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  • Chronotopologies of the ExceptionAgamben and Derrida before the Camps
  • Lorenzo Fabbri (bio)

Flash back. Germany, 1933.

“Der Reichstag brennt! Der Reichstag brennt! Hast du mich gehört? Der Reichstag brennt.” On a quiet, brisk February night in 1933 a Berlin fire station received a panicked phone call. A fire had flared up in the building that hosted the German parliament. The Reichstag was burning. Squads were needed to put the fire out. Just six days before the date set for the parliamentary election, the Reichstag fire represented an invaluable opportunity for Germany’s newly appointed chancellor [Mommsen 129–222; Tobias 10–16]. Following up on what he deemed a “sign from heaven,” Chancellor Hitler denounced the event as the inaugurating act in the Communists’ plot to seize power. Something exceptional needed to be done in order to protect Germany against the menace of Bolshevik terrorism. On February 28, the day after the arson, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg approved what is commonly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended fundamental individual rights and handed full power to the chancellor. Having seized emergency powers and with the pretext of the red threat, Hitler closed down unfriendly newspapers, incarcerated thousands of political opponents, and persecuted the Communist Party. The substantial suppression of all oppositional forces allowed Hitler to assemble at the March 5 election the majority he needed to pass the Enabling Act: the executive acquired legislative powers and had now the prerogative to rule by decree with neither the approval of the Reichstag nor of the president. Instituting de facto an endless state of exception, Hitler had transformed Germany into a camp.

Following Giorgio Agamben’s work, one can in fact visualize the lager as a distortion of the normal political time-space, arising from the suspension of the customary checks protecting the people within a constitutional regime. The camp is the space produced by the enforcement of an exception to the law, and those who end up in it are robbed of any legal protection insofar as they are sanctioned as threats to the stability of the political itself [Means without End 37]. This branding of certain social assemblages as guilty regardless of any proven criminal behavior uncovers the sacrificial logic at the heart of the camp: the lives of others are sacrificed to protect the lives of a self-authenticated collectivity. In this way the polity gets fractured in two. There is a “they, the people,” stripped of fundamental rights and abandoned to face bare the sovereign’s absolute power. And there is a “We, the People,” who can enjoy its rights only because the rights of the others have been revoked.1 Such a fundamental split in the body politic is however what, [End Page 77] according to Agamben, intrinsically dooms a political space to its destruction. Once the line between authentic and inauthentic life is drawn, once the humanity which, as bios, lives fully, has been isolated from the humanity that merely exists as zoē, the frontier keeps moving forward, creating an ever more inclusive group of excluded that can be sacrificed. Eventually, the autoimmunitary thrust of the state of exception becomes clear: the life of some, and in the end the life of the One, is guaranteed only by the death of everyone else [Esposito 116].

It is important to recall, once again, that Hitler’s rise to power and the consequent reduction of Germany into one gateless lager was accomplished by following the dictates of the Weimar Constitution. The camps are not an accident that Hitler brought to his nation, but a paradoxical juridical space that finds its condition of possibility in Article 48 of the constitution. Article 48 in fact accorded plenary powers to the president in cases where security and public order were seriously disturbed in the Reich.2 Beginning in 1930, President Hindenburg exploited the textual indeterminacy of this article to strategically strip the parliament of any functions and have the cabinet respond only to him. From that moment on, Germany ceased to be a parliamentary regime. The Reichstag, in other words, was destroyed well before the arson of 1933. Its eventual destruction and the rise of the camps...