Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

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.