Unkind overall

Jonathan Littell's controversial Nazi-themed novel fails to yield any significant intellectual reward.

eichmann in jlem 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
eichmann in jlem 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Kindly Ones By Jonathan Littell Translated by Charlotte Mandell Harper Books 995 pages; $29.95 'Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened," begins The Kindly Ones, an extraordinary contemplation on the true nature of evil. "I am not your brother, you'll retort, and I don't want to know." This first sentence sets the tone for the 900-odd pages to come; willfully provocative, it is a challenge to accompany the narrator as he explores the depravity of Hitler's Final Solution. But at the same time, it turns the spotlight onto the unnamed reader - and this could be any one of us - and asks: Are you prepared to go into this, are you secure in the knowledge that you'll think the same of yourself by the time it's all over? That said, one should not mistake this particular narrator as one motivated by a higher obligation toward the truth. Maximilian Aue is erudite, cultured and highly educated; he was also an SS man, a bureaucrat and an active implementer of Hitler's perverted obsession. Living in bourgeois anonymity in France many years after the war, he is moved to state his case not out of remorse or repentance but instead self-righteousness and arrogance; "…people forget, I see it every day. Even those who were there hardly ever use anything but ready-made thoughts and phrases to talk about it." "It," of course is the war, and Aue's account is personal history, a detailed account of his service over the course of five years, from Kiev to Stalingrad to Auschwitz and finally Berlin in the final days of the Third Reich. A middle-ranking administrator, he was tasked with ensuring maximum efficiency in the primary functions of the German army - the removal of "enemies of the Reich" - Jews, Bolsheviks, partisans and Gypsies. The "It" of The Kindly Ones is an obscenity, a pornographic panorama of violence without limits, and Aue narrates bluntly and without sentimentality, uninterested by the moral questions that usually ensue when one man kills another for no other reason than his ethnicity: "In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit." Jonathan Littell, the American-born author, has observed in the past that he was more attracted to the idea of placing an SS officer as the protagonist of his Holocaust fiction than a victim, because "they are the ones doing something and changing the reality... [from the] attempt to give a voice to the perpetrator, lessons can be learned that will affect the way we look at the world today." Littell's portrait of Aue is an intriguing one. A lawyer by training, Aue has a sophisticated appreciation of the abstract, and frequently engages in theoretical examinations of the necessity of their - the Nazis' - actions. On the eve of an Aktion in Ukraine, retaliation against a presumed subversive Jewish population, he considers coolly the morality of the forthcoming slaughter: "I thought the method adopted very unfair... If we were committing an injustice we ought to think about it, and decide if it was necessary and inevitable, or if it was only the result of taking the easy way out, of laziness, of a lack of thought." He expresses disdain for the "genuine anti-Semites" among their number, those who actively embraced the act of mass murder. But these are weasel words, sophistry, and one concludes that Aue is an intellectual coward if not an opportunist, able to conjure up the perfect argument in defense of National Socialism at will, but unable to recognize the sheer speciousness of his rationalizations. Still, it is a stance that suits him well as he progresses upward through the SS hierarchy, a journey set against a rich and detailed historical tapestry of the period, replete with appearances from many of the Nazi elite: Himmler, Speer, Bormann, Mengele, Goering and, most significantly, Adolf Eichmann, the "talented bureaucrat" often considered the true architect of the Final Solution. Eichmann's extended cameo is significant because it brings into sharp focus the primary thrust of The Kindly Ones. Littell has stated that this fiction was an attempt to consider how one might behave if placed in the same milieu as his antihero; the conclusion he seems to lean toward is that the Nazis were not necessarily the psychopathic monsters of contemporary history, but rather creations of a unique combination of social and political factors, albeit with a deranged lunatic as their leader. This thesis is not new, of course; Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem comes to much the same conclusion. Cheekily, Littell even has Eichmann deferring to Aue on the finer points of the Kantian categorical imperative (an irony this, as Aue muses afterward that he "didn't have much of an idea... I told Eichmann pretty much whatever came into my head." Arendt, in her account of Eichmann's trial, argues that his attempt to rely upon this as an explanation for his actions was bound to fail, since he misunderstood it in the first place.) Aue as an everyman in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting conceit, but it is one that is fatally undermined by a concurrently evolving psychological profile, a portrait that presents a man with a significantly disturbed emotional hinterland. Discounting his status as "invert" - obviously a problem in Hitler's new Germany - nonetheless a picture unfolds social dislocation, a troubled childhood and adolescence dominated by a hated mother, and disturbing fantasies concerning his twin sister, Una. The material is psychologically compelling, but undermines any presumption that Aue was ever fully compos mentis. Elsewhere, narrative fact and hallucinatory imagination blend to a disconcerting degree; Aue at times struggles to distinguish between life as it is and life as he imagines it to be. It's all a bit annoying, and at times it seems as if Littell was hedging his bets with respect to his leading Nazi. This is not to say that The Kindly Ones is not a useful book in its own way. Finely researched, it is at times as convincing a historical document of the decline and fall of the Third Reich as any specialist treatise. But as fiction? I'm not so sure. When one embarks on a project as ambitious as The Kindly Ones, it is with the implicit understanding of some significant intellectual reward at the end. But, in fact, one concludes with a sense of emotional exhaustion, overcome by the sound and light but still unsure as to what - if anything - tangible that has been left behind.