A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones | The Nation


A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones

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The other main charge against The Kindly Ones--pressed in a book-length French screed amusingly entitled The Complacent Ones as well as in the almost unanimously scathing German reviews--is that it is sensationalistic and voyeuristic. Actually, almost no violence is depicted in the novel, at least outside Aue's family. There are a few horrifying scenes at the outset: Aue is present at the slaughter of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, in 1941; he even participates in it for an hour, but it is expected of all officers present and he does so with regret. Otherwise, there is no Jew-killing narrated in the novel; Aue is a vicious murderer but not of Jews, and he is not totally convinced they deserve their fate. The few times he directly encounters Jew-killing, Aue expresses distaste at the sadism of the SS rank and file, and denounces it as an insufficiently high-concept version of Nazi thinking. After Stalingrad, Aue is not even a so-called Schreibtischtäter, wielding memos as a deadly weapon. He has mixed relations with Eichmann's horrific machinery in another part of the SS bureaucracy and then takes special care to reject Hannah Arendt's thesis of the "banality of evil," even as an explanation of Eichmann personally. Far from being a portrait of a "thoughtless" automaton, Eichmann's case illustrates, Aue says, the ethos of the typical middle manager eager to advance by pleasing his bureaucratic masters, even though he could never formulate aims of his own and privately disagrees with the vile orders he is given to execute.

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Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn teaches history at Columbia University. His Human Rights and the Uses of History, a book collecting...

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No, the novel stands--or falls--on its portrayal of Max Aue, reflecting on European history from the vantage of his private National Socialism while hiding in a redoubt in provincial France. (His precise means of survival after the war, so that he could reinvent himself as an anonymous businessman, is a mystery saved for the last page.) More precisely, what has to be defended for the novel to merit the laurels that have been bestowed upon it is Littell's attempt to correlate Aue's personal trajectory with the broader history he narrates and his appalling personal deed with the grandiose historical crime he watches unfold.

One interesting defense of the novel, offered by Littell's French editor and also advanced by Harvard literature professor Susan Rubin Suleiman, is that The Kindly Ones is a pioneering experiment in making a Nazi an ethical "witness" despite himself. According to this view, Aue, though definitely a participant in terrible crimes, is forced into inadvertent moral insight about the evil in which he is embroiled. Even the perpetrator, Suleiman suggests, ought to be seen as a potential source of unwitting testimony to the enormity of the crimes the Nazis committed.

The argument has something to recommend it, but in the end it's unpersuasive because it can't account for much of the novel's plot. True, Aue is led to bitter reflections about how his Nazification has changed him into "a man who can't see a forest without thinking about a mass grave." But such moments of introspection are few and far between, and absent from the climactic episodes of the book. A world-weary cynic, Aue learns little or nothing that he does not already know in the depths of his soul about the worst human conduct, which he is generally reconciled to; and if he is scandalized by the barbarity he sees, it is typically because of its unprofessional extremes rather than the appalling nature of the acts. In the opening pages, supposedly written long after the fact, Aue presents his memoirs as exculpatory; but if the point of the novel is to track its narrator's moral awakening, the scarcity of moments of soul-searching hardly justifies it.

The real aim of the book, which is as fascinating as it is dubious, is to present a theory of Aue's depravity as a miniature of the wickedness of the regime he served. It begins negatively, as Aue--whose story hardly figures in the long opening section--witnesses a thousand incidents, from the mundane to the appalling, over hundreds of pages, and the reader is privy to his reflections on the regime. Aue often considers whether the Nazis were anti-Semites. Of course they were, but fanaticism was for brutes. Were they sadists? Only a few bad apples. Were they servants of power as an end in itself, who saw justice as something to define through power rather than something to constrain it? Yes, but why construct this reality rather than that one? Were the excesses due to submission to the will of the Führer, something so inscrutable that one had to guess at and "work toward" it? Probably, but this explanation too begs the question. Did they really believe their crackpot theory of Aryan racial origins and superiority? To a striking degree, in their everyday assumptions, but often simply because it was the official view or because they were rewarded for honoring it. And didn't they believe the Jews controlled Communism or were acting as dangerous partisans behind the lines? People said such things, even about women and children, but to do so with a straight face was difficult: "as in the Middle Ages," Aue comments, "we were reasoning with syllogisms that proved each other." So did the Nazis do what they did because they were the kind of "ordinary men" who conform in every society? For the shock troops, undoubtedly--"the real danger for mankind is me, is you," Aue reflects--but not in National Socialism's driving causation. The banality of evil is only the last argument to be rejected or seriously qualified. The first few hundred pages of the novel, in which death is general all over Eastern Europe, is also the graveyard of theories.

Aue, and perhaps the reader, is brought quickly to the conclusion that the extremity of the violence is no easy puzzle. "If I could understand it," Aue concludes, "then I'd understand everything and could finally rest." And so, having cleared space for his own conjectures, Littell erects an alternative scheme. It is psychosexual--in the train of a long tradition of such theories--and is staged in Aue's inner visions and dreams, the external atmospherics of his world and his familial drama, which climaxes in a dreadful crime at the center of the novel.

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