Purity and Danger

by Bernard Knox | November 22, 1992

Between Hell and Reason:

Essays from the Resistance Paper Combat, 1944-1947

By Albert Camus

Selected and translated by Alexandre de Gramont

(University Press of New England, 189 pp., $35, $14.95 paper)

The Human Race

By Robert Antelme

Translated by Jeffrey and Annie Mahler

(Marlboro Press, 298 pp., $23.95)

France carries within itself a diseased body, a minority of men who yesterday brought France sorrow and who continue to do so today. These are men of betrayal and injustice ... we must decide whether we want to destroy them.... This nation has not understood that it has been betrayed by certain interests, and that it can be revived only by destroying those interests without the slightest pity.... Not to destroy certain men would be to betray the good of this country.... We want to make France pure.

There are not many readers today who, asked to identify the author of those sentences, selected from newspaper editorials written in 1944, would immediately pronounce the name of Albert Camus. These calls for the death penalty, these metaphors of purity and disease, sound like echoes of the Spanish Nationalist slogan limpieza—cleansing—that masked a deliberate policy of mass executions. They seem out of place from the pen of the man who was later to offend Sartre and the Parisian left-wing establishment by renouncing violence, and who in 1957 wrote in collaboration with Arthur Koestler La peine capitale, a withering denunciation of the death penalty.

These calls for punishment and for epuration have to be seen in their context. They are quotations from editorials published in the newspaper Combat in October 1944; Camus, its editor in chief, was answering a plea made by Francois Mauriac in Figaro for clemency, an end to the trials and sentencing of those Frenchmen who had worked hand in glove with the German occupation forces. Camus was calling for punitive justice against those who "added hypocrisy to terror, who during four years lived by a terrifying combination of moral sermons and executions, of homilies and torture." He invoked the "death sentences that struck innocent men," the memory of "beloved faces lying in the dust, and of hands we longed to hold," of "the unbearable recollection of those among us whom torture made traitors." He was speaking also in the name of "men who during these past years wrote articles knowing that their only remuneration could well be prison or death."

He had been one of those men himself. Combat was sold openly on the streets of Paris for the first time on August 21, 1944, but Camus had been, for at least a full year, the editor of its clandestine issues, printed and circulated under the noses of the Gestapo and the Feldgendarmerie. They appeared once or twice a month and by 1944 they had reached a print run of more than 200,000.When, with Leclerc's armored column approaching the banlieue of Paris, the Resistance forces in the city attacked and forced the surrender of the German occupation troops, Combat became the most important newspaper of liberated France. It was the voice of the victorious Resistance, its columns host to such writers as Gide, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and de Rougement.

The voice of the Resistance was one of hope, hope for a new France, a "social state in which each individual starts with equal opportunity, and in which the country's majority cannot be held in abject conditions by a privileged few." But it was also to be a free nation, one "in which the human being is respected both for what he is and for what he says." Camus sums up the program in an editorial of October 1: "What we want for France is a collectivist economy and a liberal political structure."

The Resistance, however, was a temporary coalition of very diverse forces. The Communists, a power in the land because of their record of action and martyrdom—le parti des fusilles they called themselves, and with good reason—had no use for a liberal political structure, and the military and conservative elements represented by Charles de Gaulle had little enthusiasm for the prospect of a collectivist economy. Moreover, the presence in France of huge Anglo-American armies was a damper on revolutionary aspirations. In August 1944, in fact, Dwight Eisenhower, at the urgent request of de Gaulle, diverted two U.S. divisions from their direct route to the front in eastern France for a parade through Paris, a show of force to remind hotheads who was really in charge. Through the pages of this selection from Camus's editorials in Combat, translated and provided with an enlightening introduction by Alexandre de Gramont (whose grandfather was killed in 1944 flying a bomber in the RAF), the reader can trace Camus's path to the realization that the hope for a revolution to make a new France was an illusion, that, as he put it in his editorials of November 1946, "there are no more islands ... borders are meaningless," that revolution would be possible "only if France ... could be put in parentheses and isolated from the rest of the world."

By this time he had already changed his mind about the process of epuration. In January 1945, though he still refused to join Mauriac in "openly forgiving," he admitted that the purge had been a failure—"absurd condemnations and ridiculous acts of forgiveness ... prisoners ... dragged out of their cells and shot because they have been pardoned." This reference to lynching as late as January 1945 is surprising, though such unofficial action by resistance forces was not at all uncommon in August 1944 in the power vacuum that was created by the rapid disintegration of the government agencies that had worked with the Germans.

In some cases it was not only unofficial but also unjust, punishing the guiltless. In Finistere, where as an American officer I had parachuted in with two teammates to arm, train, and direct the Resistance forces in the area, the German withdrawal to Brest was followed by the usual roundup of women who had been sleeping with the Germans. They were to have their hair shaved off and be paraded through town in their underwear, with insulting placards hung around their necks. In one small town in the area, we arrived just in time to prevent this happening to a young woman who had, it is true, been the mistress of a German officer, a high-ranking one at that. She was also the most important member of an espionage network that had supplied priceless information to London via a clandestine radio.

Camus's fear that the purge was a failure led to a crucial decision in that same January in which he published the editorial. He "paced the floor all night," de Gramont tells us in his introduction, "before finally deciding to sign" a petition already signed by Mauriac, Anouihl, Cocteau, and Colette, calling for commutation of the death sentence passed on Robert Brasillach, a journalist who had regularly published anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi articles in the collaborationist paper Je suis partout.

 

By August of the same year Camus had gone beyond his public statement of January: the purge was no longer just a failure, it was a "disgrace." He cited a sentence of five years of forced labor for a man who had recruited French volunteers for the Waffen S.S. Division Charlemagne that fought on the Russian front, and eight years for a pacifist who wrote a literary column for a pro-Nazi newspaper, a man "who denounced no one and participated in no enemy activities." By the end of 1946, facing the terrible realities of the world after Hiroshima, a world that offered humanity a choice "between hell and reason," Camus denounced violence. "I will never again be among those who, for whatever reasons, accommodate themselves to murder." He could "no longer hold any truth that might oblige" him "directly or indirectly, to condemn a man to death."

Later still, in 1948, he came full circle—to an apology for the original position he had taken, excusing it by "the fever of those years, the painful memory of my murdered friends." "After long reflection," he told his audience (he was speaking in a Dominican monastery), he had come to admit to himself "and to admit publicly here, that on the central issue of our argument, M. Mauriac was right and I was wrong." He was on his way to the famous formula in The Rebel (1951), "Murder and rebellion are contradictory," on his way to the complete break with Sartre, to his isolation from the community of Parisian intellectuals.

One of the editorials, that of May 17, 1945, is an eloquent plea for the release from the infamous Lager at Dachau of thousands of French political prisoners who were still confined there "eight days after its liberation by American troops." Camus quotes from a letter received by a relative of one of those prisoners:

For food we have a bowl of soup at noon, and coffee with a bit of bread in the evening.... We are covered with fleas and lice.... Every day Jews die. Their corpses are piled in a corner of the camp until the pile is considered big enough to be buried.... Meanwhile, during the long hours and days, and under a hot sun, a sickening odor spreads throughout the Jewish camp and into our own.

The reason for the prolonged detention of the prisoners was the medical authorities' fear that release of these lice-infested, diseased, and dying specimens of humanity might produce a typhus epidemic like the one that caused so many deaths in Europe after the First World War. They quarantined the entire camp.

Among the French political prisoners was Robert Antelme, who had been arrested in June 1944 and deported first to Buchenwald and then farther east to a camp at Gandersheim. He had been a member of a Resistance group that included his wife, Marguerite Duras; its leader was Francois Mitterrand. After the German surrender in 1945, Mitterrand, who had been appointed Minister for Refugees, Prisoners, and Deported Persons, visited the camp at Dachau. As he walked among the sick, dead, and dying, he heard "Francois" whispered faintly by a man he could hardly recognize.Antelme, who had weighed some 200 pounds before his arrest, now weighed seventy-seven.

On his return to Paris, Mitterrand got in touch with Duras and a rescue operation was mounted. Two of his comrades in the Resistance group, armed with passes provided by Mitterrand and dressed as French officers, drove to Dachau and got Antelme out of the camp. Back in Paris French doctors despaired of saving his life. But Duras found a doctor who had lived in India and so was familiar, unlike his French colleagues, with the physical consequences of famine and the required treatment.Restored to health, in 1947 Antelme wrote his account of his year in the German camps. It was published, ten years later, under the title L'Espece Humaine.

There is a striking appropriateness in the title he chose. He had been trained as an anthropologist; the Resistance group he joined was organized, in fact, at the Musee de l'Homme. In the camps he learned what it meant to be a human being in conditions that, even to those who survived and tried to describe them, "would start to seem unimaginable." The camp at Gandersheim was "a society set up to be infernal." It was not, like Auschwitz, Sobibor, and so many others, an extermination camp. "At Gandersheim there was no gas chamber, no crematorium." The program was "unending oppression, slow annihilation."

The group of some 500 political prisoners, mainly French, Italian, and Polish, was supervised by kapos—who were German common-law prisoners—"murderers, thieves, swindlers, sadists, and black marketeers." They were, "under S.S. orders, our absolute masters." The kapos acted not only as masters but also as agents provocateurs; it was in their interest to provoke and then denounce infractions of the camp rules —"starving a man so as to have to punish him later on for stealing from a garbage can"—in order to gain a reward from the S.S. "in the form of some extra soup for want of which the man will be starved that much more."

 

As a result there was little possibility of "collective struggle," even at the psychological level. "Our struggle, the best among us were only able to wage it in an individual manner. Solidarity itself became an individual affair." This individual, internal struggle was an expression "of a furious desire, itself almost always experienced in solitude, a furious desire to remain men, down to the very end." For the object of the enemy was to destroy the prisoners' conception of themselves as human beings, to call "in question our quality as men," to force the victims to acquiesce in their tormentors' conviction that they were dealing with subhumans— animals, Schweinkopfe, excrement, Scheisse.

Excrement has a long history as a feature of Hell. Aristophanes, probably parodying an Orphic vision of the next world, describes a place of "mud and ever-flowing shit" that serves as a home for a comic list of malefactors who range from perjurers and mother-beaters to people whose literary standards are so low that their idea of something worth preserving were speeches from the tragedies of Morsimus.Dante, in Malebolge, sees the flatterers "plunged in filth that seems to have come from human privies." Antelme's picture of Hell begins with excrement, but there is neither humor nor divine justice involved:

I went outside to take a piss. It wasn't yet daylight. Beside me others were pissing too; nobody spoke. Behind the place where we pissed was the trench to shit in; other guys were sitting on the little wall above it, their pants down.

In Antelme's Hell this is a dominant theme, recurring in incidental references—the morgue, which lay at the end of the big latrine, the dread of the two-week-long shit detail—or in unforgettable images, as in the description of the first man Antelme saw die in Buchenwald:

 We had been at roll call for several hours. Dusk was descending. On a knoll ... a few yards in front of the first row of prisoners, stood four tents; the sick were in the one opposite us. Someone lifted up one side of the tent, and two men holding a blanket by either end came out and placed it on the ground. Something on the blanket came into view. Gray-black skin clinging to bones: his face. Two purple sticks protruding from his nightshirt: his legs. He wasn't saying anything. Two hands rose from the blanket, and the two men each grabbed a hand and pulled; the two sticks were now standing. His back was toward us. He bent forward, and we saw a wide black crack between two bones. A stream of liquid shit shot in our direction. A thousand guys standing there had seen that black crack, the curve of that stream. He hadn't seen anything, neither us nor the kapo supervising us, who yelled "Scheisse!" as he ran toward him but who did not touch him. Then he fell.

Before the year was out Antelme too had a face of gray-black skin and purple sticks for legs. The carefully calculated regime of starvation and heavy physical labor turned healthy bodies into obscene caricatures of the human frame: fleshless faces, "hollows instead of cheeks" (Antelme sometimes refers to a kapo or S.S. man simply as "a guy with cheeks"); the nose "pointed like the noses on the dead." At one point he imagines what a bystander would see if the entire room of their quarters were suddenly illuminated: "a vast tangle of striped rags, crooked arms, sharp elbows, purple hands, huge feet; open mouths aimed at the ceiling, closed eyes in bony faces covered with blackened skin, deathlike skulls."

As if the wrecking of the body were not torment enough, the prisoners, unable to wash themselves or their clothes, were soon covered with lice:

 They're in your shirt, in your undershorts. You squash and you squash, your thumbnails are red with blood. Bunches of nits are hanging out along the seams, and there are more and more of them, and it's greasy and filthy. There's blood on my shirt, there's blood on my chest, which is red from scratched bites; scabs are starting to form, I pull them off, and they bleed. I can't stand it any longer. I'm going to scream.

The reduction of the prisoners to such a degraded condition was, of course, deliberate. "Get it into your heads," they were told by a German political prisoner soon after they arrived at the camp, "that you are here to die." But it also served to confirm the ideological conviction of the S.S. guards and the German civilians that the prisoners were not really human beings—they are "not like us." They were, in fact, "a human pestilence. Around here the S.S. don't have any Jews to hand. We take their place. They are too used to dealing with people guilty through birth. If we weren't pestilential we wouldn't be violet and gray; we'd be clean and neat; we'd stand up straight."

There were no civilians at Buchenwald, but at Gandersheim some of the prisoners worked a long day, under the supervision of the kapos and the S.S., in an aircraft factory. Here they were exposed not only to the contempt and brutality of the shop foreman, der Meister, but also to the rage of visiting bureaucrats. There was one, for example, who, after watching the prisoners lift and carry heavy metal forms,

 suddenly rushed over to the guy closest to him, gave him two great kicks in the back, and began to shout, his face turning red.... His glasses had slid down a little.... He was grotesque.... He had wanted to play the S.S. with us.... Probably he felt himself to be a hero, but not simply because he was acting like a good citizen: a hero for having ... shown his mettle, for having exerted his power personally.

There were exceptions, Germans who showed kindness. Two. The factory worker they knew only as "the Rhinelander" once said to them, "Langsam" ("Slow down"), instead of shouting the usual "Schnell!" ("Fast"). He later came over to Antelme and his workmate and shook hands with them.And a woman once gave Antelme a piece of white bread. "Mein Mann ist gefangener," she said. Her husband was a prisoner of war.

Later, in the panic flight from the east as the Russians advanced, when German civilians had to board trains that also pulled boxcars crammed with prisoners, Antelme saw German civilians close up:

 They're well dressed; they have cheeks. They cast sidelong glances at us, that's all; they don't risk turning their heads in our direction.... They have their wives, their packages.... They can't look at us; it's altogether enough to be fleeing, to be climbing up into boxcars. Enemies, bombs, it's cruel, all that, but at least they know what it is ... it's talked about in newspapers; and war's an institution—Krieg, they call it in German. But those guys lying there, they shouldn't have to be seen.... They're usually hidden.

Against the unremitting, systematic effort to make the prisoners accept their relegation to some kind of subhuman status, the only possible resistance was, as Antelme says at the beginning of his book, "individual.... Solidarity itself became an individual affair." One of the most important resources for this internal struggle was the prisoner's language, his link with his fellow prisoners and his friends and family at home. "Sometimes," Antelme writes,

 when I am in the neighborhood of a German I speak French with a special attentiveness, in a way I don't ordinarily speak it back home; I construct sentences better, I use all sorts of elisions, with as much care, as much pleasure as if I were putting together a song. With German nearby, our tongue rings, I see it shape itself as I speak it. I bring it to a halt, I make it swell in the air anew, do what I wish with it; it's mine.

In the one case where, in fact, the solidarity of the prisoners was not individual but communal, it was their language that united them.

 

Just before they heard for the first time the distant sound of cannon that heralded the Russian advance into East Prussia, one of the prisoners, Gaston, a man who had been a teacher before the war, organized an entertainment in the hut during their one stretch of free time, Sunday afternoon.It was usually spent in individual brooding or sleep, but on this Sunday an improvised stage was set up and volunteers, recruited by Gaston, sang the songs that everyone remembered from their youth: Le Temps des Cerises, La Toulousaine. But one performer recited a poem. He had learned it from some pieces of cardboard on which Lancelot, a sailor who died shortly before the concert, had written down the poems that had been reconstructed from the collective memory:

 Gaston had asked some of the guys to try to recollect the poems they had known and to try to write them down. Stretched out on his pallet in the evening, each guy would try to remember and when he couldn't, he'd go and consult with a friend. So whole poems had been reconstituted by the adding together of memories, which was also an adding together of strength.

The first poem recited on this occasion must have sounded an ironic note. It was Joachim du Bellay's famous sonnet—Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage.... The concert was a success. "If at that moment somebody had come into the block, he would have been witness to a strange sight.Everybody was smiling."

They were soon to embark on a voyage themselves, but there was nothing beau about it. As the eastern front collapsed, the S.S. marched their prisoners westward, shooting those who, unable to go any farther, fell out of the ranks. Even the prisoners wondered what on earth was in the minds of their guards. "Where are they making us walk? We are sure they don't know any more. It is even beginning to strike us as unheard of that in the midst of this collapse there are Germans in uniform whose job consists of taking care of us." But "take care" of them they did. They got them to the railroad line near Leipzig, crammed them into boxcars, and after a nightmare journey that lasted thirteen days, brought their human cargo, living and dead, to Dachau. With the arrival of American troops, the prisoners were free at last from the S.S., but they were still confined to the camp. And but for the intervention of his Resistance comrades, Antelme would have died there, like so many of the others.

But he lived, to bear witness—and to draw a conclusion from all that he and his comrades had suffered, and from their refusal to accept their enemies' dismissal of them as non-human:

It's because we are men like them that the S.S. will finally prove powerless before us. It's because they shall have sought to call the unity of this human race in question that they'll finally be crushed.... If, at the moment when the distance between beings is at its greatest ... we can perceive no substantial difference between the S.S. and ourselves, then we have to say that there is only one human race. And we have to say that everything in the world that masks this unity, everything that places beings in situations of exploitation and subjugation and thereby implies the existence of various species of mankind is false and mad.

Bernard Knox was an American classicist whose books include The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections On The Classics.

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