Those of us who have been alive for seventy years or more are sometimes visited with a strange impulse: to take the middle-aged and the young in a firm grip and urge them to listen to the stories of our lives. We feel ourselves driven to interrupt wedding feasts and other such happy occasions. Of course, we don’t suppose our lives to be especially interesting in themselves; but we want to talk about what we have witnessed, at first or second hand, things that are, for those we wish to harangue, mere history, sad events of long ago, as the American Civil War or the September Massacres are for us.
We remember the Great Depression and the waxen faces of the poor, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and his crew of sinister buffoons, the conquests of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the German-Soviet pact—no one who opened a newspaper and saw that remarkable photograph of the little Georgian looking faintly amused and the German champagne merchant looking gratified, as though he had received an uncommonly large order, will ever forget it. Yet another partition of Poland had been arranged and the Baltic states were once again to be brought under Russian rule.
What most of us didn’t know then, but we learned it later, and this would be an important episode in our story, was that Jewish and other opponents of Nazism were handed over by the Soviets to the SS on the bridge at Brest-Litovsk. Margarethe Buber-Neumann, who was one of those transferred—her husband Heinz Neumann, a left-deviating Communist, was murdered by the Soviet police—describes in an unforgettable passage of her memoirs how one of these unfortunates, seeing those black and evil figures waiting at the other end of the bridge, clung to the railings of the bridge and cried out in agony but was in the end detached and sent to his fate by the NKVD men in charge of the operation. Then, after the German attack on the Soviet Union, we began to hear of other horrors: the virtual annihilation of the Polish elites in the Nazi death camps, the slaughter of Russian prisoners of war, and, most disquieting of all, what seemed an attempt to kill all the Jews of Europe.
The scale and inner logic of the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people were not at first widely credited in the West, though some political and ecclesiastical authorities with good intelligence sources knew very soon what was going on. There was an inclination not to believe all these reports. They were incredible. And sometimes there was an attempt to deny or minimize them, lest a preoccupation with this great massacre should affect the strategy and tactics of the Allied powers. What was least credible was the inner logic, the rationale (if this isn’t to abuse the term) of the Final Solution: that the political authorities in Germany were captivated by a crackpot racial theory that required all Jews to be exterminated. This extermination was to be an absolute priority. Rolling stock and human resources were reserved for this task even when such reservation weakened the German war effort. That the great massacre was accompanied by other horrors, by torture that was systematic and not casual, by grotesque medical experiments on the prisoners, the evidence for these things was in the end abundant; for though most of the prisoners in the camps were gassed to death, or murdered individually, or died of disease or of their privations, the reports of the survivors are so much in agreement that they can’t be doubted.
All these things are so well-known to the readers of The New York Review that some may think it pointless to reiterate them. But these are just the things persons of my generation want to make real to those who were not contemporaries of these events, and we have the idea—perhaps a delusion—that repetitions with variations will make an impression.
Some have a fear—Primo Levi had this fear—that it isn’t out of the question that similar events may torment us in the future. Given the massacres in Cambodia, in the Middle East, and elsewhere, given the sourness of the contempt for indigenous peoples in North and South America, and in Australia, the fear that it may all happen again seems perfectly rational.
Again, we want to understand what may lie beyond understanding: how the great massacre of the Jews, and of Slavs and Gypsies as well, was possible, and how this could all have happened at the heart of a civilized and highly educated society; how the Germans of that time could have accepted, or acquiesced in, the mad imperative to kill members of the supposedly inferior races. Such puzzlements are at the center of Primo Levi’s work; and The Drowned and the Saved, his latest, and last, study of the issues raised by the existence of the death camps, the Lager, contains the essence of his thought on the matter.
Levi is a precious witness because it was German National Socialism that forced him to think about his Jewishness. He was brought up within a domestic tradition that was culturally, not religiously, Jewish, and as an unbeliever he viewed the Jewish tradition with some irony. He lived in a society in which serious anti-Semitism was rare. He didn’t speak or understand Yiddish; only the experience of the Lager gave him some comprehension of and some affection for the intense, inward-turned Jewish consciousness of Eastern Europe. He was an Italian with a fine scientific and humane education—even in this book the examples that seem to come most naturally to him are drawn from Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi and Dante. He was a civilized, well-educated, gentle Italian. When the Fascists capitulated to their German allies and tried to apply the Nuremberg Laws in their full rigor to Italian society Levi joined a partisan group. The group was betrayed by an informer and Levi found himself dispatched to Auschwitz. That he was one of the tiny minority who escaped the crematoria and was able to speak and write as a witness of what went on in the Lager was in part a consequence of his being a trained chemist, in part a grace of fate.
His report on Auschwitz is to be found in Survival in Auschwitz. The picture he constructed of the resistance, outside the camps, of the Jews and their allies in occupied Europe is given in a fine novel, strangely, picaresque in form, If Not Now, When? The Drowned and the Saved is his last word on the massacres, on Jews and Germans, and on other related topics. It is a reflective discussion of what he reported in his other books, of what can in some measure be understood, though much lies beyond understanding, like the stone ruins of a civilization to which we have no key.
Levi takes it as self-evident that the slaughter of the Jews in Auschwitz and Treblinka and Theresienstadt and elsewhere was unique.
Up to the moment of this writing, and notwithstanding the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shame of the Gulags, the useless and bloody Vietnam War, the Cambodian self-genocide, the desaparecidos of Argentina, and the many atrocious and stupid wars we have seen since, the Nazi concentration camp system still remains a unicum, both in its extent and its quality. At no other place or time has one seen a phenomenon so unexpected and so complex: never have so many human lives been extinguished in so short a time, and with so lucid [sic] a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism, and cruelty.
In itself this raises many problems. Some Levi doesn’t touch at all and some he discusses rather brusquely. He doesn’t at all discuss the problem of theodicy, the problem of a divine creation in which there is evil. Since he is not a religious believer this is what one would expect. He went into Auschwitz an unbeliever and nothing he encountered there caused him to shift his position. He tells us that at one moment of extreme agony he thought about prayer but then rejected the thought as a weakness, something shameful. Occasionally he comments with some sharpness on those who do raise questions of theodicy and on these occasions he manifests an unjustified irritation with those he disagrees with. I find this hard to understand, for one of the most beautiful and touching portraits in his novel If Not Now, When? is that of White Rokhele, who is shown as a devout Jewish believer; her calling out of the traditional night prayers is one of the most poignant moments in the novel. Again, he is very short with any suggestion that his being, as it were, reserved from death to be a witness has anything providential about it, or can reasonably be understood as any kind of grace, except a grace of fate.
The general temper of his discussions is so calm and so just that these flashes of irritation strike me as possibly suggesting an unresolved dispute with his own tradition. He admits that those who were in some sense believers did better in withstanding the pressures of life in the camps than those who were not; but he thinks it didn’t matter what they believed—Christians, Jews, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, all fed upon their private visions, whether of Jerusalem or Moscow or the Kingdom of Christ. This would mean that there was no qualitative difference between the man who went to his death crying Long Live Stalin, the Leader of the World Proletariat and the man whose last cry was the great Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One. I don’t think Levi would in fact have maintained this, though what his comment would have been I don’t know.
Levi is haunted by the problem of responsibility: the responsibility of those who actually participated in murder and torture; the responsibility of those Germans who averted their gaze from what was going on or remained in a state of voluntary ignorance (that there is such a state Levi brings out in some fine analytical passages); the responsibility of those who lived in what he calls the gray area, that is, those prisoners who were relatively privileged by reason of their service in the administration of the camp or their specialized work (such privileges didn’t amount to much—for example, an extra liter of soup a day) and those outside the camps who were forced into a position of responsibility for those in the ghetto communities, they themselves being members of the ghetto.
The problem of responsibility isn’t solved. Levi doesn’t want to apply to the Nazis the exculpations common in much modern discussion of criminality. That they were in general—of course, excluding the insane—responsible for murder and torture he doesn’t doubt, or that they were justly executed in those cases where they were found guilty by a court: and he rightly dismisses as a justification that they were obeying the orders of a superior lawful authority. They were bad men, not demons. He says of the members of the SS that
they were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces, but they had been reared badly. They were, for the greater part, diligent followers and functionaries, some fanatically convinced of the Nazi doctrine, many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient. All of them had been subjected to the terrifying miseducation provided for and imposed by the schools…and then completed by the SS “drill.”…Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride the “beautiful words” of Corporal Hitler.
He rejects the view that we are all victims or murderers and that (he is quoting the film director Liliana Cavani) “in every environment, in every relationship, there is a victim-executioner dynamism more or less clearly expressed and generally lived on an unconscious level.” If this is true in some special sense it isn’t interesting in connection with a serious discussion of moral responsibility in the camps.
He strikes me as speaking with a slightly different voice when he examines the case of Chaim Rumkowski, the little king of the Lodz ghetto who ruled the ghetto on behalf of and in the interest of his German masters. Rumkowski seems to have had a simple-minded delight in his frail powers and in such exercises as requiring schoolchildren to write essays praising “our beloved and providential president” (that is, Rumkowski himself). It is said that when the authorities finally resolved to liquidate the ghetto he asked that he and his family be sent to Auschwitz in a special car coupled to the wagons filled with the condemned Jews from all over Europe. Whether or not this grim, farcical progress ever happened we don’t know; but it is certain that the king of the Lodz ghetto perished in the gas chamber.
Levi takes Rumkowski to be a symbolic figure, a representative from the gray zone constituted by all those who with whatever reluctance and under whatever terrible threats served the purposes of the SS. He wonders if
we are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit. His fever is ours, the fever of our Western civilization that “descends into hell with trumpets and drums” [the rhetoric is here like that of George Steiner], and its miserable adornments are the distorting image of our symbols of social prestige. His folly is that of presumptuous and mortal Man as he is described by Isabella in Measure for Measure, the Man who,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured
(His glassy essence), like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.*
Like Rumkowski we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.
In another respect Levi falls away from the presuppositions of much modern social comment. He is not a relativist in ethics. Such relativism has penetrated deeply into the consciousness of the educated or half-educated. Many of my fellow teachers will recognize the following situation. A student develops the thought that such terms as right and good mean right/good in the judgment of individuals or social groups; and this position is intended to entail that one couldn’t make a mistake in morality as one could in law or history. The teacher may think it is useful to take the theory and conduct of the SS as at least a pragmatic reductio ad absurdum of any such position, only to receive in response: Oh well, if they believed that [the whole cycle of National Socialist doctrine], then it was right for them. That they might be at fault, and thus be horribly wrong in their judgments, in accepting the cycle of National Socialist doctrine in the first place—to assert this meets with a complete lack of understanding. Education in this or that moral or ideological system is just a given.
There are dialectical ways of overcoming this intellectual obtuseness, but students are reluctant to go through chains of argument that are exacting and they may even be shamelessly impudent in accusing the teacher of logic chopping, rather as though one could overcome an awkwardness raised by a historian by telling him he is preoccupied with the past.
Levi has no difficulty in asserting, and he doesn’t think it an apparently paradoxical assertion needing special backing, that it is enough to say of the National Socialists and their ideologues and intellectual ancestors
that all of them, teachers and pupils, became progressively removed from reality as little by little their morality came unglued from the morality common to all times and all civilizations, an integral part of our human heritage which in the end must be acknowledged.
The more I read The Drowned and the Saved the more forcibly was I reminded of Plato’s discussion of the tyrannical man in The Republic, the man who actualizes what lies hidden in all men, the lewd fantasies that ordinary men enact only in sleep (Republic Book IX 572 b-d). The examples given by Plato of the violation of basic moral rules are incest, bestiality, murder, and sacrilege. These prohibitions lie at the center of what Levi calls “the morality common to all times and all civilizations.” They are there in Plato as they are in the Torah. We might encounter some difficulty in modern times in finding some commonly acceptable example of sacrilege. The assassination of Kennedy or Martin Luther King has about it a whiff of sacrilege as well as being an example of murder. The murder in the gas chambers of children and of women with child perhaps counts as sacrilege as well as being the wanton killing of the innocent. At any rate, the notion of a common morality with sacred prohibitions is the foundation of Levi’s indictment of the SS; without it, the book’s architectonic would be gone; we would be left with a set of pictures and perceptive remarks; we should, as Kierkegaard would have put it, stay at the level of the aesthetic. But to keep Auschwitz at the level of the aesthetic is an obscenity. On this topic, if on any topic at all, the common morality invoked by Levi speaks with authority.
In another respect Levi’s argument parallels that of Plato and raises the same questions. As we have seen, he argues that the SS “were made of the same cloth as we,” but that they were “reared badly,”subjected to a mediocre kind of moral education. This was something they shared with the greater part of their nation. Plato, too, shows us the tyrant as the product of a “democratic” education, one, we may say, in which there are many competing values, notions of the good life; and in the end he will turn on his family and rend it and will become “for always, and in waking reality, the man he used occasionally to be in his dreams” (Republic 574 d–575). That men and women are badly educated doesn’t, of course, wholly determine their moral position or the actions issuing from it. It is possible to transcend one’s education or, better, to take from it what is nutritious and reject what is poisonous. Such great examples of virtue in the Third Reich as Adam and Heinrich von Trott and the Austrian peasant Franz Jagerstätter certainly drew much nourishment from their milieus; but others who were reared in the same milieus ended badly. To have good parents and to be well brought up, these are great advantages; but bad men may fail to profit by such good fortune and may, once bad choices have hardened into habit, become enemies of the human race.
Those who ran the murderous apparatus of the camps knew very well that it was necessary to harden their colleagues, to get them accustomed to the thought of killing and tormenting the innocent. Levi shows the various ways in which the guards and administrators of the camps became hardened or, sometimes, disguised from themselves what they were doing. They were “blooded,” as it were, by being encouraged to perform minor acts of cruelty, and these were a prelude to pressing the innocent into the gas chambers; and they surrounded themselves with a tangle of euphemisms (“final solution,” “special treatment,” the Einsatzkommando—“prompt-employment unit”). When all else failed, they were given enough liquor to blur their perceptions but not to incapacitate them for their frightful duties.
Plato demonstrates that the tyrannical man is in the end mad; he has a lie in his soul; he becomes fundamentally mistaken about the matters most important for human life. This is exactly Levi’s view of Hitler:
All of Hitler’s biographies…agree on the flight from reality which marked his last years…. He had forbidden and denied his subjects any access to truth, contaminating their morality and their memory; but, to a degree which gradually increased and attained complete paranoia in the Bunker, he barred the path of truth to himself as well…. His collapse was not only a salvation for mankind but also a demonstration of the price to be paid when one dismembers the truth.
One might add that Goebbels, another tyrannical man, ended by killing his own children. The hatred he had nurtured for the Jews he turned in the end on himself and on his family.
There will be other books about the great massacre. There will not be another more subtle, more humane. Primo Levi’s premature death is a severe loss to the civilized world.
March 17, 1988