Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #6


Below is my final journal entry, first written on the date indicated, dealing with Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  Before leaving Lifton, in my next two posts I will ,share some reflections on a later work of his on September11, 2001, and its aftermath.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lifton (p 467) on developing “the paradigm of death and the continuity of life–or the  symbolization of life and death–that [based on Otto Rank’s work] I have been employing in this book and in other works over several decades” to apply to genocide.  To that end, to “the central  tenet of that model” in accordance with which, a propos genocide at least, “human beings kill in order to assert their own life power,” he now adds “the image of curing a deadly disease, so that genocide may become an absolute form of killing in the name of  healing.”

It is worth noting that the “model” or “paradigm” he is using also applies, at least in its “central tenet” to addiction [which entails, however, no sort of moral equivalent between the two:  as I will later discuss, the moral difference between genocide and addiction is huge].   That is, both genocide and addiction would be rooted in the need “to assert [the  addict’s and/or the killer’s] own life power” (the “control” of  “my control  disease” of addiction [as therapist J. Keith Miller describes his own alcoholism].

What is more, as Lifton explicitly argues a bit earlier in the book (pp. 447-451), the “omnipotence” that genocidal killers such as, emblematically (because of “killing to heal”), the Nazi Auschwitz doctors experience when killing–that (p. 447) “sense of omnipotent control over the live and deaths” of its victims–wavers with “the seemingly opposite sense of impotence, of being a powerless cog in a vast machine controlled by unseen others.”  Indeed,  it is clear that, in general, any killing in order to heal must, in my language, disappropriate itself of (or dis-own) its own inner sense (direct intentionality, as it  were) as killing.  That is why the exercise of power in such a way is wracked internally by its “opposite,” the sense of powerlessness.  That would occur whenever a split of the direct, inner intentionality of means and ends occurs.

And just such a split also occurs in addiction, in that the very way the addict experiences as the only available avenue for asserting her own “life power” is by subjecting herself (note:  not just “being subjected to,” but, exactly, “subjecting oneself to,” since otherwise it would be no means of exercising power or control at all) to undergoing the activity of the drug or drug-equivalent upon her.  Thus, in addiction, too, there is this same central wavering between power and powerlessness.

Also common to  genocide and addiction is insatiability:  No amount of killing for the one who kills in the name of healing will ever be enough–enough to eliminate all “infection” and “disease” and risk thereof–any more than any amount of alcohol is ever enough for what, following Lipton’s talk of the Nazi doctor’s “Auschwitz self,” we might call an alcoholic’s alcoholic-self. 

But perhaps the key to a crucial differentiation lies here, in the “insatiability” of both genocidal killer and addict.  That is, why the one is insatiable may be significantly different from why the other is “insatiable.”  The  difference may, indeed, be there, along the axis of the active/reactive distinction that Deleuze makes central in his reading of Nietzsche.

In effect, it may come down to  the insatiability of the genocidal killer being reactive, whereas that of the addict is active.  Genocide, insofar as it requires the attribution of generative power–power generative of the very efforts of healing that come to consist in killing–to what is other than itself.  The point to extract from that is not just that genocidal action is only called forth by the irruption of “infection” or “disease,” which really becomes the tautology that healing efforts are only called forth in response or “reaction” to illness.  The point is, rather, that at the very heart of genocide lies coiled the fundamental experience of powerlessness–better:  the experience of fundamental powerlessness:  the experience of oneself as not powerful, but as, instead, the mere pawn of what does have power.  Genocide would be reactive, then, because it would emerge, not directly from and/or as the assertion of one’s own power or “vitality” (to use a language closer to the Nazis’ own) but as avoidance of the recognition of one’s own powerlessness.  But since the very endeavor to deny, disavow, or avoid something that is experienced as definitive of one’s very selfhood–here, the radical experiential impotence of the killer in the face of  what he must kill, because it has power over him–the very powerlessness one is trying to avoid by genocide is incorporated or institutionalized within genocidal action itself:  Hence the more one kills, the less power one feels, which means the more one has to go on killing.

In contrast, addiction is at root an assertion of one’s power or vitality as such. It involves the direct experience of such power, the exercise of it in the only way experientially open to one, under addictionogenic circumstances.  That would be why one could bottom out in addiction, whereas genocide is bottomless.

Hence, too, there would be a corresponding differentiation of what could constitute “recovery.”  In the case of addiction, as active, what ultimately needs to be recovered, in the sense of regained, is the authentic power that has been covered over or concealed by external circumstances, experienced (falsely) as somehow depriving one of power.  Paradoxically, here it is precisely by the full acknowledgement of one’s powerlessness that one finds oneself re-invested with power–though now genuine power, no longer distorted as having anything to do with externalities at all.

In contrast, “recovery” for a genocidal healer-killer (and, as a side note, Lifton’s noteworthy insight that genocide as such involves killing to heal is also worth reversing, insofar as it ponts to a necessarily genocide-engendeging capacity that lies essentially in modern medicine as such–to which much of Lifton’s own work, as well as [Pat] Barker’s Regeneration-trilogy attests [the subject of an earlier series of posts at this blogsite]) involves full acknowledgement or recognition, not of powerlessness as such, but of one’s anxiety-driven avoidance or disavowal of responsibility.

That’s why giving up the illusion of control  starts the addict toward recovery, whereas it is precisely the genocidal killer’s illusion of lack of control–and, hence, blaming others and demonizing them–that must first be abandoned, if any recovery is even to become possible.  That recovery as such, in fact, would only begin at the bottom of whatever processes one might then, after the confession of guilt connected with one’s own actions as a killer (actual or potential), fall into, in now trying to exert control over oneself in some addictive practice.

It may even be that recovery from healer-killing is actually not possible at all!  Here may be, at last, “absolute evil,” now seen to be reaction as such.

After his characterization, above, of his life-continuity model, Lifton writes(p. 467):  “The model I propose [for genocide] includes a perception of collective illness, a vision of cure, and a series of motivations, experiences, and requirements of  perpetrators in this quest  for that cure.”  A couple of pages later (468-470), he presents Germany after WW I and Turkey before the genocide against the Armenians as sharing just such a perception/interpretation of the “national” situation as such an “illness,” which must then be “cured” by atacking the supposed external “causes”–the Jews for the Nazis and the Armenians for the Turkish nationalists in 1915.

It is noteworthy that here, in these genocide-engendering situations, the  perpetrators of the coming genocide begin by inerpreting the situation as an “illness,” and by then projecting the source of that illness onto the selected “other” who has “invaded” the body of the Volk or nation.  In contrast, the addict does not at all begin by seeing her situaion as an illness.  Rather, the addiction seems to be the “solution” to whatever problem is at issue.  And only once the addict can be given the idea that the addiction is some “malady” or “illness,” as Bill Wilson always called alcoholism, does recovery begin.  In the case of the genocidal killer, actual or  potential, it is all but the reverse:  Only by giving up the interpretation that the  problem lies in some illness–e.g., the “stab in the back” purportedly involved in German  defeat in WW Iand acknowledging, instead, that the purported problem is self-engendered, does the genocide have any chance at “recovery.”  That is, so to speak, the genocide must begin at the fourth column of the 4th step [of AA’s twelve steps, where one must examine one’s own “fault” in the situation being analyzed], whereas the addict must first get there by taking the first three steps.

Lifton, p. 470:

The stage of sickness [with which genocide begins], then, includes the experience of collective loss and death immersion; the promise of redemptive revitalization, including total merging of self with a mystical collectivity; the absolute failure of that promise, followed by newly intensified experience of collective death imagery and death equivalents; leading in turn to a hunger for a “cure” commensurate in its totality [it is what he then calls “the vision of a total cure” that comes into play] with the “sickness.”


P. 473:  “Totalism in a nation state, then, is most likely to emerge as a cure for a death-haunted illness; and victimization, violence, and genocide are potential aspects of that cure.”


Also pointing to the reactive nature of genocide is what Liftgon writes on p. 479:  “Hence, the parallel imagery in genocide:  the bearer of deathly disease threatens one’s own people with extinction so one must absolutely extinguish him first.”  Thus, the genocidal killer begins with the perception of himself as a victim.

So, for example, did and does the Republican conservative such as Bush or McCain paint the US as a victim of “Islamic terrorists.”

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #5


Below is another entry from my philosophical journal–first written on the date indicated–on Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. 


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lifton’s analysis in The Nazi Doctors is excellent and important.  That is especially true of one of his closing chapters–the one he calls “Doubling:  The Faustian Bargain” (the first of three chapters in his third and final part, “The Psychology of Genocide”).  The whole chapter is well worth reflection.  Here are just some of my initial responses.

Lifton writes (p. 418):  “One is always ethically responsible for Faustian bargains–a responsibility in no way abrogated by the fact that much doubling takes place outside of awareness. . . . For the individual  Nazi doctor in Auschwitz, doubling was likely to  mask a choice for evil.”  This remark, with its insistence that responsibility extends even into what lies outside awareness (i.e., even to what is “unconscious”) opens upon a whole  new way of beginning to think through the notion of responsibility.  As the analysis he goes on to provide suggests, what needs to be brought into play in such a rethinking is a matter of the personal, egoistic “pay-off, in effect, of acting in a certain way and [that is already in play], most crucially, in the very structuring of awareness–of what will and will not come into awareness in the first place.  Along those lines he remarks,  for example (p. 419), “a major function of doubling, as in Auschwitz, is likely to be the avoidance of guilt:  the second self seems to be the one performing the ‘dirty work.’ ”

He goes on to differentiate “doubling” from “splitting,” but how he does so does not seem fully clear to  me.  I wonder if the key to the difference between the two  might not well be that “doubling,” as the last line I quoted just above suggests, would involve self-justifying, self-interested (in the proper sense:  a matter of “looking out for number one,” in effect) motives such as avoiding the sense of guilt, whereas “splitting”–the sort of thing abuse victims do when they “dissociate” (which term he mentions himself)–is a matter of self-preservation, to put it in short.  (Self-preservation as such entails no special  investment in “selfish interests.”)

Thus, on the very next page (420) he goes on himself to write: 

In general psychological terms the adaptive  potential for doubling [here clearly being used to name what is structurally common to “doubling” in the narrower sense I’m suggesting, where it’s coupled to self-interested justification, and “splitting”] is integral to the human psyche and can, at times,  be life saving:  for a soldier in combat, for instance; or for a victim of brutality such as an Auschwitz inmate, who must also undergo a form of doubling [i.e., what I’d suggest be called, not “doubling” at all, but “splitting,” following his  own distinction on the preceding page] in order to survive.  Clearly, the “opposing self” can be life enhancing [i.e., life preserving,  I’d say].  But under certain conditions it can embrace evil with an extreme lack of restraint.”

In the latter case–to which I’d confine the term “doubling”–what he writes two pages later (422) applies:  “In doubling, one part of the self ‘disavows’ another part.  What is repudiated is not reality itself–the individual  Nazi doctor was aware of  what  he was doing via the Auschwitz self–but the meaning of that reality.”  Later on the same page he goes on to  note that Auschwitz Nazi doctors “welcomed” doubling “as the only means of psychological function [short of  genuine resistance, that is–I’d add that crucial qualification].  If an environment is sufficiently extreme, and one chooses [note:  none of the victims had any choice] to remain in it, one may be able to do so only by means of doubling.”

On pp. 423-424 he writes: 

In sum, doubling is the psychological means by which one evokes the evil potential of the self.  That evil is neither inherent in the self nor foreign to it.  To live out the doubling and call forth the evil is a moral choice for which one is responsible, whatever the level of consciousness involved.  By means of doubling, Nazi doctors made a Faustian choice for evil:  in the process of doubling, in fact, lies an overall key to human evil.

I think he’s right about that.  And perhaps reflecting on how to avoid such evil should start with considering how, if what is at issue is guilt and responsibility for something occurring at the unconscious level, one can guard against the sort of motivated avoidance of knowing (or “willful ignorance” [to use the definition of stupidity John Hawkes gives in his novel Adventures in the Skin Trade in Alaska]) at issue in those [unconscious] processes:  How, that is, one can learn to recognize when one is (pre-)choosing to unleash and exploit just such unconscious processes.

Perhaps part of the answer to that question lies in the practice on a regular basis, until habituation occurs, of such things as the [AA] 10th step [of continuing to take “personal inventory” of oneself], or Ignatian examen of conscience, daily.


P. 458:  “The doctor’s [special, or especially frequent and intense] danger, we now see, lies in his capacity to double in a way that brings special power to his killing self even as he continues to anoint himself with medical purity.”  Thus, the Nazi doctor presents an emblematic instance of “a universal human proclivity toward constructing good motives [for oneself] while participating in evil behavior.”  And thus, too (p. 459):  “[E]ven as he killed,  every doctor’s Auschwitz self could retain some sense of mediating between man and nature and thereby saving life.”

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #4


This is the fourth in my series of posts of philosophical journal entries I wrote last fall concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  As was true for the journal entry in my immediately previous post, the first entry below begins with a remark about Alain Badiou, before shifting to Lifton.  The two entries below were written at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where I have been making personal retreats for years.


Thursday, October 28, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

During Vespers here yesterday, it struck me that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ could  be taken in the sense I’ve been exploring a bit in recent entries on the “reality” of what is experienced–or, better, on “reality,” period.  That is, the resurrection could be taken to be the revelation to the apostles and then generations of the faithful that suffering, destitution, and pain are not “ultimate reality,” any more than, for Badiou [see my immediately preceding post], “the sad passions” such as “death and depression” are “loyal feelings,” or “licit passion” (so they are il-licit!).  The resurrection–which, for Badiou’s own account, is the sole truth [which Badiou, however, insists did not “really” happen] that makes of the human animal Saul, the subject Paul, with claim to universality–would then be the event of just that truth, at the very heart of the crucifixion itself, dispelling the later as “a dream one wakes from,” to borrow [again] from the Psalms.


Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, on Dr. Ernst B., the Auschwitz doctor who was able to help and rescue many, to become, in the words of one survivor, used as the title for this chapter in Lifton’s book, “a human being in an SS uniform”–p. 333: 

An important part of B.’s post-Auschwitz self and worldview is his unfinished business with Auschwitz.  His conflicting needs are both to continue to explore his Auschwitz experience and to avoid coming to grips with its moral significance.  His insistence that Auschwitz was not understandable serves the psychological function of rejecting any coherent explanation or narrative for the events in which he was involved.  He thus remains stuck in an odd post-traumatic pattern:  unable either to absorb (by finding narrative and meaning) or to free himself from Auschwitz images.

But isn’t that, indeed, how it is with all trauma, finally?  One cannot get past it!  One cannot “free” oneself from its “images” (and note how the ability of “finding narrative and meaning” for any trauma is just a way to “free”oneself from it–or, more accurately, to bury and avoid it).  (Lifton himself knows this, as his comments on p. 13, which I site in an [earlier] entry, shows, to give one good example.)  Isn’t that what [Eric] Santner [in his Psychotheology of Everyday Life], for example, distilled from his reading of Freud with Rosenzweig?  And doesn’t Santner’s analysis point to a “recovery” from trauma which respects it, so to speak, by neither explaining nor otherwise avoiding it, in its very inexplicibility and one’s own “stuckness” on it?

Related:  Lifton’s book came out before, a few years later, [Claude] Lantzman’s [film] Shoah, and Lantzman’s argument that any attempt to make Auschwitz “understandable” is a blasphemy, tantamount to compounding the brutality of the camps and the “Final Solution.”  That would complicate Lifton’s picture here,  and I’m curious what he thought of  Lantzman’s film and assertion.

There may be some advantage in distinguishing two different places from and in which one can get traumatically “stuck.”  One such place would be that of the perpetrators, to which in some sense Ernst B. continues to belong despite his attempts at (relative) “humanity” in his role there (as Lifton correctly insists).  From that place, as Lifton suggests in the quote I began with, there is a definite self-serving (by way of self-exculpating) dimension of “payoff” that comes from denying the explicability of Auschwitz.  But precisely for that reason, the specific nature of the stuckness at/from this locus is basically an exploitation of the very inexplicability at issue. 

In contrast, there is the place of the victim, where no such  exploitation occurs in the acknowledgement–here, genuine; when exploitative, disingenuous–of the inexplicability.  And it is here, in this place, if anywhere, that any “resurrection” must occur. (As, perhaps, it does in D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel?  I’m not sure:  Need to look at that novel again, maybe.)


Wednesday, October 29, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

Yesterday, a propos Lifton, I forgot to note this thought that came to me when reading the passage I cited yesterday:

It is as if Auschwitz mirrors an event of truth, most especially in its “excessiveness,” its irreducibility to any explanation.  Because it (Auschwitz–and other [pseudo-?]events like it) mimics truth in that way, the illusion of it–specifically, it’s being “how things really are“–can only be dispelled by the event of a genuine truth, one that dismisses the illusion as a phantom.

There is also, perhaps, a sense in which such points of the mocking mimicry of a truth-event opens, despite its mimicking intentions, a site for the striking of truth.

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #3


This is the third in my series of posts with journal entries I wrote last fall, on the dates indicated, concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  Today’s entry begins with some reflections on a work by Alain Badiou, which I soon connect up with my continued reflections on Lifton’s study of “medicalized killing and the psychology of genocide,” the subtitle of his book.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Badiou, Petit panthéon portratif [Little Portrait Galley] (Paris:  La Fabrique editions, 2008), “Ouverture,” pp. 7-8 [my translation]: 

If philosophy serves for something, it is to remove the chalice of sad passions [in the preceding sentence he has said that he holds “that death should not interest us, nor depression”], to teach us that pity is not a loyal feeling, nor complaint a reason to have reason, nor the victim that from which we should start to think.   On one hand, as the Platonic gesture establishes once and  for all, it is of truth, declined as necessary as beauty or the good, from which every licit passion originates and every creation of universal  aim.  On the other hand, as Rousseau knew, the human animal is essentially good, and when he is not, it is by some exterior cause that constrains him, a cause that must be detected, combatted, and destroyed as possible, without the least hesitation.

It seems to me that Badiou could be used here as a commentary on the following, from Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, p. 238, concerning the “prisoner doctors” at Auschwitz: 

As Henri Q. explained, “We suffered and [acted] within the limits of the possible. . . . Doctors did provide some comfort, I believe.  There was the comfort for the patient, the fact that he was not alone, that someone understood and was trying to help to do something for him–and that was already a lot. . . . We were a group, not just the [individual] doctors of our block.”  He could then conclude . . . that he and his friends “remained doctors . . . in spite of everything.”

Helping children could greatly contribute to the prisoner doctors’ struggle to maintain a healing identity.  Dr. Henri Q., for instance, told of the impact of a nine-year-old boy from a Jewish ghetto in Poland, who [was helped to survive the war and Auschwitz]. . . . He spoke  even more intensely of a still younger, Russian child (“a rare think in the camp”) whom he once took to the infirmary:  “I walked in front of all the blocks, and you could feel all the men, ten thousand men, who  were looking at this child.  I was very proud to walk with him. . . . as if I were walking with the president of the Republic.  There is only one president and there was only one child.”

Viewed through the lens of Badiou’s comment, such prisoner doctors at Auschwitz proved themselves to be philosophers.  And the philosophical reality was revealed to them–in and as their own form,  described by Dr. Henri Q., of “resistance.”  Philosophically, that reality was the presidency of that simple child.

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #2

6/ 8/09

This is the second in my series of posts with journal entries I wrote last fall, on the dates indicated, concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors:  Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, note on p.152, concerning the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, followed the very next day by the “protective custody” emergency degree under the provisions of which on March 20, only three weeks later, Himmler created the KZ-lager [concentration camp] at Dachau, the first of them all:  “Although there is some historical debate whether the Nazis arranged it [the fire] as a provocation, they clearly used it as an occasion to round up political opponents and begin consolidation of their dictatorship.”

Only just now, while reading that, did the clear and exact parallel between this episode of the Nazis and the Reichstag fire [on the one hand] and the episode of the Bush administration ([as also] McCain’s view of the event as a great “opportunity”) and 9/11 [on the other]!

The parallels continue beyond that, too.  Thus, what he writes in the text as such on this page and the next (152-153) certainly accords all too well with what happened after 9/11:

Under Theodor Eicke–first as commandant of Dachau after mid-1934, and as inspector of concentration camps and SS brigadier general in charge of the Death’s Head Units–quixotic brutality was replaced by a policy of impersonal, systematic terror. . . . [T]hose policies under Eicke grew into what Rudolf Höss, who trained at Dachau for his post as commandant of Auschwitz, later called a “cult of severity” and a “Dachau spirit” according to which all inmates were enemies of the state; and camp guards were to be trained in cruelty and to dispense it with pitilessness (or “hardness”), detachment, and incorruptibility. In fact, [however,] corruption was endemic to such a system.

Shades–and more than shades–of Guantanamo Bay!


P. 200:  In Auschwitz, “the selections were so onerous, so associated with extraordinary evil, that Nazi doctors [who performed them] called forth every possible mechanism to avoid taking in psychologically what they were doing–every form of psychic numbing and derealization.”  This helped foster a subsequent difficulty at any clear, coherent, systematic recollection of what had occurred.  “This difficulty of recall suggests that Nazi doctors never quite felt–that is, emotionally experienced–their original act in performing the selections.”

So the phenomenon of repression and dissociation is common  both to victims and perpetrators (and is reciprocally interrelated with the washing out of the difference between the two).  Both are traumatized.


P. 213:  Especially from some  remarks by “prisoner doctors” he interviewed, Lifton arrives at the conclusion that those “remarks by prisoner doctors suggest that the collective process of medicalized killing was, psychologically and technically, self-preservation [e.g., by making continued killing necessary to “justify” the killing already done]; and that Nazi doctors found a way to engage in the process with sufficient detachment to minimize psychological discomfort and responsibility, then and over time.” 

In effect, the very horror and psychologically unprocessable shock of what they were doing/had done helped, by traumatizing them [the perpetrators themselves]into what Lifton calls a “doubling” of self (“Auschwitz self” and often quite decent private or family self)–and by dissociating them from the very event they were helping enact–ended up enabling them to perpetrate that very horror.

This is a truly chilling analysis–and that makes it all too “understandable” just “how people could do such things.”


P. 222:

Dr. Henri Q. [prisoner-doctor survivor] stressed the importance of humor, telling of a middle-aged French-Jewish dentist who kept “making jokes, laughing, and telling us stories”:  “I told myself he was completely crazy”  He would say such things as “Dear Marquis, at five o’clock we are to have tea together,” making Q. wonder whether the dentist “did not realize what was going on here.”  But, in retrospect, he helped the prisoner doctors “by telling his stories”–that is, by creating a consistent debunking alternative, however unreal, to  the terrible actuality.

But which truly is “real”?  And might not this approach to the situation be just as much “resistance” as was the uprising at Auschwitz?

The Lessons of Primo Levi #3


 The following entry from my philosophical journal, under the date I originally wrote it, continues my reflections on Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.   In the next post I will turn to Levi’s earlier book, Survival in Auschwitz, to complete this series of entries addressed to his work. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Levi, p. 196, in one of the citations he gives from Hety S., one of his German correspondents, one for whom he has great respect, on Hety’s visit to  Albert Speer after that later’s release from Spandau:

 He says, and I believe him, that for him the Auschwitz slaughter is a trauma.  He’s obsessed by the question of how he could ‘not want to see or know,’ in short, block everything out.  I do not think he’s trying to find justification; he would like to understand what, for him, too, it is impossible to understand.

It seems to me that Auschwitz being a trauma for Speer too–someone who was never subjected to life in the camps, and who even exploited those who were sent there–is worth reflection.  What does “being a trauma” mean, if even “for him” too Auschwitz “is” a trauma?  Isn’t it only insofar as we can free the notion of trauma from the trappings of what [historian Dominick] LaCapra calls “historical trauma,” and realize that trauma is a structural and structuring or “transcendental” matter [as literary theorist Paul Eisenstein might put it], that we can understand how, even for Speer, it could  be, and indeed was, “a trauma”?

Interestingly, on the next page, ending his discussion of Hety (and all his “letters from Germans,” as his chapter is titled), Levi observes that “among all my German readers she was the only one ‘with clean credentials’ [because of her Social Democratic background and her own biography] and therefore not entangled in guilt feelings.”  Yet it seems to me that, understood as I am currently trying to understand “guilt,” she is the only one who displays a clear and lucid–“authentic,” if one will–sense of guilt.  It is guilt in one way like Speer’s-namely, a refusing to seek to  justify oneself in the face of one’s guilt, but, rather, struggling on and on to assume it, to live it out.


A thought that just came, as I continued for a few moments to read more in Levi:  Auschwitz is non-negotiable.

Also:  There is only one trauma, but the names it bears differ (Auschwitz, World War I, “my broken leg,” etc.).


In the conclusion to his book, Levi begins by noting that, as the years since the Nazis pass by, the message that he and other survivors of the death camps try to carry becomes harder and harder to deliver, as new issues and problems come along (he mentions, p. 198, “the nuclear threat, unemployment, the depletions of resources, the demographic explosion, frenetically innovative technologies to which [the young] must adjust”:  the new names of trauma, as it were).  Nevertheless–indeed, all the more!–he and others continue to speak and to bear witness.

“We must be listened to,” he writes (p. 199).  “We must be listened to:  above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected  [Indeed so!], not foreseen by anyone.  [An impossible possibility!]. . . . It happened,  therefore it can happen again:  this is the core of what we have to say.”

It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.  (How like Camus in The Plague!)

Trauma is ever present.

Lest what he says be taken to support the likes of Bush and Cheney, who would make of that an opportunity to inflict more of the same–as would John McCain, for whom 9/11 was seen as an “opportunity,” namely, for doing exactly what he supported Bush in doing:  going to war wherever he wanted, under the banner of the “war on terrorism,” even if those attacked had nothing to do with 9/11–Levi goes on (p. 200) to write:  “It has obscenely been said that there is a need for conflict:  that mankind cannot do without it,” and, “Satan is not necessary:  there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances,” and, finally, “Nor is the theory of preventive violence [as in Bush-Cheney’s invasion of Iraq] acceptable:  from violence only violence is born. . . . In actuality, many signs lead us to think of a genealogy of today’s violence that branches out precisely from the violence that was dominant in Hitler’s Germany.”  The litany of consequent ills he gives on p. 201 then even pointedly includes the founding of Israel:  “Desperate, the Jewish survivors in flight from Europe after the great shipwreck have created in the bosom of the  Arab world an island of Western civilization, a portentous palingenesis of Judaism, and the pretext for renewed hatred.”

All those ills, including the Nazis themselves, arise from the refusal, in effect, to hear the message that Levi and other survivors have to say, of  the ubiquity of “it,” of trauma.

Here is the ringing last sentence of the book: 

Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all [of the SS and the other perpetrators of various degrees] 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 metal laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride the ‘beautiful words’ [as another German correspondent, not Hety, called them in a letter to Levi] of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of  scruples favored him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery, and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

That last remark shows how the accumulation of guilt does not stop even with the Germans, or with the end of the camps, but continues to be deepened to this day.  Here, the guilt at issue–our universal, transcendental guiltiness itself–is indeed a matter of blame, not just of debt.

The Lessons of Primo Levi #1

April 17, 2009

As last summer was drawing to a close, I began reading some of the texts of Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor who’s reflections on the Nazi camps and his experience in them has deep and lasting importance for the effort to think trauma.  Below is the first of a number of entries from my philosophical journal, with the date I originally wrote it, addressing his work.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1988; Vintage edition 1989), p. 40, on “the grey zone” (the title of this chapter of the book):

It is naive, absurd and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims:  on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself [reference to the system of privilege wherein some inmates help victimize other inmates, especially the Zugang, the newcomer], and this all the more when they are available, blank, and lacking a political or moral armature.

He goes on to observe that we need to learn how to think of this “grey zone” [wherein the very distinction between perpetrator and victim becomes–very intentionally on the part of the perpetrators–blurred] appropriately, “if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory.”  My emphasis on that last clause, which, I think, is in tension with the preceding “if” clause [namely, “if we want to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us”].  After all, we do not, by what his closing clause says, need to wait for “a similar test” to arise:  it is already here.  Indeed, insofar as the big factory is hardly autonomous, it [the “test”] is already and everywhere present in the age of technology, as Heidegger saw.

What’s more, doesn’t the very endeavor, suggested by his first “if” clause, to  prepare oneself or to defend oneself against such a “test,” end up engendering or aggravating the very thing against which it seeks to defend itself?  Isn’t that very effort at defense what made the system of “privilege” in the camp emerge in the first place?

At any rate, once formed, then it [privilege] defends itself and the system of privilege (!), as he  observes on the next page (41):  “Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”


P. 53:  “Conceiving and organizing the squads [i.e., the Sondercommando] was National Socialism’s most demonic crime. . . . This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others–specifically the  victims–the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of  innocence.”  The same mechanism, in a less brutal manifestation, is present throughout contemporary society. It is essentially what the abuser does to the abused wife, for instance–when he conditions her to believe she “brought it on herself.”

Published in: on April 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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