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Jean Améry and Primo Levi

 a  “What relationship existed between the two at that time can no longer be determined with certainty today. At any rate, in the course of this year they appear to have taken scarcely more notice of each other than the horrendous circumstances permitted. Later, Levi can no longer recall how Améry looked, although, as he repeatedly emphasizes, Auschwitz with all its details was ineradicably engraved on his memory. Améry, in turn, claims to remember Levi clearly. This constellation is typical of the coincidence of hypermnesia and amnesia that appears in many variations in the victims of persecution. In any event, it is certain that Améry and Levi completely lost sight of each other  after liberation and that they exchanged a few letters only because of the publication of their books. [...] Améry and Levi never met again, but Levi described Améry in I sommersi e i salvati, which was written after Améry’s death, as his potential friend and valued partner in discussion.”

(W.G. Sebald: “Jean Améry und Primo Levi.” In: Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, ed.: Über Jean Améry (Heidelberg: Winter, 1990), pp. 115–123, here p. 117. (Transl. KL))
 b  “As for the concrete experiences, those of Améry may in fact have been even more extreme on one or two counts than those of Levi. Not only was all of Améry's trust in the world broken by torture, a claim that Levi views with skepticism, but persecution and deportation may have also been more traumatic for him because the perpetrators in his case were his own countrymen. [...] In any event, it was to a certain extent a natural thing for Levi, after his odyssey to Turin, to return home. For Améry, a similar return to Vienna or Salzburg was out of the question. The destruction of homeland was a topic that Améry had to reflect on quite a lot, while Levi did not. Améry, therefore, was more uncompromising, both in his thinking and in his life, and therefore Levi fell somewhat short when he believed he could account for one of the causes of his death, if not the sole cause, by citing the intransigence of Améry’s attitude.”
(W.G. Sebald: “Jean Améry und Primo Levi.” In: Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, ed.: Über Jean Améry (Heidelberg: Winter, 1990), pp. 115–123, here pp. 118–119. (Transl. KL))
 c  “Let’s not fool ourselves. The work of destruction is done. German (and, if I’m correctly informed, also Austrian) policy after 1945 can be reduced to the concept coined by Ralph Giordano: the ‘second guilt.’ And Jean Améry died not in a concentration camp but in Austria and of the Federal Republic of German, not, by the way, of its political left and, nota bene, not in its political left. Society, once it has attacked the existence of an individual, grants re-entry at the price of total self-abandonment.”
(Jan Philipp Reemtsma: “172364: Gedanken über den Gebrauch der ersten Person Singular bei Jean Améry.” In: Stephan Steiner, ed.: Jean Améry (Hans Maier) (Basel/Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 1996), pp. 63–86, here p. 82. (Transl. KL))

The relationship between Jean Améry and Primo Levi, whose account of survival Ist das ein Mensch?(Engl. Survival in Auschwitz; also If This Is a Man) appeared in Germany in 1961, five years before Améry’s Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (Engl. At the Mind’s Limits), was a tense one. This is attributable not least to Levi’s belief, according to Améry’s biographer Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, that Améry to some extent had “stolen the show” from Levi. In private correspondence, Améry called Levi “the forgiver” and accused him of being conciliatory, whereas Levi criticized Améry’s implacable position and dismissed the first piece in Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits as a “bitter, gelid essay.”[1] He accused him of a lack of delight in life. Améry und Levi corresponded from time to time as fellow writers, but never saw each other again after their time in the camp.  a  Their sporadic exchange of letters was initiated at the suggestion of one of Levi’s readers, a woman who also put the two in touch with each other.


While Levi’s account of his time in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp adheres to a clear chronology that makes reference to Dante’s journey through the depths of hell, Améry decisively rejects any attempt at stringent narration, reduces documentary descriptions to a bare minimum, and is implacable in his tone.[2] W. G. Sebald thought the two men’s differences resulted from the differences between their experiences: “The notion that Améry fell victim to the implacability of his own thinking is not convincing, primarily because it relativizes the heavy burden of experience, surely not with intent, but out of a defensive posture.”[3] On two points, the experiences Améry was forced to undergo were more extreme than Levi’s: Améry was subjected to torture, and the torturers were his own countrymen; for him, there was no going back home. In his thinking and existence, Améry was more “uncompromising” than Levi.  b 


Striking is the sharp decrease in Améry’s acceptance in the context of Holocaust research from the 1990s to the present day. Admittedly, Klett-Cotta has been publishing an edition of his works since 2002, but what Heidelberger-Leonard says about his reception still holds true: that “Primo Levi even today supplements the discourse on Auschwitz, while Améry’s works, which made this discourse possible in the first place, have been so thoroughly integrated into it (even though there is a breaking away from them) that people no longer see a need to refer to him by name. The roles have been switched to a certain extent: While Améry, in the Germany of 1965, was able to claim an aesthetic added value in matters of Auschwitz by virtue of his very far-reaching predictions (Bitburg, the historians’ quarrel, the Wehrmacht exhibition, the Walser-Bubis debate), the present-day Holocaust culture has lost him again.”[4]


Améry saw himself confronted with a trend increasingly manifest in society: to reach an understanding with the past, to just “come to terms” with it. Jan Philipp Reemtsma blames precisely this social reality for Améry’s suicide.  c 

(GB; transl. KL)


Améry, Jean: At the Mind’s Limits. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

Heidelberger-Leonard, Irene: Jean Améry. Revolte in der Resignation. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004.

Levi, Primo: The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Reemtsma, Jan Philipp: “172364: Gedanken über den Gebrauch der ersten Person Singular bei Jean Améry.” In: Stephan Steiner, ed.: Jean Améry (Hans Maier). Basel/Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 1996, pp. 63–86.

Sebald, W.G.: “Jean Améry und Primo Levi.” In: Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, ed.: Über Jean Améry. Heidelberg: Winter, 1990, pp. 115–123.

[1] Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), S. 134.

[2] For example, in the preface to the reissue in 1977: “The victims are dying out, it’s good that they are, there have been too many of them, for a long time now” (Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limits. New York: Schocken Books, 1986, p. ix).

[3] W. G. Sebald: “Jean Améry und Primo Levi.” In: Irene Heidelberger-Leonard: Über Jean Améry (Heidelberg: Winter 1990),pp. 115–23, here p. 118. (Translated by KL)

[4] Irene Heidelberger-Leonard: Jean Améry. Revolte in der Resignation. (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004), p. 102. (Translated by KL)