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  • “Ni haine ni pardon”Gabriel Marcel and Robert Antelme on the Limits of the Human
  • Erin Tremblay Ponnou-Delaffon

In a brief September 1944 article in the politically engaged Temps Présent,1 existential philosopher and playwright Gabriel Marcel describes a young boy hiding in a doghouse at Drancy internment camp. As the camp nurse reports to Marcel, the discovered boy explained, “‘Je suis un chien: on ne déporte pas les chiens.’” The philosopher insists on the anecdote’s “authenticity,” but whether real or apocryphal, the episode serves to introduce his discussion of what it means to be human, radical evil, and the possibility of forgiveness after the war (Marcel, “On ne déporte pas” 7).

This article places Marcel’s Christian-inflected understanding2 of Nazi crimes in dialogue with Robert Antelme’s secular humanist account of the concentration camps, L’espèce humaine. While to my knowledge, scholars have yet to examine Marcel and Antelme’s work together, these two writers offer early formulations of debates that continue today on the nature of the human and attempts to treat victims—linguistically and materially—as animals and objects. As I will show, reading Marcel and Antelme’s contemporary reflections on the ontological limits of the human together unearths unlikely similarities, despite disparate life experiences and seemingly irreconcilable philosophical perspectives. Ultimately, this article considers how these two writers’ understanding of the human contributes to, and indeed anticipates, critical discourse on forgiveness in the aftermath of the war.

“‘Je suis un chien: on ne déporte pas les chiens.’” For Gabriel Marcel, this child’s naïve—but startlingly incisive—reasoning indicts the Nazis: “Il ne me semble pas qu’aucun réquisitoire contre la barbarie et le sadisme nazis puisse être plus éloquent. Des êtres humains ont subi un traitement qu’on n’infligerait pas à des animaux.” Given inhumane actions which attempt to reduce humans to or even below animals, the philosopher questions the [End Page 33] Nazis’ own jeopardized position vis-à-vis the human community: “[Ils] ont de ce fait prouvé qu’ils ne sont pas eux-mêmes des hommes; ils se sont retranchés de la communauté humaine.” For Marcel, the Drancy episode exposes a “terrible problem” in the wake of such atrocities: Is it appropriate, or even possible, to forgive the perpetrators? While the capacious semantic range of the French term pardon encompasses political and juridical pardon as well as interpersonal and divine forgiveness, Marcel stresses these latter categories. Such emphasis comes as no surprise given the philosopher’s sustained interest in ethics, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and Temps Présent’s spirit, readership, and direction under its founder Stanislas Fumet, a key figure in French social Catholicism. The philosopher’s response echoes that of the then bishop of Limoges, Louis-Paul Rastouil, whom he quotes. When the bishop visited Oradour-sur-Glane’s ruins and heard the accompanying German officer’s apologies, he reportedly retorted, “‘Dieu pardonnera peut-être; nous ne pardonnerons jamais!’” Marcel endorses this “engagement” “catégorique et […] inexorable” as a “sacred duty” (“On ne déporte pas” 7).3 In so doing, he responds to inhumane and dehumanizing acts by insisting upon essentially human faculties: memory, a sense of the sacred, and the proffering or withholding of forgiveness.

Marcel suspects that this proscription will surprise his readers, since it comes from an ecclesiastical leader like the bishop and himself, a Catholic intellectual writing in a Catholic publication. He grounds his position in an understanding of forgiveness as a social act extended by a wronged party to the guilty. Vladimir Jankélévitch would famously posit such prerequisites more than twenty years later in his 1967 Le pardon: “de l’offensé à l’offenseur […] le vrai pardon est un rapport personnel avec quelqu’un” (1001). Yet, in the case of Nazi crimes, these basic conditions of forgiveness remain unfulfilled since, as Marcel posits, the perpetrators willfully removed themselves from the human community. Furthermore, while the gospel injunction binds a Christian to forgive others “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18.22), this outpouring concerns wrongs committed against oneself; its excess is quantitative. It would be qualitatively altogether different and thus inconceivable, Marcel insists, to...


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