Facing the Extreme by Tzvetan Todorov

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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.

Virtues

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 2,148 words.)