Both Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee and The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi deal with the weighty themes of dehumanization, oppression, and the darkest sides of humanity. Similarities between the apparatus of oppression depicted in both works become immediately apparent. Both the SS and the Third Bureau dehumanize their victims to prevent their torturers from feeling an excess of guilt. In Coetzee’s work, this process is manifested through the aimless war against the barbarians and the endless “wait” for them to attack the Empire. However, it is arguable that the barbarians will never actually arrive; indeed, the title is simply a metaphor for the classic scapegoating of marginalized groups as described by both Levi and Coetzee. Although all human beings are capable of committing atrocities, certain groups have a proclivity towards oppressing others, due to cultural patterns, systemic advantages, and historical examples. To absolve their guilt, they wait for their scapegoats to prove themselves equally ferocious. This theory can be proven by examining the largely fabricated crimes of the barbarians, the distribution of blame in the Nazi Lagers, and the natural dynamic of the oppressor versus the oppressed.
The barbarians will never arrive because they are not the monsters that the Empire has painted them to be. Instead, the so-called barbarians are an oppressed native people who have been pushed from their land by an insatiable empire that fabricated crimes against them to justify expansion. The tall tales about the barbarians are a classic example of colonial paranoia. The settlers have been tricked into believing that the barbarians are a dangerous force, so that the Empire can continue to expand with a clear conscience and without dissenting opinions. The ideas that the settlers have about the barbarians are largely fabricated. For example, the narrator states that “The barbarians come out at night. Before darkness falls the last goat must be brought in, the gates barred, a watch set in every lookout to call the hours. All night, it is said, the barbarians prowl about bent on murder and rapine. Children in their dreams see the shutters part and fierce barbarian faces leer through […] The barbarians have dug a tunnel under the walls, people say” (141). In this quote, there is an emphasis on the hearsay aspect of these fears. The alleged barbarian behavior is completely based on what people are saying, rather than fact. To alleviate the guilt that the tormenters might have felt for harming these people, the wardens of the Empire dehumanized the barbarians and turned them into the enemies of the state. This strategy prevented their underlings from suffering from a bad conscience. The significance of “waiting for the barbarians” as a phrase is that the settlement is waiting for the barbarians to prove themselves to be the evil intruders of their imaginations. It is my opinion that the barbarians will never actually come because the author is trying to prove the point that the scapegoats of oppression are hardly as destructive as they are painted to be.
This idea of oppressors wanting their victims to prove that they deserve oppression is one of the main themes in The Drowned and the Saved. The entire structure of the Lager was designed to distribute shame and guilt among victims who were not truly at fault. By having positions like that of Kapo, the Nazis could rationalize the oppressive system that they were operating. By forcing members of the camp to subjugate each other, the Nazis could believe that they were punishing people who deserved to be punished. Nowhere is this clearer than in the horrors of the Special Squad. The Nazis forced a Special Squad of prisoners to do the actual work of operating the gas chambers, not only to distance themselves from the labor, but to shift the guilt. Levi states that, “this institution represented an attempt to shift onto others- specifically, the victims- the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence” (53). Moreover, I think this operation was undertaken so that the Nazis could prove to themselves that their prisoners were in fact worthy of being oppressed. In a similar sense to the frontiersmen of Coetzee’s work, the Nazis were “waiting for the barbarians” to emerge among their prisoners. Levi articulates this idea when he explains the soccer match that was played between members of the SS on guard and the Special Squad. He believes that these two groups could play a game together because they were on an “equal footing.” He states, in the voice of the Nazis, that “it is consummated, we have succeeded, you no longer are the other race, the antirace, the prime enemy of the millennial Reich; you are no longer the people who reject idols. We have embraced you, corrupted you, dragged you to the bottom with us” (55). I think that this passage represents a scenario in which the “barbarians have arrived”. By forcing the prisoners to commit such an act, the camp authorities have dragged them through sin to make them into people worthy of hating as barbaric and despicable.
Both literary examples play into the larger narrative of the oppressor versus the oppressed that has guided human history as a common dynamic. Coetzee argues in Waiting for the Barbarians that different groups cycle through history as the oppressors at different times. He argues this through the example of the Empire, stating that when a group becomes imperial, they become the oppressors. He puts forward this idea through an image of Colonel Joll slaying barbarians one by one, “[. . .] until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not he then his son’s or unborn grandson’s) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolizes eternal dominion” (154). Although Coetzee’s point that all groups have the capability to become the oppressive ruling elite is apparent, this point is open to strong disagreement. There is a general trend throughout history of the oppressors versus the oppressed that favors a certain type of group. On this argument, I tend to side with Levi, who considers that perhaps the Germans themselves had specific attributes that made them prone to oppressive rule. Militaristic societies, like Germany and its Prussian predecessor, have an easier time swallowing oppression because their militaries operated in a similar fashion. Additionally, there is a general pattern indicating which groups are more likely to be targeted for oppression. Historically, any groups that differed from the white, European elite have been the ones who are easily subjugated. Coetzee articulates this oppression of difference, asking “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?” (58). Precisely this point leads me to disagree with Coetzee’s idea that the barbarians themselves could someday become the oppressive elite.
Unfortunately, throughout history, groups have been marginalized to the point that they have become synonymous with “the oppressed”. Certain groups have been oppressed for so long, that it would be difficult for them to overcome the systemic disadvantages imposed on their communities. Because of this, there remains a clear hierarchy of the oppressors and the oppressed, that cannot be reversed without a destruction of the traditional systems and historical advantages and disadvantages tied to each group. Levi and Coetzee expose their readers to the darkest aspects of human nature. Both works show how far human beings can sink into hatred, to the extent of committing unspeakable horrors on other human beings. However, amid describing these events, both authors manage to analyze the psychological motives of violent oppressors, along with oppression’s impact on their victims. In wrangling with these themes, one can locate a parallel in the way both books deal with the scapegoating of the “other”. In order to alleviate their own guilt and shame, the oppressive class must find a reason to justify its hatred of the oppressed group. By fabricating lies about the barbarians and creating a “grey zone” in the Lagers, the Empire on the one hand and the Nazis on the other, demonstrated a recurrent dynamic between the historically marginalized and their torturers. Both the Nazis and the Empire were waiting for the barbarians to appear in their victims, but they were searching in vain. To find the truly barbaric, they needed only to look within themselves.