Between Omnipotence and Powerlessness. The Built Order of the National Socialist Extermination Camps
Picture of the memorial Treblinka (Poland) 2007, Source: Wikimedia commons
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Between Omnipotence and Powerlessness. The Built Order of the National Socialist Extermination Camps

Annika Wienert

Between March 1942 and October 1943, the Germans murdered at least 1.7 million Jews in the gas chambers of three camps built exclusively for this purpose. These camps were located in Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, three villages in occupied eastern Poland. The victims were primarily the Jewish population of the so-called General Government and the Bialystok District. However, people from other European countries and from the German Reich were also deported to these extermination camps as well. This represents the first time that buildings were designed and built specifically for the mass and routine killing of people. The entire camp – including the gas chamber buildings – can be understood as an extreme form of an architecture of order. It is an architecture of radical sub-order, namely the anti-Semitic delusion of extermination, according to which Jews needed to be exterminated in order to establish order in the world. Architectural historiography has largely ignored this category of borderline cases of architecture up until now. If one understands architecture as a structure to organize space, its significance to this mass murder becomes clear. In the constant organizational and structural changes to which the camps were subjected during their short existence, it played an essential role. There can be no doubt about the fundamental omnipotence of the perpetrators and the powerlessness of the victims. The perpetrators had exceptional freedom to exercise power since the three camps existed outside of the organizational structure of the concentration camps. As these camps had no economic function, the victims could not hope for any pragmatic rationale that could ensure their survival. Yet, the sources repeatedly reference how the perpetrators’ omnipotence reached certain limits and the intended order fell into disarray, as well as how Jews took action: both individually and spontaneously as well as collectively and methodically. The armed uprisings of the prisoners in Treblinka and Sobibór bear impressive witness to this.

Dr. Annika Wienert is an advisor to the Max Weber Foundation – German Humanities Institutes Abroad. In the summer semester of 2021, she holds the Michael Hauck Visiting Professorship for Interdisciplinary Holocaust Research at the Fritz Bauer Institute. She studied art history, history and philosophy in Bochum and Krakow and, in 2014, she completed her doctorate at the Ruhr-University Bochum on the topic Das Lager vorstellen. Die Architektur der nationalsozialistischen Vernichtungslager in Belzec, Sobibór und Treblinka [Imagining the Camp: The Architecture of the National Socialist Extermination Camps at Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka] (Neofelis 2015). In 2016, the work was awarded the Theodor Fischer Prize for Architectural History by the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Munich) and the Marko Feingold Prize by the University, as well as the City and Province of Salzburg. From February 2015 to August 2016, she was a Research Associate at the Chair of Theory and History of Architecture, Art and Design at the Technical University of Munich, and since September she has been a Research Associate at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. Her research interests include 20th- and 21st-century art and architecture.

The lecture was part of the lecture series Built Order: Spaces of Power and was a virtual event that took place in German. The lecture was recorded and is available on