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Not for the faint-hearted

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell

4 March 2009

12:00 AM

4 March 2009

12:00 AM

The Kindly Ones Jonathan Littell, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell

Chatto & Windus, pp.965, 20

‘You might be wondering how I end- ed up in the lace business . . . ’, so the hero of The Kindly Ones, a doctor of law and former SS officer, introduces himself to readers of his fictional memoirs. Dr Max Aue, an ingenious Nazi of Franco-German descent, has survived the war and assumed a false identity in order to escape ‘the rope or Siberia’. As Berlin falls to the Red Army he slips out of the city and makes his way to Paris disguised as a returning French STO, an enlisted worker.

But the war has reduced him to ‘an empty shell, left with nothing but bitterness and a great shame’. And so he decides to write his memoirs. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of a descent into hell, perhaps the least metaphorical hell invented by man: 1941, the Eastern Front, the Ukraine, Stalingrad, Auschwitz and the fall of Berlin. Max Aue does not justify what he saw or what he did, but he insists that he was simply ‘a man like other men’ and that those who had not committed his crimes had merely been luckier than he had been. ‘Because if you have the arrogance to think [that you are a better person than I am]’, he warns his readers, ‘that’s just where the danger begins’. In his case one thing lead to another: ‘I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I finally overstepped those bounds’.

Jonathan Littell, an American author who writes in French, has already enjoyed widespread success with this second novel. First published in France in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, it won the Prix Goncourt and has sold over a million copies internationally. It has been compared to War and Peace and has similar scope and ambition, although a more appropriate title for this version would be War and War. Littell’s purpose is to recreate the experience of the second world war from a diligent Nazi’s point of view and in doing so to move beyond accusation and punishment to understanding.

By placing SS Obersturmführer Dr Aue in the SD, the internal security service of the SS, Littell can lift his protagonist like a toy soldier around a vast panorama of war, and from the start of The Kindly Ones we are drawn into Max Aue’s world. We learn how he ended up in the lace business, and then we are taken through what happened before. The story opens with Aue’s unit, an Einsatzgruppe attached to the Sixth Army, advancing out of Poland towards Lutsk through the wreckage and chaos of the Soviet retreat. This is Nazism as an ongoing project, with Dr Aue and his colleagues surging forward with confidence towards a brighter future. For the student of the second world war joining them is like walking into a house through the front door and being invited into every room instead of peering in, as previously, through unlit windows covered in cobwebs.

Shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union, Aue’s commanding officer, SS Standartenführer Blobel, has a nervous breakdown. Blobel tries to shoot an army captain who arrives with an order from Field Marshall von Reichenau instructing the SS to round up and execute 1,000 Jews in reprisal for killings of pro-Nazis carried out by the retreating NKVD. Muttering about ‘needing a plough to bury the bodies’ and ‘the honour of the SS’, Blobel is sent back to Berlin under sedation. But Dr Aue, ambitious and self-disciplined, is made of sterner stuff. All his life he has had ‘a passion for the absolute’, and now, in the form of absolute evil, it is to hand. The task of his unit is ‘to identify and eliminate any element behind the lines that might threaten the security’ of German troops as they advance on Moscow. It follows that Bolsheviks, Commissars, Jews and Gypsies are to be dealt with on sight.

The region, already butchered by the departing Commissars, is in turmoil. Before Dr Aue’s appalled but fascinated gaze the tormented story of Poland and the Ukraine bursts out of the history books and lurches past his office window. Pogroms, an arbitrary arrest, casual rape, police torture and mass graves become the commonplace events of his day. As one of his colleagues remarks, the German army fears disorder even more than dishonour. With the SS to do the dirty work, both honour and order are temporarily safe.

Historians have endorsed the rigour and accuracy of Littell’s research, and one of the author’s main achievements is the skill with which he develops and interweaves the strands of his story: they include life in an SS officer’s mess, the internal politics of the SD, the ideological debates about the necessity of genocide, the changing landscape of war, the tormented history of the peoples, who fall under German military control and flashbacks to Aue’s pre-war life. Some of Littell’s set pieces are quite extraordinary; the description of Stalingrad as the Red Army breaks through, and the last days of the Reich in the forests outside Berlin — where child soldiers murder Soviet infantrymen as they sleep — are two examples. The appearances on stage of historical figures such as Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Speer are convincingly directed.

As Dr Aue progresses up the SD ladder we live with him and watch the slow dismantling of the human personality and examine the animal beneath. The only way up for an ambitious SD officer is to join the Führer’s favourite project and work towards the Final Solution. Those who are not committed to the settlement of the Jewish Question will be left to kick their heels or, worse, sent to Denmark. Aue duly joins up and is despatched to inspect Auschwitz, the organisation of which he analyses with an eye for detail. He watches while a queue of naked men and women are told to pile their clothes in numbered heaps and are then ushered into a ‘shower house’. As the doors close behind them children, who have not yet been selected, mischievously swap the numbers on the piles of clothes.

Although Dr Aue was a convinced Nazi from an early age, he only joined the SS because it meant that he would not have to pay his university fees. However, he is not just an ambitious academic lawyer with good contacts. His claim to be ‘a man like any other man’ is rather weakened by some of his private interests. Not many readers will immediately identify with a man ‘like any other’ who turns out to be a mother-hating, homosexual, psychopathic serial killer with an incestuous obsession with his twin sister and a habit of bumping off family and friends. This hobby introduces an absorbing sub-plot in which Aue is tracked throughout the war by the Berlin criminal police, who demonstrate the persistence of the hounds of hell.

By way of light relief Aue’s lethal progress upward is punctuated by vivid descriptions of masochistic and occasionally murderous gay sex. These passages have been criticised in France and elsewhere as repulsive and gratuitous. They seldom advance the story. One section of 50 pages, entitled ‘Air’, can be skipped entirely. Asked why he included it Littell replied, unanswerably, that he included it because it described what Aue did next. But Max Aue, the fantasising psychopath, never carries the same degree of conviction as the elegant public figure. When it comes to plumbing the depths of an evil soul, Georges Simenon, in La neige était sale, dived far deeper than Littell.

Of greater interest are the scenes in Berlin where, one by one, the intellectual defences of humanity fall. Philosophy is reduced to Hegel’s justification of war, ethics are powerless when faced with the division of industrial labour. Aue’s passion for Plato and music can do nothing to help him escape his fate. Wagner and the romantics are rejected by his aristocratic, anti-Semitic, anti-Nazi brother-in-law. But Frau Eichmann serves cakes and
tea, and Heydrich — ‘abnormally tall, domed forehead, his mouth too wide, his lips too thick, his voice too high’ but a fine violinist — joins them to play a few Brahms string quartets. In the Kaiserhof there is talk of an arrogant young man called von Karajan, who has not yet overshadowed Furtwängler. Meanwhile, Eichmann, an indifferent performer on the viola but a superb bureaucrat, anxiously strives to understand the relevance of the Categorical Imperative. Aue notes his own conviction that Eichmann was never anti-Semitic; it was just that Jews had become ‘his stock-in-trade’.

Littell regularly introduces a note of cynical humour into his horror story. Max Aue’s arrival in Paris at the refugee centre in the Gare d’Orsay is a case in point. This episode which is invariably treated by historians, and understandably so, as one of harrowing suffering is transformed by Littell into black comedy. On his arrival at the reception centre, refugee Aue is beaten up by the Gaullist social workers in charge, not because he is recognised as a Nazi but because he is assumed to have been a Pétainist.

Then there is Himmler, hours before the end, acknowledging that he made a mistake when he designed the concentration camps. ‘If I had to start over again’, says the Reichsführer-SS mysteriously, ‘I’d organise them as the British do’. Outside his door the Gestapo officers are desperately searching for Jewish identity documents, which have become a precious but rare commodity.

The final scenes when Aue makes his escape through the bombed out zoo in the Tiergarten are a masterpiece of grotesque surreality. He is summoned to be decorated by the Führer in his bunker and we recall that Aue originally joined the Nazi party because he detected a physical resemblance between his beloved father, who disappeared after the Great War and the little man in the Munich beer garden. The Führer, with ‘his foul, fetid breath’, approaches bearing a medal and in a single gesture Aue settles his accounts with his family and with history. But, meticulous to the last, he notes that both Trevor-Roper and Bullock have unaccountably overlooked this startling incident.

Charlotte Mandell’s strong English translation occasionally wanders off into eccentric dialogue, Brooklyn demotic or — in one instance — mock cockney. But the main problem lies elsewhere. The French text of The Kindly Ones made use of Nazi-era titles and acronyms, and these are retained (with a helpful glossary) in the present edition. Inevitably, in an English text, they fail to evoke the fear and helplessness that they originally conveyed. This is because German became the public language of conquest during the occupation of France: it was displayed in every town and commune and, thanks to photography, words like polizeiführer now form part of the iconography of war.

One reaches the last pages of this very long novel absorbed and exhausted, but not exhilarated or even clean. The book evokes corruption so successfully that it becomes corrupting. Perhaps this is a necessary condition of understanding at this level the events that it describes. The question remains as to whether it is a legitimate exercise for a novelist to intervene in recent history in this way. The answer must be yes, if it is done this well. With the publication of The Kindly Ones the Holocaust is replaced in its historical context, a development that does nothing to diminish its horror. Dr Aue cannot be brought to trial because he does not exist; on the other hand, he can give us something even more valuable than vengeance, something that no real war criminal can manage, and that is total honesty.

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