FACING THE EXTREME: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps by Tzvetan Todorov
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FACING THE EXTREME: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

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An incisive, at times controversial, consideration of moral action in the face of dehumanization, and its implications for everyday life. Hardly a memoirist or historian of the Holocaust and the gulag has failed to grapple with the issues of moral behavior in the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. Did the suffering of the inmates bring out the best or the beast in them? And what of the victimizers--can they be viewed as less than human? Todorov (The Conquest of America, 1984), having considered scores of testimonies from survivors, rejects either extreme. ""The most optimistic conclusion we can draw from life in (and outside) the camps is that evil is not inevitable,"" he writes. But Todorov, a Bulgarian-born literary and cultural critic with the Centre National de Recherches in Paris, seeks to make fine distinctions among various types of moral behavior. This is not merely a historical quest; Todorov believes that, extreme as the situation of the camps was, it can shed light for us on morality in everyday life. Indeed, one of the distinctions he makes is between heroic virtues (loyalty, courage), which are most relevant in wartime, and ordinary virtues (caring, sharing), which apply at all times and which he considers superior to heroic virtues. Todorov offers a detailed consideration of inmates, oppressors, and onlookers. For instance, he notes that totalitarian governments aim to deprive their subjects of independent will and judgment; this implies that any of us, under totalitarian control, could commit such acts; it doesn't, however, relieve individuals of guilt for their crimes. The impersonal tone of Todorov's analysis is relieved by occasional asides in which he follows his own rule that those making moral judgments must look first at themselves: He honestly and movingly considers his own naive complicity with Communist terror as a youth in Bulgaria. Todorov has original and surprising insights into the moral condition of those in the camps; but most important are his reflections on how the fragmentation and depersonalization of modern life contributed to that evil. His lessons for us today are compelling and ineluctable.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Henry Holt