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Primo Levi in the Year of Assassinations

[Primo Levi. Image from] [Primo Levi. Image from]

Next year will mark twenty-five years since the great Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi either fell or jumped to his death down the stairwell of his Turin apartment. This year has given us two important cultural products that engage with Levi the chemist, writer, and Auschwitz survivor—a collection of essays published by Fordham University Press, Answering Auschwitz: Primo Levi's Science and Humanism After the Fall, and the staging of The Mark of the Chemist, a theatrical reading of his writings at the Centro Primo Levi in New York. The re-visitation of Levi’s moral philosophy could not come at a more crucial time than this, a year of trophy assassinations when, more than ever, his courageous—if sometimes deeply unpopular—humanism needs to make itself heard.

2011 has been a year of tribal takedowns, both cold-blooded and hot-headed. If the law of American Exceptionalism sanctioned the killings of Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the law of the jungle sanctioned that of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of a mob. Amidst the chants of “USA, USA” and the celebratory gunfire in Libya’s ruined streets, the stricken few who have dared protest these extrajudicial killings have either been ignored or told to shut up. As the flawed but forceful argument runs, armchair liberals untouched by terror or torture have no business preaching about the rights of mass murderers.

This is where Primo Levi’s clear sense of justice can provide us with an invaluable compass. Since this frail chemist survived the depraved laboratory that was Auschwitz, his stand on human rights is anything but armchair. The question one could ask today is: Would Primo Levi have condoned these kangaroo killings? Or would he have wanted these men, violent and loathsome though they were, to be captured and put on trial as UN-mandated international criminal law demands? 

Those familiar with Levi’s redemptive morality might find these questions gratuitous, even offensive. But on second thought, perhaps they are not. Reviewing Answering Auschwitz, the professor of philosophy and literary critic Carlin Romano wrote in The Chronicle Review:  “One imagines that Levi, if he were still with us, would join the vast majorities who, polls indicate, view the killing of Osama bin Laden as just retribution.” 

Romano's conclusion—a disturbing note in an otherwise excellent review—puts a question mark against everything that Levi stood for. This was a man who devoted his whole life to fighting fascism and warning of the dangers of “government lawlessness.” Every grain of ethical logic therefore dictates that he would have been appalled at, and would not have approved of, a superpower executing an unarmed Osama, no matter how undeniable his crimes. In order to bolster his conclusion, Romano points out that Levi believed in punishment, and was glad to see the Nazis hang. This is certainly true. Nuremberg had Levi’s vote, because it demonstrated “that at least sometimes, at least in part, historical crimes are punished.” He made it crystal clear that he was not “a forgiver.” Since he was not physically strong, he preferred “to delegate punishments, revenges and retaliations to the laws of my country,” but he was also acutely aware of how this power of attorney was open to abuse. He recorded his unease: “This is an obligatory choice: I know how badly these mechanisms function, but I am the way I was made by my past and it is no longer possible for me to change.”

Abbottabad was, in more ways than one, an example of “government lawlessness,” and Sirte a triumph of blood lust over justice. To re-contextualize the debate, one could ask: Would Levi have condoned a similar killing, say, if the Israelis had shot the Holocaust executor Adolf Eichmann in the eye and dumped him into the Atlantic Ocean? One thinks not. In the words of Carole Angier, who wrote the authoritative Double Bond: Primo Levi: A Biography: “He required justice, not personal revenge.” Indeed, it was this same ironclad sense of justice that compelled him, at great personal cost, to condemn the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the aggressive building of settlements in the territories, because, as Angier says, “He was a Jew, but before that he was a democrat.” 

That said, there is no dearth of card-carrying pacifists and democrats who seem unperturbed by the morality of these executions. Among them is the Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, another great survivor-writer of the death camps, who has devoted his life to the humanist cause. Wiesel and Levi were close friends but disagreed fundamentally on Zionism and Palestine, with Wiesel stubbornly insisting that the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue should not be included in peace talks. His reaction to Osama’s death chimed with Romano’s phrase of “just retribution.” Wiesel wrote in Newsweek, “The execution of a human being—any human being—should never be an event to be celebrated. Death—anyone’s—must be taken seriously, thoughtfully…This time is different…He got what he deserved…By his actions, he gave up any right to human compassion.” Ironically, this is the same Wiesel who, when asked by the historian Richard Heffner about Eichmann’s death, displayed an astonishing grace: “If the court had decided not to execute him, I would have also been in favor, but once the court decided to sentence him to death, reluctantly I felt that was an exception [to his anti-capital punishment stance].” The sanctity of criminal justice so terribly important to him in the case of Eichmann seems curiously absent in the case of Osama bin Laden.

Therefore it’s worth asking why Levi, who was no "forgiver," would express support for a trial for tyrants and terrorists. To answer that question, one needs look no further than the profoundly elemental title of his Auschwitz memoir. If This Is a Man, Levi’s first book, which gave agonized birth to the writer inside him, was a cry from the depths of his heart, asking if the survivors of the concentration camps, half-naked, guilt-ridden, starving, and mad, could still qualify for the label of “human”: “With the poison of Auschwitz flowing in our veins would we ever be able to live again?” Levi’s towering humanity lay in the fact that he addressed this cri de coeur not just to the victims, but to the enemy as well. Despite their ovens and slave labor, were the Nazis still worthy of being called men? The answer that came back to both questions was yes. It was a ringing yes in the first case and a barely audible one in the second, but nevertheless a yes. It was this twin affirmation that constituted the founding principle of Nuremberg and the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Both institutions were founded on the same humanist ideal: no matter how debased, victims deserve justice, and no matter how depraved, their oppressors deserve it too.

The principle of justice apart, there is an even more visceral reason for putting wickedness on trial. This was best articulated by Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council. Jalil spoke from the heart when he said he wished Qaddafi had been tried because “I want to know why he did this to the Libyan people.” “Why?” is the first and most desperate question the world asks each time it is hit by mindless violence. It is a word that summons the anguished, Holocaust-defining incident that Levi wrote about and that Carlin Romano cites in his review. Parched with thirst in Auschwitz, Levi reaches for an icicle outside the window, only to have a Nazi guard knock it from his hand. "Warum?" ("Why?"), Levi asked, and the guard replied: "Hier ist kein warum" ("Here there is no why").

But there had to be a why, and Levi devoted his life to finding it. Though he long wanted to transcend the label of “Holocaust writer” and be known for a broader humanist literature, he continued to write and talk about the Holocaust “with fury and method” because he recognized the “seeds of Auschwitz” everywhere—Vietnam, Cambodia, the Soviet gulags, Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan (then invaded by the Soviet Union). “It happened,” he said quietly, “therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

But Levi also pointed us to another, more unexpected, resource that could help the world understand the "why." During the Nuremberg trials, the British ordered the top Nazis to write their memoirs, and these works have become crucial sources for understanding the banal perversions at the heart of the Third Reich. Forty years after the Holocaust, Levi agreed, despite the agony it gave him, to write the introduction to a 1985 edition of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess' memoir, My Soul. Hoess was the man who used Zyklon B to gas Jews, but Levi, while calling him a "blackguard and a scoundrel," provides us with a critical insight into humanity when he says that this blank-faced man was not a “monster.” He was something far worse—an ordinary man with a face like the rest of us, an obedient bureaucrat who never asked why. He goes so far as to describe Hoess’ autobiography as “one of the most instructive books ever published.” Levi himself was praised by literary giants like Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino, and Philip Roth for being an “essential,” a “necessary,” and a “least-dispensable” writer, but through this chilling endorsement of Hoess’ work, Levi makes it clear that the catharsis of the oppressor, however disingenuous, is equally essential, necessary, and indispensable to help us step back from the abyss. If the Nazis had been shot in the back and there had been no Nuremberg, we would not have had these memoirs today.

Only humans can provide the key to their own inhumanity, and courts like Nuremberg and the Hague, where racial and political crime is prosecuted, give the world a chance to download and analyze the pathology of power and hate. Trials can be tricky. They can be potentially embarrassing for governments and run the danger of turning into spectacles. But if conducted fairly, they not only wield enormous moral authority but can provide victims' families with a deeper and more dignified sense of justice having been served than any act of vengeance can. Commenting on the Eichmann trial that riveted the world, Elie Wiesel called it “an educational vehicle of extraordinary importance.” He was right. The trials of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Muammar Qaddafi could have been similarly instructive.

One of the bleakest lines Levi ever wrote—“There was Auschwitz, therefore God cannot exist”—carried in its heart a glimmering, unspoken affirmation that even if God did not exist, humanity, no matter how twisted or tainted, did. State-sponsored assassinations and mob murders only serve to diminish that affirmation.

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