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.”