It is an understatement to call the Nazi and Soviet death camps "outposts of hell on earth," as we know from the testimony of a powerful body of witnesses. Todorov looks inside these camps, and there he finds hope for all humankind, arguing that innumerable instances of heroism, self-sacrifice, and caring show that "moral reactions are spontaneous, omnipresent, and eradicable only with the greatest violence" and that "morality cannot disappear without a radical mutation of the human species." Even in a regime of terror and depersonalization, the ordinary virtues survived and sometimes even flourished, Todorov maintains. His wide-ranging study bears him out, and it makes for fascinating reading.
The Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulag provide the context for this acclaimed examination of the human capacity for moral life. Drawing on a striking array of documents, Tzvetan Todorov reconstructs a vivid portrait of the conduct of those who ran the camps and those who suffered their outrages. Challenging the widespread view that moral life was extinguished in the extreme circumstances of the camps, he uncovers instead a rich moral universe, composed not of grand acts of heroism but of ordinary gestures of dignity and care, compassion and solidarity.A complex and profound study, Facing the Extreme restores a lost dimension to this anguished history, even as it offers an eloquent plea for the recognition of everyday virtues as a basis for contemporary morality.
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