When Tzvetan Todorov died on February 7, the Bulgarian/French philosopher and literary critic was lamented only in certain intellectual ghettoes. To the men and women eulogizing Todorov in these circles, he was feted properly if not stingily, which is most unfortunate. Finite word counts are a harsh mistress when a fellow writer endeavors to create a fully realized portrait of his or her subject.
Todorov leaves behind a body of historical and moral philosophy that connects the dots between the great European humanist writers prior to the Marxist experiments of the twentieth century – Comte, Montaigne, Montesquieu, for example – and such documentarians of Nazi and Soviet evils as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Unlike the listed documentarians, Todorov never suffered the deprivations of the Soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps. He did, however, endure the suppression of individual freedom until he was 24 years old, the age he emigrated from Soviet-satellite Bulgaria to France more than 50 years ago.
Why then should we celebrate Todorov’s accomplishments? What distinguishes Todorov’s works on the totalitarian experiments of the past 100 years is his focus on the moral witness by those denied fundamental dignities in the Soviet camps and German lagers. Some of these men and women silently and not so silently protested the yoke of oppression for the benefit of those other than themselves and immediate family and close friends. As Todorov noted in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1996):
There are various perspectives from which the accounts of life in the camps can be read. One can ponder the precise chain of events that led to the creation of the camps and then to their extinction; one can debate the political significance of the camps; on can extract sociological or psychological lessons from them. Yet even though I cannot ignore those perspectives altogether, I would like to take a different approach. I want to look at the camps from the perspective of moral life and … concern myself with individual destinies rather than numbers and dates. But already I hear an objection: Wasn’t that question settled a long time ago? Haven’t we learned only too well the sad and simple truth the camps revealed, namely, that in extreme situations all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival?
Todorov quotes Tadeusz Borowski’s takeaway from Auschwitz: “[M]orality, national solidarity, patriotism and the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity had all slid off man like a rotten rag. ... There is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself.” Todorov finds similar themes in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, which recounts stories inspired by the author’s 17 years of incarceration in the infamous Soviet gulag.
“When the survival instinct totally dominates moral life, one loses a sense of compassion for the suffering of others and no longer offers the help one normally would,” writes Todorov. “Rather than aid the next person, one might instead further his decline if it meant relief from one’s own suffering.” Certainly, Todorov admits, there’s enough evidence to support this thesis. But, he adds: “If an individual’s every action is determined by the orders of those above him and the need to survive, then he has no freedom left at all; no longer can he truly exercise his will and choose one behavior over another. And where there is no choice, there is also no place for any kind of moral life whatsoever.”
However, Todorov’s research details a king’s ransom of choices among prisoners – often refuting those prisoners’ own claims. Dr. Ena Weiss was an Austrian confined at Auschwitz who told another inmate she placed her own needs “first, second, and third. Then nothing. Then myself again – and then all the others.” Like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca – “I stick my neck out for nobody” – Weiss overstated her self-preservation dramatically. Just as Bogart’s anti-hero eventually reveals himself as a champion of the World War II underground freedom fighters, Weiss assisted “tens, indeed hundreds of other prisoners.”
Other examples abound to support Todorov’s conclusion. Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized after he gave his own life in return for the life of a father and husband while imprisoned in Auschwitz. In Voices from the Gulag (1999), Todorov adopts the first-person narrative style of Studs Terkel, transcribing stories told by Bulgarian gulag survivors. Had Terkel read these reminiscences, however, he might have loosened his fondness for socialism significantly. In her own words, Lilyana Princheva recounts some of her experiences as a prisoner for nearly six years in Belene and Bosna:
When I think about all that can be said regarding the truly awful conditions at these camps…. At Bosna, we actually lived in a stable. We worked like beasts of burden in the fields. We were constantly humiliated, and the clothes we were given were no less humiliating: they were old, tattered army fatigues. We worked from morning to night, under the blazing sun of summer and in the paralyzing cold of winter.
Despite these conditions, Princheva explained:
We survived, however, because we kept our humanity – and did so despite their best effort to persuade us, day in, day out, and around the clock, that we were useless, that we were vermin and a danger to society. They humiliated us and tried to sap our ability to think for ourselves. In our ranks were anarchists, Trotskyites, Agrarians, and those who refused all labels and Party affiliations. In this intolerable atmosphere of daily hardship and hard and pointless labor, we were saved by that aspiration shared by all human beings – namely, the desire for dignity, humanity, and goodness.
[Another] example of the power of the human spirit … For example, we all agreed that whenever a package arrived, we would give it to whomever was ill. Though starving, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to eat a single thing from the package. It was for our sick comrade.Unfortunately, Princheva goes on to relate that the camps often succeeded in dehumanizing many other prisoners. Many, but not all – and perhaps not even the majority of the incarcerated as Todorov reminds his readers again and again.
It’s true that Podorov in his later years made lamentable comments drawing false equivalencies between the activities of Islamic terrorists and Western military actions deployed against them. While unfortunate, considering the breadth of his knowledge concerning the evils of totalitarianism, such statements are only footnotes to Todorov’s greater accomplishments.
One thing is for certain and that is Communism and Fascism weren’t defeated by the scolding of Western politicians. It was undermined when it collapsed of its own weight, expedited by such voices as Weisel, Levi and Solzhenitsyn who witnessed its crimes and everyday horrors. Perhaps as well it was commonplace displays of the moral qualities of kindness, caring and recognition of each others’ dignity by the inmates in the gulags and concentration camps that helped doom such lamentable locations of human misery to the dustbin of recent history. Much of Todorov’s body of work makes a pretty compelling argument that morality is a powerful weapon against the enemies of human freedom.
(Photo credit: Neil. CC BY 2.5. This photo has been cropped and the size altered.)