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


A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

About the dense intertwinement of classical and Modernist sources and themes in Aue's psyche, dissertations will no doubt follow. But what does windy speculation about the depths of the psyche reveal about Nazism, a collective and concrete historical phenomenon? After all, however one interprets Aue's memorable and obsessional character, what remains to be sorted out is whether his personal history explains the awful history of the era.

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

Also by the Author

Historians are losing their audience, and searching for the next trend won’t win it back.

Does David Bromwich’s idea of a Burkean left amount to anything more than contempt for Obama?

One hypothesis to reject right away is that Aue is a representative man in the period. Far from it: Aue is, as he puts it, "a somewhat complicated intellectual," excellent at his tasks but dependent on more bureaucratically adept colleagues like his best friend, Thomas, for know-how and on luck for advancement. Aue was trained as a lawyer by Reinhard Höhn and rubs shoulders with Werner Best and Otto Ohlendorf--all historical figures whom cognoscenti will recognize as the self-styled "theorists" of the coming Nazi new order--but he never quite represses his literary leanings. His favorite reading for a time is the pseudo-academic Festschrift that Best assembled in honor of Himmler's fortieth birthday (a book that very much existed). Later, Aue alternates his flight from Pomerania before the Red Army in the calamitous final months of the war with quiet moments curled up in the forest with Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education.

In all this, Aue is deeply unlike not just Hitler--Timothy Ryback's excellent Hitler's Private Library confirms on the evidence of his reading that the dictator was the worst sort of commonplace bore--but also the rank-and-file SS, whose goals were narrowly bureaucratic or self-serving, to say nothing of Nazis in general. Aue stands for little more than his own idiosyncrasy. "A member of the Sicherheitsdienst who quotes Tertullian instead of Rosenberg or Hans Frank is always a pleasure," is how one of his few admiring colleagues puts it, to which one might be tempted to append the wish that there had been more of them.

Among others, Lanzmann griped about Littell's decision to omit the victim's perspective by presenting the war entirely through Nazi eyes. In an interview with Ha'aretz (the novel has also been translated into Hebrew), Littell offered a striking response to this objection. The perpetrators, he said, "are the ones who are doing something and changing the reality. It's very easy to understand the victim: something terrible happens to him and he reacts accordingly. But in terms of trying to understand something, there is nothing to examine. The perpetrator is more complicated to understand, along with the apparatus that activates him. By means of the attempt to give a voice to the perpetrator, lessons can be learned that will affect the way we look at the world today." But on reflection, the defense is not persuasive--at least by itself. If Littell's argument is sound, then why didn't he write a different novel, one about a more ordinary Nazi? "Why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannführer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man?" Aue asks, fairly, at the start. He can, but some rationale for caring about that inner life has to be found once it is shown that Aue is so different from the usual case.

Contrary to most foreign critics (and perhaps Littell's self-defense), the novel's true premise is not that Aue is like other perpetrators. It is that he stands for Nazism as a whole. Indeed, at several critical points, Aue tries to link his family story with the larger saga of his nation. At his mother's house, just before he commits his crime, Aue reflects that he, like Germany, must act in evil ways to overcome the past, or try to do so. The novel may turn on this climactic passage, which asserts not that Aue is like any other Nazi but that he is like all of Germany writ small. "The collective problem of the Germans," he thinks, "was the same as my own; they too were struggling to extract themselves from a painful past, to wipe the slate clean so they'd be able to begin new things. That was how they arrived at the most radical solution of them all: murder, the painful horror of murder." Aue, like Germany, nurtures a mystified spirit of resentment with a long dark history behind it; in his personal war and alongside others in the SS, he acts to effect a glorious restoration and purge himself of resentment, and the result--in both cases--is a heinous crime. History, in Aue's eyes, made them do it.

Before going on his killing spree, Aue asks himself whether "this new fact, even less reparable than the ones before it, opened in turn onto new abysses?" But it is on the premise of a correlation between world history and an individualized psyche--not the disquieting question Aue poses in light of that connection--that the design of the novel wholly depends. Though its success so far has been nourished by high-profile scandal, The Kindly Ones is really a rather earnest attempt to offer a lesson about how the most profound causes of potential crime lurk in the breasts of all "human brothers" (as Aue calls his hypocrites lecteurs in the celebrated opening sentence of the novel). Its curious implication is that Aue killed out of universally shared impulses rather than because of the evil ideology of his place and time, which, indeed, his crime is supposed to explain by a kind of analogy. But if the correspondence between Germany and Aue is in any way faulty or contrived, Aue's memoir, and thus Littell's enterprise, risks splitting into unrelated halves. Its beguiling fictional sounding of the depths of individual perversity would not even skim the surface of the sea of murder into which the Nazis plunged the Jews, and the world. The personal is the political--yet if The Kindly Ones earns its praise, it is perhaps only for rediscovering the mystery of their connection.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.