The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)


A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.

Generalisations

Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


Credit

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour in the inferno – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

The Truce by Primo Levi (1963)

It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections [for the gas chamber], and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence. (p.188)

Primo Levi was 24, a chemistry student from Turin, when he was shipped off to Auschwitz concentration camp in February 1944. Here he managed to survive for 11 months, until the Russians liberated the camp in February 1945, and eventually made it back to Turin, where he wrote his classic account of life and death in the camp, If This Is A Man. Initially published by a tiny publisher, which promptly went bankrupt, If This Is A Man didn’t make much impression until it was taken up by a larger concern and republished in 1958, and was translated into English the next year. Second time around it was a phenomenal success and prompted Levi to write a sequel, an account of what happened to him between the liberation and his final return to Turin. The Truce is that book, published in 1963, translated 1965.

The two books are so closely tied together in chronology, subject matter and theme that they are generally published together in one volume, like the 1987 Abacus paperback edition I refer to here.

The detour

The Truce is longer than If This Is A Man and, somewhat inevitably, a much more appealing and life-affirming read.

The key fact it records is that, instead of being shipped south and west back to Italy, through a series of accidents and what we come to think of as characteristic Russian chaos, Levi and his fellow Italian survivors of Auschwitz end up being shipped first north and then a long way east, deep into Russia – before things are finally sorted out and they return on a long and equally circuitous route via Romania and Hungary, back to Italy.

This means that, without wanting to, Levi ends up witnessing some of the chaos, the epic destruction, and the vast wanderings of millions of displaced persons, which characterised the post war months (and years). Levi and his comrades are just a handful of the what, according to Keith Lowe’s revelatory book Savage Continent, were an estimated 40 million displaced persons at the end of the war. They travel by train, on foot, in carts, across a landscape of devastation and confusion, of physical, economic and moral bankruptcy.

In those days and in those parts, soon after the front had passed by, a high wind was blowing over the face of the earth; the world around us seemed to have returned to primeval Chaos, and was swarming with scalene, defective, abnormal human specimens; each of them bestirred himself, with blind or deliberate movements, in anxious search of his own place, of his own sphere. (p.208)

Although, on a literal level, a straightforward account of what happened, this odyssey plays to Levi’s strengths – already in evidence in If This Is A Man

  • of creating pungent pen portraits of the enormous cast of heroes and villains, shysters and charlatans, victims and conquerors, thieves and innocents, which swarmed across the face of ruined Europe
  • and of sensing behind each individual, the laws of human nature, the deeper meanings, bodied forth by their stories

Levi’s people

In If This Is A Man an entire chapter is devoted to his attempts to remember perfectly his favourite canto from Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante poem notoriously functions on a host of levels, describing the poet’s personal, actual, physical journey down into hell and then back up through purgatory, to heaven – an obvious parallel to Levi’s descent into hell and then slow, healing return to ‘normality’. In his journey Dante meets a large number of real people, historical contemporaries as well as actual friends and family, who have died and find themselves in hell, purgatory or heaven. But these real people also embody spiritual and philosophical truths.

Though nowhere near as schematic – and devoid of any overt religious belief – Levi’s books nonetheless echo Dante’s technique of closely observing real actual people – but simultaneously seeing through them the broader ‘laws’ of human nature, finding in every individual an aspect of the ‘truth’, or – if there is no one Grand Truth – of making the reader see the truths of the human animal.

Reading the two books together gives you a sense of the kaleidoscopic variety of people and lives and strategies and ways of being in the world. There is a Shakespearean richness in the sheer range and breadth of people described, and in the neutrality, the objectivity, with which he observes and captures them. Take the Moor from Verona:

His real name was Avesani, and he came from Avesa, the launderers’ quarter of Verona… He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on  his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, wile his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come. (pp.270-271)

There is immense authority in the flow of this prose, in the rhythm of the thought, and in the mighty and profound subject itself. In portraits like this, Levi gives us wonderful feel for humanity, for human beings in their rebarbative weirdness and variety. This human copiousness is the enduring effect of the book.

In the liberated camp

  • Old Thylle, a red triangle, a German political prisoner, one of the oldest inmates of the camp, who had never had to do manual labour.
  • Yankel, a young Russian Jew who, on the Liberation, is given the task of liaising with the inmates and also of driving the  horse and cart via which all the survivors are moved to the central barracks of the main Auschwitz complex (p.192). It is on this journey that Levi first grasps the sheer scale of the Germans’ vast slave industrial complex.
  • The nameless Frenchman whose skeletal body is contorted into a knot, like a root, who can’t speak, and who can’t be uncontorted, trapped in his physical psychosis (p.195).
  • Hurbinek, a three-year-old who didn’t speak, who couldn’t speak, who nobody had taught how to speak, whose eyes burned with anger at a world he couldn’t express, who died (p.198).
  • Henek, born in Transylvania, brought to Auschwitz when he was 14, with his whole family who were all gassed, survived in the children’s Kommando, and now, fit and alert, goes on scouting missions round the derelict camp, using Levi, still sick in bed, as guard of his slowly increasing ‘stash’ of goodies (p.200).
  • Peter Pavel, a beautiful blonde robust child who did everything carefully, punctiliously, as instructed and never looked or talked to anyone (p.200).
  • The two Polish girls, insolent ex-Kapo Hanka and little nymphomaniac Jadzia, who flirted with every available man.
  • Henek’s friend, Noah, ‘as strong as a horse, voracious and lecherous’, parading the derelict camp and making conquests in numerous female barracks (p.203).
  • Frau Vitta, a young widow from Trieste, survivor of Birkenau, compulsively cleaning and washing and looking after the sick and children, and then sitting by Levi’s bunk pouring out her story, trying to exorcise the images of dead bodies and body parts which fill her waking mind unless she is active (p.204).
  • André and Antoine, two French peasants from the Vosges, only been in the camp a month, lying in the infirmary with diphtheria. André died in mid-sentence from which point Antoine withdrew and went downhill. The doctor shook his head: ‘His companion is calling him.’ (p.205)
  • Olga, a Jewish Croat partisan who survived Birkenau and visits Levi to tell him the fate of the train load of Italians he arrived with, a long year previously. All dead, all gassed (p.206).
  • ‘There was a sort of human wreck, of indefinable age, who spoke ceaselessly to himself in Yiddish; one of the many whom the ferocious life of the camp had half destroyed, and then left to their fate, sealed up (and perhaps half protected) by a thick armour of insensitivity or open madness. (p.209)

Cracow

  • On the train journey to Cracow, Levi meets the master smuggler, merchant, dealer and fixer, Mordo Nahum, a ferociously competitive, mercantile Greek Jew from Salonika whose every waking hour was devoted to trading, dealing, scamming, estimating, (pp.209 ff.), ‘visibly an authority, a master, a super-Greek’ (p.217). With the appearance of Nahum, the tone begins to lighten and, astonishingly, you find yourself laughing out loud at their arguments and Nahum’s tricks. Many pages and months later, Levi bumps into Nahum at the Red Army barracks at Slutsk, where he has assumed responsibility for and re-organised a brothel of twenty or so strong Bessarabian women (p.296). A quintessential survivor.
  • The priest who Levi speaks to in Latin, who directs them towards the soup kitchen by the cathedral, who warns them not to speak in German (p.222).
  • The lawyer at the railway station of Trzebiania, who refuses to tell the crowd of Poles that gather round these strange shambling figures in their zebra pyjamas that they are Jews. Because the Poles might not sympathise so much. Because anti-Jewish feeling still exists. And also warns Levi not to speak German (p.227).
  • The Polish policeman in Szczakowa, who speaks awful Italian, learned while working as a miner in northern Italy, who kindly accommodates Levi and Nahum in the lovely warm cells of the town gaol, before they get the train on to Katowice (p.228)

Katowice

  • The huge 50-year-old Mongolian with massive hands, drooping Stalin moustache and fiery eyes who guards the entirely pointless entrance to Bogucice camp (p.230).
  • Captain Egorov, a little man ‘with a rustic and repulsive air’ (p.231).
  • Dr Danchenko, the doctor at Bogucice, almost permanently drunk and dedicated to seducing all available women, ‘with the mannerisms of an operetta grand duke’ (p.236).
  • Marya Fyodorovna Prima, who Levi befriends, a military nurse, about 40, who created the infirmary at Bogucice from scratch, fierce and silent like a large cat, she hails from the forests of Siberia (p.234).
  • Colonel Rovi, in fact an accountant of mediocre intellect possessed of an inexhaustible appetite for power who rises by sheer will power to command of the Italian continent at Bogucice (p.232).
  • Galina, the happy-go-lucky young girl who Levi finds himself having to dictate the days’ prescriptions to, once he has been given the job of assistant in the camp pharmacy. In fact the records they write up are no use to anyone, more interesting is Galina’s story of having been conscripted in the middle of nowhere and having accompanied the Kommandatur everywhere from the Crimea to Finland and now down to Katowice. One day the Kommandatur are ordered back to Russia and she disappears, not bothered in the slightest about having no pass or permit, ‘leaving behind her a sharp scent of earth, of youth and joy’ (p.239).
  • Ferrari, a failed thief who attended a school for thieves in Loreto but was arrested at his first attempt to razor open a woman’s pocket on a tram, sent to prison, caught up in some German roundup and ended up in  this godforsaken camp in Poland (p.240).
  • The NKVD inspector, thirty, a Jew, of an austere Don Quixote appearance, his inspection passes without comment but, when he discovers a motorbike in the camp, he commandeers it and ends up staying for months, eating heartily and spending the rest of  his time roaring round the surrounding countryside on his pride and joy (p.249). At a victory football match between Red Army soldiers and local Poles he is meant to be the referee but lets the game go on for over two hours while continually interrupting it by blowing his whistle at moments when a goal is looming, arbitrarily awarding fouls or free kicks to sides at random and sometimes running off with the ball to score a goal before doing a victory lap of honour with his hands clasped over his head. In scenes like this the book becomes entirely comic in tone (p.266).
  • Cesare, barely twenty, another seasoned merchant, fraudster, fiddler and fixer, ‘an untameable man’ (p.302) but – unlike Nahum – full of genuine human warmth. Levi strikes up a close friendship as they go on daily expeditions from the camp to the main centre of Katowice and its enormous market. Chapter 5 is devoted to Cesare, who can only speak Roman ghetto slang, ‘very ignorant, very innocent and very civilised’. Observing Cesare scamming and bartering ‘reconciled me to the world and once more lit in me that joy of living which Auschwitz had extinguished’ (p.252).
  • Soon Cesare has a fixed place in Katowice market and a regular clientele he has spirited into existence by giving them nicknames: the Bearded Lady, Skin and Bones, Booby, Three Buttocks, the Street Walker, Frankenstein, Old Bailey and many others (p.257). (Cesare’s last adventure is told in the later collection, Moments of Reprieve)
  • Dr Gottlieb, himself an inmate of the Lager has managed, in just a few months, to transform himself into the most esteemed doctor in Katowice and made himself very wealthy. ‘Intelligence and cunning radiated from him like energy from radium’ (p.269).
  • Dusk, stage name of Ambrogia Trovati, thirty, small muscular and nimble, who passed his adolescence between prison and the stage and has got them inextricably muddled up (p.272).
  • Craveor, a professional criminal, a thief and burglar and a ponce. A native of Turin, he sets off to make his own way there and promises to take a letter from Levi to his mother and sister which, amazingly, he does, but then goes on to try and extort 200,000 lira out of them which he promises he’ll take back to Levi in Katowice. Luckily mother and sister don’t believe him, so he goes downstairs, steals Levi’s sister’s bicycle, and disappears. ‘Two years later, at Christmas, he sent me an affectionate greetings card from prison in Turin’ (p.275).
  • Mr Unverdorben, ‘a mild and touchy little old man from Trieste’ who refuses to reply to anyone who doesn’t address him as Mr, who tried his hand as a composer of a lyric opera, but chucked that in to become a chef on transatlantic liners (p.275).
  • The old lady shopkeeper in Katowice who turns out to be a German exile, expelled from Berlin for writing a long letter ‘To Mr Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin’ advising him not to wage a war because too many people would be killed and anyway Germany couldn’t win a war against the whole world. If only, she confides to Levi and Cesare as she sells them the ingredients for a big spaghetti al burro, the rulers of the world would listen to people like her! (p.280)

And so on, at this rate of one or so pen portraits per page, of characters grim or humorous, for another 100 pages, crowds of people bursting the pages.

Only when I began to note them, did I realise just how much of these two books is about other people, how they are crammed to overflowing with brief lives and encounters with other people, in all their puzzling vibrancy and otherness. How the two books, despite their often terrible subject matter, somehow ending up being hymns to human nature.

The Russians

These two books, If this Is A Man and The Truce, can be contrasted on all sorts of levels: Death versus Rebirth; the Drowned versus the Saved; Night versus Day; Imprisonment versus Freedom.

On another level they are books about Germans and about Russians, respectively. From a hundred war movies we are familiar with Nazis barking their orders with what Levi describes as a millennium of anger in their voices. The Truce is interesting, apart from anything else, for giving a travelogue description of ordinary life in Stalin’s Russia – in isolated villages, in railway sidings, in Red Army barracks. If there is one theme which prevails, if there is one thing which characterises the liberating Russians, it is warm, peasant, crude CHAOS. Everywhere he finds things being done in ‘the Russian manner – to human measure, extemporaneous and crude’ (p.194).

The Russian administration took no care at all of the camp, so that one wondered if it really existed; but it must have existed, since we ate every day. In other words, it was a good administration. (p.299)

For example, as the authorities organise the various trains Levi and his fellow Italians have to catch, he reflects that the Germans would have a precise departure time and stick up well-printed posters, in all relevant languages, giving precise details of departure time and what may or may not be carried. Late-comers will be shot. Whereas the Russians don’t distribute any printed matter, give no reliable times and let the thing more or less organise itself which, time after time, it does (p.300). Throughout the book, Levi admires the Russian authorities’ ‘habitual and benign negligence and botchery’ (p.248), ‘the age-old beneficent Russian insouciance, that Oblomovian negligence’ (p.346).

Or take the way the Russian dole out the same ration of tobacco to every person in Cracow regardless of age or sex – so that even babies received the ten ounce packet (p.220). Or the way the punishment cell at Starye Dorogi is only used once, when the authorities get cross at an illegal butcher slaughtering and selling Red Army horses. But, with characteristic nonchalance, the authorities send three rations to the cell regardless of how many people are in it, the butcher emerged from his ten days of ‘punishment’ as fat as a pig (p.327). Or the way the cooking at the vast camp at Slutsk is simply assigned to a different nationality each week, you’d have thought a recipe for chaos but which in fact encourages each group to outdo each other with portions and novelty (p.298).

Similarly, at the camp of Bogucice, a suburb of Katowice, the Russians set one guard with a sten gun, who sometimes makes a fuss about seeing your propusk or pass, if you go in our out the main gate past him. But from his vantage point he can see a big hole in the barbed wire fence and happily watches as all the inmates as want to pass in and out as they please. Russian laissez-faire (p.230).

Later, at the Krasny Dom or Red House, an enormous building near the village of Starye Doroge, the 1,400 Italian pilgrims spread out to fill all rooms of this bizarre rambling edifice, set up all kinds of scams, forage for food, discover two German women in a woodland hideaway who are working as prostitutes, start trading with the local peasants and selling on the inedible fish they’re getting as rations to the hordes of Red Army soldiers passing along the main road nearby, in haphazard and extreme disorder.

They stay at Krasny Dom for two months, from 25 July to 25 September.

At several points Levi’s relief at escaping the insane and murderous precision of the Germans overflows into virtual worship of the anarchic, rough and ready Russian soul.

And yet, under their slovenly and anarchical appearance, it was easy to see in them, in each of those rough and open faces, the good soldiers of the Red Army, the valiant men of the old and new Russia, gentle in peace and fierce in war, strong from an inner discipline born from concord, from reciprocal love and from love of their country; a stronger discipline, because it came from the spirit, than the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand, living among them, why this former discipline, and not the latter, had finally triumphed. (p.232)

To life!

Even if it wasn’t following on from the death camp darkness of its predecessor, this would be a joyous book, but being set against the darkest hole in history gives it extra power and Life. Despite starting in mud and despair, it ends up being a hymn to life, to all human life, to all human beings, to the value and respect we owe each other.

To Life! L’chaim!

The truce

Except…

When the Italians are finally informed they will be returning home and embark on the epic, roundabout, painfully disorganised and achingly slow train journey back to Italy, as they cross the border and finally realise they are home, Levi’s heart is heavy. For now the real trial begins: the trial of resuming a place in the normal workaday world from which he was torn twenty months earlier, or meeting friends, family, workmates and… How to explain? What to say? Where to begin? – He realises the past few months in Russia have been a holiday, a ‘truce’, before he faces this next, arduous, second part of his life.

And there is another aspect to the title. At several moments, some of the many characters point out to a disheartened Levi that, despite appearances and official announcements, the war isn’t over. ‘There is always war,’ as Nahum says, memorably (p.224). And indeed, within weeks of the official end of the war on 8 May, the tone, the atmosphere in Russia changes. While at the stopover at Zhmerinka, Levi is alarmed to see a massive sign which had read ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ being whitewashed and repainted to read Vpered na Zapàd‘ – ‘On towards to the West’ (p.292). Enmity between Soviet Russia and the West began before the war even finished, and was to harden quickly.

This is the second, buried, meaning of the title, and why it isn’t titled ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberation’. In Levi’s baleful view, the period of his personal liberation and the liberation of hundreds of thousands like him, occurred in a window, a moment outside conflict, a lacuna between the vicious six years of the world war and the start of the next massive conflict, the Cold War which, in the years when Levi wrote this sequel, almost broke into a war of total annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962).

So it was a truce in every sense, personal, and political. And we readers are hugely lucky, for out of it comes this marvelous book, full of life and colour. To read it is to start in one of the darkest places of human history, mired in death and pointless cruelty – but then to be brought slowly up into light and air, and finally left marvelling at the strange, incongruous, vicious, endlessly adaptable and often hilarious creatures which we humans seem to be.


Credit

La tregua by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1963. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by Bodley Head in 1965. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. (p.96)

Levi spent a year in Auschwitz concentration camp – from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russians in January 1945. He was one of the very few Jews to survive the experience and write about it. This is his account.

Lead-up

Having been born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, he came to adulthood and was pursuing studies to become an industrial chemist at just the time that Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, allowed himself to be dragged into Hitler’s European war, and then came under growing pressure from the Nazis to enact German-style anti-Semitic legislation.

To escape the increasing anti-Jewish persecution, Levi took to the mountains outside Turin in late 1943, to form a ragtag group of ‘partisans’. They were captured on 13 December 1943 and interned in an Italian camp. Then, on 21 February 1944, came the order to load all the Jews in the camp onto trains – into the notorious cattle trucks, 650 people packed into 12 trucks, with no heating, seats or toilets. They began an agonisingly slow journey North and East – through Austria and Czechoslovakia, then across the border into southern Poland, arriving at the siding of the vast industrial-concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau one dark night.

If This Is A Man is the relatively short (160 pages in the Abacus paperback) but devastating and upsetting account of his experiences there. In his introduction Levi explains that the 17 chapters were written in order of intensity of the memories, and only later re-arranged into a sort of chronological order. This explains what I think is the key feature of the book – it is not an account of what he saw there, it is a meditation on what it meant, on what he learned.

Thus there is detail about the first few hours – how almost all the women, children and elderly are taken off in one group at the siding, to be gassed and incinerated (though none of them realised it at the time); how the remaining 96 men were processed into the work camp of Monovitz-Buna, which involved standing around naked waiting to be deloused, being shaved, having a number tattooed on your wrist – Levi is number 174517.

My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die. (p.33)

But then it jumps quite quickly to a few months later, into the heart of the condition – when Levi has become a shambling slave like all the others, shattered by the starvation rations, by the long hours of gruelling physical labour, by lack of sleep, by permanent illness, dysentery, running sores, by the freezing grip of the never-ending Polish winter.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this. (p.32)

And it’s not just the physical privations: it’s the psychological destruction wrought by the camp. Using the Teutonic efficiency which he ironically refers to throughout (for every person missing the roll-call, ten would be shot), the Germans systematically destroy each inmates’ self-respect and then their bare humanity: shaving the head and tattooing a number is just the start of a process which continues with the constant beatings and kickings by the ‘Kapos’ (Jews appointed as work overseers), the implementation of a host of petty regulations (‘the rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless’, p.40), the way all authority sees through them, ignores them, makes it clear in a host of ways that they are non-people, non-humans, dead men walking.

For beneath all the daily humiliation and struggle to survive, is fear of the ‘selections’ when the inmates are given a card with a number and go naked from one dormitory to another, handing the card to a bored SS man holding a clip file. In those two or three seconds he makes snap decisions about who looks well enough to carry on working, and who is obviously kaput and will be sent, the next day, to the gas chamber. Later, those who know they will die distribute their meagre possessions (a spoon, a bowl) and lie on their bunks staring glassy eyed into nothingness.

We prisoners

Because he is concerned to plunge the reader into the heart of the experience, Levi routinely uses the second person plural, ‘we this’, ‘we that’, to convey the sense of the communal experience, to make himself a representative figure, an everyman or more accurately, everyslave figure – embodying in the degradation and immiseration of his person the suffering of millions and millions of his fellow Jews as well as the hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish victims of the camps.

We have learnt.. to reply ‘Jawohl‘, never to ask questions, always pretend to understand. We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose crumbs… We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap round our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold… (p.39)

So it isn’t a straightforward factual account. It is an existential account. Levi returns again and again to the experience, the feeling of being reduced to a number, a shambling skeleton, a wreck of a human being.

A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body… On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my emaciated body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening. (p.43)

He drums into us the monotonous rhythm of camp life, waking before dawn on freezing mornings, roused and dressed and checked and then marched off to work, work, work when they could barely stand.

Teachings

Levi always refers to the camp as the ‘Lager’, the German word. Here everyone is set against everyone else. People are reduced to animals who will squabble and fight about crumbs of food. On the other hand, down here at the bottom, you learn the basic rules of humanity and of survival. Everything can be stolen. Even when washing in the fetid unclean water, never let go of your shirt or jacket or beret, which you must clutch between your knees. Never put down any of your belongings, they will be stolen. Take advantage of any opening, any offer of extra food, a day without work, every five minutes not spent slaving is a window, an opportunity to recover energy.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Drowned and The Saved’ and this is a central division, a profound division among the inmates, which Levi observed, so important that he gave the name to a collection of essays he published 40 years later. Some people are survivors: they strive for a ‘place’, position, any kind of small privilege, often acting the part and in the end being appointed overseer of this bit of work, or elder in a dormitory or even Kapo – all with the promise of more food and less work. Others – the drowned – from the start give in, collapse, fold up on themselves, lacking the inner resources, the steel, the determination to survive and prove the Germans wrong.

  • the privileged will always abuse the unprivileged: it is how they demonstrate to themselves that they are privileged
  • to those that have will be given more; to those that have nothing, everything will be taken away (p.94)
  • ‘One of the most important things I had learned at Auschwitz was that one must always avoid being a nobody. All roads are closed to a person who appears useless, all are open to a person who has a function, even the most fatuous.’ (p.235)

In his repeated technique of drawing general observations about human nature from various aspects of the camp, we see Levi the scientist, the PhD chemistry student, weighing and analysing, regarding the Lager as ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (p.93) – justifying his claim in the Preface, that the book wasn’t written to add to the accusations against the Germans (many of whom were still being tried at the Nurenberg Trials when he wrote it), but ‘to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ (p.15).

Other people

In this condition of subjugation and deliberate dehumanisation, Levi marvels at the people around him. In what will become his trademark approach, Levi gives cameos of people he sees with a kind of wondering alienation. He wonders how so-and-so survives despite being so sickly, he admires the strong who have shouldered their way into enjoying some petty privilege, he is full of contempt for those who could help their fellows but don’t.

In this grim landscape there is rarely the opportunity for friendships or relationships. Instead he gives us moments of interaction between inmates which he turns into moralised vignettes, gestures which point towards larger human truths. The many individuals he names or describes are individuals but at the same time somehow, types, essences, possible variations of the human creature.

Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. (p.98)

Levi devotes chapter 11 to the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy (and his attempt to remember it properly and explain it to a fellow inmate, Jean, ‘the ‘Pikolo of our Kommando’, as a kind of test that he is still a civilised man). You can make an obvious comparison: Dante used figures from his own day, including many of his own friends and acquaintances, to point larger morals about sin and redemption; ditto Levi in the camp.

  • Steinlauf, ex-Austrian army, fought in the Great War, teaches Levi that you must go through the rituals – washing in fetid water, ‘cleaning’ the greasy muddy shoes – in order to maintain your ‘dignity and propriety’, so you don’t descend into slovenly brutes (p.47).
  • Null Achtzehn, a man reduced to the last three digits of his camp number (018), shambling wreck, an emptiness, stands tottering with no impetus of his own: he will go to the gas chamber with the same lack of interest.
  • Chajim, a Polish watchmaker who retains dignity by adapting his skills to the new situation (p.53).
  • Schmulek, a Polish Jewish albino, selected for death, he quietly gives Levi his spoon and knife (p.59).
  • Alberto, an optimistic 22-year-old Italian Jew who manages to befriend everyone, wangle favours from everyone, without actively hurting others, a ‘rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted’ (p.63).
  • Engineer Kardos has developed a speciality in tending the inmates’ feet, lancing boils, cleaning wounds, tending corns, getting paid in fragments of bread (p.64).
  • Resnyk, a tall courteous Italian, with whom Levi must share his narrow bunk (p.71).
  • Schepschel, survivor of four years in the camp, doesn’t hesitate to betray his partner in a theft from the kitchen, Moischl, to a flogging, in the mistaken belief it will gain him credit in the eyes of the block supervisor (p.99).
  • Alfred L., director of a chemical factory who grasped from the start that you must act like one of the saved, dress and hold yourself and talk like a ‘prominent’ and whose long term plan paid off when he was appointed head of the Chemical Commando, a position of privilege he defended with complete ruthlessness.
  • Elias Lindzen, an immensely tough muscular dwarf, a ball of muscle, impossible to understand his deformed Yiddish, a phenomenal worker who gains a position of respite, and devotes himself to full time theft and survival. A monster. A ‘para-human’. Perfectly suited to life in the camp (p.103).
  • Henri, a civilised 22-year-old Frenchman, whose brother died in Buna camp and who has perfected a seductive manner with which he charms all sorts of favours out of all sorts of inmates and supervisors, all the time covering his soul in an impenetrable carapace. Charming and utterly cold (p.106).

There are quite a few more pen portraits, in the remaining 70 pages, which I won’t list here. But this list shows several things:

  1. Levi succeeds in his attempt to record all the people he can – as witnesses, as testimony, as a simple record of the lives of victims otherwise reduced to a nullity and then exterminated
  2. Levi’s ability, as a writer, a chronicler, to create such vivid pen portraits, to produce very powerful short cameos of those around him
  3. Levi’s ability to see beneath the individual to the general ‘laws’ of human nature, which fascinate Levi the scientist

An ending

To his amazement Levi is called to an interview to work in an actual chemistry laboratory. He will never forget the way the blonde Aryan chemist interviewing him, regards him. He gets the job and does his best to clean himself before coming to the lab each day, but can’t ignore the looks of repulsion on the faces of the pretty German secretaries.

But it isn’t the lab job which saves him; it’s getting ill. Throughout the autumn of 1944 rumours had spread that the Allies have landed, somewhere far away in France, and that the Russians are throwing the Germans back. By Christmas they can hear the low rumble of the guns at the front, off to the East. And it’s at this crucial point that Levi contracts scarlet fever, and is in the Ka-Be, the Krankenbau, the infirmary full of the sick and dying, when the Germans make the momentous decision to evacuate Auschwitz. Some 20,000 surviving inmates were lined up and marched off west. As history records, almost none of them survived the long, pointless march through the Polish snow and ice.

One morning the infirmary inhabitants wake up and all the Germans have gone. The last chapter returns us to time, to human time. It is in diary form, recording in detail the events of the ten days between the Germans’ departure and the arrival of the Russians – January 18 to 27 – because now days are no longer an indefinite repetition of grey monotonous slavery: they come alive with individual features; they progress; things change.

So in the last few pages the still sickly Levi forms an alliance with two Frenchmen, new to the camp and so still with residual energy, Charles and Arthur, and set about scavenging the camp for food and treasure. They find a stove, break up firewood, discover a huge store of frozen potatoes and turnips. They collaborate. They use initiative and imagination. They become human again, rising up from their slave nullity, and this – as well as the sense of the approaching Russian liberators – gives the final pages an extraordinary force and energy and excitement, which lifts the reader out of the despairing pit of the central core of the book.

But leaves you, nonetheless, with pitiful haunting memories.

He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? (p.72)

The warning from the camp

There is no one place you can point to and say this is Levi’s Great Message; instead there are lots of scattered insights and warnings. In the Preface he comes nearest to a general conclusion:

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (p.15)

I take this to mean that the temptation to define one or some groups as ‘the other’, the ‘strangers’, is a part of all human nature. To insult or abuse or threaten the other, the stranger, minorities or outsiders, is always tempting and, on a psychological level, often pleasurable because it fulfils some basic human need. ‘Disconnected’ acts of abuse or threat are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life, no matter how much we disapprove.

The watershed, the crux, the line in the sand – is when threats and abuse become part of a ‘system’, and are officially sanctioned. Either by a powerful group, by a political party or – God forbid – by a government. At that point, the doorway to the Lager is opened.

Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.15)

It is this demonising of any social group, or gender, or religion, or minority, which invokes the shadow of the death camps, and which it’s in all our interests to avoid and prevent.


Credit

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi was published by the small publisher, De Silva in 1947. In 1958 it was republished by the bigger publisher, Einaudi and became better known. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by the Orion Press in 1959. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

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Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

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Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’, but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s – but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead; Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists. Coventry was devastated as were London, and most German cities were destroyed though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless. Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe. Some of the thoughts or ideas which stuck out more than most:

The myth of national unity After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood As a reader of the Guardian newspaper it’s often easy to think that modern society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or treated unfairly.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘They were only civilians. They never shot anyone etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.’

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would. They managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on. It wasn’t us, really, why is everyone being so nasty?

Thus right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women. Similarly, modern right wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape on a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe points out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that various surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166).

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos, of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked and often shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves. Witnesses report a marked reduction in tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. This happened in numerous places, and there’s a fascinating page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing Part three is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the war and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror ie not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities. Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror, the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s. Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (ie killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’. It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’. The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism took hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 25 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by its ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance. All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo.

By contrast, Lowe’s careful, scrupulous and judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much more to teach us about contemporary Europe and the worrying threats it still faces today.

This is a really important book which deserves to be widely read.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

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Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (2010)

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people.

In 400 pages of densely packed text, illustrated by numerous maps, backed up by 40 pages of bibliography and 40 pages of notes, American historian Timothy Snyder places the Holocaust within the broader context of the planned and institutionalised mass murder of civilians undertaken by the Soviet and Nazi regimes between 1933 and 1945.

The Ukraine famine He points out that Stalin and the Soviet apparat began killing people in bulk before Hitler even became Chancellor. In fact Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 coincided with, and helped to conceal from public interest, the vast famine Stalin caused in the Ukraine which led to the deaths of over three million people. Hunger was the most consistent tool used by both dictatorships to kill millions, as many as seven million victims.

The Nazi Hunger Plan I don’t think I knew about the Nazis’ Hunger Plan, a deliberate scheme to starve to death all the Russians in the area they invaded in the first winter of the attack on Russia (1941). Hitler intended to destroy Poland and Russia as states, exterminate their ruling classes and intelligentsia and then, in that first winter of conquest, deliberately starve some 30 million Slavs to death. Tens of millions more would have been killed or enslaved in what would have become permanent slave colonies supplying the Fatherland.

Nazi mass murder of Soviet POWs Snyder calls Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of Russia – a ‘fiasco’ for the complete dysjunction between plan and achievement: Russia didn’t collapse, the Red Army fought on with growing confidence, and the Nazis didn’t seize vast stocks of food to feed their army and people. But they could starve to death the Russians under their control and so they did. Russian POWs were corralled into prisoner of war camps which were mostly just barbed wire around empty fields, with no toilets or shelter and no food. Here Russian POWs were crammed, sometimes packed so tight they couldn’t move let alone sit, and then left to die, the living skeletons trampling over the growing mound of corpses. Snyder describes these (as all the other killing methods) in unsparing detail. Over three million Russian POWs are estimated to have died of starvation and exposure, as deliberate German policy.

The scale of the killing, the number of individual tragedies encompassed by these numbers, dwarfs anything else in human history until the great disasters of Mao’s China.

A hecatomb of examples

  • The flower of Belorusia’s literary culture deliberately exterminated: 218 of the country’s leading writers were all executed.
  • Ten thousand Poles of the officer class executed in the Katyn Forest, followed by mass killing of schoolteachers. The Nazi plan was for Polish children to be brought up to understand enough German to obey orders and to count to 20. Nothing more. A slave nation.
  • Over three million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately left to starve once it became clear Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation of farms had backfired and catastrophically reduced, not increased, harvests. Cannibalism became widespread, parents ate their children, children ate their parents, brothers ate sisters. Visitors to the region became used to seeing bloated corpses littering the streets. NKVD and communist officers were given quotas of peasant ‘saboteurs’ and ‘spies’ ie anyone who complained about starving to death – to be captured, interrogated and shot.
  • More broadly, during the great leap forward of the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture over five million starved across the USSR in 1932 and 1933. Starved to death.
  • When the NKVD ran low on bullets thy made prisoners sit side by side so one bullet could be fired through two or more skulls simultaneously, then tipped them into the mass graves.
  • Order 00447 ‘On the operations to repress former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ (dated 30 July 1937) led to the execution of nearly 400,000 Soviet citizens in 18 months in 1937 and 1938.
  • It ran concurrently with order 00485, mandating the ‘total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organisation’, issued 11 August 1937. Quotas were issued to all NKVD offices throughout the USSR to capture, interrogate, despatch to the gulag or just execute a fixed number per week; if you didn’t fulfil your quota you yourself would be arrested. Since there was in fact no Polish Military Organisation, the NKVD had to manufacture networks of spies by arresting anyone with a Polish name, who had Polish relatives, had been to Poland or worked for Poles, then extracting confessions under torture.
  • Evgenia Babushkina wasn’t Polish, she was a promising organic chemist, but her mother had once been washerwoman for Polish diplomats and so she was arrested and shot. One of millions.
  • Sometimes more than a thousand death warrants were signed by NKVD authorities per day, and then rubberstamped en masse by their superiors. It was hard to find secure places to execute so many people, and vast areas of mass graves had to be organised outside major settlements throughout the USSR. Work work work.

I gave up listing even random examples. There are too many, too many statistics on every page. 33,761 people, the entire Jewish population of Kiev, was forced to march to the Jewish graveyard, stripped of their valuable and clothes, forced to lie face down on the still warm corpses beneath them, and machine gunned through the head. Then another line. Then another. Then another. For years. In Europe’s killing fields.

He has a way with days:

  • On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in all the pogroms in the whole history of the Russian empire. (p.227)
  • On any given day in autumn 1941, as many Soviet prisoners of war died as the total British and American POW deaths in the entire war. (p.182)

Comment

This book sheds new light on well-known events because:

  • it brings together into one gruesome continuum Soviet and Nazi killing, usually kept separate
  • it uses newly accessible and translated archives all across Eastern Europe and Russia to give a detailed account of Soviet mass murder, and to put precise numbers to the Nazi killings
  • its focus on the Bloodlands – a broad loop of territory from the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) down through roughly Poland and east through the Ukraine to the Black Sea – unify the story and show how the competing dictatorships learned from each other, shared murder techniques and bureaucratic procedures

It is a transformative book, completely reshaping how you think about these events, placing them in completely new contexts and prompting new thoughts and insights, about the dictators’ aims and strategies and how these changed in the stressed, pressure-cooker atmosphere of the 1930s.

In its thoroughness and its presentation of unstoppable facts and statistics of mass murder, on every page, it drives the reader down and and further down into the deepest pits of hell, till you almost feel like one of the countless thousands, tens of thousands, of children thrown alive into the death pits and buried alive by the bulldozers.

Utopias of blood

But mostly it reinforces the terrible truth that all powerful leaders with utopian visions for transforming societies, always seem to start by having to murder some, then many, and then millions and millions, of their own citizens in order to get to the Promised Land of their dreams – but never do. All they leave behind is mountains of skulls – in Poland, Ukraine, Belarusia, China, Cambodia, Rwanda.

Building a paradise on earth is difficult, given that even building a house is demanding, raising healthy, happy children is well nigh impossible. But burning down houses, villages, entire towns – shooting, gassing and starving unarmed civilians. Easy peasy. The lazy way out.

Snyder’s long concluding chapter engages with various commentators on modernity or the industrial state or theorists of totalitarianism like Hannah Arendt. But maybe it’s just laziness and stupidity: neither Stalin nor Hitler were great thinkers, they were great manipulators of people’s stupid fears and stupid utopian hopes: ‘if only we can get rid of the Jews-kulaks-saboteurs-right deviationists etc, we’ll all be rich, everything will be better, we can sleep safe in our beds.’

Thus they tried to get rid of the bourgeoisie in Mao’s China and the the urban intellectuals in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croats and Bosnians in Greater Serbia, and now they are trying to get rid of the ‘infidel’ in the ‘caliphate’.

Primitive tribal fear of ‘the other’, shaped by dictators into genocidal violence. And when you’ve killed this lot of suspects and things don’t get better, well, it must be because of deeper conspiracies, of darker forces undermining the Volk or the People or whatever gibberish you’ve manipulated your people into worshiping – so that calls for another round of purges, killing and purification.

The hardest thing for humans seems to be accepting the otherness of other people, other beliefs and other traditions, of living and letting live – but the societies which manage to be truly tolerant and multicultural (the Ottoman empire in its heyday, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the British empire, the vast, diverse federation of American States) seem to be precisely the ones which last longest and give its inhabitants the best lives.

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