LEVI'S LAGER

 

The Lager is a concentration camp, whose prisoners work in a factory that produces a rubber called Buna; from this substance the camp gets its name. Built in Monowitz, in Upper Silesia, Buna is a:

“…gigantic…social experiment. Thousands of individuals…are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a…life…set up to establish what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal…here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately…alone…life is reduced to its primordial mechanism…(a) pitiless process of natural selection…Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world…was conceded only to a very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints (p. 87-92)…”

 

Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz, was a Jew, age 25, from Turin, Italy, who was captured and deported to Buna in December, 1943. His journey began on one of the notorious transport trains:

  “…goods wagons closed from the outside, with men, women and children pressed together without pity (p.17)…”

 

Within the darkness of the boxcar, they suffer thirst, cold, hunger and lack of sleep. He is pressed up against a woman he has known for many years. As they bid farewell to each other, the train door opens with a crash. The barking orders of a dozen SS are heard. Outside is a vast platform lit up by reflectors, beyond which stand a row of lorries. They climb down with their luggage and deposit it beside the train. After interrogation by the SS, those males fit to work are separated from the women and children. This principle of selection determines who will live and who will die. The women and children disappear; two days later they are dead. But the SS:

“…seemed like simple police agents. It was disconcerting and disarming. ..They behaved with the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day. But Renzo stayed an instant too long to say good-bye to Francesca, his fiancée, and with a single blow they knocked him down to the ground. It was their everyday duty (p. 19)…”

 

He is loaded on to a lorry, which roars away. After twenty minutes, it squeals to a halt. Before them is a door; above it a brightly-lit sign reading: Arbeit Macht Frei, work gives freedom. They climb down from the lorry and enter an enormous empty room. It is poorly heated and they suffer from thirst: having had nothing to drink for four days:

 

 “…hell must be like this. A huge, empty room (p. 22)…”

 

The door opens and an SS man enters. They are ordered to form rows and strip. One after another, they are shaved and sheared, showered and disinfected. After waiting in the cold, they are given ragged clothes and boots with wooden soles. Later each is given a number: tattooed on their arm in blue characters below the skin. Only after displaying this number do they get food. They are finally shut up in a vacant hut containing rows of narrow bunks.

 

After the first long day draws to a close, they are forced out of the hut once more into the cold. Driven to a huge square in the center of the camp, they line up and are arranged in squads. A band begins to play a march, as those returning from work now appear. They strut in columns of five like puppets to the rhythm of the march. The square is brightly lit by headlamps and reflectors, as SS men in full battle dress spend more than an hour counting and recounting them. New arrivals mix with the old hands of the camp. Levi spies a friendly face in the crowd. They converse, and when this stranger, Schlome, learns that Levi is an Italian Jew, he approaches and warmly embraces him:

 

“…I have never seen Schlome since, but I have not forgotten his serious and gentle face of a child, which welcomed me on the threshold of the house of the dead (p. 31)…”    

 

The Lager is a square six hundred yards long. It is surrounded by two barbed wire fences, the inner one carrying a high tension current. There are sixty wooden huts, called Blocks, with showers and latrines. The prisoners collect each morning in the square to form work-squads; in the evening they return to be counted. Facing the square is a bed of grass, where gallows are erected when needed. As time passes, the new prisoners learn the essential things to survive.

 

That they are divided into three categories: criminals, politicals and Jews. The criminals, who wear green triangles, are the ones who give them orders. They, in turn, are commanded by SS men, who are rarely seen in the camp. They learn never to ask questions; always pretend to understand. They learn that everything is useful – the slightest rag or piece of wire; that everything can be stolen – one must keep one’s pitiful belongings constantly under guard. There are countless prohibitions, countless senseless rites to perform. Above all, they learn the value of a good pair of shoes:

 

“…Death begins with the shoes; for most of us, they show themselves to be instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected…his feet swell… only the hospital is left (p, 34, 35)…”

 

All work, except the sick. Each morning they leave the camp in squads for the factory; in the evening they return, frozen and exhausted. All hours of light are working hours. One Sunday in two is a working day. Each and every day is identical: work; eat; and sleep.  As time goes on, the problem of the future disappears. All one’s energies are focused on the present. And then there is the work, itself.

 

In squads they march to work, limping in their large wooden shoes on the icy snow. They arrive at the yard where they are to unload iron pipes. After another roll-call, iron levers and jacks are distributed among them. They must unload an enormous cast-iron cylinder weighing several tons. It is dangerous:  one slip and you could be crushed. They must build a path in the mud to drag the iron cylinder:

 

“…it is a torture, the load maims my shoulder-bone. After the first journey I am deaf and almost blind from the effort, and I would stoop to any baseness to avoid a second journey…I will ask to go to the latrine and I will remain there as long as possible…afterwards I will try to hide…anything is better than this work (p. 67)…”

Finally, the midday siren is heard, granting them a brief respite from work. They rush into the hut and queue up with their wooden bowls for soup. From the freezing cold outside, they’ve come into the cabin’s steamy warmth. They wolf down their watery stew, feeling it fill their empty stomachs. Their clothes are damp with mud and snow, filling the cabin with the odor of a sheepfold. They are silent before their food; within minutes after eating, they have fallen asleep:

 

“…behind the barely-closed eyelids, dreams break out violently, the usual dreams. To be at home, in a wonderfully hot bath. To be at home, seated at a table. To be at home, and tell the story of this hopeless work…of this never-ending hunger, of the slave’s way of sleeping (p. 70)…”

 

After work, they return to their hut in Block 30. Each narrow bunk is shared by two prisoners. Throughout the nightmarish hours they push and shove, hearing each other’s grunts and snoring. Then reveille sounds, blinding lights go on, and frantic movement shakes the hut. Now they dress and rush outside into the cold towards the foul latrine:

 

“It is badly lighted, full of draughts, with the brick floor covered by…mud…the walls are covered by curious…frescoes…after only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness disappeared…Why should I wash?...Would I live a day, an hour longer?...precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts…even in this place one can survive…one must want to survive…to bear witness (p. 39-41)…”

At work one day Levi cuts his foot on a piece of iron. Removing his shoe, he finds it full of blood,  kneaded into the mud and rags of his foot-cloth. He proceeds to the infirmary later that evening. It consists of eight huts separated from the rest of the camp by a high wire fence. Within is a tenth of camp’s population of over ten thousand: 

 

“…there are few who stay there longer than two weeks and none more than two months: within these limits they are held to die or be cured…those who…get worse are sent…to the gas chambers (p. 46)…”

The infirmary is a limbo within the inferno of the camp. It is warm, there is no work, and one is seldom beaten. From here, they may pause to observe. The same reveille is heard each morning at four a.m. One makes one’s bed and washes, but there’s no frantic rush to work. In the distance one hears the band begin to play, and squads of prisoners leaving for work:

 

“…this music is infernal…(It lies) engraven on our minds and will be the last thing in Lager that we shall forget…we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons…the music drives them…takes the place of their wills…every beat of the drum becomes a step, a reflected contraction of exhausted muscles (p. 50, 51)…”

 

Rumors of “selections” – of gas and crematoriums – spread among them. Since their arrival at Buna many thousands have disappeared. Where have they all been taken? Then the day arrives when they learn the answer.

 

The door of the infirmary opens, and a shout of ‘Achtung!’ yields total silence. Two SS men enter and speak to the chief doctor, who shows them his leather-bound register. The three now proceed between the bunks of the infirmary. They pause beside one patient who is gravely ill: the doctor draws a cross beside his name in the register. Then the three move on to the next bunk:

 

 “In this discreet and composed manner, without display or anger, massacre moves through the huts (p. 53)…”

In addition to time to observe, the infirmary gives them the opportunity to think: to consider what has been done to them; what they have become. They’ve taken their clothes, belongings, hair. Even their names have been taken from them: replaced by numbers tattooed on their arms. They’ve been reduced to a core of need and suffering: units of labor-power. Then the author is discharged from the infirmary, returning to the barracks and work. But it is to another hut in another Block, filled with strangers he now must contend with. Here, he learns another essential lesson of survival:

 

 ”Man’s capacity…to secrete a shell, to build around him a…defense… is astonishing and merits a serious study. It is based on…adaptation…the man who leaves (the infirmary)…feels himself ejected into the dark and cold of sidereal space…He searches for human contact and finds only backs turned on him. He is as helpless and vulnerable as a new-born baby (p. 56, 57)…”

Then news is heard of the Allied landing in Normandy, and of the Russian offensive slowly moving toward the camp. In August, 1944, the aerial bombardment of Upper Silesia begins. Constructive work suddenly halts, as the prisoners are mobilized to repair the damage from daily raids:

“We had to sweat amidst the dust and smoking ruins, and tremble like beasts, flattened against the earth by the anger of aeroplanes; broken by exhaustion and parched with thirst, we returned in the long, windy evenings…to find…no water to drink or wash in, no soup for our empty bellies, no light…in the dark, shrieking hole of the Block (p. 117, 18)…”

In October, winter arrives, and the battle against the cold begins. Seven out of ten will die; the rest will suffer privation. They work outside, always fighting the wind – wearing only a shirt, cloth jacket and trousers.  The Blocks are over-crowded with new arrivals. Room has to be made for an enormous convoy from the Poznan ghetto. At nearby Birkenau, the crematorium chimney has been smoking for many days. They know another round of “selections” is about to take place:

 

“The young tell the young that only the old ones will be chosen. The healthy tell the healthy that only the ill will be chosen. ..You will be chosen. I will be excluded (p.126)…”

 

Then on a Sunday afternoon the bell sounds unexpectedly, and they are ordered into their huts. The doors are locked, and they are given cards and told to undress. Naked, they wait with their cards in their hands for the commission to reach their hut. With barking orders, oath and blows, they’re driven into an office, from which two doors lead outside. Before them stands an SS subaltern, the arbiter of their fate:

 

“Each one of us, as he comes out naked…into the cold…has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man…(who) judges everyone’s fate…In three or four minutes a hut of two hundred men is ‘done’, as is the whole camp of twelve thousand men in the course of an afternoon (p. 127, 28)…”

 

During that winter they hear the dull rumbling of the front approach. Hundreds arrive from the Lodz ghetto. They tell of how the Germans have liquidated the Lublin camp, and of the legendary battle of the Warsaw Ghetto. Each day Buna’s sirens wail; the Russians are fifty miles away. More prisoners pour into the camp: a minority is set to work; but most leave for the chimney at Birkenau. The rations are reduced; the power cut off; scarlet fever, diphtheria and typhus now spread throughout the camp. One day they line up for roll-call in the central square, where they see the gallows has been erected on the smooth bed of grass:

 

“Finally the condemned man was brought out into the blaze of the searchlight…I have already watched thirteen hangings since I entered the camp; but on the other occasions they were for ordinary crimes…Today it is different…one of the crematoriums at Birkenau had been blown up…a few hundred men…exhausted slaves like ourselves, had found in themselves the strength to act…The man who is to die in front of us today in some way took part…The trapdoor opened, the body wriggled horribly;  the band began to play and we were once more lined up and filed past the quivering body (p. 148, 49)…”

 

In January 1945, the author falls ill with scarlet fever and once more enters the infirmary. The Russians are now at Censtochowa, sixty miles away; so the Germans prepare to evacuate the camp. The doctor explains to them that they will be divided into two groups. Those able to walk will be given shoes and clothes, and will leave the following day on a twelve mile march. The others will remain in the infirmary. The patients react with panic, hoping to escape from the camp:

 

“It was crazy of them to think of walking…weak as they were, especially in the snow with those broken-down shoes. I tried to explain, but…Their eyes were like those of terrified cattle…I saw them, shapeless bundles, lurching into the night. They did not return…they had been killed by the SS a few hours after beginning the march (p. 154)…”

 

As the camp is destroyed and evacuated, the Lager grinds to a halt. In the infirmary there is no water, no electricity; broken windows let in the cold. They desperately seek the means to survive:

“…skeleton-like patients…dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil, like an invasion of worms. They had ransacked all the empty huts in search of food and wood…no longer in control of their bowels, they had fouled everywhere…Others had found potatoes…A few had had the strength to light a real fire (p. 158, 59)…”

They manage to find a stove, wood, frozen turnips and potatoes. Patients die and the ground is too frozen to dig graves. Bodies pile up and the floors of the huts are covered with frozen excrement. Finally, a group of the prisoners leave the Lager, and finds provisions in a nearby prisoner-of-war camp. That evening there was singing among them:

 

“We all said to each other that the Russians would arrive soon…felt ourselves become men once again (p. 171)…”

…………………….

 

 

As Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of imperialism was an original contribution to Marxist theory (see my “Remarque’s War”), so was Trotsky’s theory of fascism. The former portrayed capitalism’s development from the competitive to monopoly stage, in which the world was divided among great powers that competed for its re-division; the later foresaw the consequences of the Great Depression during its most severe crisis. According to both, capitalism is a system subject to periodic crises; fascism is the product of the worst of them. Requiring the support of the state to preserve profitability – and faced with the choice between a liberal and dictatorial regime – the capitalist class is forced to choose the later in order to crush the threat of working-class revolution. Trotsky says that for: “…the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles for domination.” A fascist state also provides the capitalist class with arms contracts, subsidies, tax exemptions and tariff protection. And because crisis is a necessary phase of its cycle of boom and bust, the threat of fascism will remain with us as long as capitalism exists.

 

The mass base of fascism is the petit-bourgeoisie (i.e. the “middle class”).  The crisis affects this class even more severely than the working class (which often has the protection of union contracts and unemployment insurance).  The petit-bourgeoisie feels crushed between Big Business and the working class. It has a dual, an ambivalent nature, and vacillates between the two. On the one hand, it wishes to become members of the capitalist class, and identifies with it; on the other, it fears to lose its position of self-employment to the utter dependence of workers.  When a liberal regime fails to master the crisis, its ideology becomes suspect, and leaves the field open to both the Left and the Right. The petit-bourgeoisie will follow the lead of the class that presents a program providing a way out of the crisis. Fascists will claim that the working class acts “selfishly” in its own interest, against the “national” interest of all. They will also use anti-communism, ant-Semitism, and anti-immigrant prejudice to create scapegoats on which to blame the crisis. In its despair, the petit-bourgeoisie may be reconciled to the destruction of workers and discrimination against minorities. Some will become the hoodlums and thugs – the enforcers of the fascist regime. But who exactly is the petit-bourgeoisie?

 

     Hal Draper’s, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume Two, Classes, provides a model of class analysis. The capitalist system is defined by class, determined by one’s relationship to the means of production. This, in turn, determines one’s interests. There are three basic classes, viewed as a bi-polar model.  At one pole, at the top, is the capitalist class, who owns the means of production and controls the state. At the opposite pole, at the bottom, is the working class, which must sell its labor-power to earn a wage. And in the middle is the petit-bourgeoisie, a miscellany of groups.  Among these are small business owners, artisans, managers, government bureaucrats, professionals and farmers.  The distinguishing characteristic of the petit-bourgeoisie is its individualism, as compared with the collectivism of the workers. The daily experience of the working class is one of concentration in workplaces, and cooperation in work; while the petit-bourgeoisie is more likely to be dispersed in separate workplaces. Without a collective experience and a program of its own, the petit-bourgeoisie turns to one of the polar classes to lead it out of the crisis. But who benefits and who pays for the crisis?

 

     The fascist state aids capital to preserve profitability, by eliminating unions, nullifying contracts, and abolishing the right to strike. Sometimes state-controlled unions are created to police the working class on behalf of its employers.  These policies encourage the capitalist class to cut wages. The result is a system of police repression which atomizes the working class, preventing it from organizing.  At first, the petit-bourgeoisie is used as a “battering ram” to smash the working class; then it is abandoned by the fascist state, when it takes over the army and police. Trotsky writes:

 

“German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital...”

 

 But the fascist state’s popularity is due to more than repression, alone.  National Socialism reabsorbed many of the unemployed in public works of highway construction and arms manufacture.  It created welfare projects providing collective recreation for millions. And it was especially skillful in recruiting a youth movement, war veterans, criminals and the unemployed.  Having given a brief sketch of the nature of fascism, the question remains:  How do we fight it? The answer lies in the strategy of the United Front.

 

The organizations of the working class must unite. “March separately, but strike together” is the slogan behind this strategy. The parties of the working class, both revolutionary and social democratic, preserve the right to criticize each other; but once action is democratically arrived at, all must act as one. Finally, it’s essential to mention the issue of “freedom of speech”. 

 

Under “normal” conditions, most of us favor the view that “free speech” should be absolute. Speech that we disagree with should be countered with more speech in the “marketplace of ideas”. But under conditions of capitalist crisis this attitude can be fatal.  Under “normal” conditions we are told to depend on the state, the laws and police to protect us. But during a capitalist crisis the state may become taken over by fascists. And the police are often members of the fascist party, openly aiding it in attacking its opponents.  So when fascists organize, they must be physically confronted. If they are armed, then the working class, itself, must be armed. It’s a matter of self-defense against those who haven’t the slightest respect for “freedom of speech”, and will abolish it the moment they take power.

 

Today capitalism is undergoing a crisis, a global recession. Capitalist states throughout the world demand policies of “austerity” from the working class and poor. As these government fail to provide a way out of the crisis, it creates the political opportunity for the Left and the Right. In Greece there is Golden Dawn, in France Le Pen, in Hungary, the Jobbik Party. Others, throughout Europe, hide fascist ideology behind a respectable veneer. So Trotsky’s theory of fascism is as vital today as it was during the Great Depression. We of the Left must participate in movements against racism and austerity, and help organize a party (or parties) of the working class. Trotsky described fascism as “…the greatest defeat of the working class in all of history.” Its result was the Holocaust, and a world war with over 50 million dead. This was the price humanity paid for not heeding Trotsky’s prophetic warning.  

© 2015 By Mark Dickman