David Blackburn

The human stain

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‘Oh my human brothers let me tell you how it happened,’ begs SS officer Max Aue, the narrator at the beginning of Jonathan Littell’s Holocaust novel The Kindly Ones. It is a book about the nature of evil. Simply memorialising the Holocaust, Littell says, always through the mouth of Aue, has relegated the killers to sub-human status. Littell challenges the reader to empathise with the Nazis, because Europe’s most grotesque trauma was perpetrated by the most civilised of men.

Aue is strikingly human. If nothing else he is a study in pretentiousness, with an adolescent impulse to impress. He alludes to Stendhal, Flaubert, Lermontov and Edgar Rice Burroughs at any opportunity, and he is thrilled to ‘adore’ French chamber music and imagines he shares the sensibilities of Rimbaud.

Pan-European cultural references aside, Aue’s political identity is National Socialist – he is a convinced racial supremacist. Dancing on the mezzanine between fact and fiction, Littell drops Aue around the political and cultural landscape of 1930s and 1940s Europe. We see Nazism as the supra-national movement it was. Aue, who is half-French, discusses solutions to the ‘Jewish Question’ with real-life French Nazis like Robert Brasillach, Croat Nazis like Odilo Globocnik, and Austrian Nazis like Adolf Eichmann. All are complicit in genocide.

Littell is at his best when sketching Eichmann. Like the Eichmann of David Cesarini’s seminal biography, Littell's is terrifyingly ordinary, terrifyingly banal. In the words of the Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt: ‘Eichmann was a man in a cage who would do anything – good things too – if you ordered him to.’

Picking at this historiography, Littell creates a study in calculated amorality. Eichmann’s god is self-improvement; he embodies the truism that evil is not always mindless. He is devoted to his family and strives to better their circumstances. In the Third Reich, that required working towards an answer to the Jewish Question. His task was logistical: to transport the maximum number of ‘undesirables’ for the minimum cost, in Reichmarks that is. 

Eichmann grows physically as the Einsatz accelerates. He acquires celebrity, and cajoles his wife into throwing dinner parties to showcase his talent as an amateur violinist, proudly playing a Brahms violin concerto without error – Aue, the aesthete, sneers that just playing the right notes does not make for ‘listenable music’.

Eichmann descends into gloom as the Reich collapses – fearing for his family’s future and conscious that he will pay a price for his actions. But at no point is he maniacal – he calculates how to escape. He did so in reality and worked as unassuming functionary in a Mercedes factory.

Littell’s fictionalisation of Eichmann serves his broad point about Nazism: it was both a thought crime and a physical crime. The Nazis' mad racism was a bi-product of their debased science and perverse vision of society. ‘Undesirables’ had to be exterminated for the good of Greater Germany. Resourceful men were required to operate the machinery of that extermination and were rewarded for completing their ‘onerous task’. However heinous the premises, that is rational and human.

The Kindly Ones is Tolstoyian and Proustian in its execution – and I mean both pejoratively.  At 1,000 pages, it is a rambling, cumbersome book. Littell’s evocation of time and space during the Wehrmacht’s advance through Russia, from the dust of summer to the desolate winter steppe, stalls under the weight of overwriting. For instance, one sentence lasts three pages.

Also, his narrative and characterisation are vulgarised by gratuitous scatology and psycho-sexual clichés. The book’s central character is its weakest. The hundreds of pages devoted to Aue’s incestuous craving for his twin sister are divorced from any reality. Even if I did lust after my sister, I wouldn’t bugger her furniture in search of gratification. Aue is the roving force through whom the whole regime is perceived and his incredible excesses are a needless distraction.

So, Littell’s moral challenge becomes an arduous slog, which is a shame because The Kindly Ones’ bleak but important conclusion is that evil is not innate; it has been added to the world by the thoughts and deeds of men. Rarely has the human stain been presented so starkly. You feel defiled for having read it.