1. Why does Primo Levi think it was so difficult to "be moral" in the German concentration camps during WWII? How does Levi account for the fact that so many prisoners found it virtually impossible...

1. Why does Primo Levi think it was so difficult to "be moral" in the German concentration camps during WWII? How does Levi account for the fact that so many prisoners found it virtually impossible to "do the right thing?"

2. Despite the conditions in which they found themselves, a few concentration camp prisoners did act morally; a few did "do the right thing" in their treatment of others. How does Levi explain these exceptions to the rule? What made it possible for these few to "act morally"?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Primo Levi makes some important statements regarding morality in The Drowned and the Saved. Levi's analysis of the camps shows that the Nazis wished to remake the moral universe.  Death and destruction were the only absolutes in this moral universe. The Nazis developed a world for their intended targets where their annihilation was the only focus.  Morality was transformed into an ethics of death.  For those who were recipients of the Nazi treatment, survival was the only means by which this morality could be understood.  Levi documents this in his writing on "Shame:"  "Our moral yardstick had changed [while in the camps]."  The "moral yardstick" had changed because of the imposition of death's reality on so many in the camps. Survival became the only means to appropriate a world in which the only universal is death. Survival became the only morality, a code of conduct that explained what shall be done and where individuals shall go.  

For Levi, the establishment of "the Gray Zone" was another element that made it difficult to be moral.  The Nazis had succeeded in rendering consciousness with mitigating conditions in which morality was slowly vitiated to a point where control supplanted all else.  There were those in charge of the mass deaths, those who were functionaries, those who were bystanders, and those who did the bidding of others, as well as many other levels that the Nazis created.  These categorizations and reconfiguration of language made "morality" so complex and intricate that it became easier to revert to this banality and discard the true moral evil being perpetrated.  In being able to compartmentalize and relativize everything, the Nazis made morality so challenging to understand that intended victims found it virtually impossible to do the right thing.  There were always barriers towards which individuals, both perpetrators and victims, could capitulate in order to find some level of solace.

For Levi, this vitiation of morality, and its enabling the impossibility of doing that which is right, becomes the true horror of the Holocaust.  It was a process of dehumanization.  Individuals no longer focused on living life, but merely surviving through it.  Levi makes the argument that life in the camps created a condition of survival where nothing else mattered.  Levi uses this to explain why suicide was not so openly embraced:  "Suicide is an act of man and not of the animal . . . because of the constant imminence of death there was no time to concentrate on the idea of death."  For Levi, those who did conform to a traditional notion of morality in a setting where it was being actively deconstructed retained their shred of humanity.  Levi makes the argument that these individuals who did the right thing and accepted the consequences of it represented the drowned element within the Holocaust.  The ability to "act morally" embodies what amounts to death in the camps. Those who were "saved" end up usurping "his neighbor's place and lived in his stead."  Such elements become a necessary part of Levi's discussion of morality in the camps during the Holocaust.

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The Drowned and the Saved

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