Primo Levi’s hundredth birthday

31st July 1919 – 31st July 2019

By Gianluca Cinelli

Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) was a writer known to the world for his works of testimony on deportation to Auschwitz. He was born from a Jewish family and he graduated in chemistry in 1941, despite the restrictions imposed by racial laws to Jewish students. He received from chemistry a first fundamental lesson of life: that in the struggle with matter, humans get a hint of what their own limits and strengths are. Levi realised that imperfection and asymmetry are fundamental aspects of reality, which is not dominated by the Spirit (as the fascist school, marked by distinction between humanistic culture and technical culture, taught). At the same time, chemistry was for Levi a school of rigor and precision, of patience, and of rejection of approximation. It was an apprenticeship that consolidated a background of culture acquired by young Primo not only through his broad literary readings (Rabelais, Melville, Conrad and many others) but also scientific and philosophical knowledge, attained thanks to the books that his father collected. In an age of cultural provincialism, such a complex, rich and pragmatic formation moulded the mind of young Primo, opening it to curiosity and above all to the belief that there are no separate cultures (humanism vs science), but only one single culture, for knowledge is made of the blending of its diverse parts. And since the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, such a culture promised to be far more fruitful than the stagnating idealism that dominated Italian cultural environment in the 1930s. The idea of a unitary culture went back to Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. For these thinkers, science, technology, philosophy, art, ethics, mathematics, physics, biology made one single and uninterrupted horizon of knowledge.

Primo Levi in the late 1930s

Then, on 8th September 1943, everything changed. Fascism had already been overthrown on 25th July of the same year. Italy had lost the war and now the Germans, who had been allies until the day before, became enemies and occupiers. For Italian Jews the situation quickly collapsed because while the military and political alliance between Italy and Hitler’s Germany had protected them (albeit in segregation), now the SS could deport them along with the other Jews of Europe. Primo left Turin and, urged by a generous albeit vague will to fighting, reached the partisans in the mountains. He was captured almost immediately and to save himself from a death sentence, he declared not to be a partisan but rather a Jew.

In February, after a period of internment in a concentration camp near Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a forced labourer in the synthetic rubber factory (run by the large industrial group IG-Farben), annexed to camp 11 Buna-Monowitz. He remained there until the liberation on 27th January 1945. After his youthful and adventurous apprenticeship under the sign of chemistry, this new experience completed his education and human training to the point that Levi declared in the 1970s that Auschwitz had been his university. Surviving in an extermination Lager was no minor feat that prompted the young man to recount his adventures as soon as he returned to Italy in 1945. However, it was not a question of narrating facts in the fashion of romantic adventures, because the matter was too serious and incredible. Levi told his story through an original lens of lucid and almost detached, scientific observation, as if Auschwitz had been a huge laboratory in which the Nazis had conducted a horrible social and biological experiment. Described as a primordial struggle for survival, captivity is told in Se questo è un uomo (1947) as a journey to self-discovery by fathoming the human capacity to reach unexpected depths of abjection. Hence the question, at the end of the journey, whether the survivor is still a human creature.

Primo Levi after WW2

But Primo Levi was not only an Auschwitz-witness, although he dedicated to this theme numerous books after Se questo è un uomo (La tregua, Lilìt e altri racconti, and I sommersi e i salvati, as well as a number of essays and articles). In the 1960s his multifaceted interest in science and technology prompted him to reflect on the problems of modernity through a form that was underdeveloped in Italian literature of those years, i.e. science fiction. He published two volumes of short stories, Storie naturali in 1966 (under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma in 1971, exploring many an aspect of modernity and translating into “fantabiological” contexts (the expression was forged by Italo Calvino) the discourse about the Lager. With these stories, he reflected on the risks of electing technique to absolute paradigm of organization of life and human progress, and incorporating in his writing non-literary models borrowed from science.

And above all there was chemistry that since the end of the war had constituted the main job of Primo Levi. Not theoretical chemistry but rather industrial chemistry that is made with the five senses, with hands, by struggling to tame matter, yet without forgetting the immeasurable force of nature that never yields to human will. In 1975 Levi published Il Sistema periodico, a kind of autobiography in which he retraced the stages of his own human and cultural development by choosing chemistry as a criterion (and metaphor) to organise the book. After the mortifying experience of the Lager, where work was designed to murder the forced-labourers, Levi now recounted the uplifting experience of vocational work that makes life worthwhile and makes individuals aware of their own strengths and limits.

This book was followed in 1978 by La chiave a stella, anther work devoted to the theme of work that ironically bridged between the “chemical” and “literary” aspects of professional achievement. The result is a reflection on work as a fundamental experience for human happiness, coupled with a new kind of reflection that would occupy Levi more and more in the following years: the awareness of being now a full-time writer (Levi retired from his chemist job at the end of the decade). The “two souls” – the chemist and the writer – coexisted (Levi called himself a “centaur”) as the two faces of one single, complex personality capable of creating and manipulating reality with chemical and verbal processes. No matter if he combined molecules or words, the effect remained the same: life is an endless exploration of reality with the tools that we possess, the senses, the body, the mind and knowledge that over thousands of years of cultural evolution has permitted us to undertake the daily struggle for life.

The 1980s marked a return to the past. As Levi increasingly wrote in newspapers about literature and reviewed books of other writers, he was invited by his publisher to edit an anthology of readings of special importance for his intellectual education, a kind of autobiography through readings (La ricerca delle radici 1981). Nonetheless, his focus remained fixed on the Lager experience. Revisionism spread over Europe, Faurisson’s thesis received consensus and a growing number of people were inclined to deny that Lagers, crematoriums, and even the great Nazi massacre had ever occurred. The memory of the “unhealable offence” faltered, partly under the blows of the negationists, and partly because of its own physiological decadence. Years passed by, memories changed or faded, witnesses disappeared. In the same year Levi published Lilìt e altri racconti, a collection of stories about the Lager combined with science-fiction tales. Then, in 1983, he translated Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess, a demanding endeavour that brought Levi back to struggle with the nightmare of deportation and senseless persecution. It was the beginning of the depression, against which Levi fought over the last years of his life. In 1982 he published his only novel, Se non ora, quando?, a story inspired by real facts and centred on the adventures of a group of Russian Jewish partisans: as if to say that not all Jews passively succumbed to the massacre, that there was also those who, although in absolute minority, fought back.

But the most important work that fermented in those years was I sommersi e i salvati, the last essay that Levi published in 1986, one year before committing suicide. The title had already appeared in a chapter of Se questo è un uomo, but this work was new and rather different. This book largely consisted of memory and therefore must be defended from memory itself, because recollections change over the years and end up replacing the original “raw” ones. In the end – Levi claimed – the survivors of the Nazi extermination, both the perpetrators and the victims (yet on opposite principles and with different aims), produce “prosthetic memories” by which they can rework their past experiences in a way that makes them bearable. The true integral witnesses of the Lager, Levi says in one of the most controversial passages of the work, are those who died there, for they “saw the bottom”. One year later, like other survivors such as Paul Celan or Jean Amery, Levi committed suicide without providing any explanation.

Primo Levi was one of the most “multifaceted” Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. Able to explore the literary field ranging from ancient classics to foreign literature, including distant genres and little-known authors, Levi was able to interpret his role as an intellectual without forgetting his work as a scientist and technician. His scientific culture was comparable to that of Renaissance intellectuals, for whom it was natural to integrate poetry, mathematics, music, physics, metaphysics, etc. into one single, broad cultural horizon. Twentieth-century Italian culture experienced rare moments of similar integration of the humanistic and technical cultures, thanks to such intellectuals as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern and a few others, who were able to cross disciplinary boundaries and to understand the world as complexity.

What impresses Levi’s readers is the expressive clarity, the lucidity with which he tackles serious themes without indulging in psychologism or morbid aestheticization of graphic details. With the scientist’s detached gaze, Levi struggled to understand what happens when a sophisticated and deeply articulated form of life like the human being is placed in conditions of extreme danger, suffering, or severe stress. Under the dire circumstance of rationally programmed extermination – as that carried out in Nazi Lagers – the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humanity invoked by the Enlightenment are shaken to the foundations and what remains is the Pascalian image of a hybrid creature, half angel and half beast, unable to turn itself into the former or the latter, but dangerously tending downwards, towards its dark side, from which it must keep away through a constant moral and rational effort.

Levi teaches a profound lesson in critical thinking because he, as a technician, knew the advantages and dangers of technology. As an instrument it facilitates the life and progress of the species, but as an ideology it produces a cruel and mechanical world, where the ends prevaricate the means and where the human is only one of the many tools that can be exploited to death. As to such consideration, Levi bridged between classical and contemporary paradigms. His ideology was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century positivist thought and his humanism traced perhaps even further back to the great moralistic masters of the seventeenth century, to the scientist-poets of the Renaissance. The challenges of modernity took place for Levi on the border between humans and world, where the two terms meet and collide: for humans too often fail to conceive themselves as part of the world, while the world does not yield to their will of power.

Levi’s moral lesson is invaluable because human history shows a certain tendency to repeat itself. Levi’s analyses and diagnoses, exposed with the seriousness of the doctor who has well considered the symptoms of his patient, remain exemplary and enlightening to understand and recognise dangerous human behaviours: the marginalization of minorities, manipulation, the construction of artificial myths and truths on which opinions are based, the twisting of experience into forms of false knowledge. All these aspects concern us as well because these are cognitive, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms of human life, both individual and collective.

Levi’s confidence in reason, in humanity’s ability to dwell in the light (according to a traditional metaphor dear to the writer), which is to prefer to darkness just as clarity is preferable to incomprehensibility, made of him the writer who, since his youthful and romantic struggle with Matter to his deadly fight with the Gorgon, never lost his faith in the human. And because of that – or in spite of it all –, it never ceases to surprise how deeply Levi could grasp the humorous side of life, even in the most horrible circumstances.

One hundred years after his birth there is still much to understand and learn from this multifaceted writer.

An unusual close encounter with the enemy

Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019

Nuto Revelli.

Nuto Revelli (Cuneo 1919-2004) was an officer of the Italian Royal Army and fought in Russia in 1942-1943. Following the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and the Allies, Revelli joined the anti-fascist partisan groups and fought as commander of the 4th GL Band (later renamed “Carlo Rosselli” Brigade) until the liberation of Italy in April 1945. The experience of war engendered deep hatred against the Germans, which Revelli had met on the Russian front as allies and then as enemies in the mountains of his region (Piedmont). For decades this hatred remained unchanged and the intensity of such feeling was captured in the first books that Revelli published in the post-war period, Mai tardi (1946 and then republished in 1967) and La guerra dei poveri (1962). In these books the Germans are represented as cruel beasts, enemies to hate and despise.

In the 1980s, while collecting oral accounts from peasants in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont, Revelli heard from a former partisan a strange war story, the legend of a German officer who rode off in the countryside and who was kind to the local inhabitants and children, a peaceful and apparently “good” man. One day of 1944 this man disappeared, possibly killed in an ambush of partisans, and since then no one knew anymore about him. This legend disturbed Revelli because it challenged his memories of war and seemed too lenient to be true. Nevertheless, it was the story of a missing-in-action soldier. The memory of soldiers missing in Russia during the retreat from the Don River had tormented Revelli since the end of the war. A missing soldier, the writer said, is the cruellest legacy of any war.

Thus, he decided to engage in the search for the identity of this missing man, and after ten years of work, oral interviews with witnesses and research in German military archives, he succeeded. He discovered that the missing man was a 23-year-old German officer, a student who had not joined the National Socialist Party, who was not enthusiastic about the war and had already lost his older brother in Russia. A young man like so many others, who had been involved into the enormity of the war and had been overwhelmed by a cruel fate.

Fifty years after the war, Revelli thus found the way to reconcile with the hated enemy through a historical quest that in the end also turned out to be an experience of friendship, as far as he befriended the German historian Christoph Schminck-Gustavus, who remained close to Revelli. And, above all, this was a story of reconciliation with the human side of the so-called enemy. The book that tells this story, Il disperso di Marburg, was published in 1994 and for the occasion Revelli visited the German town of Marburg where Rudolf Knaut, the missing officer, was born. This year, on July 18, Marburg hosted an event dedicated to Revelli and to Il disperso di Marburg to celebrate the centenary of the writer’s birth (July 21). Gianluca Cinelli gave two lectures at the Institut für romanische Philologie at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at the Technologie- und Tagungszentrum in the presence of a large audience.

New article: “Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung”

Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung, in Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen. Deutschland und Italien im transkulturellen Dialog. Literatur, Film, Medien, ed. by Tabea Meineke, Anne-Rose Meyer-Eisenhut, Stephanie Neu-Wendel and Eugenio Spedicato, Würzburg, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, 2019, 67-80

Among the contributions appeared in the book Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen (Open-minded Relationships), devoted to the exploration of the way in which the Italian and German cultures have built their transcultural dialogue since WW2, one chapter by Gianluca Cinelli investigates how German post-war narratives, both literary and historical, represented the Italian soldiers in a very negative way, thus paving the way to the consolidation of an old anti-Italian prejudice spread all over Germany. The German combatants came across the Italians during WW2 as allies between 1940 and September 8, 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. What emerges from this contribution is that little attention has been paid in Germany to this topic. Nonetheless, Italian soldiers were represented as lazy and unfit for war, unworthy in battle and unreliable as allies, cowardly and too soft to endure the hardship of modern warfare. And even worse, they were depicted as traitors following Italy’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1943, after which a remarkable number of Italians began to fight against the Germans as partisans.

The chapter builds on historical and literary sources, by combining the testimonies of former German cambatants (from privates of the Afrikakorp to memoirs of such Whermacht higher officers as Rommel or Kesselring) with historic evidence collected by mainly German scholars (from Hammerman to Klinkhammer and Schlemmer). The main thesis of the chapter consists in claiming that the anti-Italian prejudice largely depended on the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and on the circulation of a number of testimonies that depicted the Italians as inferiors not only as for their military virtues but also on a racial basis. In the end, only the massive integration of Italian immigrants starting from the 1950s began to challenge the dominant stereotype and to rehabilitate the memory of the former allies-and-enemies as human beings and fellow citizens.

Issue n. 1 of the Close Encounters in War Journal is online

Issue n. 1: “Close Encounters in Irregular and Asymmetric War” (2018)

We are delighted to announce that the first issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.

The Issue and individual articles can be downloaded at:

Issue n. 1 (2018): Close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war

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What today is referred to as “irregular warfare” is one of the most ancient types of conflict, as opposed to “conventional warfare”, which is a relatively more recent development. The combat strategies and tactics used by tribal warriors, modern guerrillas, resistance fighters and terrorists have been attracting the attention of military historians, strategists and intelligence experts, focusing on resistance, insurgency, counter-insurgency and more recently terrorism. Beside its practical efficacy on the battlefield, irregular war has always stirred popular imagination. But how do human beings experience this particular type of warfare? Does it seem more threatening and scary because it can involve civilians more deeply? Does it blur the traditional idea of war as open confrontation with a recognisable enemy?

The multidisciplinary collection of articles presented in this issue invites a reflection on irregular and asymmetric warfare that goes beyond military strategy and tactical effectiveness, and aims to examine this subject through the lens of “close encounters” in order to explore its impact on human experience. In this perspective, a few recurring elements emerge in all the seven articles: irregular warfare involves an unequal fight between unequal enemies. There is no balance of power and this asymmetry between adversaries means that lines get blurred, for example between combatants and non combatants, or between regular and irregular forces. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

The first three articles in the collection are more factual and they explore the blurred identities and often divided loyalties of those involved in irregular conflicts. According to their authors, those who fight “from below”, often the less powerful, find agency.

Brad St. Croix explores asymmetric warfare within the context of a wide conflict, focusing on the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. In Hong Kong, the British had to fight an irregular force as they faced a Japanese-inspired fifth column. The author sees this as having a deeply destabilizing power for the British, even if blurring the lines between regular and irregular forces was a tactic often used by the Japanese. However, the interesting point that emerges from this analysis is that blurred lines and changing loyalties in this context were due to the multiethnic makeup of the colony. In the Battle of Hong Kong invisibility was key for the fifth columnists, who used hiding and disguise as well as tactics such as sniping to conceal their identities and destabilize the enemy. Their invisibility still represents a challenge for historians who want determine their numbers and identity.

María Gómez-Amich offers a study based on interviews with five former conflict zone interpreters who were locally recruited by the Spanish troops deployed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014 as part of the NATO ISAF mission. By looking at the narratives of these interviewees in the effort to analyse their agency, his study emphasizes many lines getting blurred, such as the line between east and west, foreign and local, military and civilian, but also those, perhaps less obvious, between trust and mistrust, loyalty and neutrality, which are the key ones for professional interpreters. In this context, locally recruited interpreters are given the role of gatekeepers thanks to their cultural capital and they experience blurred loyalties because they are often seen as traitors by their own group and as outsiders by their employers. Another important point in this analysis is that irregular warfare blurs the fundamental ethical principles of interpreting, as it accentuates the tension between neutrality and agency.

In his article Gian Marco Longoni looks at another contemporary example of irregular warfare: the Houthi insurgency begun in 2004 that ousted the Yemeni government in 2015. In his effort to examine the three reasons for the outcome of this insurgency, Longoni emphasizes once again the asymmetry of the conflict and the agency of the insurgents. They find agency through the use of violence and capitalize on the weakness of the Yemeni regime. But there are also other, more cultural reasons that can explain the outcome of the revolt: the Zaydi insurgents experienced a shared identity and shared narratives which can be dubbed as their cultural identity, which were keys in the context of this conflict. It seems that when cultural identity is not conflictual in itself, but clearly defined as in this instance, loyalty does not represent an issue. Asymmetry has a double impact here because while it is true that the fight is between unequal enemies, it is the insurgents who find strength in their cultural identity, whereas the regular forces are weak, dysfunctional and incapable of adequate counterinsurgency despite being the representatives of the institutions.

The second set of articles is more focused on meaning and representation. The concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare is interpreted in different ways, but both articles agree on one point: asymmetric conflict has the power to transform the individual, affecting the spheres of imagination, self-perception, and cultural reception. What these articles suggest is that asymmetric war almost always implies disequilibrium of forces and a polarisation of conflict as a struggle between “stronger” and “weaker” opponents, in particular women and children. By no accident, in fact, these articles explore the issue of close encounters in asymmetric war from the standpoint of its cultural interpretation and representation.

In her analysis of the rape scene in Elsa Morante’s novel La storia, Stefania Porcelli talks about a literary encounter with war. The author interprets the concept of asymmetry as lack of balance between the adversaries, who are fragile actors who never win against stronger enemies. In this analysis the lines between victim and oppressor, innocence and evil, become blurred, as the author stresses how Morante insists on the concept of power, and of how the powerful (represented by Gunther, stronger but doomed to succumb to history), become themselves victims. Fear, sometimes terror, is at the core of this particular asymmetric conflict, in which the victim is stripped of agency because rape “is an act of violence against a woman wholly bereft of agency” (Porcelli, p. 89). But here it also represents the loss of innocence that bears a transformative power.

Benjamin Nickl sees asymmetric conflict through the eyes of child warriors in popular fiction. In his analysis of the representation of children in arms Nickl wonders whether they are a way to represent and give meaning to the trauma of war. Child characters invite a shift in the point of view on war, which can lead to a more genuine approach, as “audiences seem willing to suspend their disbelief readily” (Nickl, p. 104) when the narrator is a child. Nickl interprets the concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare very widely, including fictional conflicts against terrible monsters or evil warlords, but what these all have in common is that they all involve a shift in the point of view and the transformational loss of innocence as consequences of the trauma caused by war.

The selected articles range over a number of wars, different from one another in time, space, scale, and context; and their authors consider the topic of “close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war” from the standpoints of different disciplines and methodological approaches, among which, for example, cultural and military history, literary studies, gender studies, oral history, translation studies, and postcolonial studies. This variety reflects the multidisciplinary project of Close Encounters in War journal and will hopefully fuel further interest in the cultural and collateral aspects of war as a fundamental aspect of human evolution and cultural specificity. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

By Simona Tobia and Gianluca Cinelli

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

Ancient Romans used to say “si vis pacem, para bellum”, which one could rephrase as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. War has always been much more than mere fighting. It affects society as a whole even in peacetime, for example in terms of training, preparation and strategy. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”, meaning that war implies some transformation of mentality and the awareness that sometimes dialogue and compromise are not enough to compose litigation between two countries o two communities. However, war is no necessity. The Latin motto cited above must be read ironically, especially because it sounds very useful for any imperialistic ideology aiming to preserve its power and privileges by threatening other countries by stockpiling weapons and training big armies. War is not desirable, and as the French WWI veteran Jean Giono said, war does not uphold peace. All the opposite: war produces war, while peace is just another path. But one could say that it takes a long way to understand this, or better, it takes experience.

War is a brutal affair, but it has been and continues to be a key aspect of human history and social change. The Humanities and the Social Sciences can help us make sense of that, because they talk about who we are and they help us define our experience. They can also help us make sense of the disturbing aspects of the human character which become so evident in war. The violent nature of wars and conflicts and their effects on societies around the world and throughout history raise complex moral and ethical questions the answer to which is generally very controversial. For example is war always wrong? How can we explain our behaviour in war? Why do we wage war?

We believe that the best way to address these complex questions (again, ambitious project!) is to look at the cultural aspects of war and conflict, really focusing on the human experience of those who were (or are) there. We want to talk about ‘what it is like’ to be there, and for us the best way to do it is with the help of the Humanities. ‘Cultural aspects’ means that any kind of narrative about war and conflict is interesting for us, as well as any kind of representation, from literary, journalistic and artistic portrayals to exhibits and museums.

Combatants are not the only witnesses of war. Civilians, journalists, NGOs-operators, and other groups can equally tell stories about war insofar as they have seen it. The strength of such stories rests on their ability to convince others that war is, or is not, a worthwhile experience. They have come across war and gone through it, for better or worse. All those who have seen war have experienced violence and its corruption. Story-telling, together with other things (such as monuments, museums, celebrations, and others) embodies atonement, purification and return to civil society. Witnesses can share their opinions about war, can use words as a new and not lethal weapons to support the cause of fighting or that of peace. Story-telling is a particular encounter with war for those who have no clear idea of what war is. A narrated conflict is a cultural object. It is made of images and words; its very fabric is the rhetoric of story-telling, and later on of history. From facts to stories, war transforms itself into an experience of suffering and violence which can be made without the risk of getting overwhelmed and harmed.

All representation is interpretation. It has its own reality but it also contributes to create new reality. Representation-interpretation transfigures war into an indirect experience, an intellectual one. One could say that a discourse on war is true because it has been produced by an eye-witness or by an objectively detached and well-informed historian. But how can one tell the difference? Where is the limit between war as reality and war as a vision? The Humanities and the Social Sciences set the tools, critical and intellectual, to face this methodological and epistemological questions. What’s more, they also help understand those questions ethically.

War as an encounter with the unknown, the unexpected, the undesirable implies an understanding of what encountering ‘the enemy’, ‘the other’, or merely ‘the different’ means. Disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others can help us discern and comprehend. So let us begin our discussion with two articles on the very actual issue of violence in captivity.

Interrogation in WW2: any lessons learned?

By Simona Tobia

Terrorists kidnapping relief workers and journalists, terrorists publishing videos of horrible executions by decapitation and even burning, terrorists wiping out principles such as the freedom of the press and satire in the heart of the West in Paris, while stories of westerners joining the fight on the IS side are profusely present in the news. The ‘war on terror’, far from over, is raging, and it continues to be depicted by Western media and political authorities as a ‘just war’ fought against a heinous enemy.

After seeing the US Senate report on the CIA published at the end of 2014, I was wondering to what extent can human beings go to fight what they perceive to be atrocity and evil. I would like to share some ideas gathered during my research on WWII, another conflict which took the shape of a ‘just war’ against an overwhelmingly evil foe, to see if there are some lessons we can learn from that past.

Interrogation and questioning of POWs is one of those settings in which lines are often allowed to blur and mistreatment and breaches of the Geneva Conventions take place, frequently in the name of so-called ‘ticking-bomb scenarios’. This is the official argument in defence of the use of harsh methods (let’s call things with their own name: torture), portraying a very artificial situation in which a bomb is ticking its way towards a devastating attack and only by torturing the terrorists who placed it will the intelligence officers be able to save hundreds of lives. However, so far I have not yet come across any historical case in which this actually happened.

Ill-treatment, psychological abuse and torture committed by representatives of liberal states such as Britain and the US are an astonishing reality, not only in war on terror, but also in and after WWII. Given the shared memory of WWII, with narratives of a war (‘just war’?) fought against a brutal enemy, it appears hard to believe, but the stories of at least a couple of British interrogation centres where lines were actually allowed to blur are worth telling.

The (in)famous London District Cage was headed by Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland. Its prisoners included war crimes suspects from the SS and the Gestapo, ‘the worst of the worst’, and the many reports of ill-treatment and torture included one by Fritz Knoechlein, who wrote a long letter complaining of the treatment he received at the Cage, where he was deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and humiliated constantly. Knoechlein was a high ranking officer in the SS, and he had been responsible of the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940, when 99 British POWs who had surrendered to his unit were machine-gunned en masse; the order was given by Knoechlein, who was later tried for war crimes and executed in Hamburg in 1949. Lt. Col. Scotland wrote a memoir in which he talks at length about the London Cage, admitting to have breached the Geneva Conventions. The book had to be submitted to censorship and was only published in 1957, after having caused a lot of distress in the Foreign Office and the MI5. More recently this story hit the headlines in the Guardian where an article appeared in November 2005 denounced it as a ‘torture centre’.

After the end of the hostilities a CSDIC centre was established in Bad Nenndorf, in the British Zone of occupation of Germany and Lt. Col. Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens became its commandant. The camp and those who ran it were the protagonists of a huge scandal with allegations of abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners, followed by investigation carried out by inspector Tom Hayward. Following his reports, the centre was closed in July 1947 and some of the camp’s officers were brought to court martial in 1948. Among them, there were Lt. Col. Stephens, who was acquitted in July 1948, the Medical Officer Capt. J.S. Smith who was sentenced to be dismissed the service, and a German born interrogator, a former refugee who had joined the British war effort, Oliver Langham. In fact ‘Tin Eye’ struggled to run the camp because of funding reductions and insufficient resources. Prisoners often ended up in nearby hospitals severely harmed and malnourished, and in January 1947 two of them died shortly after admission. Inspector Hayward found in his investigation that interrogators and the camp’s guards were not likely to be totally impartial, either because they were ex German or Austrian refugees or because they were young soldiers who had experienced harsh combat in various war theatres, and arriving in Germany some of them had to face even more war horrors liberating Bergen-Belsen. The investigation proved that that conditions in the CSDIC centre were very harsh: prisoners were kept in cells with no heating and no mattresses, were denied a proper rest, and some of them were found wearing dirty clothes because they could not dry them. Prisoners could be punished with ‘solitary confinement’ sometimes even for longer than 40 days. Solitary confinement was used as a form of ‘mental pressure’ for prisoners considered to be with-holding the truth. Threats to execute, arrest, torture the prisoners’ relatives, such as wives or husbands and children, were also part of the ‘mental pressure’ and they were allowed because they were never carried out. It should be stressed that the commander was against violence and Gestapo-like measures only because he thought that those were counterproductive, and not certainly for humanitarian concerns. He was convinced that physical violence produced poor intelligence.

The London Cage and CSDIC’s stories challenge the myth of British wartime interrogation systems, traditionally thought to be “legal, well-tried and highly successful”. The British system of interrogation was of course successful in wartime, but it was despite and not because of techniques such as those employed by CSDIC. An extremely complex system of intelligence networks, well trained professional intelligence officers, including various centres, eavesdropping facilities, a cross-check technique, and the legendary British double-cross system, made the collection of human intelligence successful in WWII. Violence was most likely employed by the least experienced and more resentful interrogators and it was never fruitful, as Hayward’s report shows very clearly.

This was by no means an attempt of writing an exhaustive history of interrogation in WWII in a blog post (I believe it deserves an entire book, which is the object of my current research), but I think there are a few lessons that we can learn today. It is easy to conclude that harsh methods seem to become acceptable even in a conflict narrated as a ‘just war’ if the enemy is heinous enough, but it is also interesting to note what actually works in the collection of human intelligence, and to work how the reasons why violence sometimes happens (in the – naïve, I know – hope to be able to reduce it in the future).

Further reading:

Andrew, Christopher and Tobia, Simona, Interrogation in war and conflict. A comparative and interdisciplinary analysis (London, Routledge, 2014)

Cobain, Ian, Cruel Britannia. A secret history of torture (London, Portobello Books, 2012)

Hoare, Oliver, Camp 020. MI5 and the Nazi spies (Richmond, Public Record Office, 2000)

Jackson, Sophie, British interrogation techniques in the Second World War (Stroud, The History Press, 2012)

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996