Category Archives: History

The reassembler

James May – Captain Slow, the butt of many Top Gear jokes about nerds and pedants – has a fantastic little show called The Reassembler, where he takes some product that has been taken apart into little pieces, and puts it together again. It works surprisingly well, especially when he goes off on tangents about corporate history, kids waiting for their birthdays to come, and whether something is a bolt or a screw.

Slow television, nerd style.

Here is one example, you can find others on Youtube:

Does someone have to die first?

double-classroomBlogpost for ACM Ubiquity, intro here:

Digital technology changes fast, and organizations change slowly: First using the technology as an automated, digitized version of the old way of doing things, then gradually understanding that in order to achieve productivity and functional breakthroughs. We need to leave the old metaphors behind. For this to happen, we need new mindsets, unfettered by the old way of using the technology. I wonder if my generation has the capability to do it.

Read the rest at ACM Ubiquity: Does someone have to die first?

Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.

Recommended.

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An oratory masterclass

“We no longer think the world will be saved by politics and rock’n roll. We now believe it will be saved by the life of mind.” “…playing gracefully with ideas.”

Watch this. If nothing else, study Stephen Fry’s technique.

Unfortunately, I own a lawnmover. Oh well.

(There is a Q&A session as well, available as separate videos.)

WWII deaths in graphics

This video by Neil Halloran shows how many people died in the second world war, and what has happened in the world since (in terms of war deaths.) It really makes an impression, and is well worth the 18 minutes.

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

70 million people died during WWII, more or less (since the numbers, particularly on the Eastern front, are in dispute.) The video shows that most losses were suffered by the Soviet Union (the way the column grows and grows is heartbreaking, you just want it to stop) and China, that Poland had the most dead as a percentage of the population, that some individual incidents – massacres, battles, bombings – made for a surprisingly large portion of the dead. Stalingrad alone had more deaths than all wars since WWII combined.

The video has roughly the same message as Steven Pinker: That violence and war is on a downward trend, and that this is to be understood and appreciated. And, given these statistics, that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in 2012 perhaps wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The complicated path from innovation to acceptance

One of my favorite essays is Elting Morison’s Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation, from his book Men, Machines and Modern Times (1950, MIT Press, PDF here). In it, he details the story of Captain Percy, US Navy, who by making changes to the sights and elevation mechanisms of the cannons on his ship increased the accuracy by about 3000%, which should be considered relevant. Subsequently, his innovation took a long time to be accepted throughout the Navy, for reasons having to do with the innovator himself (he was a rather controversial figure), the rate of innovation (simply too good to be believed) and the fact that the innovation went against certain organizational and cultural norms (no news there, I am afraid.) One of his conclusions is that no military service should be allowed to reform itself, a point I think we can extend far beyond the military.

But this well told and well documented story is not the only reason this essay is one I keep coming back to. I also like (and frequently retell) the introductory story, which goes like this:

In the early days of the last war [i.e., WWI] when armaments of all kinds were in short supply, the British, I am told, made use of a venerable field piece that had come down to them from previous generations.  The honorable past of this light artillery stretched back, in fact, to the Boer War.  In the days of uncertainty after the fall of France, these guns, hitched to trucks, served as useful mobile units in the coast defense.  But it was felt that the rapidity of fire could be increased.  A time-motion expert was, therefore, called in to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures.  He watched one of the gun crews of five men at practice in the field for some time.  Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming, and firing routines.

When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him.  A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun.  He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out his strange behavior.  What, he asked the colonel, did it mean.  The colonel, too, was puzzled.  He asked to see the pictures again.  “Ah,” he said when the performance was over, “I have it.  They are holding the horses.”

And there you have it – people just don’t want change (unless it is more of the same). Let me illustrate this with the following story, from back in the 80s when I ran user support for the Norwegian Business School:

One user came running up to the IT department’s help desk informing us that “the printer has gone”. The printer in question was an IBM mainframe printer, roughly the size of a large freezer, and was situated, all by itself, in a small (about 2 x 3 meters) dedicated room, like this:

image

The help desk person consulted his terminal, which after a few keystrokes reported the printer as present and ready. Still, the user maintained that the printer was no longer there. An investigation was launched, and a small investigation party, consisting of the user and two or three incongruous IT people set out for the printer room. After a few minutes, the IT people returned, reporting that a) IBM’s service personnel had been there and serviced the printer, and b) for reasons unknown, they had changed its position thusly (and note, the printer and a few cases of paper were the only things in this room):

image

This episode proved to me that Morison definitely was right – most people cannot handle change, and get rather upset when things are in any way out of the normal.

Furthermore, most people do not think about why the world is the way it is, but that is the subject of another essay.

May the change be with you – mostly, it is good…

Computing’s cathedral history

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer – and, specifically, the role of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in it. Their “IAS machine” was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM’s early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I continue to be amazed at how far ahead some of the thinkers were – Alan Turing discussed multiprocessor and evolutionary approaches to artificial intelligence in 1946, for example.

On a side note, I was pleased to see that a number of Norwegian academics, mostly within meteorology, played an important part in the development and use of the IAS computer. Nils Aall Baricelli, an Italian-Norwegian, was someone I previously had not heard of, one of those thinkers who is way ahead of his time and (perhaps because he was independently wealthy and led a somewhat nomadic academic existence, hence may have been considered something of a dilettante, though Dyson certainly don’t see him as such and credits him with the ability to see a possible way from programmed computer to independently learning mechanism (and, perhaps at some point, organism).

The book is a bit uneven – partly standard history, partly relatively deep computer science discussions (some of them certainly over my head), and partly – with no warning – brilliant leaps of extrapolating visioneering into both what computers have meant for us as a species and what they might mean in the future. It also shows some of the power struggles that take place in academics, and the important role IAS played in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

All in all, an excellent history of the early days of computing – a more recent history than many are aware of. As George Dyson says in his Ted lecture (below) in 2003: “If these people hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It was an idea whose time had come.” That may be true, but it takes nothing away from the tremendous achievements of the early pioneers.

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Close-hauled on a bowline

image …or something like that. The effects of reading Patrick O’Brian‘s Aubrey-Maturin novels (which I bought about five years ago and have now read for the second time) is that of slowly sinking into another world altogether, a world where communication may take months and even years, where a shipment may not even get out of harbor for want of wind, where bread has parasites (teaching one to learn to choose the lesser of two weevils) and meat has to be softened by towing it alongside the ship before it is even close to edible.

image Despite the success of the Master and Commander movie, these books are unlikely ever to be made into more movies or a TV series – for one thing, it would be prohibitively expensive, for another, much of the excitement and readability of the books lie in their historical accuracy, their wealth of detail, their quiet humor, and most of all in the wonderful language. I love the the descriptions of political intrigues, the reflections on medical and other science of the times as experienced by Stephen Maturin, and the intricate and confusing legal details of Jack Aubrey‘s fighting commons inclosure and other (usually unsuccessful) adventures.

image As the novels progress (and they are all good, by the way, no reduction in quality over time, in fact, they get better), you gradually learn to appreciate the main protagonists as people – initially cardboard figures, they gradually, through what they do and what they say, emerging as more complete personalities. Much more believable than Hornblower and Bush or Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and Maturin emerge as multifaceted and complex characters with personalities, flaws and qualities understood and appreciated not just by the reader, but by the vivid and rich set of characters met throughout the series.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books the first time I read them, and they improve upon the second acquaintance. Above all, the language is a delight. Like Frans Bengtsson’s incongruously titled The Long Ships (best enjoyed in its original Swedish version, Röde Orm) the novels are held in a language close to that of the times – close enough that I find my own English growing increasingly orotund with each page. Oh fie, O’Brian, for inciting me to top it the knob and engage in idle prating…

Highly recommended!

image(Incidentally, should you decide to buy the series, make sure you buy the paperback versions from Norton, either individually or all at once, with the original paintings by Geoff Hunt. The boxed complete set from 2004 has, unfortunately, been scanned and then poorly copy-edited, introducing many irritating errors (or, rather, vexing imperfections.) And by all means, get the companion volume Sea of Words, which will explain bowlines and capstans and gratings and tompions and weather-gage and other essential terms.)

The economically ideal society

David S. Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is my favorite book on economic evolution and economic history up to and including the industrial revolution. Its main question is “Why did England win world domination?” There were plenty of contenders – The Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal all had colonies, military power and trade, for instance. But in the end it was the comparatively small island nation that won out and dominated until the first world war. Landes explores this in riveting detail, attributing the ascendancy of England to it being closer to an ideal growth-and-development state than the competition.

The central chapter, chapter 5, Landes lays out the ideal case on pages 217-218 – and quoting that is reason enough for a blog post (not to mention obligatory reading for anyone concerned with economic policy.):

Let us begin by delineating the ideal case, the society theoretically best suited to pursue material progress and general enrichment. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily a “better” or a “superior” society (words to be avoided), simply one fitter to produce goods and services. This ideal growth-and-development society would be one that

  1. Knew how to operate, manage, and build the instruments of production and to create, adapt and master new techniques on the technological frontier.
  2. Was able to impart this knowledge and know-how to the young, whether by formal education or apprenticeship training.
  3. Chose people for jobs by competence and relative merit; promoted and demoted on the basis of performance.
  4. Afforded opportunity to individual or collective enterprise; encouraged initiative, competition, and emulation.
  5. Allowed people to enjoy and employ the fruits of their labor and enterprise.

These standards imply corollaries: gender equality (thereby doubling the pool of talent); no discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criteria (race, sex, religion, etc.); also a preference for scientific (means-end) rationality over magic and superstition (irrationality).*

Such a society would also possess the kind of political and social institutions that favor the achievement of these larger goals; that would, for example,

  1. Secure rights of private property, the better to encourage saving and investment.
  2. Secure rights of personal liberty – secure them against both the abuse of tyranny and private disorder (crime and corruption).
  3. Enforce rights of contract, explicit and implicit.
  4. Provide stable government, not necessarily democratic, but itself governed by publicly known rules (a government of laws rather than men). If democratic, that is, based on periodic elections, the majority wins but does not violate the rights of the losers; while the losers accept their loss and look forward to another turn at the polls.
  5. Provide responsive government, one that will hear complaint and make redress.
  6. Provide honest government, such that economic actors are not moved to seek advantage and privilege inside or outside the marketplace. In economic jargon, there should be no rents to favor and position.
  7. Provide moderate, efficient, ungreedy government. The effect should be to hold taxes down, reduce the government’s claim on the social surplus, and avoid privilege.

This ideal society would also be honest. Such honesty would be enforced by law, but ideally, the law would not be needed. People would believe that honesty is right (also that it pays) and would live and act accordingly.

More corollaries: this society would be marked by geographical and social mobility. People would move about as they sought opportunity, and would rise and fall as they made something or nothing of themselves. This society would value new against old, youth as against experience, change and risk as against safety. It would not be a society of equal shares, because talents are not equal; but it would tend to a more even distribution of income than is found with privilege and favor. It would have a relatively large middle class. This greater equality would show in more homogeneous dress and easier manners across class lines.

No society on earth has ever matched this ideal. […]

————–

*The tenacity of superstition in an age of science and rationalism may surprise at first, bur insofar as it aims at controlling fate, it beats fatalism.  It is a resort of the hapless and incapable in the pursuit of good fortune and the avoidance of bad; also a psychological support for the insecure.  Hence persistent recourse to horoscopic readings and fortune telling, even in our day. […]

Sorry, I couldn’t resist including the footnote – direct language and linguistic surgical strikes abound – go get it! (And incidentally, the concluding paragraphs are highly quotable as well.)

A cruel and incomprehensive war

My War Gone By, I Miss It So My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Anthony Loyd goes to the war in the former Yugoslavia as an observer – well, let’s be honest, a tourist – and then gradually succumbs to the fascination, tinged with shame, of observing something surreal, dangerous, and yet so central to Europe. The complex and cruel war between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims and other overlapping and changing factions was a gruesome continuation of centuries of internecine fighting that was only temporarily halted by the Tito regime – close to a quarter million people dead, yet curiously disregarded by the European press.

Loyd gradually becomes a war correspondent, seemingly more for financial reasons – and to have a proper reason to be where he was – than because of an interest in a career. He turns out to be good at it, yet maintains his distance, and his heroin addiction. In the end you are left with painfully memorable descriptions of individual and mass tragedies – and you still don’t know much about the person doing the reporting.

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Cold War of the Rings

John Le Carré : Three Complete Novels ( Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy / The Honourable Schoolboy / Smiley's People ) John Le Carré : Three Complete Novels by John le Carré

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just spent the Christmas vacation under the covers with a flu, rereading this collection of three of the "Smiley" novels (in a Norwegian translation, which isn’t quite the same thing, though the translator is good).

The arena John le Carré creates here (or, rather, reports from, since he was a part of the real thing for a while) is the stealthy and paranoid world of Cold War espionage and counter-espionage, with the physically unimpressive spy-hunter George Smiley as the absent-minded and socially inept anti-hero.

The three books follow each other, not unlike the three main parts of "The Lord of the Rings" (come to think of it, it shouldn’t surprise me if le Carré structured it this way on purpose): The first book (Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) concerns the hunt for a "mole" inside Circus, an thinly veiled version of MI6, defectors and all. The second has Smiley as a less central character, instead giving an operational agent named Jerry Westerby (the "Honourable Schoolboy" of the title) first billing, as he tries to locate and then secure an important Chinese defector through investigations during the final weeks of the Vietnam War. The third ("Smiley’s People") concerns Smiley’s attempt to penetrate the Soviet intelligence organization in a final battle with his nemesis, a the shady and very competent spymaster Karla.

I like these books for their accurate depiction of the fear underlying much of the cold war, the way "little people" become pawns in a game they (and, many times, not their bosses either) understand. Aside from the gloriously tragic figure of Jerry Westerby, the spy game is one of meticulous investigations, bureaucratic frustrations, occasional high hopes with correspondingly deep disappointments. How far can you go in order to win – can you sacrifice people, sometimes with their consent, for an uncertain victory in a cause you are no longer sure about? I think these three books are the best John le Carré wrote, with the possible exception of "The Little Drummer Girl". Reading them again brought back the haunting specter of the dictatorship next door, the nagging fear most people of my generation grew up with, the uncertain enemy with powerful weapons, fought by vicarious means with a realization that the individuals involved had very little to say in the big decisions.

The question remains – who, if anyone, had?

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Newton as master detective

I am currently working from home, laid somewhat lower than usual by a persistent cold. One way to pass the time in between attempting to do actual work is padding through some of the bookmarks of "things I will read when I have time." Here is one gem I marked four months back – Thomas Levenson‘s brilliant talk on his book about Isaac Newton‘s tenure as Master of the Royal Mint, where he had to deal with counterfeiters (particularly William Chaloner) by setting up his own detective force:

http://mitworld.mit.edu/flash/player/Main.swf?host=cp58255.edgefcs.net&flv=mitw-01207-writing-newton-levenson-06oct2009&preview=http://mitworld.mit.edu//uploads/mitwstill01207writingnewtonlevenson06oct2009.jpg

Levenson draws lines to modern economy and shows how Newton had a quite sophisticated understanding of modern economy, was a smart investor, particularly in the South Sea bubble in 1720, and then fell victim to his own greed. Highly recommended!

Obama impresses again..

…this time with a ready message about a prize given too soon: The US is the world’s guarantor of peace and democracy, no matter what others may think about it. And in that role, the country needs and deserves the world’s trust that it is doing the right thing – and gives the assurance that it will listen.

An impressive speech, given the uncomfortable situation the Nobel committee has placed Obama in.

To paraphrase the (Republican, but well-traveled and well-read) humorist P. J. O’Rourke: No matter what you think about the US, please notice that when the world needs power behind good arguments, nobody calls Sweden (or, for that matter, Norway.)

Quote of the day

Downstairs in a kind of cave is the kitchen, where an Army cook is baking square apple pies by the quarteracre. The floor is so deeply worn that he has to step over some of the high places. His coal stove is roaring, and he has arrived at that quiet hopelessness that cooks get on finally realizing that their work is never going to be finished, that there is no way of feeding a man once and for all.

John Steinbeck, Once there was a war p. 70

D-Day from the middle

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars After having read a number of Steven Ambrose’s books on the battle for Normandy, Anthony Beevor’s version is a relief in that it has much cooler analysis, more maps (which every book on warfare should have more of) and manages to include the German, Canadian, Polish and French side of the equation to a much larger extent. (for instance, he points out that more French civilians died as a result of the war in Normandy, particularly the bombing and shelling, than died during the blitz in London).

Beevor is somewhere between Ambrose (who provides much more detail on the experience of the individual soldiers, particularly infantry) and Liddell Hart and Keegan, who take a more professional, tactical and strategic view. The balance is good. However, the book adds little new knowledge, as far as I can tell, aside from more detail on the rivalry between the various commanders, as well as a good account of the liberation of Paris, with all the political machinations and posturing that went on before it.

Beevor is sharply critical of Montgomery, seeing his egocentric posturing and lack of imagination as a diplomatic and political failure as well as tactically costly. He does point out, however, that Montgomery was facing a more heavily defended part of the front, except at the beachhead. Beevor is also critical of the use of bombers as infantry support, and points out numerous tactical and strategic errors which cost lives and time. In all, most generals seem to make more errors than good decisions – which, I suppose, is primarily an effect of having to take decisions all the time, with imperfect knowledge.

The book manages to give an impression of both the large and the small view of war, and points out how the slaughter in Normandy spared the rest of France a protracted war. For that reason, if you are going to read just one book on D-Day, this is probably it.

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England excpects you to write home. A lot.

Nelson: Love and Fame Nelson: Love and Fame by Edgar Vincent

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Detailed biography based on Nelson’s correspondence, gives a good picture of Nelson as a person, his relationships with superiors, subordinates, his common-law wife Emma Hamilton and her husband. This book is widely regarded as one of the best Nelson biographies, but I would have liked to see a bit more on strategy and tactics of the battles themselves – as it is, the sheer number of anguished letters home for love, money and fame can be a bit overwhelming, though it gives a good indication of all the myriad things a captain and admiral had to deal with.

Great biography, but a little discipline and tightening up here and there wouldn’t hurt.

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Shoah from the other side

The Kindly Ones The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

My review

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.

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