Facing the Extreme

by Tzvetan Todorov
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

This important work of internationally renowned writer and literary theoretician Tzvetan Todorov synthesizes the major research and insights of scores of scholars and writers about human behavior in the concentration camps of the two major totalitarian states of the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Such studies began to emerge immediately after the horrors of World War II and tended to emphasize the radical evils and dehumanization that were perpetrated in the camps. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, new works explored the countless examples of kindness practiced by the victims and the rescuers of Jews, exploring the possibility that helping behavior is part of “human nature”—a finding as significant as its negative counterparts of aggression, envy, fanaticism, sadism, and human corruptibility. Todorov acknowledges that this more positive theory about human nature began in the Enlightenment with figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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Todorov was inspired to write Facing the Extreme during a trip to Warsaw. In Poland, he heard awe-inspiring stories of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1943 and of the futile heroics of the Polish uprising against the Nazis the very next year. Todorov set out to analyze those virtues that were revealed by these events and then proceeded to explore the unprecedented world of the concentration camps.


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Todorov was impressed that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising knew that they would die and that their attempt would nevertheless make a statement about their ideals for future generations. What kind of virtues shaped their great efforts? Todorov distinguishes between what he calls “heroic virtues” and “ordinary virtues.” The heroic virtues are the qualities of moral strength, courage, willpower, and solidarity.

For Todorov, the ordinary virtues are no less important, perhaps even more so, because courage and willpower can be put to evil purposes, as they were at the hands of the Nazis. The ordinary virtues that are most important are dignity, self-respect, the development of the life of the mind (sometimes characterized as critical thinking), and care for others. Todorov wisely remarks that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a sane, practical reaction to the Nazi aim to kill every Jew in Warsaw and the rest of Europe.

After his discussion of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Todorov turned to the extreme situations experienced by human beings in the concentration and death camps of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This was the major focus of his work, for Todorov realized that moral life is best understood under the impact of extreme situations. His concern was heightened by the fact that he himself lived in communist Bulgaria until he was twenty-four years old and that the Bulgarian communists perpetrated the evils of dictatorship, indoctrination, and selective killing of existing and potential political opponents.

At the outset of his study of the camps, Todorov shares the now conventional wisdom that the Nazis and Soviets created a new form of social organization akin to the seventeenth century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature,” in which humans would be reduced to beasts and where life would be a struggle of all against all. Indeed, camp life gave rise to many instances of cannibalism, betrayal, corruption, and meanness—all produced by the desperate struggle to survive. What is remarkable for Todorov is that within this horrific system, many people were striking exceptions to this rule. For example, the Italian Jew Primo Levi, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, was saved by an Italian Gentile who brought him extra food every day. The Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, who was also in Auschwitz, created works that stood as a moral act of testimony to both good and evil. This was also characteristic of the great Russian writers who served time in the Gulag, the network of Soviet slave-labor camps. Acts of goodness in the camps were much more telling than those in the ordinary world.

Todorov then proceeds to give a brief survey of the ideas of heroism and saintliness in the Western world. Starting with the ancient Greeks, Achilles and Hector exemplified the qualities of bravery, self-sacrifice, and the struggle for excellence. Socrates represented the virtues of justice and the life of the mind. The chivalric hero of the Middle Ages gave way to the individualistic idealist of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The twentieth century produced military and patriotic heroes as well as the absurd or comical heroes of the dramas of Samuel Beckett and films of Charlie Chaplin. Moreover, there were always heroes in the public spheres of politics and business and the private spheres of the intellect and of personal relationships. However, these people became heroes under largely normal circumstances. How must heroism and virtue be defined and redefined in the extreme context of concentration or slave-labor camps?

In the camps, there were courageous heroes who led the revolts in Auschwitz and Sobibor, and quiet heroes who smuggled food and saved children from the gas chambers. Still, Todorov makes a distinction between heroes who gave their lives for a cause and those who saved lives. At this point, Todorov felt it necessary to classify acts of what he called “ordinary” virtues. The first is dignity, which could mean self-respect or moderation, perhaps social recognition or personal autonomy. The struggle for dignity was of critical importance in the camps because the camps were the greatest systematic assault on human dignity ever conceived. The Nazis actually declared the Jews not worthy of the dignity of life itself. There were many instances of the struggle for dignity. Primo Levi, for example, was determined always to walk erect, keep himself as clean as possible, and shine his shoes because he realized that the camp was a machine intended to turn human beings into beasts.

The exercise of will is another virtue because it relates to the value of freedom and individual autonom. Prisoners exercised this value in different ways. Some committed suicide to have control over their own death; the Jewish crematorium workers wrote down their experiences and buried them in the hope that someday their existence and the story of the camp would be remembered; other prisoners refused to obey Nazi orders or sabotaged the Nazi war machine.

Todorov examines the moral ambiguities of the perpetrators. Todorov reminds the reader that many concentration camp functionaries were “good people”—hardworking, kind to animals, good husbands and fathers, conscientious and competent at their jobs—yet they were mass murderers. Todorov resolves this paradox by showing that dignity must work for a good end. Unfortunately, in their own minds the Nazis thought that they were doing good.

The virtues of solidarity and the life of the mind are also frought with ambiguity. Solidarity can be a helping virtue but can also create group selfishness to the exclusion of others. Many Nazis and Russian communists valued the classics, loved music and poetry, and prized scientific discovery. Once again, it is the aims and goals of culture and education that determine whether the life of the mind will have ethical and moral results. Todorov also raises the question of whether virtue has any gender-specific implications. He argues that women were stronger than men both physically and psychologically. Women bonded better and helped each other more than men did. For Todorov, women are the nurturers and the caring gender of the human species. He claims that present-day feminists can fall into the trap of imitating the traditionally masculine values of aggression, competition, and power. In Todorov’s view, men are more conceptual, women more practical: These qualities of women must be practiced to complement those of men.

The experiences of the camps revealed to Todorov that the value of caring is the most important of all. When the individual reaches out to the community, he or she gives the life of the mind a humane goal. The value of caring makes people look upon others as individuals, not as abstract ideals. Caring means kindness, pure and simple. It knows no boundaries or ideologies. There were countless acts of life-saving kindnesses in the camps. The height of caring behavior was found in those few thousand “dissidents” who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

The Evils

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After this catalog of the virtues, Todorov proceeds to analyze the evils that resulted in the camps and the deaths of millions. For him, most of the German Nazis and Russian communists were ordinary people; only a small proportion were pathologically abnormal. Ordinary people were turned into mass murderers by totalitarianism; mass murder was defined as good and authorized by the state. The “ordinary vices” include fragmentation (splitting) of the private bourgeois self and the murderous public self, indoctrination and “depersonalization” of both the perpetrator and the victim, the value of technical competence over moral competence, the lust for absolute power and certainty and, not least, indifference.

Some controversial aspects of Todorov’s analysis include his equating the nature of the Nazi and the Soviet camps, his omission of the impact of the family as a force in the development of morality, his perhaps excessively optimistic view of human nature, and his bifurcation of humanity into masculine and feminine characteristics. Todorov ends his work with some important observations on how justice—as opposed to revenge—is possible after the fall of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. Todorov understands the desire for revenge as a response to extreme humiliation and suffering but prefers that justice recognize degrees of guilt, between perpetrators and bystanders, for example, and that there be a permanent world court of justice for crimes against humanity.

According to Todorov, there are some crucial lessons to be learned from the experience of the dark side of the twentieth century. The facts of the camps must be studied and remembered, but so should their larger implications. Knowledge must be accompanied by “telling, judging, and understanding.” Todorov evaluates some important works in this area. He believes that Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1961) is balanced and rational, while Shoah, the 1985 film of Claude Lanzmann, is colored by anger. His favorite work is Into That Darkness (1974) by Gitta Sereny, a study of how Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor, was able to oversee mass murder and to justify and rationalize his deeds, thereby adding still another evil to his career.

Facing the Extreme had a great impact on the field of moral philosophy. It was reviewed favorably and cited for its thesis that human beings are capable of moral behavior under the worst of conditions, presenting some reassurance and comfort in the knowledge that moral behavior can continue in the worst of circumstances. Todorov’s positive models of morality during some of the darkest times in the twentieth century—the groups, individuals, and regions that saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, the helping behavior of many women who exhibited true virtue, the individuals who committed numerous acts of kindness within the camps—provide some hope for humanity. In this way justice, the highest goal of politics, can be furthered most. Todorov demonstrated convincingly that morality must be bestowed on other individuals and must be practiced and nurtured as well as taught.


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Additional Reading

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. A balanced overview of structuralist criticism. Covers many of Tzvetan Todorov’s important ideas in passing, including his contributions to the structuralist concepts of character, genre, narration, plot, and theme.

Gorman, David. “Tzvetan Todorov: An Anglo-French Checklist to 1995.” Style 31, no. 4 (Winter, 1997): 702-729. A comprehensive listing of all of Todorov’s French publications through 1995 and of all of the English translations of them. Includes Todorov’s many important translations of works from Slavic languages into English.

Jefferson, Ann. “Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.” In Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction, edited by Ann Jefferson and David Robey. 2d ed. London: B. T. Batsford, 1986. Discusses Todorov’s work in the context of an overview of structuralism and narratology. Focuses on Todorov’s readings of Boccaccio’s Decameron (which she finds unsuccessful) and of the stories of Henry James (which she finds much more successful).

Marchitello, Howard, ed. Tzvetan Todorov and the Writing of History. South Central Review 15, no. 3-4 (1998): 1-104. Includes an important new essay by Todorov, “The Morality of the Historian,” and five essays by literary critics who use that essay to respond to the “critical humanism” of Todorov’s writings of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The most valuable treatment available of his recent work.

Merquior, J. G. From Prague to Paris: A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought. London: Verso, 1986. Devotes a few pages to approval of Todorov’s shift toward humanism and away from “structuralitis” in the 1980’s.

Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Relies on Todorov’s theory of reading as the model for showing how structuralism works when applied to specific texts. Also discusses his theory of genres and his analysis of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

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