I’ve read a lot of books written by people who survived death camps in the Second World War. A couple years ago I visited Buchenwald. Last year I read Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Homo Sacer III. In it, reference was made to a book by Robert Antelme, which according to Agamben was one of the most interesting witness accounts ever written. Finally I got hold of a copy of the book, and I must say I agree with Agamben.
L’Espèce humaine, the human race, is unlike any accounts I’ve read before. I’ve wondered why this is so. Perhaps because Antelme was already a writer when he became a prisoner, first at Buchenwald, then at Gandersheim (a factory-camp) and later in Dachau where he was freed. Primo Levi turned to writing out of necessity, of having to give a voice to what he experienced. Antelme is aware of the unspeakableness of what is happening to him and the people around him, from the very first moment. His account is incredibly reflective on his own role, his own place in the world and on the mechanisms that keep him sane and alive.
One thing that is worth mentioning, as it is the main claim of Antelme’s book and is also reflected in the title, is how the SS machinery was focussed on taking the human out of their prisoners. According to Antelme, they failed to do so. They could not stop them from being human, although they could make the situation so that the prisoner himself could choose to stop being human. But in every word, in every step they took on the death march to Dachau, every time someone choose not to laugh when a guard or Kapo would hit a prisoner, the humanness would show. And with it, the eventual defeat of the SS.
Other interesting aspects of this book which made me aware of aspects that I wasn’t aware of, is the distinction between political prisoners and ‘convict’-prisoners. In most camps the distribution of food and other things was in charge of political prisoners, whereas in gandersheim everything was controlled by (German) convicts. Who eventually were given a uniform and guns to escort the 500-something prisoners by foot to Dachau, where only around 150 arrived. (Whatever happened to this group of convicts after the deliberation?) Another thing that struck me, was the manner in which Antelme forced himself to not think about his life before the camp too much, as he knew it would drive him insane.
Some people wonder why I read books like this. Not just one, but as many as I can find. Levi, Wiesel, Antelme, they all have a very personal story to tell, but one that is very much related to my own story. I live in this world, I take one step after the other, every moment aware of what has been and what can be. I was born the year Marguerite Duras published a book on the days she looked after Antelme, her husband, after his return to Paris. (Which I am intending to read, as soon as I can find a translation of it.) I am living in a time in which some guards are still alive, and free. But I am also living in a time in which less and less people care about others, as long as they are not involved or harmed, they couldn’t care less. I am not saying we should linger on in the past.
But I do wonder, why in ethical, political or philosophical discussions people tend to get angry when you bring up the ‘Nazi-argument’. It seems as if I need to except that this episode in history was a state of exception, that it cannot be brought up as a reasonable argument, as it will discredit or enforce every theory. But bringing up the possibility of extermination camps and the discrediting of specific groups of people is very actual. It is not a ‘reductio ad hitlerum’. It is a very important aspect of human history. And unfortunately, it is not only history, as signs of it happening again cannot be denied. Not only in war situations, but also in countries that use their right to national sovereignty as a cover to destroy peoples that don’t fit their world.