Primo Levi in his book Survival in Auschwitz describes a unique experience of considerable physical and mental alterations that occur in situations of dehumanization. In this regard, one of the author’s central ideas is that the animal nature of an individual is inseparable from a complex human being. Despite moral and ethical norms set in certain society, the desire to survive, which is vital for all beings, is the one that helps to endure physical suffering with the help of the necessary mental changes, but without becoming insane. This idea resonates with thoughts of Sigmund Freud who scrutinized the peculiarities of people’s behavior in situations of war and/or approaching death. Whereas Freud discusses dehumanization as a shift from social attributes to biological ones, Karl Marx believes that this process is connected with people’s estrangement from their communities, which occurs as the result of losing money and properties. The latter scholar accentuates that capital gives certain qualities to its owners, and these characteristics are important for self-perception as well as for recognition of uniqueness of certain persons by others. The purpose of this paper is to discuss various levels of alienation as they are described by Marx and Freud while analyzing Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz.
Without a doubt, the reason of all wars is greed, that is, the desire of one state to increase capital and power by utilizing the corresponding resources of another country (s). Keeping this idea in mind, one can rightfully deduce that motives of fascism, which became the trigger of World War II, were no different. An explicit evidence of this premise is the approach to create numerous labor camps in which inferior nations were supposed to work in order to enrich the superior one. Nevertheless, the simple truth about the greed for money has been disguised by certain ideologies. As a result, people stop thinking about the conflict of ideologies that begot wars as means to produce more capital. This shift of emphasis facilitates the enrichment by using labor force, distorting the true goals and presenting them as noble aspirations.
Moreover, one should understand that capital is accumulated in products, which means that labor comprises capital (Marx, “Estranged Labor” 2). This rationale suggests that workforce (in the discussed case, it consists of prisoners who work in the labor camps) is a potential capital; or, in other words, it can be turned into assets. This aspiration was being realized by fascists during World War II as it is described by Levi. According to Karl Marx, the estrangement of the object of labor occurs because people who produce goods do not create these products for themselves (Marx, “Estranged Labor” 2). For instance, workers in a labor camp do not obtain profits or other benefits from the job they do. On the contrary, “the worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces” (Marx, “Estranged Labor” 2). Thus, in these circumstances, estrangement is understandable since the economic gap increases.
What is more, in Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi describes the mechanisms that accompany the greed for capital. For instance, the prisoners should be physically strong; otherwise, they are considered useless. The author states that being an “economically useful Jew” (Levi 46) was a good sign in the labor camp because it meant to be capable of surviving at least a little bit longer. It is necessary to clarify that surviving in such conditions means losing own identity. Primo Levi describes that everything the prisoners had was taken away; they were left barefoot and nude; it was done purposefully to eliminate their human dignity and, simultaneously, erase their identities. Comprehending this idea, it is natural to suggest that it resonates with Karl Marx’s premise revealed in “The Power of Money” that capital is the remedy to acquire a personality (3). Considering the fact that money is the product of work, the described process can be regarded as the estrangement from the object of labor.
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Moreover, according to Marx, people become alienated from the act of labor itself (Marx, “Estranged Labor” 2). Such rationale elucidates that individuals understand that they do not receive any benefits from their activity. On the contrary, hard work exhausts them physically and mentally. To endure this burden, the prisoners have to estrange themselves from the act of labor. Simultaneously, they comprehend that being able to work is the only way to remain alive. Therefore, they feel gratitude towards those who beat them. The act of violence is taken as an approach to increase people’s chances to complete their job successfully that automatically proves them to be economically useful, which means that they will stay alive. Considering a similar example, Levi recalls “some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses” (67). This testimony is a vivid example of dehumanization: those who watch prisoners beat them on the ground of mercy. Similarly, the prisoners consider it to be appropriate because, otherwise, their alienation from work will not allow coping with the task, which endangers their survival.
Without a doubt, making a conclusion that being beaten may have noble reasons and positive outcomes requires changing one’s mentality. Consequently, the prisoners of the labor camps must be estranged from their true inwardness of human being in order to survive. To be more precise, their perception of themselves and others should have been altered from social to biological rules of survival. Scrutinizing the appropriateness of such alienation, one can naturally assume that the fascists’ approach to erase prisoners’ individualities is reasonable. Specifically, estrangement of a person’s self from a human being becomes a factor that enhances chances to work productively for a long period of time even in conditions when products and act of labor are alienated. In other words, the case described above addresses the process of dehumanization, which occurred in Auschwitz, from the perspective of Karl Marx’s idea of estrangement through the loss of money and property. The next paragraph is aimed at discussing the way in which dehumanization takes place from Freud’s perspective of shifting from individual and social domains to biological one.
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Sigmund Freud believes that in times of war and under the threat of death, people do not start to behave unnaturally, as it may seem for those who assess and comprehend allegedly unhuman behavior of his/her contemporaries. On the contrary, the scholar thinks that the cruel behavior (even when it is unnecessary) is typical for satisfying the deepest biological needs that are suppressed by social norms, which often contradict the nature of those needs. Freud explicates it, stating that “the deepest essence of human nature consists of instinctual impulses which are of an elementary nature, which are similar in all men and which aim at the satisfaction of certain primeval needs” (Freud 281). It is not surprising that the major primeval need is to survive. Therefore, in case when their lives are threatened, individuals ‘turn into’ their animal nature.
This supposition can be supported by Levi’s story about alienation of men from men. In a labor camp people started to perceive death differently. They preeminently performed all the same actions as if they did not know that they were going to die (Levi). According to Freud, to soothe their mental tension people have “to reduce death from a necessity to a chance event” (Freud 290). Moreover, the behavior that denies approaching death resonates with the scientist’s idea that people’s mind cannot perceive the possibility of their own death. Therefore, to continue maintaining this belief, which serves as a defensive mechanism, individuals must estrange themselves from other men. In this case, their own survival is perceived as a victory over the others if they die.
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Furthermore, the aim to increase the chances to win the war and enrich the nation (s) makes its citizens suppress their social domains in favor of biological ones. Consider Freud’s speculation:
When the community no longer raises objections, there is an end, too, to the suppression of evil passions, and men perpetrate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity so incompatible with their level of civilization that one would have thought them impossible. (Freud 280)
These behaviors are typical of the labor camp; specifically, both prisoners and their superintendents display similar animal behavior. This particularity proves the universality of the mechanism of dehumanization through the shift from social to biological as it is described by Sigmund Freud.
It is appropriate to emphasize that Primo Levi in his memoir Survival in Auschwitz reveals the examples of dehumanization. The process of dehumanization should be considered an effective and reasonable way to survive without losing sanity. Moreover, one should understand that estrangement occurs due to sociological processes when people lose their identities by means of being deprived of their tangible and intangible properties. In this regard, the erased identity is the worst that can happen to a person. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to estrange an individual from his human features under the conditions of alienation from the objects and acts of labor. The alteration from social domain to biological one helps coping with death, lessening the tension caused by the unsatisfied need for survival. At the same time, state leaders could have used this peculiarity to encourage their people to commit dehumanization with the purpose of becoming more mentally and physically robust, which is necessary for winning a war.