Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi, Survival in AuschwitzThe striking thing about Primo Levi’s testimony, Survival in Auschwitz, is that the Germans barely figure in his account at all. It is a book about the Holocaust in which the ultimate perpetrators are almost entirely absent. In so far as they do appear, they are seen from a distance, glimpsed fleetingly, or presented simply as disembodied voices: “a raucous German voice ordered silence. Another German voice rose up in the sudden quiet [. . .]” (148). If the Germans are invisible it is perhaps because they incarnate the abstract logic of the camp, of the diabolical genocidal program. Germany is almost always invoked in terms of general characteristics: “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger” (19); “the Teutonic sense of humour” (40); “The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence”; “their national love of classification” (156). The Germans exist only en masse, not as individuals–though one assumes that there is a “mysterious German bureaucrat who supervises these matters” (138), he is merely putting a general program into practice. And ultimately, neither the program nor the manner of its implementation make any real sense: “No one can boast of understanding the Germans” (139).

Indeed, in a rather strange passage the Germans are almost absolved (or is it that they are all the more condemned?) in that their behavior is presented as more or less automatic, unthinking and unconscious:

The Germans are deaf and blind, enclosed in an armour of obstinacy and of willful ignorance. [. . .] They construct shelters and trenches, they repair the damage, they build, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen. They could not act differently [. . .]. (141)

It’s like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which a scorpion stings and so kills the frog who is carrying him across a river, ensuring that they both will die. When asked “Why?” the drowning scorpion replies “It’s in my nature.”

There is but one exception to the general rule that Germans are not identified or treated as individuals–and it proves not to be such an exception at all. The only German to be described at any length is not one of the SS men, or a camp commandant. He is the civilian chemist, Doktor Pannwitz, who tests Levi on this knowledge of Chemistry before deciding whether to admit him to the relatively privileged “Chemical Kommando.” Pannwitz is the only German in the book to be named or physically portrayed, though even Levi’s description of his features soon refers us back to the generic: “Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them” (105). And the more the typical the doctor becomes, the more unfathomable and unreadable he is. Levi tells us that in front of him he feels “like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” (105). But where Oedipus solved the mythical Sphinx’s riddle, Levi (though he passes the Chemistry exam) fails this more significant test:

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he fileld his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany. (105-6)

Ultimately, this is not a book that claims to explain “the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.” That would be, it seems, an impossible task. Hence its focus is on Levi’s fellow prisoners, and not merely because they are the ones with whom he is in most contact. Nor indeed because it is his fellow prisoners (particularly but not solely the kapos and others who are higher up in the camp’s infernal hierarchy) who are most immediately the agents of Levi’s torture and misfortune: for we soon discover that, here at least, there is no solidarity among the downtrodden, that you can trust nobody and forget about any notion of compassion.

The point rather is that, however inhuman and degraded the prisoners become, it is still worth trying to understand them in all their particularity and individuality. Hence the numerous pen portraits of men such as Schepschel, who survives four years thanks to “small and occasional expedients” (93), Alfred L and his “cold life of the determined and joyless dominator” (95), or Elias Lindzin, “the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living” (97). Levi tells us that the camp was “pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment” (87), and in some sense he is as fascinated as anyone in its results, in what it tells us about the human condition, human habits. This is the “meaning” of the experience, if we have to assign it a meaning. But in the end we can learn nothing about the Germans. As far as Levi is concerned, they are fundamentally unknowable.


I’ve long been fascinated by the FMLN’s November 1989 “Final Offensive” (click here for a sequence of photos) and particularly by the incident in the Sheraton Hotel (for which see this image, by Jeremy Bigwood, which will be included in the book).

Here, a small band of guerrillas made their way into Escalón, San Salvador’s most exclusive neighborhood, took over what was then (with the Camino Real) one of the city’s two top luxury hotels, and so also effectively took hostage a group of US green berets, “dressed in pajamas and bulletproof vests”, who so happened to be staying there at the time. (The Secretary General of the OAS, João Baena Soares, was also caught up in the action.)

I remember following events in the British papers at the time, as it caught the eye of the international press much more than the guerrillas’ control of the working-class barrios where the insurrection had started. See Time‘s contemporaneous account, which focuses on the possibility that for the first time the US military would be directly involved in the civil war. And as Time also points out, there was something carnivalesque about the whole affair:

Despite the tension, the scene became like something from a TV situation comedy, with the rebels enjoying a feast of hotel food and the U.S. soldiers resolutely glowering from behind their barricades.

But it always seemed to me that there was more to the incident than its value as some kind of spectacular publicity stunt in the middle of an uprising that eventually ended in stalemate. It was a digression, but an important one.

I’ve discussed the Sheraton incident before, and also recounted something of a visit two years ago in which I stayed in a Sheraton, if not (it turned out) “the” Sheraton.

In Posthegemony, I deal with the Salvadoran civil war, and particularly the capture of the Sheraton, at some length. I try, among other things, to argue that this brief episode is in fact significant in broader world-historical terms. As I put it there:

The Salvadoran civil war was part of a broader, global transition. [. . .] As the guerrilla forces quietly slipped away from the scene, and as the fighting across the country began to subside, on the other side of the world the Cold War was ending. The FMLN offensive had taken place in the brief interlude between the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, and the first Eastern European Communist regime to collapse (in Czechoslovakia) on November 24. The November offensive (“in all probability, the biggest guerrilla offensive ever mounted against a Latin American government”), and particularly the incident in the Sheraton with which it ended, was a hinge: both the last confrontation of the Cold War era, and the first post-Cold War conflict, a premonition of future actions against tall buildings. [. . .] Perhaps, then, San Salvador provided a better indication then Berlin or Prague of how the world would soon look. For all the euphoria of the border-breaching and deterritorialization in Eastern and Central Europe, Central America offered a clearer index of the low-intensity fear and control societies emerging from the shell of Cold War ideological tussles.

In the book’s overall argument, however, this is something of a digression. It is part of my general intuition that in some sense (almost) all of modern history starts in Latin America. This is my rejoinder to the self-confidence of someone like Henry Kissinger who, in 1969, declared to the Chilean foreign minister of the time:

Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance. You’re wasting your time.

By contrast, I like to say that everything of importance comes from the South: modernity, the industrial revolution, nationalism, neoliberalism… and so on and so forth. The only exception is liberal democracy, but then how important is that, anyway?

Of course, in many ways this argument is simply intended as a provocation. It’s a useful corrective to unthinking Eurocentrism, modeled on and extending some of the provocations initially put forward for instance by dependency theory, but the very idea of an “axis of history” is itself rather dubious. Rather, in almost every case phenomena such as modernity or neoliberalism arise in a complex series of interactions, complicities, encounters, and struggles that involve both North and South. And more dependency theory itself, while emphasizing the importance of (say) the mines of Potosí for the development of industrial capitalism, also shows that it is the interaction of (what it calls) “center” and “periphery” that counts. Indeed, in the end the very distinction between center and periphery, North and South, becomes ultimately tenuous.

Hence my suggestion that the Final Offensive is a “hinge” and a “premonition of future actions against tall buildings” is a digression: perhaps (again) an important one, but ultimately not crucial to the main argument. I want rather to establish resonances between the Central American guerrilla and contemporary terrorism, mostly through a phenomenology of terrorist affect, and the ways in which it undermines both liberal and conservative conceptions of the state. Any sense of historical causality or origin is by the by. After all, there were plenty of other things going on in Latin America in that fateful year, not least for instance the Venezuelan Caracazo.

And yet… I continue to have the sense that there is something particularly interesting about the Final Offensive. And now, reading Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan, I feel I have more of an idea as to why that might be. In short, November 1989 demonstrated the final crisis of the figure (or, in Schitt’s terms, the “theory”) of the partisan. It is here that we see definitively the arrival of “unexpected new forms of the new partisan” with all the implications that has for “the concept of the political, [. . .] the question of the real enemy and of a new nomos of the earth” (Schmitt, 95).

But enough for today. More on this, probably, tomorrow.


The Peruvian film theme continues (and there’s more to come, too)…

Paloma de papel posterPaloma de papel is a well-intentioned take on the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, but it never really takes off. The central character is a young boy called Juan, who lives in an Andean village caught between the two sides: Sendero on the one hand, and less the army per se but the state-supported civil guards or ronda on the other. Juan is dragged into the conflict, and moves from playing war games with his friends to making war alongside people who only call themselves friends, when he discovers that his stepfather is a Senderista, and as a result is sent off to be press-ganged into the guerrilla ranks.

After some time training with sticks for rifles and learning to make grenades out of sawdust and nails, Juan, now renamed “Comrade Cirilo,” faces the reality of war first when a young companion of the same age steps on a mine and is put out of his misery by the group’s chief, and then when in the aftermath of an assault on a military guardpost he is enjoined to kill a soldier for himself. Juan escapes off to his village, only to find himself pursued by the ronderos and guerrilleros alike. But all he wants is to protect his mother, which he signally fails to do in the subsequent firefight in the village square. Still mourning his mother’s death, he is arrested as a subversive, and the film’s initial and final scenes (for the main body of the plot is effectively told in flashback) see him returning after years in prison, to be greeted and welcomed back by his childhood friends.

Paloma de papel still
But this focus on an accidental terrorist doesn’t really tell us much about the Senderistas themselves. Are we to believe that this is how they, too, found themselves in the movement? As almost always (the Argentine film Kamchatka is another good example), presenting political conflict through the eyes of a child tends to stress the conflict at the price of losing the politics. What’s more, the conflict is almost all external: bad people arrive from outside to disrupt what would presumably otherwise be an idyllic rural order.

The fact for instance that Juan’s mother seems to have married a Senderista, even though (it is hinted) he may have been responsible for the death of Juan’s real mother, might have been an entryway into a more complex view both of the war and of the highlands. But she incarnates only generic motherhood, in and of itself precious and to be valued at all costs. Her character is never fleshed out.

Nor indeed are any of the other characters in the movie developed in any significant way. We have the childhood friends, the wicked and drunken stepfather, the hard-hearted terrorists, and the kindly old man, in this case a blacksmith who gives young Juan a paper dove of the title along with a warm but ultimately banal little parable of hope and redemption.

Again, in some cases there are glimpses at further complexity. The terrorists aren’t all bad, one feels: they feel regret at having to kill their own, and weep when their siblings die. So at least a minimal humanity still pertains to them. But too often these are mere gestures, shadings to suggest three-dimensionality without the effort to show real multi-facetedness. And so, too, with highland life as a whole. The village occupies itself with communal tasks amidst beautiful scenery, but little more of Andean life or culture is ever shown. Is this kind of two-dimensional nostalgic vision what the critics of Madeinusa would really prefer?

YouTube Link: the film’s opening ten minutes.

last301 links

Some internet resources on rights and Latin America. I’ll be adding to this as time goes by.

s0metim3s has an extraordinarily useful collection of links, mostly theoretical, on rights. See also her essay “The Barbed End of Human Rights”.

All the major human rights organizations have websites: such as Amnesty International (who have their own collection of links) and Human Rights Watch (see their page on the Americas). See also for instance the European Human Rights Centre.

Some Declarations of Rights…

On Latin America in general, a good starting point is the Latin American Network Information Center; they also have a page on Human Rights in Latin America.

The OAS has an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On the sidebar I have links to two blogs that, together, do a pretty good job of covering news on the region as it’s reported week by week: Latin America News Review and The Latin Americanist.

I also have a few country-specific blogs there: Blog from Bolivia, Tim’s El Salvador blog, and Look for me in the Whirlwind (this last, from Venezuela). But there are lots of other blogs from or about particular countries. You can use Technorati to look for, say, blogs about Argentina or Mexico.

(Technorati also lists many blogs that claim to be concerned with human rights; it’d be nice if you could search for blogs that are tagged both human rights and Latin America, but that doesn’t seem to be possible.)

From Georgetown University, an excellent project on Comparative Constitutional Studies, with the text of all the various Constitutions of the Americas.

Many of the Latin American truth commissions have published their work online. Argentina’s Nunca más is a particularly useful site, with lots of testimonios. (The testimonios are in Spanish, but the published report is also available in English.) Check out too Guatemala’s Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, whose conclusions and recommendations are available. Then for instance there’s Peru’s Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación.


Looking for a link for my last post, I note that just now John Latta has a picture of Bobby Sands on his blog, pictured during the Maze “dirty protest”. (Though the BBC, featuring the same photograph, identifies the prisoners as Freddie Toal and Hugh Rooney.)

This is something of a coincidence in that recently, as well as turning to Stanley Spencer, I’ve been thinking about Richard Hamilton’s famous picture “The Citizen”, a diptych inspired by the Maze protests. Half abstract composition in shit, half altarpiece.

The Citizen
I also remember taking the bus home from school late one night in 1984, and discovering that the top deck of the number 264 had been taken over by Celtic fans, in town to see a recheduled European tie against Rapid Vienna.

A wry account of the match, and the journey to get to it, can be found at Sidenetting. From my perspective, a schoolkid in full uniform, heading back to the suburbs but surrounded by a crowd of loud if good-tempered Glaswegians, the experience was electrifying. They sang songs in praise of Bobby Sands. I found it rather shocking and rather scary. But without doubt also exciting.

Bobby Sands Street signMore recently, it seems that the British have been leaning on the Iranians to change the name of Tehran’s Bobby Sands Street. Which is a street round the corner from the British Embassy.

Diplomats at the embassy of the Republic of Ireland in Tehran admit the street is something of a tourist attraction for Irish nationals visiting the 25-year-old Islamic republic, saying it drew large crowds during an Ireland-Iran World Cup football qualifier in 2001.


Below is the front page of Argentine daily newspaper Clarín, from March 25th 1976, thirty years ago, the day after the coup d’état that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reconstruction.” A “Process” in which some 30,000 would be killed.

Clarin 25th March 1976
At the bottom of the page, the news of Argentina beating Poland at football. (For fact fans, Ezequiel Fernández Moores tells us that the score was 2-1, with goals from Héctor Scotta and René Houseman.) Ariel Scher explains in “Fuera de juego”:

The most brutal of Argentina’s brutal dictatorships decided almost from the first minute of its reign that sport would play on its team. It tried to use sport and even mould it in its own manner. Just a few hours after the coup d’état of March 1976, at a time when Argentina could be summed up in terms of a collection of proclamations from the military junta all of which began with the words “It is prohibited,” the authoritarian leadership released communiqué number 23, the only one designed to permit rather than prohibit something. And what was permitted was the broadcast of the football game due to take place in Poland between the Argentine and the Polish national teams. And so it was: in the middle of all the crimes against humanity, proscriptions, kidnappings, disappearances, incarcerations, and with television showing otherwise only the national coat of arms, immobile, for a while you could watch the football. And that this happened is not just another anecdote or the result of some whim. Sport was always squarely in the gaze of dictatorial power.

Meanwhile, the message at the top of the page: “Total Normality.”

(For more, go here or, better, here [and thanks to Isis in the comments for the second link].)

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.