Humanitarian Concern Versus Zyklon B

  • Florent Brayard


In 1986, forty years after Auschwitz, Primo Levi considered afresh, and doubtless in still greater depth than in If This is a Man, certain aspects of the complex of facts which have the extermination of the Jews and the system of concentration-camps at its centre. One of the chapters of the new book, The Drowned and the Saved, was entitled ‘Useless Violence’, and the author described some of the abuses which seemed, both from the observer’s and the victim’s point of view, to be cruel. He then tried to find out what had motivated these abuses: overcrowding and lack of hygiene or food in the deportation convoys; violation of modesty by enforced nakedness; the two daily roll-calls; tattooing. Finally, Levi’s careful analysis distinguished between the concept of simple cruelty, i.e. the ‘deliberate creation of suffering as an end in itself, and an instrumental concept of violence, where it is exercised precisely not as an end in itself but is conditioned by another end from which violence proceeds incidentally, or which uses violence as a way of achieving its purpose.


Prussic Acid Ethical Choice Humanitarian Concern Instrumental Concept Sweetish Smell 
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  1. Translation from the French by Helena Scott, University of Westminster, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. 1.
    Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein ou l’ambiguïté du bien (Paris: Casterman, 1967), p.191.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved. Forty years after Auschwitz (London: Michael Joseph, 1988 [Italian edition 1986]), p.87.Google Scholar
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  5. 4.
    I am very grateful to Carlo Ginzburg for having drawn my attention to the important question of the semantic shift in the German words ‘Humanität’ and ‘human’. On the evolution of the concept of ‘Humanität’, see Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhard Koselleck, (Stuttgart: Ernst Klee Verlag, 1982); entry for Menschheit by Hans Erich Bödeker, Vol.3, p.1127.Google Scholar
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    Jürgen Kalthoff and Martin Werner, Die Händler des Zyklon B. Tesch & Stabenow. Eine Firmengeschichte zwischen Hamburg und Auschwitz (Hamburg: VSV, 1998) is a good introduction to all these matters.Google Scholar
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    On Kurt Gerstein’s character, see Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein ou l’ambiguïté du bien, op.cit. For this series of orders, see pp. 156 ff. Note also that as well as Pierre Joffroy’s 30-year-old biography (Pierre Joffroy, L’Espion de Dieu. La passion de Kurt Gerstein, Paris: Grasset, 1969).Google Scholar
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    See especially the investigations carried out with reference to the various enquiries held on Gerhard Peters. The different judgements have been published in the collection of Irene Sagel-Grande, H.H. Fuchs and C.F. Rüter, Justiz und NS-Verbrechen. Sammlung deutscher Strafurteile wegen nationalsozialistischer Tötungsverbrechen, Band 13 (Amsterdam: University Press Amsterdam, 1975), Lfd 415.Google Scholar
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    The event is cited by Jean-Claude Pressac, Les Crématoires d’Auschwitz. La machinerie du meurtre de masse (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1993), p.46. The note by Höss dated 12 August 1942 attributes the accident to a low proportion of irritant.Google Scholar
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    Besides the declarations by Pfannenstiel to this effect, it is worth noting that the bottles in question appear to have been excavated at Belzec in 1971, if we are to believe the summary of a paper given by Zdzislaw Spaczynski, ‘Elementy genezy i topografia obozu was Belzcu: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka‘, at a University of Lublin Conference, 25–27 August 1987.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Florent Brayard

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