If this is a man, then what is the value of the individual? Individualism is a great assertion to hold when things are going well, but for a theory to work, it must do so in the worst case scenario. Levi paints the picture of just how bad it can get, as he observes his “fortune” to “belong to the category of economically useful Jews” (Levi, 46), and therefore were not killed. This reminds me of the communist assertion that the “bourgeoisie...has resolved personal worth into exchange value” (Marx & Engels, Ch.1). Regardless of Nazism’s anti-communistic sentiments, things have fallen into place with the Nazi’s as the oppressor class and the Jews as the oppressed. Is this dynamic inevitable, as the communists suggest? Or is this the result of something less obvious? When taken to the camps, Levi observed that “a few [prisoners] had given themselves up spontaneously…’to be in conformity with the law’”(Levi, 14). Here, he identifies the mistake in the individual’s priorities, putting themselves in danger to obey the law. An interesting counter-perspective against the communists arises - that perhaps the compound individual actions across a nation hold responsibility for the devolution of a system. However, this “personal responsibility” argument is pathological when used to blame individuals for not shouldering the burden of the bad behavior of institutions. The counter to that is to acknowledge the ethical responsibility of the individual that indeed does extends to their community, and to pursue the development of the ethical sovereign citizen that avoids behaviors that would corrupt the operation of the system of the systemic level in the long-term. Still, it seems incredibly harsh to place any responsibility for the horrors of that time on the individual. Why then would a system become so wrong at every level of analysis simultaneously, with hundreds of thousands of gestapo informants in countless families, slave labor, and a state run on murder, destruction, and genocide? It wasn’t the overwhelming ability of a single person to take control of history, but the failure of individuals to live straight, ethical lives and to stand up for the truth. Tendency to obey authority is another theory, and yes, you can set circumstances up so that people are likely to be obedient to orders that are pathological. However, I don’t believe that a population of overwhelmingly good people tend towards listening to a tiny minority of bad people - and the Nazi ethos was prevalent from the familial level to the leader.
A sustainable system must reward the individual with the fruits of their own labor, less it risks its society degenerating into self-preservation. The ability to self-sacrifice and give to others is only possible when incentives drive effort. Levi encounters Kraus, who “works too much...has not yet learnt our underground art of economizing on everything” (Levi, 132). Kraus still acts as if he is on the outside, where he will be rewarded for working harder. Instead, his work sets the pace for everyone he’s chained to and puts them all at risk, while thinking he was doing the right thing. The system of Auschwitz is one that takes “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, as Marx would say. To lose the benefit of their own effort is crippling to the value of an individual, and being unable to do anything beyond the minimum one needs to do for themselves leads to a devolution of morality. By taking away the things people can do to separate themselves from others, the Nazi’s had confirmed that the individual was an essential part of what “makes a man”. If it was so easy to take people’s ability to be self-sacrificing through this reduction, though, then it begs the question of how inherent morality is when pit against the human hierarchy of needs.
If this is a man, then how unprepared are humanity’s social constructs to face the extremes of reality? We like to think ourselves moral beings by nature, yet the question of inherent morality is thrust upon us when evolutionary instinct to survive seems to override morality - or at least in the context of inherent morality. Perhaps constructs like morality are privileges of free people. This certainly rang true with philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued that humans were inherently selfish creatures at the core, which supports the idea of morality only existing through conscious effort. The moment in the story when Levi finally acquires a stove, the prisoners repair the window, and heat begins to spread is revealing. The Franco-Pole, Towarosky, “proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working” (Levi, 159-160). This small moment is a blinding spotlight of what I called “conscious morality” re emerging within the prisoners that could finally afford to be self-sacrificing - mirroring the primitive beginnings of a wage system where those who worked harder received greater rewards. The prisoners, instead of focusing on self-preservation, worked to better those around them for the contributions they made, and highlights the importance of being able to self-sacrifice and exhibit conscious morality as markers of humanity.
If this is a man, then what keeps man from losing his life? Morality is a structural part of humans in a society, but on a more personal level, characteristics like one’s identity, possessions, and names are the structure to which a man can stand on. Primo asks us to imagine “a man who is deprived of … everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs” (Levi, 27) The prisoner’s last shreds of evidence of their free lives are taken away, and although their physical body remains moving, they are “exterminated” nonetheless. This points to the double meaning of the extermination camp, where physical bodies were extinguished alongside life the way people knew it. Identity was next, and Levi quickly learned “that I am Haftling. My number is 174517” (Levi, 27). With possessions gone and names taken, the prisoners are left to scramble for any semblance of structure that they have to stand on to prove to themselves that they have life beyond the ability to move themselves.
Loss of ability to think was less tangible of an offense than the removal of possession and identity, but it may have been just as important to the prisoner’s sense of life as anything else. If Levi could have chosen any image to enclose all the evil of his time in a single image, he would choose the “emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen” (Levi, 90). It’s interesting that Levi chose the image of a man who was biologically alive in the physical sense of the word, yet with a lack of thought. Is he then saying that the millions of deaths from camps such as Auschwitz was less evil? I doubt it. My interpretation of his point here is that the loss of thought was an offense that rivaled that of loss of physical life. In the Ka-Be, one spoke of “other things than hunger and work...When one works...there is no time to think...but here the time is ours” (Levi, 55). Here, the statement “the time is ours” holds a meaning deeper than its modern usage to fleetingly denote the fact that there was “free time”, but that in Auschwitz, being able to “own time” was as important in a base level as an actual possession - to have time and thought for yourselves when it was scarce everywhere else. When Descartes was attempting to discover something in the world he would be able to deem irrefutable, he came up with the statement “I think, therefore I am”. In the Ka-Be, the prisoners are able to at least confirm this shred of reality while they, for a fleeting moment, own their own thoughts and time. This ability to think is what keeps them “alive” and separates themselves from the image of pure evil Levi depicts.
With a title like If this is a man, Levi allows the reader to go in a seemingly infinite number of interpretations. However, in his survival story, he challenges the base assumptions people hold about humanity, and allows one to converge upon their own definition of the importance of individualism, question their own morality, and re-evaluate their perspective on life itself. While I flailed about attempting to get to the bottom of such questions of the world, only more arisen, perhaps mirroring the stacking of suffering that those prisoners faced in that horrible death camp of Auschwitz, but hopefully, never amounting to that degree of a dilemma.