In This Review

Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps
Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps
By Tzvetan Todorov
Henry Holt, 1996, 307 pp

In this luminous book, originally published in France in 1991, Todorov, the great literary theorist and historian, scrutinizes the behavior of those who lived (and so often died) in concentration camps. These experiences he presents as "extreme in two distinct senses of the word: the camps are the extreme manifestations of the totalitarian regime, itself the extreme form of modern political life." What interests him "is not totalitarianism but its influence on individual moral behavior." Beginning with a discussion of the two Warsaw uprisings -- the Jewish ghetto in 1943 and the Polish underground army in 1944 -- he distinguishes between ordinary virtue, centered on dignity, and heroic virtue, devoted to honor and to a cause. Turning to the Nazi and Soviet camps, he analyzes both the moral choices made by the victims -- most of whom were neither heroes nor saints but ordinary people struggling to preserve some dignity, care for each other, and keep their minds working -- and the guards, mostly neither monsters nor beasts but ordinary people indoctrinated by totalitarianism, which seeks enemies to destroy, fragments the personalities of its subjects, extracts obedience by feeding the human desire for power, and dehumanizes both its victims and its agents. Anyone interested in the sinister invention of totalitarianism, one of the main features of this century, should read this strangely satisfying masterpiece.