A World Apart (L'univers Concentrationnaire)

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A WORLD APART (L'Univers concentrationnaire)

Memoir by David Rousset, 1945

David Rousset's L'Univers concentrationnaire (1945; A World Apart, 1951) is one of the very first accounts of the German camp system. It won the Prix Renaudot in 1946. The book introduced the phrase and laid out the idea of the "concentration camp universe": "It was a world set apart, utterly segregated, a strange kingdom with its own peculiar fatality." Rousset was a French non-Jewish prisoner, a militant Trotskyite, and a member of the resistance, and he writes from this perspective.

This short book is not a memoir in the straightforward sense: it does not detail Rousset's membership in the resistance, his capture, or his detainment. Rather the book is a report about the camps and the camp system. In a chapter entitled "In My Father's House Are Many Mansions" (taken with savage irony from the New Testament's description of heaven), he offers a tour around the camps, although they are not "all identical or equivalent." The camps have their proletariats, their capitalists who thieve and sell. He describes the labor and—in the "reprisal camps"—the "sports" (walking round and round at the double being whipped, squats in the mud, being thrown into the water tank). He describes the death camps, which are in "utterly different latitudes." These "camps for Jews and Poles were a large scale industry for torture and extermination." Yet, he writes, between these "extermination camps and the 'normal' camps there was no fundamental difference; only a difference in degree."

He also describes, in far from flattering terms—which is odd for a Trotskyite—the different nationalities in the camps: the Russians, "trained to the whip by their masters and with little knowledge of anything but brute force and cunning"; the Poles, "fundamentally conservative, passionately anti-Rus-sian … grandly anti-Semitic … astonishingly uneducated and chauvinistic"; the Greeks, a few intellectuals but mainly "bandits … thieves and debauchees"; the Dutch, "a fair sized core of Protestants … active political resistants"; the Czechs, "men of discipline, for themselves and others, cultures, … initiators of action with the structure of the camp"; the Luxembourgers, "a closed free masonry; in Buchenwald, the police"; the Danes, "hostages, simple souls"; the French, "men who do not know how to wash."

The book also draws on literary and artistic precedents, including Kafka and Céline, to try to understand the experience. Rousset writes, "I know nothing which reproduces so well … the intimate life of the internees as Rodin's Gates of Hell. " There are camp stories: the discovery of cannibalism in 1944 at Neuengamme ("one day he found a human jawbone in his soup"), a fight for bread, and male prostitution in which a kapo uses a prisoner.

Yet despite the atrocities and the "get out" allowed to some political prisoners who could recant and so escape the camps, Rousset writes that "a small core remained steadfast": for example, a German communist named Emil Künder, a block kapo who never hit anyone. Rousset is aware, however, that they all lived in "the Gray Zone" and that many "who refused the offers of the SS … behaved with great brutality and took part in a number of shady deals."

The camps, he writes, are the "gangrene of a whole economic and social system." The "contamination still spreads far beyond the ruined cities." The "positive balance" of the camps includes a "dynamic awareness of the strength and beauty of being alive" (he had just been liberated when writing the book), a confirmation or discovery of the "dependence of man's condition on economic and social structures and their material relations which determine human behaviour," and finally "the enthralling discovery of humour," the black humor, he means, of Kafka and of characters like Ubu, which "enabled many to survive."

The book ends with a call to arms. Since, in Rousset's view, the camps "sprang from the economic and social foundations of capitalism and imperialism," they may appear in a new guise tomorrow. "It is therefore," he writes, "a question of a very specific war to be waged" in which "the concentration camp balance sheet provides a marvellous armoury" and "German anti-fascists … should be our valuable comrades in arms."

—Robert Eaglestone

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A World Apart (L'univers Concentrationnaire)

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