In Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo (If this is a man), he writes about the “muselmanns” of the camp, the prisoners who were resigned to death:
Chi non sa diventare un Organisator, Kombinator, Prominent (truce eloquenza dei termini!) finisce in breve mussulmano. Una terza via esiste nella vita, dove è anzi la norma; non esiste in campo di concentramento. Soccombere è la cosa più semplice: basta eseguire tutti gli ordini che si ricevono, non mangiare che la razione, attenersi alla disciplina del lavoro e del campo. L’esperienza ha dimostrato che solo eccezionalmente si può in questo modo durare più di tre mesi. Tutti i mussulmani che vanno in gas hanno la stessa storia, o, per meglio dire, non hanno storia; hanno seguito il pendio fino al fondo, naturalmente, come i ruscelli che vanno al mare. Entrati in campo, per loro essenziale incapacità, o per sventura, o per un qualsiasi banale incidente, sono stati sopraffatti prima di aver potuto adeguarsi; sono battuti sul tempo, non cominciano a imparare il tedesco e a discernere qualcosa nell’infernale groviglio di leggi e di divieti, che quando il loro corpo è già in sfacelo, e nulla li potrebbe più salvare dalla selezione o dalla morte per deperimento. La loro vita è breve ma il loro numero è sterminato; sono loro i Muselmänner, i sommersi, il nerbo del campo; loro la massa anonima, continuamente rinnovata e sempre identica, dei non-uomini che marciano e faticano in silenzio, spenta in loro la scintilla divina, già troppo vuoti per soffrire veramente. Si esita a chiamarli vivi: si esita a chiamar morte la loro morte, davanti a cui essi non temono perché sono troppo stanchi per comprenderla.
Whosoever does not know how to become an ‘Organisator’, ‘Kombinator’, ‘Prominent’ (the savage eloquence of these words!) soon becomes a ‘musselman’. In life, a third way exists, and is in fact the rule; it does not exist in the concentration camp. To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the musselmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. (translation by Stuart Woolf)
Muselmann / musselman / mussulmano is obviously a term meaning “Muslim”, but there is no agreement as to how it came to be used in the camps in this way. There are various theories:
Sofsky thought the association of apathetic concentration camp victims with Muslims came from their uncontrolled body movements; their “swaying motions” reminded onlookers of “Islamic rituals.” Two Polish scholars of the Holocaust, Zdzislaw Ryn and Stanislaw Kodzinski, second this explanation. The “Muselmen,” they say in an article on Auschwitz, “became indifferent to everything happening around them. They excluded themselves from all relations to their environment. If they could still move around, they did so in slow motion, without bending their knees. They shivered, since their body temperature usually fell below 98.7 degrees. Seeing them from afar, one had the impression of seeing Arabs praying. The Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, attributes the term not to motion, but to motionlessness, i.e., to the Muselmann’s “typical posture of ‘staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in the Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’” Others have thought that “Musulman” must have originally referred to mental rather than physical characteristics. For instance, in his “Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive,” Italian writer Giorgio Agamben has theorized that “the most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God.” It was “Islam’s supposed fatalism,” Agamben writes, that led concentration camp inmates to turn it into a metaphor for the utter resignation that the “Musulman” exhibited. Holocaust survivor and French philosopher Jean Amery, in his “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” explained the word differently. It came, he thought, from the dismissive attitude of Europeans toward Muslims, since “the so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts of good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.”
I started working on the Muselmann (a term I translate as ‘Muslim’ since that is what the German was taken to mean, according to countless testimonies) when I wrote the introduction to Derrida’s Acts of Religion although at the time I was not quite sure where it was taking me. By the time I read Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, which had just come out in French (the English translation had not yet appeared), I was really taken with the book, and thought that I would have nothing to add. Agamben is after all the first to take Levi seriously on the crucial importance of the Muslim, and to dedicate an entire book to a figure that, though well known in circles familiar with Holocaust literature, has hardly attracted attention, or indeed, any serious reflection. I subsequently came to suspect that there might be something to add after all, and this for two reasons. The first is that Agamben reinscribes the historical obscurity of the term, ‘Muslim’, its opacity and its strangeness. I do not by any means wish to diminish the strangeness, quite the contrary. I just want to say that this strangeness is even more extensive because of a combination of visibility and invisibility. What I am arguing is that the use of the term in the context of the camp, has a history that can be read on the very surface of major philosophical texts. This all-too visible history is however also marked by its invisibility. The second reason I thought I may have something to add by way of a footnote, really, to Agamben, is that as complex as Agamben’s argument is – touching as it does on numerous issues and dimensions of language, of ethics, of politics, and of law – it has in this particular context very little to say about religion or about theology. This is particularly surprising to me since it is Agamben, who, after Derrida, alerted me to the importance of the theologico-political (think only of Homo Sacer, of his analyses of Schmitt and Benjamin, and so forth). So there were these two factors: the invisible visibility of the term, ‘Muslim’, and of its history, the alleged obscurity of its origins, and the absence of religion and theology in the discussion of the term and the phenomenon in Agamben. Agamben suggests, quite tentatively, that maybe the use of ‘Muslim’ relied on a medieval stereotype. Primo Levi, on the other hand, said the term might have come into common usage because of the way in which people imagined Muslims praying, or because of bandages around the head. Like Levi, I have found none of the explanations I encountered convincing. So I wanted to explore this double-absence, and from then on, it seemed as though I only encountered symptoms as well as potential, if partial, explanations for this absence everywhere.
I presented this material at a conference in France after which a kind woman, whose name I unfortunately forget, approached me. She told me that she was French but her mother was German and had grown up and gone to school in Germany in the 1930s. This woman had called her mother after having heard my talk and, in response, her mother had read out to her the words of a song that reads roughly as follows:
trink nicht so viel Kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der Türkentrank
schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blaß und krank.
Sei doch kein Muselmann,
der ihn nicht lassen kann!
Don’t drink so much coffee!
The Turk’s drink is not for children,
It weakens the nerves and makes you pale and sick.
Don’t be a Muslim
Who can’t help it!
This is like a comptine pour enfants; a children’s song that people still learn, as it turns out. I have since met young German people who know that song and I am told it also appears in an opera. The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, a Muselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire (“the Turk”) to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of “the Turk.” Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.
There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children’s song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure. The sick man of Europe is like the Muslim: there is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, “I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used…”. It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.
In the book I also write about how in Hebrew the term ‘Muslim’ is not translated but rather transliterated (something which could be rendered as muzelmann, quite distinct therefore from muslemi, i.e. ‘Muslim’, in modern Hebrew). I do not mention the following anecdote in the book but I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, “Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the word Muselmann means Muslim.” She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic, that one could claim that a word is not a word, not that word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of ‘Mussulman’ or ‘Musselman’ for the word ‘Muslim’. But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this “recognition” possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that ‘Muslim’ is another term like ‘Canada’ or ‘Mexico’ (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken. Of course words function outside of their context but the fact is that something of the common usage remains or is reinscribed. So that when people say ‘Canada,’ it may be a singular name but it is also overdetermined, culturally and discursively, if you will. The building where all the belongings of the dead were gathered and where it was actually (if only relatively) better to work has nothing to do with Canada, per se, and yet it was Canada that was thereby imagined as a place of plenty, toward which one could dream and, if one survived, escape after the war. And people did. And comparable things can be said of ‘Mexico’, which is where they stored blankets that had stripes such that reminded people of the traditional cloth of Mexico.
This is the culture of stereotypes. If one says to a little boy, “You throw like a girl”, the question is: what enables the “recognition” of a “girl” in this boy? What are the conditions that make possible such a slur? It is not because a girl “really” throws like a girl; it is because people think that they can recognize in a bad throw a girlish throw. This is all I am asking: How did that term – even if that is not what it meant to people – come to function? How did that recognition become possible? How could people say, “This looks to me like a Muslim.” When you have a song that says that a Muslim is weak and pale and submissive and can’t help it, and this understanding is ubiquitous in the whole discourse of modern Western philosophy, it becomes no less surprising, but perhaps less opaque.