Why did the Nazis refer to the prisoners as numbers?  What other tactics did they use to dehumanize their victims?Wiesel (and other victims of concentration camps) had a number tattooed on his...

Why did the Nazis refer to the prisoners as numbers?  What other tactics did they use to dehumanize their victims?

Wiesel (and other victims of concentration camps) had a number tattooed on his arm.  He “became A-7713.  After that I had no other name."

Expert Answers
dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau were among the worst of the concentration camps. The underlying irony behind these camps was the fact that the simple firing squad murders began to take its toll on the so-called invincibile SS. As a result Hitler's 'Final Solution' was two folded, rid his world of the Jews as quickly as possible while easing the emotional toll it was apparently having on the SS. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and others systematically altered the perception of humanity for those charged with enforcing the genocide. The first act of dehumanization is to take away ones' identity, how better than to reduce human beings to that of a number.  Several other tactics were employed to further dehumanize people among them; stripping all men and women of clothing, shaving their heads, starvation, and the sexual abuse, especially among the women by their captures. In many cases causing sons, daugthers, mothers, and fathers to bear witness to the humilation. The death camps were organized to resemble factory production with an assembly line mentality. The success of this insanity was dependent upon the its power to reduce human beings to 'things'. In that way, the destruction of 'the product' was nothing more than discarding its waste. The Final Solution, the concentration camps was an effort to streamline the Nazi agenda. Through this pseudo factory assembly line mentality 'Management' (Hitler) got what he wanted, genocide and 'Labor' (SS) were somehow morally devoid of their actions.

Just an added note; As a history teacher I have had several holocaust survivors visit my classes over the years. Some have had their 'numbers' removed similar to removing an unwanted tattoo, however many have kept them. I'll never forget the year that one of my male students asked the female speaker why she never had her 'number' removed. Her response was (and I am paraphrasing here) that after she was liberated by American soldiers she came to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. At first she thought of having it removed so that people would not stare at her if she wore a short sleeve shirt. But then said when her number was noticed by Americans she felt many wanted to ask her questions. Some did, some didn't, she said there were times she found herself feeling bad for those who saw it because she sensed their uneasiness but also  compassion. It was then she concluded that she would leave it where it was... she said something to the effect that what happened to her must never happen to anyone else ever again. She believed the compassion was real, although often awkward it was as valuable as gold. She said as long as there are people who care for others they neither know nor identify with their plight, there is hope in the world.

It was very moving, she touched every student in that room. I was proud of her. I was also proud of my students because they allowed this little old grey haired lady into their hearts as well as their minds. It was really great to witness.

hi1954 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

These have all been excellent answers.  The purpose behind National Socialism was threefold, one militarist, the second corporate and state identification, and the third (and most important) was racist. The whole idea was to empty acquired territory of "undesirables," ie all who were not sufficiently Germanic in type, according to the pseudo-scientific standards of the Party.  Children "worthy of raising as Germans" were to be adopted by the state, the rest killed with their families.  Young women of sufficiently Germanic type would be bred with SS soldiers.  The land would then be populated  by a "Aryan" people, displacing all else.

The dehumanization began with propaganda against the Jews and others such as fellow traditional social scapegoats the Gypsies, and fringe semi-Protestant groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses.  In the end, dissident Germans, Catholic priests who refused to toe the political line, homosexuals, possible political opponents of Nazism and their relatives ended up in the camps, culminating in families of the old nobility in the aftermath of the von Stauffenburg Plot.  The yellow badges and the ghettos and the concentration camps came early on, then the Death Camps.  These were places like Buchenwald, where there were no great factories for the slave laborers to work, they were simply places where masses of people were shipped and killed.  At Buchenwald, the hospital had no medicines for prisoners, and no treatment was available.  A US Army engineering report by the first allied unit to enter the camp states, "The hospital was a place where moribund prisoners were sent to die."

People had to sleep crowded into bunks which were shelves where as many inmates as possible crowded in with less than a foot and a half space between the tiers.  The prisoners did not receive enough calories per day to survive on a long-term basis.  They were worked mercilessly, and of course many died every day and were sent to the furnaces.  There in most camps the gold teeth, if any, were extracted, the hair, if any, collected for the cushioning inside slippers.  The boneash was sold as fertilizer.  In Buchenwald, the number of prisoners who died in a day was preferably the same as the limits of the furnaces.  If not enough died of starvation, illness and labor the difference was made up by murder, the proper number of prisoners simply hung on meathooks and beaten with bats.

It was Emma Koch, wife of the Commandant of Buchenwald, who began the fad of using the tattooed skin of prisoners as book covers, wall hangings and lampshades.  The dehumanization of the victims of the Nazis began with propaganda and ended in the most dehumanizing and methodical murder factories in all history.  Approximately eleven million died in the camps, about 6 million being Jewish.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The branded number on those who were imprisoned in the camps serves to represent much about the Nazis and their treatment of their victims.  A chilling aspect of Nazism was their appropriation of rationality and "accountable" thought.  The initial reaction to Hitler and the Nazis were that "they were crazy."  It's dangerous to dismiss them in such a manner because it belies how the Nazis actually consolidated power.  Hitler and Nazism was rooted in its "rational" thought.  The Nazis used a perverse form of logic and reason to articulate their belief systems, the subversion of democracy, and the overtaking of nations and advancing of ideology.  It is overlooked that at the time, many people, learned and ignorant, actually believed in its initial stages that Nazism represented a recognition of rational thought.

Building off of this, the Nazi approach to degradation and humiliation was rooted in this application (or misapplication) of rationality.  The Nazis believed in documentation and categorization of their victims.  Making lists were critical to Nazi hierarchy, and the branding of numbers represented this. Each number was kept as part of a list at each camp.  The entire notion of eliminating individuals was seen as a "logical" extension of the laws which governed nature, such as survival of the fittest.  The use of the gas chamber is an aspect of this rationality in its ability to slaughter hundreds of individuals at a given time.  In the name of "science" and other twisted applications of supposedly rational thought, Josef Mengele (seen in Wiesel's work) advanced Nazi eugenic beliefs with his use of human test subjects.  His work followed a scientific method in its application of Nazi principles in the field of inquiry.  The Nazi philosophy found its way in education, as leaders believed that overtaking the education system to advance Nazi ideology to the young, embedding its belief system in future generations.  The use of "rationalism" proved to be a defining manner and tactic employed in the dehumanization and degradation of their victims.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oddly enough,while the Nazis certainly wanted to dehumanize their concentration camp victims, they also were really good record keepers, which was another reason for those numbers. In fact, much of the reason we know so much about what the Nazis did is because they were such good record keepers! There is a certain amount of irony in that, don't you think? There were plenty of ways the Nazis dehumanized people. Even before the Jewish people and others were herded into concentration camps, they were forced to wear badges signifying their statuses. For example, Jewish people had to wear yellow stars, and I believe homosexual people had to wear some kind of purple badges. I am not sure what the Gypsies had to wear, but I imagine they were singled out in some way. These badges had a dehumanizing effect because they made a person feel as though he or she was nothing but a person of a certain religion, not an individual, and because once others realized a person was of that religion, he or she had no ordinary privileges at all. Jewish people, for example, were not allowed to teach or own land, even before the concentration camps started. Another way that people were dehumanized is in how they were treated after they died. All people, no matter what their religion, have important religious rituals to observe when a person dies. But those who were killed were tossed into mass graves, with no way for those who mourned them to observe any rituals at all. I could probably go on for days with examples, but this should be enough to get you going! This is an extremely unpleasant area of research, but we should all be aware of what can happen to any religion, race, or ethnic group if evil people are allowed to be in charge. I have provided you with a link to the Holocaust Museum, which both my children have visited. It is in Washington, D.C., and I think everyone should visit, so this can never happen again.