The 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.