the German term is retained throughout the text here) is used in numerous testimonies about the concentration camps, including David Rousset’s L’univers concentrationnaire (1947), Eugen Kogon’s Der SS State (1946) and Elie Wiesel’s La Nuit (1958). The word Muselmann was used by prisoners and guards in Auschwitz to refer to a concentration camp prisoner who has been reduced to no more than a shadow by starvation, exhaustion and hopelessness. At the same time, though, the term Muselmann is used in German to mean Muslim (like the old-fashioned Dutch word Muzelman and the term Musulmane which is still used in French). But the way Muselmann was used in the concentration camps does not directly refer to the Muslims, according to Levi in his book. Whilst there is a lot of uncertainty about the term Muselmann, there has also been remarkably little investigation into its origins and why it was used in a concentration camp. What I am writing here is also no more than an exploration of the recent literature.
Who is the Muselmann?
So, why the term Muselmann? What happened to this category of prisoners that prompted the term Muselmann and why was it considered to be an appropriate label for this category of prisoners? Muselmann is a term which refers to prisoners who were also called the ‘walking dead’. There was also a term for women, Muselweib, but women were usually also categorized as Muselmann. The Muselmann in the camp were too weak to work and had lost the will to live. They were all suffering from a physical and mental condition which was caused by hunger, this is clear. But it was so much more than that too. Theirs was a grinding level of misery; a misery caused not only by hunger, but by their awareness of the hopelessness of the situation they were in. A hopelessness that was grounded in their daily lives by the extreme de-humanization they endured. Levi claims that the Muselmann were the only ‘complete witnesses’ although that may be related to ‘survivor’s guilt’ as Bernstein (2006) suggests in his article Intact and Fragmented Bodies: Versions of Ethics “after Auschwitz”. It is as if the survivor Levi is being ashamed for having survived something so terrible that his survival makes his experience somehow less authentic than those of the Muselmänner.
The term Muselmann spread to all the other concentration camps too, a process which is described by Zdziław Ryn and Stanisław Kłodziński in An der Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod. Study über eine that Erscheinung of ‘Muselmanns’ im Konzentrationslager (1983). But there were also other terms for similar categories of prisoners. In the camp in Majdanek, the Muselmann were called “donkeys”, in Dauchau “imbecile” (cretin), in Stutthof ‘crippled’ in Buchenwald ‘tired sheikhs’.
In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben explores the concept of the ‘bare naked man’ and writes about Muselmann as ‘a bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life’: the body stripped of all personality. The Muselmann is the witness who cannot testify, from whom no more testimony can be taken, an individual who cannot be looked at as he is: deprived of the power life, sense and soul. In using the label Muselmann the Auschwitz prisoners were constructing a new category for for people who were slipping into a state of being non-human. It almost seems that the prisoners, who were there simply because they were Jewish, Roma or otherwise, could only keep their own identity by the imagining the presence of an ‘Other’: a prisoner who had degenerated into a Muselmann (Yet, rather than being on the extreme limits of ‘being human’, this actually makes the Muselmann very human, see also Bernstein 2006).
In the article Tracing Theory on the body of the “Walking Dead”: Der Muselmann and the Course of Holocaust Studies Lissa Skitolsky (2012) indicates how postwar thinkers tried to makes sense of the figure of the Muselmann. The Muselmann perhaps acted as a deterrent, as an incentive for other prisoners to not get to that stage and an encouragement to continue to resist dehumanization at all costs. Yet, at the same time, the Muselmann were people for whom no pity could be shown: it was their fault that they have lost their will to live (and they were a painful reminder to others of the pain of the process of dying). In that sense the Muselmann foreshadows the death of others: that is what one’s own dying will look like if one loses the will to live. It also relates to a process of exclusion in the camp; people can keep their idea of humanity only by excluding a category of people who, according to them, have lost all sense of the human spirit. Some thinkers have even gone as far as to say that this category should now be excluded from our memories and commemorations. This is not the way we want to remember the camps?! To a certain extent the Muselmann reminds us that an individual’s suffering cannot be completely understood and articulated by others. For others, such as Slavoj Zizek, the figure of the Muselmann is, on the contrary, a stimulus encouraging us to reflect on ourselves. What does this figure of an individual, who is no longer able to suffer because he or she has deteriorated too far, really tell us about our concepts of humanity and of what being human means?
The Muslim connection
These are important (and chilling) reflections but they do not address the question I am asking here: why the term Muselmann? And why here in this context? The term as it was used to in the concentration camps does not directly refer to Muslims. But what happened to this category of prisoners that prompted the use of the Muselmann term? And what is it about the Muselmann term that made it appropriate for this category of prisoner? How did the Muslim come to represent the ultimate frontier of humanity? There are many different ideas about the use of the term Muselmann. Agamben (p. 45), for example, states:
The most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God. It is this meaning that lies at the origins of the legends concerning Islam’s supposed fatalism, legends which are found in European cultures starting with the Middle Ages (this deprecatory sense of the term is present in European languages, particularly in Italian).
According to Agamben the prisoners in the camps looked, from a distance, like Arabs/Muslims because of their kneeling and rocking motion ‘as in’ Islamic prayer rituals. He connects the term emphatically with Muslims in a religious sense as those who surrender to the will of God. The Encyclopedia Judaica states that the term was used primarily at Auschwitz and that it probably derived from the typical attitude of some prisoners ‘staying crouched on the ground, legs in Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’
For Karin Doerr (2009) in Words of Fear, Fear of Words: Language Memories of Holocaust Survivors, the figure of a man kneeling and dressed from head to toe in rags resembles a praying Muslim. Also the idea that Muslims believe in kismet, fate, might play a contributory role here because Muslims are regarded as being fatalistic: surrendering to their fate. The Muselmann in the camps refers to those who have resigned themselves (literally and figuratively) to their fate and have lost the will to live.
Processes of inclusion and exclusion
In the article The Story of Islamophobia Junaid Rana (2007) points to something remarkable in these descriptions of the Muselmann. First, the story of the Muselmann makes clear that Jews and Muslims have a common history in relation to Europe. The Muslims were (and are) seen as an external enemy (despite the centuries-old Muslim presence in Europe) and Jews as the enemy within. In the camps the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Muselmann’ stood in relation to death with the latter as the most despised prisoner. There is, therefore, an intimate relationship between Jews and Muslims in the process of categorization and dehumanization. At the same time a distinction between the two is made on the basis of old Orientalist stereotypes about Turks and Moors in terms of posture, decorum and fatalism.
This latter indicates a second remarkable phenomenon with regard to the relationship Prisoner-Muselmann-Muslim. The Muselmann classification of the ultimate ‘Other’ in the camps isn’t simply referring to religion as religious doctrine and ritual practices, but also to physical qualities and their associated (or attributed as such) psychological qualities. It shows that modes of categorization usually pertain to a mix of ideas about biology, kinship and culture.
Like Rana, Gil Anidjar also explores the connection between Muslims and Jews as the external and internal enemies of Europe in his book The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003). He tries to explain the ‘double-absence’ of the term Muselmann: the lack of visibility and attention in writings about Auschwitz as well as the lack of references to theology in writings about the phenomenon. In his analysis of how hatred arises, he even suggests that both figures are essential to understanding modern Europe, as both enmities have a long history. They can be found in the writings of Kant, Hegel and Montesquieu, but also in popular culture, for example children’s songs. In Anidjar’s history, the idea that both Jews and Muslims surrender to their god as if they were slaves, constantly subjected and fatalistic, is a recurring theme; one we see repeated in the figure of the Muselmann at Auschwitz. As Anidjar argues, one of the threats arising from the stereotypical concept of the Muslim is based on their perceived weakness of mind. They were not only weak, so the stereotype goes, they would also infect Europeans with this weakness; think of the saying about the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe” for example.
Muselmann and the failure of meaning
As already mentioned, to Primo Levi, the term Muselmann has no particular significance in relation to Muslims. In his interpretation, it is as if the language of the camps was independent of the language outside. According to him, it is similar to terms such as Canada and Mexico which were used to identify some of the camp’s barracks. Levi’s position, however, is questionable for several reasons. In Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers Filip Müller (1999) gives an explanation of the two terms that refer in some way to stereotypes about Canada and Mexico. The same can be said for the term Muselmann. Although not one and the same, we see in the construction of the category Muselmann similar patterns to those in the construction of the category of Muslims and both categories operate in a similar fashion by referring to the figure of the praying Muslim, the alleged fatalism and subjection of Muslims. Yet, at the same time we should perhaps be careful in dismissing Levi’s point that it has no particular significance. In the reactions I got on an earlier, Dutch, version of this post many people said the same. Levi’s dismissal of any special significance of the term Muselmann, may also refer to what anthropologists Tomlinson and Engelke (in a completely different context) have called the failure of meaning:
situations where meaning is absent, when meaningfulness is not achieved, and what social consequences follow in the wake of such nonsuccess. In short, ethnographic and theoretical attention must be devoted to documenting ‘the limits of meaning’
(Engelke and Tomlinson The Limits of Meaning, 2006, 1).
The Muselmann term perhaps is one such moment of the limits meaning, bringing all the different elements of the camps together and having a label for the strongest witness of the atrocity of the camps but at the same time refusing to acknowledge its potential meaning. Perhaps best exemplified by Esther, one the interlocutors in Free will in total institutions: The case of choice inside Nazi death camps by Jonathan Davidov and Zvi Eisikovits (2015):
Do you know what a Muselmann was? Someone who became nothing, was named a Muselmann. He was exhausted with hunger, weakness, and despair. When there is no despair, you eat something, even grass. But when there is no one to live for, what to live for, no one to support you and no one that you need to support yourself, you don’t have anything to live for. When there is no one to look after, there is no answer to the questions: ‘‘What is it all about? Who am I and what am I? To whom do I matter?’’
It is as if any attempt to give meaning to the word Muselmann is doomed to fail as the Muselmänner themselves have lost all capacity to give meaning. One of the important aspects of the Nazi regime that comes to mind here is the capacity of the Nazis (who also used the Muselmann term for the same category of prisoners) to completely isolate certain terms of reality and give them a new meaning, thus constructing a new reality. One of the things the Nazis did is what Anidjar calls ‘semanticide’, where particular words are taken out of context and given new meanings in a new context (remember the word Endlösung). The Muselmann in the camps have become a reference for the minimum condition of humanity or even less than that. At the same time the condition of the prisoners exemplifying this term is obviously the result of inhumane human action.
Telling the story of the Muselmann
The term Muselmann crops up again and again in testimonies describing the Holocaust, but explaining it away by simply saying it has no meaning or serves no function is (even in the case of the failure of meaning) is unsatisfying and unjust. If we do that the term works to silence and alienate the language from the rest of us, from history itself. The story of the Muselmann, the prisoner who became a Muslim, is the story of a decline of humanity and the lack of words to describe it. The only thing we can do is is telling the story, again and again and again.
Rethinking the figure of the Muselmann
This section is meant as an update on the figure of the Muselmann. Since this post was published in 2015 new work has been published and I have read some older work send to me by colleagues: thanks for that.
One of the questions which emerged pertains to whether or not the term was strongly linked to Muslims at the time or not. At the very least, it appears to have been an outdated designation that dates back to the 18th century. On the other hand, nowadays we also encounter it, but then as Muselmane; however, this concerns the spelling Muselmann. Apart from the camps, the term Muselmann was also used in ‘Don’t be a Muselmann’, something that we find in the nursery rhyme C-A-F-F-E-E:
Trink cousin so fell Caffee,
Nicht für Kinder ist der Türkentrank,
Schwächt die Nerven,
Power dich blass und krank,
Sei but no Muselmann,
Der ihn nicht lassen kann
Here it refers to the fact that coffee is bad for children. The reference to illness is more often found in relation to Turks, for example ‘the sick man on the Bosporus’ (the Ottoman sultan). But the label could refer to anyone and did not necessarily have to have a religious or religio-racial context. But that’s not the end of the discussion. After all, the connections that are made can also mean that stereotype designations of Muslims and Islam contribute to a certain meaning and perhaps even to the circulation of the terms with different meanings. Because in all cases it is also about the connection between Muslims, disease and weakness. In short: the meaning of Muslim is somewhat less clear-cut than it seems, but the connection with the image of Muslims cannot be ignored. See in particular: Wittler, Kathrin. “‘Muselmann’: Anmerkungen zur Geschichte einer Bezeichnung.” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 61.12 (2012): 1045-1056.
The Journal of Holocaust Research (2020, 34.3) had a fascinating special issue on the figure of the Muselmann focusing on gender, insider/outsider status and its reliance on a few highly important works and comparing it to other similar figures. In the introduction of this special issue (Rethinking the Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camps and Ghettos: History, Social Life, and Representation), the editors Michael Becker and Dennis Bock write:
We hope that this issue proves that research on the Muselmann is by no means only a specific sideshow, but on the contrary, yields unexplored perspectives for Holocaust studies and studies on Nazi concentration camps. The articles presented in this issue challenge the hegemonic image and narrative of the Muselmann as a mute, passive, dehumanized prisoner fated to die and unable to testify. They deconstruct this image by critically reflecting on its unquestioned elements: for example, gender (the Muselmann as a male prisoner), the Muselmann allegedly being a genuine phenomenon of concentration camps while – paradoxically – simultaneously being located outside the structures and processes of prisoner societies. At the same time, this issue renders visible the many desiderata regarding the Muselmann: the discourse has been heavily reliant on a few iconic testimonies, most importantly that of Primo Levi and generalized from them about the phenomenon as a whole. More research that uses a variety of sources (e.g. Polish or Yiddish testimonies) will underscore the importance of testimony not only about Muselmänner, but from their perspective as well. We hope that this issue will prompt more scholars to study the Muselmann from sociological, sociohistorical, and psychological perspectives. Comparative analyses could also research the Muselmann as a part of the ‘century of camps,’ for example, comparing him to the Gulag figure Dokhodiaga.4
See also the other articles in that special issue:
- Muselmänner and Prisoner Societies: Toward a Sociohistorical Understanding – Michael Becker & Dennis Bock, Pages: 158-174
- Morality and the Muselmann: Mapping Virtues and Norms in Prisoners’ Societies of Mauthausen and Auschwitz–Birkenau – Imke Hansen, Pages: 175-197
- The Female Muselmann in Nazi Concentration Camp Discourse – Sharon B. Oster, Pages: 198-219
- The Muselmann and the Necrotopography of a Ghetto, Bożena Shallcross, Pages: 220-240
- No One Wants to Draw the Muselmann? Visual Representations of the Muselmann in Comics, Markus Streb & Ole Frahm, Pages: 241-261
And this lecture at The International Symposium “The forced labourers of death. Sonderkommandos and Arbeitsjuden” organized by the Auschwitz Foundation and Remembrance of Auschwitz from May 23 to 25, 2013. Paul Bernard-Nouraud, EHESS-CRAL (France): Aux marges des camps : contours et exemplarité de la figure du « musulman » [The margins of the camps and the outlines of the exemplary figure of the “Muselman”]
This is a slightly updated and translated version of a Dutch blogpost in 2013: Muselmann – Joden als Moslims in de concentratiekampen.
Featured image: Muselmann, Drawing by Yehuda Bacon.
The Auschwitz Museum let me know that the label Muselmann was used for all exhausted prisoners, not only Jews.