Analyzing Levi’s experience, it could be seen that the specific morality of the Nazis is formed on such ideas and principles as cruelty, community, dehumanization, social Darwinism, and exploitation. Primo Levi’s experience gives readers a great opportunity to assess the morality and ethics of the Nazis and understand what actually concentration camps were. It reveals that Nazi morality was very specific and lacked any sense of empathy. Such moral standards maintained unhuman conditions in the death camps and drove Holocaust.
Morality in Adverse Situation
The Holocaust has shown that morality can be adjusted in the face of adversity. Traditional morals did not exist in concentration camps, and Nazis morality is in no way traditional. The prisoners were treated cruelly in the camp, so they were forced to adopt different behavior to survive and adjust to the influence of Nazi morality. The “ordinary moral world” that Primo Levi refers to in survival in If This Is a Man disappears (Levi 86). The meaning of what is right and what is wrong completely blurs in the context of the circumstances under which people were surviving in the death camps. They could especially blur when the moral standards of the Nazis are completely different from the traditional understanding of good and evil.
Primo Levis’ Experience
Primo Levi was a chemist who graduated from a prestigious university, but was unable to succeed after graduation because he was Jewish. After Primo declared himself Jewish, he was deported to an Italian prison. During the Second World War, Primo Levi was prisoned in a Polish concentration camp named Auschwitz. While being there, Levi fought for his life and faced many ethical difficulties. His experience demonstrates ethics and morality from different points of view, as well as the morality of the Nazis. It reveals the ideas that drove the ethics and morality of Nazis. Levi’s story shows that no matter how educated one could be, it does not make difference for the people with Nazi morality. They do not value humans according to their individual identity but instead treat them by their race.
Survival in Auschwitz
It would be fair to say that in order to survive in the conditions of Auschwitz, one had to sacrifice dignity and self-respect. Continued dehumanization ultimately leads to physical, social, and mental adaptation to maintain existence and personality. This adaptation begins to blur the distinction between good and evil. Maintaining mental stability in the face of despair and death can be a daunting endeavor. Living in terrible situations and being exposed to horrific blows can be harmful not only to one’s body but also to the mind. In writing, Levi shows how to maintain sanity by focusing on various small distractions. Keeping one’s wishes in the camp is a mental death sentence, as their wishes cannot be fulfilled realistically. As a result, there is not enough food available, so sustaining hunger and expecting food is a form of mental distress. The idea of distracting on a small goal will help to avoid desires which are unrealistic (Levi 74).
Treating People in Camps
Such descriptions of the survival techniques in the camp provided by Levi demonstrate the morality of the Nazi, or it is better to say the absence of morality in respect to the treating others. Nazis did not see their actions, the way they treated prisoners as immoral since they continued practicing such an approach. Levi was smart enough to understand it, and he tried to apply his own techniques and ethics in order to survive.
Dehumanization and Exploitation
The need for Levinasian ethics becomes apparent every time there is the trade of solidarity in the extermination camps for the existence of an individual, which supports the solidity of social Darwinism under Nazism. Darwinism was one of the core ideas that drove Nazi ethics and morality. According to this social idea, all races are different, and no equality could be handled. Levi associates his own experience with dehumanization and exploitation of individuals.
Levi and Pannwitz
In the concentration camp, he had met a German chemist who exploits prison workers. The examination prepared by Pannwitz for Levi later allowed him to work in a laboratory as a specialist and consequently to survive. At this point, it could be seen that according to the Nazi ideology and morality, only the fittest ones will stay alive. It would be fair to say that Nazis exploited people who had some kind of useful knowledge and skills. Humans were treated as subjects that could either bring some benefit or not. Apparently only interested in moving his work forward, Panwitz completely dismisses Levi’s humanity. Levi’s idea that thought and knowledge give humanity is confirmed at this darkest moment when he persuades Panwitz in his understanding of organic chemistry. He presents himself as a man whose identity cannot be doubted.
Racism in Nazi Morality
The Nazis’ morality is strongly bound on racism, and it is proved by the experience of Levi. He was a good specialist whose knowledge was also useful for the Nazis; however, he still was treated cruelly and sentenced to death only because he was Jewish. The moral standards of Nazi society had a puritanical code, and this values system drove Holocaust (Kühne and Baranowski 216). Nazis did not consider Jewish people as humans or individuals; hence Nazi morality was missing universalism, egalitarianism, and individualism. Nazi morality was completely based on the violence and absence of empathy. It was aimed at revoking the enlightenment of Judas Christians and universal ethics (Kühne and Baranowski 216). Scholars provide different reasons and justifications for such an ideology; however, I think that racism demonstrates very low moral standards that society may maintain.
Sense of Community
On the other hand, Nazi morality emphasizes the sense of community. While they abandon the lives of thousands of Jewish people, they are concerned about the lives of similar people or people who are supporting their ideology, in other words, the members of the community. They pursued the plurality of nations, which was also the fundamental principle of Nazi ethics. By doing so, they handled genocide and treated Jews as non-people. Even if one looks at the example of Levi where he had worked as a chemist for the Nazis, he at some point was the part of the community, or at least he did something for that community, and this fact saved his life. Nazis emphasized the role of common sense and ideology, fundamentals of which were based on the idea of superiority. A strong sense of community tends to give morality more strength, and that was one of the reasons why Nazis were so bound to their ideology.
In conclusion, Primo Levis, on his example and experience in the death camp, shows the morality of the Nazis. There certainly were some standards, principles, and core ideology to which Nazi society and leaders were referring. All of them maintained racism and an absence of mercy towards Jews. Nazi saw their community and race as superior enough to demolish other races and treat people as non-humans. They abandoned the individual identities of people in the concentration camps and treated them terribly. Those people who acquired some skills that could be useful they exploited. Others were totally dehumanized and sentenced to certain death. Nazi morality, in many ways, abandoned equality and focused on the idea of a supreme nation.
Kühne, T., & Baranowski, S. Nazi Morality. A Companion to Nazi Germany, 2018.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.