Der Muselmann, literally translated from the German as “the Muslim”, is a figure out of the German concentration camps during the Holocaust. The term was used by, and related through, survivors to describe those who entered a certain state of inhumanness associated with extreme malnutrition, exhaustion and exposure due to their treatment. This zombie-like trance was characterized by loss of speech functions to incoherent stammering, loss of bodily control to such an extent that Muselmänner routinely defecated on themselves, and loss of self awareness.

In this way the Muselmann becomes a testament to the particular horror of the camps, however impossible it is to relate an experience that is without language, and is in fact characterized by a lack of experientiality. The power the Nazis wielded in the camps was this very ability to remove the human from the human, to remove the power of speech from a being that relies on language to ground its existence.

Testimonial accounts, especially from Auschwitz where the name seems to have originated, claim that even fellow prisoners were given to disregard and even hate the Muselmänner, as they came to represent people who had given up struggling to maintain even the bare vestiges of humanness. They were the living dead within confines where death was ever present. It is worth following Giorgio Agamben’s etymological trace of the word Muselmann back to its Arabic meaning, not as a way to close the issue, but instead to recognize that it will always be present. The Muslim is “one who submits unconditionally to the will of God.”

The relationship between the Muselmann and his fellow prisoners is a complex and, in many ways, a revealing phenomenon of the Nazi Concentration Camp. This relationship was not necessarily as straightforward as one of hate. If a variety of the accounts of survivors are to be taken into consideration, the aura of the Musemann was infinitely more incomprehensible, and much more disturbing than poikax suggests.

Primo Levi, for example, emphasizes the quality of the Muselmann as an image reflection. In many survival accounts, the other prisoner as mirror is a reoccuring metaphor. There were no real mirrors of glass in the camps; many former prisoners recall knowing their own dehumanization only through the visage of their friends. Dehumanization, of course, was one the Nazis' primary goals. By reducing the Jewish population to sub-human status, they attempted to validate their own actions. The Muselmann were like walking trophies for S.S. authority. In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi describes the Muselmann not only in terms of the hopeless, but as the incarnation of the inevitable endpoint of every prisoner's life. They became a tool of fear employed by Hitler's campaign. Levi believed that becoming a Muselmann was only a matter of time, until the physical oppression of work and weather and psychological destruction turned human prisoners into empty shells.

The Muselmann were, therefore, the ultimate dark prophesy for the other prisoners, spectres of what they couldnot avoid becoming. At the same time however, they were a defining opposite for those Levi called "the Saved." Levi himself recounts thinking of himself in terms of 'other to the empty shells'1. Levi knew he would survive when he found that he still knew how to use his mind and heart, where the Muselmann had lost touch with both. This is a double-reflection, for the Muselmann's lost capacity for either thought or feeling was also seen in the German citizenry, as in collaborationist sentiment all over the outside world.

This unnatural manifestation of empathy seems to be thus composed of measures of hate, fear, as well as emotional understanding. It is often said of Holocaust literature that, for those who did not experience the camps, silence is the only appropiate language. In Levi's writing however, he stands as a mediating consciousness, reminding outsiders of the violence perpetrated not only upon individuals, but on individualness-- humanity. To dehumanize others, we must dehumanize ourselves.

1 (paraphrase)

I would very much appreciate comments from everyone on this topic. I believe it to be a very important thing to explore as a human being, and like most of the important things, it's difficult.

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