“And you who were already conquered in your greatest victories, what will you be in the approaching defeat?” – Albert Camus, First Letter to a German Friend
What does war have to do with the human mind, and the human spirit? Or, perhaps more disconcertingly, what in the human spirit perpetrates the baleful nature of war? These are the questions that are addressed and explored in Albert Camus four “Letters to a German Friend” written in the year leading up to the Allied invasion of France. The world is filled with intelligent people with intelligent ideas who believe and depend upon their intelligence. But, even the most intelligent of people succumb to the seductive power of national and collective belief and will. Throughout history we have been confronted by the fruits of these group ideas. Sometimes these ideas can manifest themselves in progressive and popular reform or change, but more often the collective will of groups of people can emerge as a form of mass hysteria, delusion and aggression Such was the case with much of the German population during the reign of Adolph Hitler and the Second World War, and the American people under various stages of their national ascendency, especially the Vietnam conflict and the execution of the current United States engagement in Iraq within the purview of the larger “War on International Terrorism”.
The thinkers and leaders throughout German and America history in particular have been especially interested in the exercise of will, power, and the consignment of meaning to the world and to events. Life had a purpose to those German and American leaders and thinkers. This purpose was to expand National Socialism, in the case of the Germans, and idealized capitalist-infused democracy to the rest of the world. In the German case these ideals included cleansing the world of all “subhuman” and anti-Germanic forces. The Americans are not altogether altruistic or innocent in their motives either. Their “will to power” has not always been so overtly amoral or brutal, and their professed ideology of choice more often took the form of a mix of self-assuaging utopianism and moralistic capitalism. This having been said it bares noting that the Americans have on many an occasions indulged in racialism and brutality that while may not equal the scope of Nazi outrages certainly reveal a not insignificant predilection for xenophobic reactionism. This has been expressed most noticeably in the systematic subjugation and exploitation of imported African slaves and later black Americans in general, and the destruction of the American Indians in pursuit of profit, power, and a sense of divinely inspired “Manifest Destiny”.
The letters can be seen as a general indictment of tyranny and reactionism in relation to the impulses free men and women have in regards to their own freedom. This being said, the more specific aim of the letters was to address the situation in Europe during World War II, and related immediately to the impulses and actions of the Germans towards the occupied French. An examination of the meaning and context of the letters would be best served by starting with this element of its content. To understand a philosophy or idea one must first exam it within its own day and from the perspective of its own stated purpose. Only then can the intrepid analyst deign to apply the ideas to the present day or to any other relevant period in history.
To start with the aggressive warlike mode of thought attacked in the letters did not completely permeate or influence all of the German people. Far from it; It was the upper classes and the intelligentsia that largely adhered and followed these new precepts of power and oppressive action. The people as a whole followed where their leaders and great minds led them, some more enthusiastic followers then others. Perhaps it would be useful to give a brief sketch of the author Albert Camus. Camus was born to Lucien Auguste Camus and Catherine Marie Cardona in Mondovi, France on November 7, 1913. The young Camus had a fear and distaste for violence in general, and capital punishment in particular. This fear perhaps derived from a story Camus was told about his deceased father: Before he died at the Marne, it was told, Lucien became violently ill at the sight of a man being publically executed. This seems to have left something of an impact on Camus, and this distaste for violence colored much of his later philosophical and literary writing, not the least of which the Letters to a German Friend (Simpson 1).It should also be noted, however, that surpassing this fear of violence was his love of freedom, and free-thought in general. Both these characteristics would have a large impact on Camus later life and writings.
Camus enrolled at the University of Algiers in then French occupied and administered Algeria. It was around this time that Camus began his philosophical musings and writings, often expressing and outlining his beliefs in his many plays and short stories. These early writings included contributed articles in the Literary Magazine Sud, as well his play about Spanish workers during their Civil war. All in all the young Camus was very much concerned with rebellion and human rights, and explored these concerns in a unique and brilliant way (Simpson 1). Through his writing and voracious reading Camus came across the idea of the absurd, a concept expounded upon by the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, and later by Camus close friend and colleague John Paul Sarte. The basic idea of The Absurdist Philosophy states that “human beings demand that their lives should have significance in an indifferent universe which itself totally without meaning or purpose” (Magee 217). Camus did not adhere totally to this Absurdist ethic, but he did concern himself with human ethics and morality in an essentially amoral world. These concerns became an exercise in survival and resistance in reality when the German army invaded in 1940, the same year Camus was working on his great masterpiece The Stranger which would be published to much critical and public acclaim in 1942. In the meantime Camus returned to France from Algeria, and became a leading member of the French Resistance, and wrote for the clandestine newspaper Combat (Simpson 3). It was during this time that time that Camus began a correspondence with an old German friend, and in the four letters that followed Camus would outline his ideas about morality under the resistance, and his attitude about the Germans and their philosophy of war.
It is still not known whom these four letters are addressed to, and in a way it does not matter. The letters transcend the realm of personal correspondence to become a brief, but beautiful tract on the meaning of life and liberty during war. The letters start with a simple quote, something said that Camus sees fit to remind his old friend, “You said to me: the greatness of my country is beyond price. Anything is good that contributes to its greatness” (Camus 5). Camus then goes on to say that his friend told him that “you do not love your country” (Camus 5) because he was not willing to compromise his values for his nation. Camus took this accusation in stride, but not because he felt that it was a lie. On the contrary there was a grain of truth in it, a truth that his German friend was ignorant of. Camus goes on to outline the reasons that he loves his country, and how he best serves its honor and existence.
Camus writes that for the most part there is little different between the average Frenchman and the average German, at heart they all wish to think that they would compromise anything for the glory of their nation. The difference, according to Camus, lie in the way the French had to overcome this pragmatic nationalism in order to preserve their own liberty. In attempting to liberate France, the French “had to conquer themselves first” (Camus 6), and in doing this they were able to reach a point where the Germans could never defeat them. In the mind of Albert Camus, the same man who lost his father to war, and who saw with his own eyes the atrocities committed by the French in the name of national glory, Germany had already lost. Germany had compromised herself, her humanity, her humanistic values, in order to inflate the national sense of importance. Furthermore, the Germans were motivated by the fear of death, the fear of being destroyed by the infernal other. While the Germans took for granted their right to exterminate life in order to preserve their own, the French had to “find out if we had the right to kill men, if we were allowed to add to the frightful misery of this world” (Camus 8). For this was the truth according to Albert Camus, the world was a place of death, and destruction, a world where there existed no morality, no ethic, no meaning. This was the world we lived in, but perhaps there was something more to it?
The second letter begins as a reiteration of what Camus stated in the first letter, and a warning that this string of correspondence will be the end of their friendship. Camus states that Germany thought that the greatest gift that could be given their nation was expanded power, the spoils of war, and an adherence to the truth of the supremacy of both in the field of morality. Camus laughs at this assertion. While Germans only comprehended power as a means to national (and thus individual) meaning, the Franch on the other hand “dreamed of giving [France] her truth” (Camus 13).
The truth was not one thing, but rather the truth was an understanding that truth cannot ever mean all things for all people. The only truth was the human urge to be free, and to be thus under any circumstances. Camus gives a wonderful example of what he means by this in the second half of the second letter.
He writes of 11 captured French Resistance fighters being taken to a cemetery to be shot. As they are being taken to the cemetery one of the captives, a teenage boy, “tears the canvas [of the truck] loose, slips into the opening, and jumps” into a nearby field (Camus 16). Before the boy can get too far though, a French priest who was driving with them sounds the alarm. He is afraid that if the boy or any of the other captives escape he will be blamed and they will kill him, and most likely others, in retaliation. The boy is caught, and all but the priest are soon executed (Camus 15-17).
Camus makes his point that the German friend would assume that the Priest was doing the right thing by stopping the boy, but that this assumption is why the Germans are wrong. The Germans assume that all French have values like this priest, the values of self-preservation, and fear in the face of oppression. The Germans are wrong, Camus writes: the French are “capable of wrath” capable of protecting themselves, and capable of dying in the name of their brothers, sisters, and friends. This French priest was “willing to make God abet his murder” of the boy in order keep himself alive for a short while longer. Camus states that this priest is far from being the best the French can offer, he is among the worst. The measure of a man or woman’s ethics, morality, and valor is not what he or she can do to preserve his or her life or country. The true measure of these values is, as recorded by the Philosopher in a diary entry around the time he wrote the second letter, mankind’s “transcendence in relation to himself” (Notebooks, 1942-1951 81), his ability to disregard his fear of death and punishment and act as a free human being. This was the paramount morality of the French during the resistance, and during the war.
Another thing that stands out in the story of the treacherous priest is the use of the second person to describe who is going to kill the French Resistance fighters. Camus does not say that the German soldiers are going to shoot them. No, he writes “a truck driven by armed soldiers is taking eleven Frenchmen to the cemetery where you (emphasis added) are going to shoot them” (Camus 15). This declares in no uncertain terms the fact in Camus’ mind that this correspondence is no longer between him and a German friend. It has in fact become a mighty verbal joust between two opposite and rival systems of values, and the countries that personify those two systems, France, and Germany. Camus is not Camus, he is France, and his German friend is no longer a simple citizen, he is in fact the personification of Germany herself. Thus does Camus set up his last part of his argument for the values of freedom and truth, the last part and perhaps the most potent argument of all.
The third and fourth letters set up Camus’ damning denunciation of German ethics and universal moral code. Camus writes to his friend that France thinks of Europe as something “that we belong to” (Camus 21). On the other hand, Camus states that when Germany “speak[s] of Europe… the difference is that for you Europe is a property” (Camus 21) a birthright, and a prize to be taken by the almighty power of the German race. Germany seems to be governed by a magnificent sense of hubris and self-worth, but Camus reveals these feelings for what they truly are: fear. The German mind, according to Camus, has been overrun by thoughts of violence and terror because of her history, and because of her need for acceptance in a larger community of Europe. Shunned by England, and disregarded by Russia and the other empires, and hated by France, the Germans took as their national code the idea that they needed revenge. Camus highlights a past conversation between himself and the German friend. They were arguing about the power of literature, and the German friend declared “Don Quixote is powerless if Faust feels like attacking him” (Camus 23). Camus wonders why the German epic hero Faust would find the need to destroy another figment of literature. Camus declares that neither creation was meant to attack one another, and that “art was not invented to bring evil into the world” (Camus 23) but to enlighten the world and to expand our intellect. By setting two mighty figures of intellect and literature against one another the German friend has “scorned knowledge and spoke only of strength” (Camus 23). Fear the best way to explain this obsession with destruction and violence. Remember, Camus had already equated his German friend with all of Germany, and so any postulation that art is a representation of the will, and the will is a means to greater strength through power and violence, is an indictment of the entire character of the German nation at the time.
But, their still remained the fact that according to Camus (and his German friend) the world had no overriding morality or meaning. How then could their ever be anything but violence, death, and fear in such a world? Camus’ answer is as simple as it is beautiful: when one takes into account the fact that the world has no meaning, one must remember that human beings inhabit this world. Camus writes that while “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning” he does believe that “something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one” (Camus 28). This is an amazing, yet obvious declaration. Camus feels that sense life is all the time we have, and that it is brutal and short, we, for some reason, insist on giving it meaning. Perhaps that reason is simply that as living things we wish to be allowed to move, think, and act freely. Anything that attempts to abridge this freedom to exist is in essence a threat to the very meaning we ascribe to ourselves. We have nothing more than what we have, and what we have the ability, and the urge to act as alive and free as we possibly can be. The French through domination by the Germans in war, domination by the most anti-human of feelings, fear, had truly liberated themselves and proved to themselves and to the world that the freedom to be free is the greatest of human values. The Germans had alienated themselves from humanity. Camus saw it fitting to end his correspondence with this warning: “Because you scorned such faith in mankind, you are men who, by the thousands, are going to die alone” (Camus 32). The letters finished, and the war in the eyes of the Camus, and the French, already won, all that remained was to say goodbye to the German friend. This farewell ends the letters, and punctuates one of the most reveling sets of correspondence ever written.
The great literary critic Harold Bloom called Camus “an admirable if confused moralist” (Modern Critical Views: Albert Camus 7), but perhaps this is the reality of human morality. Far from being sure of his or her morals, mankind should be in constant inspection of systems of values, and absolute assumptions. The day we stop being “confused” is the day we become like Camus’ German friend: dominated and motivated by fear. Camus’ values echoed the words of one of his favorite authors, Marcel Proust, when he wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, “You must insist upon your freedom, and not let him drag you about… you need feel no regret.” The world may not be simple, or moral, but it is our world, and our life to live in it.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Albert Camus. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Magee, Bryan. The Story of Thought: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Philosophy.
London: Dorling Kindersly Limited, 1988.
O’Brien, Justin, trans. Notebooks 1942-1951. By Albert Camus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Vol. 2. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
Simpson, David. “Albert Camus (1913-1960)”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 6
May 2007 <www.iep.utm.edu/c/camus.htm>.