The Shroud of Auschwitz and the State of Good: A Reading of Primo Levi

Daniel del Nido '10

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
"Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us." (Psalms 2:1-2)

How should we confront Auschwitz? How can we speak of justice, ethics, goodness, the rule of law after Auschwitz? Do these concepts still have meaning, or have they been burnt in the fires of the crematoriums and asphyxiated in the gas chambers? To ask these questions asks the question of the nature of the crime of Auschwitz, if we can call it a crime. For Auschwitz was not simply a breach of codes of human goodness and decency. Auschwitz was not a crime, as it was committed with the full vigor and backing of the law. Nazi Germany formed laws so that it could marginalize, deport and ultimately exterminate the entire population of Jews in Europe. Within the standards of Nazi law and society, Auschwitz was not only legally sanctioned; it was just.

But we cannot make Nazi law the standard for judgment on Auschwitz. Surely there is a higher law, a law of humanity which forbids such action, a universal code of human good which commands us not to destroy a population, to preserve human life and foster the conditions for its flourishing. Yet universal law helps us just as little as national law. Was not the extermination of European Jewry given the justification of creating a space for the flourishing for the German Volk? Was not the German Volk considered to be one "unified race-organism" whose health depended on the eradication of unwanted, polluting elements, such as the race organism of the Jews?[i] Were not the Jews considered a sub-human race, one for whom the ethical commandment to preserve life did not apply?

Here we can see Auschwitz's danger in a much more frightening form: Auschwitz did not negate universal moral codes to preserve life. On the contrary, Auschwitz carried out the moral code to preserve life to its ultimate limit; that of destroying all elements which prevent the flourishing of human life so that human life can be preserved and prosper. Auschwitz demonstrates the failure of morals based on conscience and the golden rule, that of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Morals based on a universal code of human behavior, a universal law to be followed, fail, because they cannot be universal. Loving one's neighbor is only possible when one knows who one's neighbor is and, more importantly, who one's neighbor is not[ii]. Differentiation of groups is inevitable, and thus so is inequality in moral obligations. As soon as another group is defined as other to one's own moral community, then marginalization of the other is necessary for the flourishing of the same. Is it possible that the creation of justice for one group is always already predicated upon the denial of justice for another group?

And is it also possible that the simple universality of a law is what allows its violence? To act by one's obligations, by one's duties, to mankind, is the most general legalistic form of the golden rule. What if one's obligations towards humanity come from the Führer? Adolf Eichmann, head of S.S. Bureau IVB4, charged with combating Jews in the Reich, the greatest "opponents hostile to the State," stands as a terrifying prospect not because of any imaginative acts of barbarity on his part, but because he was a good citizen who, in the course of his duties, caused the deaths of millions[iii]. Did not the greatest threat to universal ethics arise when Eichmann "confessed his sins" for being inconsistent in his duties as head of Security Bureau IVB4 when he helped save two Jews in his family? Eichmann used the fact that he was consistent in performing his duty as proof that he had always acted against his inclinations, gone against his interest, in accordance with Kant's categorical imperative[iv]. What can we say about following one's obligations, about universal duties to humanity like Kant's if those obligations can send millions to their deaths?

And then there is the sheer horror of Auschwitz itself. Not merely the brutality of torture, the ruthless efficiency of death in the camps. All that has been seen in history before. In Auschwitz the limit between life and death was not breached, but erased entirely. The Muselmann, the half-starved prisoner who has lost the will to live, who has lost all interest in human affairs and can only think of food, who has no sense of reality outside of delusional fantasies they create, was the "original contribution of the Third Reich to civilization."[v] In the space of Auschwitz, the Muselmann, neither living nor dead, was not the exception, but rather the rule. Auschwitz not only provided for the physical needs of no one, the brutality of the work schedule and the harshness of the random violence imposed by the guards was so total that ordinary social habits and instincts were "reduced to silence", no longer informing the actions of the prisoners[vi]. Conventional ways of acting which are legible in our society are not relevant to the context of Auschwitz. Prisoners were driven by sheer need for sustenance, with absolutely no social context to provide support for their needs. In this space, neither luck nor wisdom nor goodness explain how the prisoners acted or whether they lived or died. The only meaningful distinction between prisoners is between those who kept their humanity and those who became Muselmanner, the drowned and the saved[vii].

The drowned, the Muselmanner, could not keep up with the overarching struggle to survive which never ends. And it was not simply those who are physically or mentally unable to keep up with the work and the violence of the camps. Those who did were also part of the Muselmanner. The violence of Auschwitz was rather a slow, inevitable death for prisoners. And here we see the worst of Auschwitz. It was not simply that those in the camp without a special privilege such as being a kapo or an officer's favorite, or not being a Jew, those who were saved, inevitably died, but rather that their death no longer had any meaning[viii]. Auschwitz's routine slowly but surely overcame the Muselmanner, so that their individual existences no longer held significance. As Primo Levi says:

Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curbed, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen[ix].

Auschwitz did not simply kill, and did not simply kill needlessly. In Auschwitz the very significance of one's life and death is negated and forgotten. One's individual existence no longer carries significance: one cannot speak of the individual at Auschwitz, only of the "anonymous mass" of Muselmanner. Violence in Auschwitz is not to kill someone, to simply destroy their life, even if one calls it legitimate and justified. Violence in Auschwitz is to erase one's life from history, from memory, from significance. Without thought, without freedom or interest, the Muselmanner can no longer be called human, but occupy a space between human and inhuman, calling into question the limit between the two of them[x]. At this point, ethics and morality which provide justice to humans lose their significance because the Muselmanner, those who are drowned, are no longer human, meaning that ordinary morals no longer apply to them.

And now we see Auschwitz's final and most terrifying blow. For Levi, the Muselmann is the figure of evil in the modern age. Evil in the modern age means to erase the significance of one's individual existence entirely, dehumanizing prisoners to the point where the very concepts of human and inhuman lose their meaning entirely. At this point, the first natural reaction is to find someone to blame for this evil, to give culpability to a group of perpetrators and a group of victims, to do justice to the victims by punishing the perpetrators. But this is not so simple an undertaking as it seems. To place blame on "perpetrators" and attempt to seek justice for "victims" assumes we can decide who is a perpetrator and who is a victim. To put moral culpability in such black and white terms ignores that ethics enter a "gray zone" in Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, prisoners were made into guards and committed violence against fellow prisoners, fellow Jews. The Nazi regime thrived on making enemies into their own executioners: the kapos, Judenrat, mercenaries, and most importantly, the Sonderkommando, all collaborated with the Nazis to destroy their own kinsmen[xi]. These collaborators were certainly victims of Auschwitz, but they also collaborated to aid the Nazi campaign of violence. Do we say that these collaborators are also guilty of the violence of Auschwitz?

Worse, collaborators were not a discrete set of "evil victims" who attempted to curry favor with their oppressors by aiding them, ones who can be pinpointed and separated from other victims who deserve justice. Rather, the prisoners, through an ironic turn of psychology, identified with their oppressors and were ready to compromise and even aid them[xii]. Where does guilt reside then, with the perpetrators or with the victims, since all victims were ready to compromise and join the oppressors if given the opportunity? Consider the Sonderkommando. Jews, separated from the rest of the prisoners, were given the task of operating the gas chambers and crematoriums, as well as gathering clothes and other items of use from the corpses to be used by the Nazis. It was in fact the Sonderkommando, Jews, who killed other Jews. Germans were not involved in the operations of the gas chambers except to ensure that the Sonderkommando continued their deadly work. Who do we blame? The Jews, for killing their kinsmen? For Levi, creation of the Sonderkommando was a deliberate act of the Nazis to pass off guilt onto the Jews, to demonstrate their utter abasement:

In fact, the existence of the squads had a meaning, a message: "We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do wish, we can destroy not only your bodies but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours."[xiii]

Nazi ideology held that Jews were a sub-human race of barbarians: Nazi actions were designed to make that prejudice a reality. Were Jewish souls destroyed so that they became indistinguishable from the Nazis, and are thus equally culpable[xiv]?

The gray zone now appears as a shroud which places Auschwitz in a place without morals, where no ethical code can apply. The SS and the Sonderkommando played soccer together, as if no violence or oppression at Auschwitz were occurring at all[xv]. The soccer match at Auschwitz was a moment of normalcy amidst a sea of horror, allowing both the SS and the Sonderkommando that they are involved in a machine of violence, allowing them to forget that Auschwitz existed at all. That all forgot about Auschwitz in the soccer match is the fulfillment of the logic of Auschwitz: passing culpability to the victims so that no moral judgment can be made. The Sonderkommando mimicked the violence of the SS, the prisoners participated in the violence of the Nazis and the Nazis participated in the game-like innocence of the prisoners, so that no role of perpetrator and victim could be assigned[xvi]. The shroud of the gray zone now becomes the shroud of Auschwitz, a zone of universal guilt which plagues all those involved with Auschwitz[xvii].

And then we recognize that the shroud of Auschwitz is indeed our own shroud. If the Jews could have their souls destroyed and collaborate with their oppressors, could we not too if we were in Auschwitz? Is there not a Muselmann, a member of the Sonderkommando in all of us; at the center of our subjectivity, a truth which we must repress to participate in the illusion that we are in fact moral subjects? Is not the soccer game which hides the essential and inexorable horror and violence of Auschwitz not also our soccer game? Is not our everyday life, our democratic law-based politics, not simply a game to hide our own "essential fragility", that if given the opportunity, we too would commit the horrors of Auschwitz[xviii]? Do our political structures have any other function other than masking this essential truth behind our subjectivity? Is modern democracy nothing more than the latest edition of this mask? Is not our own life a repetition of the same gray zone which merely hides the violence underpinning all our politics, our very lives, such that Auschwitz is "always already repeating itself"?[xix] Are we not all implicated in Auschwitz then, as the same violence which created the Muselmann underpins our normal political existence now? Does the shroud of Auschwitz not hang over all of us in our ordinary lives?

The shroud of Auschwitz now blocks out the sight of God. Humans do not improve; they merely cloak their inherent evil in the "soft robes" of modern democratic morality[xx]. Mere faith in God does not improve human morals; nor is there any hope for a messianic future brought upon by a God who loves humanity and acts on its behalf. The belief in a redemptive future is simply blind faith placed in the progress of human morality, veiled by the shroud of Auschwitz[xxi]. And here the shroud of Auschwitz manifests its most vile face. We cannot confront Auschwitz; in its face we can only cower in terror and defeat. For Auschwitz represents an evil beyond our capacity to comprehend, "the radical or demonic evil that is done and celebrated for its own sake."[xxii] Auschwitz demonstrates that humanity can never leave its evil core; that humans are always on the threshold of becoming "infinitely depravable."[xxiii] Must we always live within this shroud of Auschwitz, knowing that not only our enemies, not only our friends, but us ourselves, are capable of becoming murderous SS guards as well as Muselmanner? Is it our task to recognize that the shroud of Auschwitz is the true driving force of humanity and create society and live life beneath the shadow of an impending apocalypse of mindless violence which is latent in all human subjectivity?

In his memoirs, Levi tells us that he is unable to forgive the Nazis:

A few years ago I learned, in a letter to our common friends Hety S., about whom I will speak later on, that Améry called me "the forgiver." I consider this neither insult nor praise but imprecision. I am not inclined to forgive, I never forgave our enemies of that time, nor do I feel I can forgive their imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, or South Africa, because I know no human act that can erase a crime; I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return blows.[xxiv]

Several problems present themselves here. How can Levi speak of forgiving the Nazis? To forgive someone, one must recognize an offense which can or cannot be forgiven. Was it not Levi, though, who first recognized the gray zone of moral undecidability? Levi was a privileged one, he was saved. He did not die like a Muselmann, a pure victim. Is Levi not also to a certain extent guilty along with the Nazis? How can he speak of forgiving the Nazis or of receiving justice when he is guilty along with them? Does not the shroud of Auschwitz cover Levi too, making him guilty for it as well as SS officers? Is Levi simply not recognizing his own guilty, trying to pass it off to others, just like the SS who created the Sonderkommando?


When Reserve Police Battalion 101 arrived in the predominantly Jewish village of Jósefów on July 13, 1942, their commander major Trapp informed them of their orders to remove all the males of the village so that they could be moved to work camps and to shoot all the elderly, as well as the women and children. Trapp simultaneously told his men that if any of them wished not to participate in the rounding up and shooting of Jewish civilians, they would not be punished. At first, no one budged, but after one man came forward and refused to participate, another dozen followed suit[xxv]. When killing the Jews, the policemen paired off face to face with the civilians they were to shoot and shot them in the back. Some policemen during the shooting felt a revulsion against what they were doing and could not continue. Some asked to be reassigned to guard other Jews. Others intentionally shot past the Jews they were to kill and missed. Others attempted to take as long as they could either between shootings or while searching for Jews so that they would not have to continue the killing. Most who could not bear to shoot left early in the process, but some left afterwards.

After the massacre, the men went back to their barracks and ate angrily, though the massacre was never discussed. It was a taboo subject; no one wanted to speak or think about what they had just done. It was easier to act as if it had just not taken place. When Reserve Police Battalion 101 saw its next massacre at Lomazy, however, the situation was entirely different. First, the battalion did not have to do most of the shooting, as that job was given to another force to accomplish. Second, the police did not have to pair off face to face with their victims, simply shooting them en masse. Without the personal connection of seeing the victims' faces, the police found it easier to kill indiscriminately[xxvi]. But the change went beyond this. At Lomazy, the police not only shot efficiently without attempting to escape, they became increasingly brutal, at times even torturing and publicly humiliating their victims[xxvii]. In between massacres, the battalion had been ordered to assist in the deportation of Jews to camps, and these had involved killing those Jews physically unable to make the journey or those who caused trouble. After Lomazy, the battalion was involved in more deportations and eventually became involved in "Jew hunts" to find and kill Jews who had evaded previous deportations or massacres. For the hunts, orders did not need to be given directly to the men: the captain simply needed to ask for volunteers and enough policemen would volunteer to join the hunt that orders were unnecessary[xxviii]. Once the men had become habituated to killing, they became increasingly callous and brutal about their work, although there were some who still refused to kill. By the end of the war, the battalion was able to participate in massacres which ended in 38,000 deaths and 45,000 deportations. Reserve Police Battalion 101 was approximately 500 strong.

On the face of it, the story of Reserve Police Batallion 101 is a terrifying reminder of how evil can corrupt all human beings and make them killing demons. If weread the history of the battalion this way, it is simply another example of the shroud of Auschwitz's sway over all of humanity. Yet there is another angle to the story which must be remembered: there were some who refused. There were policemen who refused to kill, either as conscientious objectors before the fact or after they started shooting and realized that they simply could not go on. We look further and we see there are more stories of those who refused to participate in Nazi atrocities. Throughout Europe, along with stories of collaborators and horrific acts come stories of rescuers and those who resisted the Nazis[xxix]. The tiny population of the village of Le Chambon in France harbored a population of Jews over twice its size over a period of three years in the middle of the war, despite the constant threat of arrest[xxx]. Once we recognize this, we recognize that evil is not universal. Like a star in the night, the goodness of those who said no to Hitler pierces the shroud of Auschwitz, shattering its universality. Outside of Auschwitz, people can refuse to bend to their inner SS guard and show a different side of themselves, one which is incomprehensible to those under the sway of the shroud of Auschwitz, who cannot understand people outside of their capacities for evil.


Returning to Auschwitz, we now find that the gray zone is not as totalizing is it previously appeared. Creating the Sonderkommando for Levi was "National Socialism's most demonic crime."[xxxi] Creating the Sonderkommando did not in fact make Jews as culpable for the violence of Auschwitz as the SS, it made Jews forget that they were not as culpable as the SS, such that they would only remember the morals and dignity they had lost in Auschwitz and thus feel guilt. We from the outside cannot understand and thus cannot judge those in Auschwitz because we cannot say for certain what we would have done had we been in the collaborator's place. We, the readers of testimony from Auschwitz, have no authority to judge the collaborators in the camps and say that some are guilty and others are innocent. Yet we must not forget that the conditions of Auschwitz which drove prisoners to collaborate were material and real[xxxii]. To have created the conditions of Auschwitz such that prisoners would forget their victimization and ally with the oppressors is the true crime of the Nazis, and it is in this sense that we can call Auschwitz a crime. The Nazis carried out a deliberate plan to destroy and dehumanize European Jewry in such a way that they would be forced to participate in their own extermination. The shroud of Auschwitz cannot hide this simple truth, that decisions were made which caused Auschwitz and caused its violence. No matter how gray the gray zone appears, it cannot alter the fact that a group of people caused the conditions of Auschwitz to be as they were, and for that they can be given moral blame.

Now that we have seen that the gray zone of undecidability of moral judgment only extends to collaborators in Auschwitz, several things become clear to us now. First, there is some standard by which we can judge Auschwitz, its perpetrators, those who created the conditions which allowed the dehumanization of the Jews and the creation of the gray zone. Second, because people can say no to evil actions, evil is not necessarily the mover of history, and there is another way to interpret modern society than as under the sway of the shroud of Auschwitz.

More importantly, we can see the danger in believing in the sway of the shroud of Auschwitz. Morals only appear gray if we accept that the perpetrators of Auschwitz succeeded in one way: that a situation can be created which causes people to commit acts of incomprehensible barbarity, to dehumanize others and force them to act against their own kin. While it is certain that the Nazis succeeded to a large extent in Auschwitz, do we really wish to say that the Nazis have created a new state of modern politics, one based on the possibility of universalizing the gray zone? Do we want to say that the Nazis succeeded in creating a world where we live in perpetual danger of having our morals fail, revealing our true evil sides? Do we want to say that the Nazis have created a politics where the only society is one which tries to escape for a little longer the inevitable evil anti-Semitism and violence in all of us? Is this not, on the contrary, to grant a posthumous victory to Hitler? To say that the political climate of hatred and violence he created is now the one we live in and accept as inevitable?

To accept that the violence of Auschwitz is inevitable and rules our politics and destiny as humans is to admit defeat to Hitler and his beliefs. To accept that violence and struggle rules politics is to accept that the only way to create a stable community is to violently root out and destroy those elements which threaten it. And if violence does in fact lie at the heart of our subjectivity then there will always be elements which threaten the instability of a future community: mourning over the violence of Auschwitz will become melancholia over ever finding a non-violent society. The desire for stability will become the idealized law by which all societies are judged and found inevitably wanting, causing self-hatred towards any and all existing societies turning into despair and paralysis over how to create a just society[xxxiii].

Here we must reverse our course and refuse to view the Holocaust as the manifestation of pure demonic evil on earth. We must agree with Levi; Auschwitz was a crime, and those who created Auschwitz criminals. But Auschwitz was not simply a crime against particular Jews, those who were dehumanized in the camps[xxxiv]. If Auschwitz was a "crime against humanity", then there must be some part of Auschwitz's violence which transcends individual acts of violence against particular people and can be considered violence against humanity as a whole.

Later in Levi's memoirs, he discusses the shame and guilt survivors of Auschwitz felt after being rescued. Guilt and shame were felt not for having been implicated in the gray zone, but for having ignored human obligations to others:

More realistic is self-accusation, or the accusation of having failed in terms of human solidarity. Few survivors feel guilty about having deliberately damaged, robbed, or beaten a companion. Those who did so (the Kapos, but not only they) block out the memory. By contrast, however, almost everybody feels guilty of having omitted to offer help. The presence at your side of a weaker - or less cunning, or older, or too young - companion, hounding you with his demands for help or with his simple presence, in itself an entreaty, is a constant in the life of the Lager. The demand for solidarity, for a human word, advice, even just a listening ear, was permanent and universal but rarely satisfied. There was no time, space, privacy, patience, strength; most often, the person to whom the request was addressed found himself in his turn in a state of need, entitled to comfort.[xxxv]

It was not for having been dehumanized, desubjectified, or having had their inner SS or Muselmann revealed, that caused the prisoners' shame. It was rather that the conditions in Auschwitz made carrying out ethical obligations to others and the creation of human solidarity impossible: prisoners were forced to think only for their own self-interest without concern for the needs of others. The others' calls for help had to be repeatedly ignored for the prisoner to maintain concern for their own survival.

Another way of stating this is that survivors were not ashamed because they were reduced to a State of Nature they were attempting to repress; they were ashamed because they were forced to give up a State of Good they were striving for.[xxxvi] In this State of Good, law would function to legitimize and provide enforceability for the obligations constitutive of human solidarity and community. In the State of Good, people are subjectified insofar as they accept obligations towards others and recognize that their fate is tied to that of the others, so that when others cry out for help, for justice, they can respond. The State of Good is based on the necessity to respond to another's call for help: in the call help which is always a call to me, I am individualized and recognize myself as the one called upon, interpellated by the Other to respond to his need[xxxvii]. A sense of emotion beyond mere empathy; I am called to a experience a sense of responsibility to help the Other in his hour of danger and need[xxxviii]. The call of the Other demands my response, a call which transcends any particular action I undertake for the Other but rather implicates my very relationship with the Other and with the world in general. I am that I respond to the Other's call.

But what is the call of the Other for? Simply to respond to a particular need, or for something greater, something higher? For Levi, it not simply a question of responding to others in particular cases, but having survived instead of another:

Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wiser, worthier of living than you? You cannot block out such feelings: you examine yourself, you review your memories, hoping to find them all, and that none of them are masked or disguised. No, you find no obvious transgressions, you did not usurp anyone's place, you did not beat anyone (but would you have had the strength to do so?), you did not accept positions (but none were offered to you...), you did not steal anyone's bread; nevertheless you cannot exclude it. It is no more than a supposition, indeed the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother's Cain, that each one of us (but this time I say "us" in a much vaster, indeed, universal sense) has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead. It is a supposition, but it gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; although unseen from the outside, it gnaws and rasps.[xxxix]

Without engaging in any concrete transgressions against another, I can still fail to respond to the Other's call for help. The call of the Other here is a call to respond to their death, to help them live. Having ignored this call, I find myself in inexorable moral debt to the Other[xl]. The Other calls upon me to address myself to him in my entirety: to not simply prevent his death but to do his life and death justice. To respond to the call of the Other is to respond to the Other's call for justice.[xli]

We can read more in Levi's passage. Since guilt for the Other's death stems from inability to respond to his call for justice, it means that there is a value to that life such that I can feel culpable for not responding to its call for justice. The value in this life is not something which inheres in the Other as a predicate to a subject; rather the Other exists inasmuch as he is a call for justice. Subjectivity in the State of Good is a demand for justice; subjects within the State of Good are demands for themselves to be understood and for me to do justice to their existences. The subject is not the added mask to hide one's inner Muselmann: the subject is the self who demands to be understood and have justice be given to him, so that he can live and flourish as an ethical subject. This is why for Levi the Muselmann is the figure of evil in the modern age. The Muselmann represents the radical negation of the State of good, where subjects' demands for justice are not only ignored, they are erased entirely such that the subject is reduced to an entity without the ability to create a demand for justice in language or thought, reduced to animalistic care for one's own survival.

And now we see the true nature of the crime of Auschwitz. The concrete acts of the sovereign to foster justice in society are laws. Law represents the codified demand of one particular group of subjects for justice[xlii]. Although no particular law completely fulfills the demand for justice for all or even for some, the spirit of law is such that it aims at fulfilling the demand of a group of subjects. For the State of Good to exist as such, subjects must recognize that their claims to justice are tied to others' claims to justice; justice is never for one person alone. The Other's claim to justice imposes a limit of my claim's freedom: my claim to justice cannot be fulfilled at the expense of the Other's[xliii]. The law is the site of compromise between justice claims: in itself no act of law can ever fulfill a justice claim because it must constantly balance between competing claims to justice between subjects and subject groups[xliv]. As we have seen earlier, the Nazi state's form of justice was based on the attempt at fulfilling one group's claim to justice at the total expense of another's: answering the Nazi call for justice not only came at the expense of, but was also and more importantly defined by the exclusion of the Jews' call for justice[xlv]. The Nazi call for justice was explicitly stated as a call to silence the Jews' call for justice, stating that the two calls were incommensurable.

There is not simply justice; there is always justice for a particular subject or group who can articulate a call for justice. Thus, there is no universal call for justice which applies to all humanity[xlvi]. For the State of Good to exist, justice must not be a self-interested demand for material advantage: justice must be an ethical exhortation to coexistence and solidarity, precisely the solidarity which Auschwitz made impossible. Justice claims must be balanced and compromised: all decisions of law on how to balance competing justice claims must take into account the uniqueness of the justice claims and maintain fidelity to honoring that claim in all ways possible. There are thus no universal rules in justice: all acts of justice must be made on a case-by-case basis to balance specific claims to justice, and thus cannot follow a prescribed rule of how to create just laws[xlvii]. The just-ness of all justice is thus predicated upon the commitment to human solidarity embodied to whatever extent possible in acts of law. Human solidarity is thus the lynchpin and the founding spirit, the preamble to all laws, the unspoken desire underpinning all calls for justice: the call for justice is the expression of the universal desire for human solidarity.

The crime of Auschwitz was not simply a crime against European Jewry; it was also not simply a crime against the structure of laws. Auschwitz was a perversion of the very idea of human justice. Auschwitz not only ignored but explicitly silenced the desire for human solidarity, not only through the exclusion of the Jewish desire for solidarity through the Nuremberg Laws and deportations to camps; the Nazis silenced the desire for solidarity by reducing Jews to Muselmanner, destroying their very capacity to conceive of solidarity in forcing them to hold concern only for their physical survival. The Muselmann is the figure of evil in the modern age because it is the most radical negation of the call for justice and the desire for solidarity ever conceived: not only to silence factual calls for justice but to destroy the very possibility of holding a desire for solidarity. Auschwitz articulated the Nazi call for justice by radically silencing the Jewish call for justice, attempting to create a call for justice which ignored and ultimately spat in the face of the desire for solidarity.

In the face of this radical silencing of the desire for solidarity, the only way to confront Auschwitz and respond to its violence is to reaffirm our commitment to justice and human solidarity. We must reject the notion that politics functions through violence and struggle and instead base society on affirming human solidarity and the call for justice. In Levi's words:

It has obscenely been said that there is a need for conflict: that mankind cannot do without it. It has also been said that local conflicts, violence in the streets, factories, and stadiums, are an equivalent of generalized war and preserve us from it, as petit mal, the epileptic equivalent, preserves from grand mal. It has been observed that never before in Europe did forty years go by without a way: such a long European peace is supposedly a historical anomaly.

These are captious and suspect arguments. Satan is not necessary: there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances. There are no problems that cannot be solved around a table, provided there is good will and reciprocal trust - or even reciprocal fear, as the present interminable stalled situation seems to demonstrate, a situation in which the greatest powers confront each other with cordial or threatening faces but have no restraint when it comes to unleashing (or allowing the unleashing) of bloody wars among those "protected" by them, supplying sophisticated weapons, spies, mercenaries, and military advisers instead of arbiters of peace.[xlviii]

Politics must no longer hold the purpose of evading the State of Nature; it must rather seek to construct the State of Good, an interminable task, but one which constitutes the ethical imperative of our time. Without taking up the ethical imperative of heeding the conflicting calls for justice, we are left under the shroud of Auschwitz, with eschatological politics preserving one community by constructing another one as an enemy to be destroyed. For Levi, the alternative to affirming human solidarity is that of the Cold War, where the only way to prevent nuclear apocalypse is to create small conflicts to weaken the Other. The alternative to constructing the State of Good is living under the shroud of Auschwitz, in a politics where violence is inevitable and justified.

How to begin affirming the State of Good? The first step to be taken is to reaffirm our faith in God. Our faith, however, must be of a different character than before. We should not place our faith in a God who will miraculously create Zion, but neither should we abandon God entirely: to do either would be an injustice to those who kept faith in Auschwitz despite the unimaginable suffering they endured[xlix]. Faith in God must rest in the precarious territory between positive and negative revelations of God's goodness in intervening on behalf of humanity and his absence in Auschwitz. To believe that God's hand moves history leaves one with the intractable question of why a good God would allow Auschwitz. Instead, we must understand that God has created the conditions for humanity to create goodness in the world, but has left the task of its construction to humanity to complete by itself[l]. Messianic redemption does not take place within the time of history with a helping God to bring about its achievement. To bring about goodness in the world is inexorably our own responsibility. Our relationship with God must not base itself on emotional communion with a father figure, but rather an ethical commitment to educate oneself on justice and how to bring it about in worldly society[li]. God is neither the first cause of the world, nor the ideal and pure being which guarantees the truth and goodness of the world. To be educated on God is to be educated on how one must relate to others and act towards them; to have faith in God is to be committed to fostering justice and goodness in the world[lii].

Faith in God is thus not an empty belief in ultimate redemption, but a commitment to take on the ethical responsibility to heed the Other's call to justice and act to create the State of Good in the world. Faith in God is to reclaim human justice and respond to the desire for human solidarity through working to create the material conditions to bring about the closest possible society to the State of Good. This begins with morally condemning the conditions in Auschwitz which prevented the call for justice from being heard. But moral condemnation is not enough; we must learn what the decisions which caused the concrete conditions in Auschwitz were and how they were carried out institutionally and through personal decisions and create the institutional conditions to prevent them from occurring in the future. To respond to Auschwitz is to ensure that it does not happen again, not through escaping its violence by creating a community which defends itself against the evil world, but by creating a society which can accommodate conflicting calls for justice without excluding or silencing some. Justice can and must still be spoken of after Auschwitz; we must remember, though that it is inexorably and unavoidably our own responsibility to bring it about through our own educated actions.


[i] See Dwork, Debórah, and Jan Van Pelt, Robert. Holocaust: A History, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 2002, p. 69.

[ii] See Claudia Koonz, who argues that conventional morals based on conscience are based on the injunction to do unto others as one hopes they will treat one in return. The universalism of this commandment is always broken as soon as a culture asks the question of who the others are to whom one must relate in this particular way. A moral group will thus organize itself based on its particular identity by differentiating itself from other groups. Once a moral group has been organized according to its identity, moral codes will be constructed to privilege members of the in-group over the out-group. This not only makes universal ethics impossible, but also demonstrates that when universal ethics are applied, inequality of moral duties is inevitable (The Nazi Conscience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 5)

[iii] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Books, New York, 1977, p. 70.

[iv] See ibid., pp. 136-137 for a discussion of Eichmann's following of Kant's categorical imperative. For Arendt, Eichmann's actions do not directly implicate Kant's imperative as he did not base his actions on usages of practical reason but rather through blind obedience. Arendt's thesis is that Eichmann's conceptual framework was so limited that he was unable to understand that it was possible to act outside of his dictates. Yet Arendt admits that later in the war, Eichmann's sense of obligation drove him to disobey orders and come into conflict with his superiors who wished to halt the extermination. In these cases, Eichmann did make decisions for himself, ordering the forced marches of Jews after Allied bombing had destroyed train lines and other acts to "make the Final Solution final". (Arendt, p. 146) It is possible to argue with this evidence that Eichmann did in fact follow Kant's categorical imperative by using his practical reason to ensure that Jews were transported to death camps, believing that to be his civic duty and thus an act following a law which could be made universally applicable.

[v] Fackenheim, Emil. "Holocaust", in A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination, ed. Michael L. Morgan, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, p. 125.

[vi] Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf, Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster Publishing, New York, 1996, p. 87.

[vii] Levi, 1996, p. 86.

[viii] See Levi, 1996, pp. 90-92 and Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, Random House, New York, 1989, pp. 41-42 for discussion of the various ways in which prisoners could gain privileges in the camps and thus become saved.

[ix] Levi, 1996, p. 90.

[x] Cf. Giorgio Agamben's discussion of the limit situation of the Muselmanner, arguing that since the Muselmanner were not only suffering but experiencing suffering beyond human capacity to help or even understand, a human who has not experienced what the Muselmanner experienced cannot ethically judge as to the Muselmanners' humanity as they have reached a situation beyond which anyone outside of the camps can understand. For Agamben, the fact that the majority of prisoners in Auschwitz became Muselmanner demonstrates that the limit of what we can call human and inhuman is no longer applicable to the camps and demonstrates the inadequacy of the limit itself (Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books, New York, 2002, p. 63).

[xi] Levi, 1989, pp. 42-43. Also see Arendt, pp. 115-117 for a discussion of the Judenrat's collaboration with the Nazis.

[xii] Levi, 1989, pp. 48-49.

[xiii] Levi, 1989, pp. 53-54.

[xiv] Levi, of course, would answer "no", that we cannot judge the Sonderkommando and other collaborators in Auschwitz because we were never in their place and so cannot possibly understand what drove them to act as they did. The more pressing question that comes out of this, though, is whether ethical categories apply to Auschwitz at all. If conditions in Auschwitz were so radically different from those of the outside world, then we can never understand what drove people's actions in the camp. If the Nazi's souls and the Jews' souls were equally destroyed and so radically different from ours, can we at all understand what they did and why they did it, and pass judgment on them?

[xv] Levi, 1989, p. 55.

[xvi] Agamben, p. 26, Sanyal, Debarati, "A Soccer Match in Auschwitz: Passing Culpability in Holocaust Criticism", Representations, vol. 79, Summer 2002, p. 1.

[xvii] The sway of the shroud of Auschwitz over all, including prisoners, can be seen in the phenomenon of survivor guilt. For Levi, survivors felt ashamed after being rescued from the camps because in the camps, they had lost their ability to follow normal moral codes, and were reduced to the animalistic state of having to care for their own survival and no more (Levi, 1989, p. 75). Prisoners were forced to ignore multiple cases where in other circumstances they would have helped others, when in Auschwitz they were forced to look away. For Agamben, survivors' guilt is a shame which reveals the truth about the survivors as subjects; that all humans at the core of their subjectivity harbor a truth so abominable to moral codes that it must be hidden and repressed. This truth, in Agamben's analysis, is that we are all at bottom Muselmanner: that when subjected to extreme situations, we all will become desubjectified and enter the space between human and inhuman which belongs to the Muselmanner and enter the same gray zone of culpability as prisoners in Auschwitz (Agamben, pp. 105-106).

[xviii] Levi, 1989, p. 69.

[xix] Agamben, p. 101, italics in the original. For Agamben, the violence of Auschwitz to reduce people to Muselmanner, desubjectifying them and placing them in a zone between living and dead is a violence that has been latent in human politics since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Even from the time of Plato and Aristotle, human life has been divided into bare biological life and good political life, such that politics has always attempted to create the conditions for good life and clearly demarcate it from apolitical bare life (Norris, Andrew, "Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead", Diacritics, vol. 30, no. 4, 2000, pp. 39-40). Western politics has thus functioned by defining what good life is and differentiating it from bare life, such that sovereignty always retains the power to decide who is able to live the good life and who is excluded from that political project (Norris, p. 46). The violence of Auschwitz, to define a population as inhuman and create the conditions for that sovereign decision to become a reality, is alive in all western politics, as all western sovereignty is based on the sovereign decision to declare a certain portion of the population as outside the scope of good life, relegating them to bare abject existence.

[xx] Matthew, 11:8.

[xxi] Rubenstein, Richard, "The Making of a Rabbi", in Morgan, ed., pp. 90-91, and Rubenstein, Richard, "Symposium on Jewish Belief", in Morgan, ed., p. 95.

[xxii] Fackenheim, "Holocaust", p. 125. For Fackenheim, philosophy has always thought of evil as either ignorance or mental sickness, ignoring evil which is conducted for its own sake as it does not fit in with the belief in humanity's progress.

[xxiii] Fackenheim, "Holocaust", p. 126. Fackenheim argues that the only way for Jewish society to continue after Auschwitz is through the Jewish state of Israel. For Fackenheim, Auschwitz is the ultimate proof of the impossibility of Judaism in exile, since the Gentile population will always commit newer and greater acts against exile Jewry, and in the enormity of its evil defies any attempt to find meaning in it ("Jewish Faith and the Holocaust", in Morgan, ed., p. 119). The only possible response to Auschwitz is thus not to seek meaning in it but to radically affirm a "will to live", knowing the risks of surviving as Jews in a world saturated with anti-Semitism. Thus, Fackenheim hears the commanding voice from out of Auschwitz, telling Jews not "to grant posthumous victories to Hitler" and thus survive as Jews despite anti-Semitism (Fackenheim, "Jewish Faith and the Holocaust", pp. 119-120). Fackenheim thus implicitly sets up a Manichean dualism between Jews and Gentiles: since the world Gentile population is inherently anti-Semitic, the only possibility for Jewish survival is to create a "heroic" community which embodies Jewish ethics and can defend itself from the evil outside world ("The Holocaust and the State of Israel", in Morgan, ed., pp. 136-137). Fackenheim accepts the inevitability of the shroud of Auschwitz's dominion throughout the Gentile world, arguing that only a purified eschatological Jewish community can survive anti-Semitism. Agamben, for his part, adopts the exact opposite alternative of creating a community which does not affirm any identity whatsoever, such that the sovereign no longer has power to define which community can participate in the good life and which community cannot, since the "coming community" affirms no identity at all (Norris, p. 53). Despite their differences, both Fackenheim and Agamben agree on one point: the inevitable will to violence of those who are in power, whether it be the Gentile population or the sovereign, espousing an alternative political community which does not seek to engage with the powers which are inevitably violent, but instead creates a new society which seeks to escape entirely the political structures and culture which allows for the violence of Auschwitz.

[xxiv] Levi, 1989, p. 137.

[xxv] For a full account of Police Battalion 101's involvement in Józefów, see Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Harper Perennial, New York, 1992, pp. 56-70.

[xxvi] Browning, p. 85.

[xxvii] Browning, p. 87.

[xxviii] Browning, p. 128.

[xxix] See Dwork and Jan Van Pelt's chapter on rescuers in Holocaust: A History.

[xxx] See Hallie, Philip, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, Harper Perennial, New York, 1994.

[xxxi] Levi, 1989, p. 53.

[xxxii] Sanyal criticizes Agamben's radicalization of the gray zone to include the readers of testimony from Auschwitz as well as all modern neo-liberal subjects for genre confusion between the real violence of the Nazis and the violence of those who read testimony and of the modern subject, which can be no more than metaphorical. The normality of civilian life does not commit material violence at the heart of our subjectivity, but rather commits metaphorical violence against the "evil core" of our subjectivity. To Sanyal, Agamben's charge that modern society replicates the violence of Auschwitz conflates the two kinds of violence, ignoring the real differences between the two kinds of violence (Sanyal, p. 9). The normality of civilian life does not commit physical violence against real people, just as the Sonderkommando's participation in the soccer game did not in fact make them Nazis. Agamben radicalizes Auschwitz to claim that its characteristic violence is not only present since ancient times, but is now fulfilled in modern democracy. Ironically, this claim does not demonstrate Auschwitz's horror as deny it, claiming that its violence is in fact normal (Sanyal 2002, pp. 8-10). Levi even warns that confusing perpetrators and victims is a "precious service" given to Holocaust-deniers, giving them the opportunity to claim that Auschwitz's violence is merely another instance of modernity's history of violence (Levi 1989, p. 50). The Nazis created the conditions of Auschwitz which made prisoners forgot their victimization and allied with their oppressors; this is the crime of Auschwitz in Levi's sense. Whether or not the gray zone existed within Auschwitz, it cannot be extended outside of it: the Nazis caused the conditions which led to the gray zone, and can be blamed for that.

[xxxiii] Cf. Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia", in General Psychological Theory, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997, p. 170.

[xxxiv] It is not by accident that Israel set up a separate trial for Eichmann for crimes "against the Jewish people," since the Nuremberg trials indicted Nazis "for crimes against the members of various nations." (Arendt 1977, pp. 6-7)

[xxxv] Levi, 1989, p. 79.

[xxxvi] Cf. Hobbes' equation of humanity's natural state, the "condition of meer Nature" with a state of constant war (Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991, p. 111). Is not Agamben's equation of our true subjectivity with the Muselmann not another replication of Hobbes' state of Nature? Both Hobbes and Agamben would agree that violence lies at the heart of human subjectivity without either the Leviathan or politics to cover over this essential violence. The only response to the inevitability of this logic, leading from human subjectivity straight to the death camps and to Fackenheim's eschatological state, is an ethical response, radically affirming a State of Good which refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of violence in human affairs.

[xxxvii] See Levinas, Emmanuel. God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bargo, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2000, p. 12.

[xxxviii] Levinas, 2000, p. 17.

[xxxix] Levi, 1989, pp. 81-82.

[xl] Cf. Levinas, 2000, p. 12 "My being affected by the death of the other is precisely that, my relation with his death. It is, in my relation, my deference to someone who no longer responds, already a culpability - the culpability of the survivor.

[xli] See Derrida, Jacques. "The 'Mystical Foundations of Authority'", in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, Routledge, New York, 1992, p. 17. For Derrida, the condition of all possibility of justice is that one is able to address oneself to the Other who demands justice and speak to him in the same language, so that one can understand the Other's call and respond to it adequately. In his reading of Levinas, although the Other and I come from irreducibly different worlds, we must attempt to speak to each other in a shared language as that is the "law of the implicit third" which binds us together in a community (Derrida, p. 17). To address oneself to the Other is then to attempt to understand his world as much as possible so that one can respond to the need of the Other's world in its entirety and thus to give oneself to the task of making oneself open to the Other's world.

[xlii] Derrida, p. 17.

[xliii] Fraser, David. "Dead Man Walking: Law and Ethics After Giorgio Agamben's Auschwitz", International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, vol. 12, 1999, p. 411.

[xliv] Derrida, p. 23.

[xlv] Cf. Koonz, p. 5.

[xlvi] Derrida, p. 18.

[xlvii] Derrida problematizes the relationship between law and justice, arguing that justice attempts to address itself to the specificity and uniqueness of the Other, but when made into a concrete "just" act, takes the form of a law which is reiterable and can thus be put into the form of a universal maxim (Derrida, p. 20). For Derrida, this means that no act of law can ever fully address itself to the Other and claim to have answered his call for justice, but he is emphatic on the point that the call for justice in itself cannot be deconstructed, and thus always exists. Law is thus forced into the aporia of working from precedents and rules so as not to contradict other laws and be legible in legal discourse but also to maintain fidelity to the uniqueness of a particular call for justice. Decisions on justice are therefore made in a state of "undecidability", where the two interests of fitting within the generality of law and responding to the Other's call cannot be made commensurable, so that no rule can be applied to the decision and the outcome of its being just or unjust is uncertain (Derrida, p. 24). The decision made in a state of undecidability is thus ethical, as in the moment of decision I recognize that I cannot defer my decision to a rule; my decision is irrevocably mine, leaving my decision and myself exposed to ethical judgment (Clegg, Stewart, Kornberger, Martin, and Rhodes, Carl. "Organizational Ethics, Decision Making, Undecidability", The Sociological Review, vol. 55, no. 2, 2007, p. 394, also cf. Levinas, 2000, p. 187, "The psyche is that animation and inspiration of the Same by the Other; it is translated into a fission of the core of the subject's interiority by way of its assignation to respond, which leaves no refuge and authorizes no escape. It is like a despite myself that is more me than myself: it is an election. Every me is elected or chose: no one else can do what it must do.")

[xlviii] Levi, 1989, p. 200.

[xlix] See Berkovits, Eliezer, "Faith after the Holocaust", in Morgan, ed., pp.97-98, where he argues that Auschwitz poses a dilemma for those who are faithful. On the one hand, one cannot abandon faith in God because of the suffering caused in Auschwitz because that ignores those in Auschwitz who experienced the suffering firsthand and still retained their faith. And on the other hand, one cannot simply retain the same kind of faith in a redemptive God as before, as that ignores those in Auschwitz who did experience suffering and the questions their suffering poses. Thus Eliezer says "In the presence of the holy faith of the crematoria, the ready faith of those where not there, is vulgarity. But the disbelief of the sophisticated intellectual in the midst of an affluent society - in the light of the holy disbelief of the crematoria - is obscenity." (Eliezer, p. 98)

[l] Berkovits, p. 101.

[li] Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1997, p. 144.

[lii] Levinas, 1997, pp. 17-18.


Daniel del Nido, class of 2010 with an honors double major in Religion and Philosophy, is currently a first-year PhD student at Columbia University's Religion department. He wrote this paper for Elliot Ratzman's (currently Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Temple University) honors seminar "Spirit in Ashes: The Holocaust and Religion," which explored various trends in post-Holocaust theology and political philosophy. This paper was written in an intentionally provocative style, attempting through the use of philosophically non-traditional rhetoric to raise the intellectual questions the Holocaust presents in the starkness and magnitude required to fully comprehend the ethical implications of the event. del Nido hopes to continue his studies of post-Holocaust religious thought as an element of his graduate education, and to integrate this area of thought into his own intellectual career.