It is never over. Is this any more than a posture of metaphysical pessimism fixated on the past? In fact, yes it is. If one needs an empirical sign of why, one has only to attend to the historical record since 1945. By contrast with the facile rhetoric of 'never again', genocide follows upon genocide, one atrocity succeeds another.
And if one is seeking to understand the thought of Primo Levi, as I am, it is also not over in another sense, because the seeds of it remain with us, inside us, in our own natures. Levi did not avail himself in this matter of what I will call the progressivist alibi: the notion, that is to say, that criminal as it was, the Nazi genocide - and the same would go for other great crimes - was a product not of any human propensity for cruel wrongdoing, but of circumstance, situation, social structure, capitalism or what have you. It is easy to point to the logical weakness of this plea, whether in its general variant or in its more specific attraction for people on the left. In general, circumstances and situations can only 'bring out' in a given biological species tendencies for which they have some potential, or even aptitude. And the common leftwing thesis that it is the influence and corrupting power of class and other types of social inequality which inclines human beings to maltreat one another, leaves in shadow the fact that humankind as a species must have been at least open to the temptations of class and other privilege, as well as good at defending it, for social inequality and all its accompanying features to have been so prevalent through human history.
Levi for his part, in any case, was in no doubt on this score. '[I]t is in the normal order of things', he wrote in If This Is A Man, 'that the privileged oppress the unprivileged'; and some forty years later, removing any ambiguity about the intended scope of the generalization, he wrote again: 'The ascent of the privileged, not only in the Lager but in all human coexistence, is an anguishing but unfailing phenomenon: only in utopias are they absent. It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end.' In Auschwitz, Levi told an interviewer, he 'learned to know the facts about people', and one of these was that 'our personality is fragile... more in danger than our life'; you must therefore 'take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here'. In a passage in The Drowned and the Saved he makes explicit what these quotations are alluding to, namely, the morally vulnerable make-up of human beings. The space between persecutors and victims, he observes, is never empty, but 'is studded with obscene or pathetic figures..., whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory.'
Does this mean that Levi gave no weight to the influence of circumstance – social structure, situational constraint - on moral character and individual conduct? Of course not. He would not have been the wise and influential voice he has rightly been taken for unless he had. Thus he referred to the 'extenuating circumstances' that applied in many cases: 'an infernal order such as National Socialism was, exercises a frightful power of corruption, against which it is difficult to guard oneself. It degrades its victims... needs both great and small complicities. To resist it a truly solid moral armature is needed.' Still, as the last thought here plainly shows, for him it is not only about circumstance, it is also about moral character and moral choice. This is why we must learn to 'know the human species', as well as the situations that can lead its members astray.
This is also why when Levi embraced the common (because true) thesis that, with a few exceptions, the worst of the Nazi perpetrators were, recognizably, human beings rather than monsters, were 'made of our same cloth... averagely intelligent, averagely wicked', he did not purvey the debased version of this claim that is so often put about: the one which says that we are, all of us, potentially torturers and murderers, and in the 'right' circumstances would commit heinous acts against other human beings. It is not so. Not all of us would, even if, once subjected to certain temptations and pressures, many would. Some, however, do not. This Levi both knew and recorded.
He wrote of the group of Greek Jews who flatly refused to do the work required of the Sonderkommando in servicing the gas chambers at Auschwitz, though the penalty for their refusal was that they were themselves immediately killed there. Levi also took strong exception to some words of the film director Liliana Cavani that he saw as confusing the murderers with their victims. 'I do not know,' he wrote, 'and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer.' Nobody can know, he said, 'for how long and under what trials his soul can resist before yielding or breaking'. But if Levi urged us to try to understand the human species in its bad potentialities as well as its good, this was not the cynical counsel of universal human depravity; on the contrary, it was a realist caution, so that, alerted, people may better be able to protect themselves against their own human weaknesses, and make a good choice if they came to be tested.
(Améry, I will just add, contemptuously dismissed the claim that Auschwitz was the product of capitalism; it was, he said, 'the monstrous product of sick minds and perverted souls'. No more than Levi's diagnosis of the causes of Nazi criminality would Améry's analysis of torture, as being a form of 'murderous self-realization', 'unchecked self-expansion', fit within what I have called the progressivist alibi.)
[The next post in the series is here.]