The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an important book, of huge ambition and with a breathtaking canvas, though it occasionally, particularly towards the end, fails to quite live up to its ambitions. It has divided reviewers in every country it has been published (first written in French, relatively late translated into English.) I come down on the side of those who like it – or, rather, who admires the book while feeling rather nauseated by its contents.
Jonathan Littell has attempted to write the equivalent of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – but from the perspective of the perpetrators. the books protagonist (it is written in the first perspective) is Dr. Maximilian Aue, a fictional SS-officer with an intellectual mind and an extremely complex and warped character, who is writing his autobiography with a dire warning to the reader: While he has done despicable things, who can say they wouldn’t do the same, if they had grown up like him and been put in the same circumstances?
Aue joins the SS for practical reasons and gradually descends into the cesspool that was Nazi Germany, rising in the ranks and with increasingly deviant mind. On his way, he works with the Einsatzkommandos in Poland and Caucasus, narrowly escapes Stalingrad, inspects Auschwitz with a view to improving its efficiency, participates in the murder of the Hungarian Jews, and finally takes part in the fall of Berlin, always with an intellectual detachment and a cool rationalizations. A thinking SS man with powers to explore and observe, he is without will or ability to do something other than excel at his job. He is saddened by the killings but more appalled by the lack of a scientific basis for deciding who is Jewish and who is not (The description of a conference in Caucasus discussing whether a certain group is Jewish or not is obscene in its similarity to any other scientific debate, coolly trying to determine whether 6,000 people should be exterminated or not, ending with the Wermacht blocking the extermination because they want to avoid the local population joining the partisans.) He deplores the treatment of the prisoners less for the suffering than for the reduction in productive capacity it causes: When he tries to obtain clothing and food for evacuating Auschwitz prisoners, it is not for humanitarian reasons, but because he has orders to use them as a workforce.
Almost as a subplot (and less believable) are the civilian experiences of the main person: Imprinted with an incestuous love for his sister, he is unable to engage with women and instead seeks out homosexual partners to act out his fantasies of his sister. As he sinks deeper and deeper, his veneer of civilization scrapes off and he loses himself in amnesic episodes, including one where he probably kills his mother and stepfather. After that, he is followed by two policemen who, like a constantly reappearing conscience (much like the chorus in a classic Greek play), calls him to justice. It all comes together in the end, with the fall of Berlin and the fall of Aue – though he survives, escapes to France, and settles down as a minor industrialist. Aue is a reprehensible, but fascinating character – he is a Nazi, but this is not rank stupidity of a Frank Suchomel (a Treblinka prison guard interviewed in Shoah) speaking, this is a cultured German with a wide intellectual foundation and some pretty screwed up, seemingly internally consistent, ideas about the world, capable of enjoying music but, significantly, not playing it.
The book has been criticized for being overly long, for being sensationalistic (explicit sex and rape scenes) and for being written in an old-fashioned language. I disagree completely: The length of the book and its myriad of people assure that you forget some of them – an important reminder of the enormity of the crime described. People die like flies around Dr. Aue, and after a while you, along with him, hardly notice it anymore, aside from some single individuals (such as a 13 year old Jewish piano prodigy executed after hurting his hand and therefore not being able to play) that penetrate the protective shield the perpetrators erect around themselves. I used to work at a hospital many years ago, and recognize this protective shield and the holes in it: To function and be able to take care of patients, I had to make myself immune to their suffering – but occasionally, some single patient would break through my defenses, usually because I somehow could identify with them. Jonathan Littell, who has worked with aid organizations alleviating hunger in war-torn areas, seems to write from that perspective – but Dr. Aue does not heal people, he kills them.
The book contains a number of diversionary discussions – on the languages of Caucasus, on the psychology of increasingly sadistic prison guards (they hit the prisoners not because they see them as subhuman, but because the prisoners persist in being human however much they are humiliated), on the Kantian imperative (in a discussion with Adolf Eichmann, no less), on the differences and many similarities between Communism and Nazism. The book is also a study in bureaucracy and how to do projects that look good to your superiors even though the subject is execrable and the results, in the end, the same: The discussions on how many calories each prisoner should have, how much would disappear through theft, and to what extent one should reduce rations to weak prisoners in order to make the die faster seem surreal if it wasn’t for how it would sound like any other bureaucratic hearing if the subject was changed. Dr. Aue gets better at shaping his reports and steering them through the bureaucracy, but he also loses sight of the real impact of what he is doing, if he has ever had it.
Jonathan Littell has derived his knowledge from books and from visits to the sites of many atrocities, and the book is historically accurate (with the stamp of approval from none less than Claude Lanzmann himself.) Aue meets many historical figures, and you can sometimes see (or think you see) influences from other books. The Communism-Nazism discussion reminds me of Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Dr. Aue’s reflections over word dead in many languages of how Robert Jordan reflects on death in Hemingway’s For whom the bells toll, the description of the dead hippo floating in a pool in Tiergarten with an artillery shell in its back is straight out of Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945. There is recurring symbolism with birds representing pure but vulnerable beauty: Ducks ("with beautiful green necks") are noted in reflective moments, Aue goes shooting with Albert Speer, cranes escape Berlin "not knowing how lucky they are." Overall, The Kindly Ones reminds me most of Günter Grass’ Die Blechdrommel – and Grass, almost predictably, had war experiences he carefully kept secret.
This is not a book to like, but to admire, because you gradually become fascinated with Dr. Aue despite his abominations. As he says in the beginning: How do you know you wouldn’t do the same, given the same upbringing and the same environment? Inhabitants of Jugoslavia, Darfur, Cambodia, Chechen, and Rwanda certainly would have no problem answering that question. Those of us living in more civilized societies should perhaps count ourselves deliriously happy we have never needed to confront it.