Tacitus & Primo Levi

It was nice to realize that two Italian writers who lived almost two thousand years apart appear to share the same tone and outlook on world events. Here are a few bits from the Roman historian Tacitus (in his Annal of Imperial Rome) and the more recent memoirist and novelist, Primo Levi (in his The Drowned & the Saved). They both bore witness to horrid violence and bureaucratic indifference, whether in the excesses of the first century Roman emperors, or of Nazi Germany. Sometimes you just need their dark realism:

Levi - The Drowned & the Saved

On Levi’s own—and others’—guilt at having survived the concentration camps:

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralyzed by suffering and incomprehension. (17)

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 outset, it gnaws and rasps. (81-2)

I bore the mark, I was an elect: I, the nonbeliever, and even less of a believer after the seas of Auschwitz, was a person touched by Grace, a saved man. (82)

Like Amery, I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed into cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas? (145)

I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. (83)


On the perversity of the Nazis creating the Sonderkommando

From another point of view, one is stunned by this paroxysm of perfidy and hatred: it must be the Jews who put the Jews into the ovens; it must be shown that the Jews, the subrace, the submen, bow to any and all humiliation, even to destroying themselves. (52)

Conceiving and organizing the squads was National Socialism’s most demonic crime. Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically, the victims—the burn of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. (53)


On the wasteful and even impractical cruelty that was preferred by the Nazis:

Compassion and brutality can coexist in the same individual and in the same moment, despite all logic; and for all that, compassion itself eludes logic. There is no proportion between the pity we feel and the extent of the pain by which the pity is aroused: a single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriads who suffered as she did but whose image has remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is necessary that it can be so. If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live. (56)

In my convoy there were two dying ninety-year-old women, taken out of the Fossoli infirmary: one of them died en route, nursed in vain by her daughters. Would it not have been simpler, more “economical,” to let them lie, or perhaps kill them in their beds, instead of adding their agony to the collective agony of the transport? One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest affliction, the greatest waste, the greatest physical and moral suffering. The “enemy” must not only die, he must die in torment. (120)


On how easily it happened, and how it will likely happen again:

It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end. Where power is exercised by few or only one against the many, privilege is born and proliferates, even against the will of the power itself. (42)

It took place in the teeth of all forecasts; it happened in Europe; incredibly, it happened that an entire civilized people, just issued from the fervid cultural flowering of the Weimar, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (199)

Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride the “beautiful words” of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of scruples favored him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery, and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game. (203)


Tacitus - Annals

I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial. But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome. Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured. Or, if home affairs were their choice, they coudl turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land-and-corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons. Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field. Peace was scarcely broken—if at all. Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire.

Yet even apparently insignificant events such as these are worth examination. For they often cause major historical developments…. Indeed, it is from such studies—from the experience of others—that most men learn to distinguish right and wrong, advantage and disadvantage. Few can tell them apart instinctively.

So these accounts have their uses. But they are distasteful. What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander. My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined—a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes…. Even glory and merit make enemies—by showing their opposites in too sharp and critical relief.

But I must return to my subject. (Annals of Imperial Rome, 4:32-33; this edition translated by Michael Grant, 172-3)


2 Comments Add yours

  1. DK Fennell says:

    Very interesting. This makes clearer Melville’s (or the Man with the Weed’s) treatment of Tacitus in The Confidence Man (Chapter 5).

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