Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones took France by storm in the fall of 2006, when it won the Prix Goncourt–the nation’s most prestigious literary prize–and sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. Commercial success fed the heat of scandal, which followed the book to Germany in 2008, vaulting it to the top of the bestseller list. The furor revolved around nothing less than the governing conceit of Littell’s thousand-page roman-fleuve: the novel pretends to be the memoir of a Nazi SS officer who witnessed the different stages of the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated. The dispute over the book was another round in the cycle of Holocaust controversies that have marked time since the end of World War II with the regularity of a metronome. Tempestuous quarrels may have raised public consciousness about the Holocaust; but even so, subsequent battles over its representation can feel no less unseemly. “Silence over the murder, scandal over the books,” George Steiner worried in response to one of the first such imbroglios, forty years before Littell’s intentionally sickening but unquestionably brilliant success.
Born in 1967, Jonathan Littell is an American, the son of Robert Littell, himself the author of a series of espionage thrillers (his latest, The Stalin Epigram, will be published in May). Apart from his time as an undergraduate at Yale, Littell fils has lived as an expatriate in Western Europe. Though The Kindly Ones was labeled his “first literary work,” he had tried his hand after college at his own brand of potboiler, one based on cyberpunk instead of cold war intrigue. But unlike his father, Littell writes in French, and in The Kindly Ones he uses an impeccable literary style that–despite a few purists who feigned offense at one or two anglicismes, not to mention the whole idea of an American scaling the pinnacle of French literature–has garnered deserved praise. After finishing college, Littell chose a career with the NGO Action Against Hunger. It was his humanitarian work in the killing fields of Bosnia and Chechnya during the 1990s, he explained in interviews following the publication of The Kindly Ones, that led him to quit his job and turn to literature. He focused on the Nazis as the archetype of modern evil and plunged into years of research on their deeds.
The device of the Nazi narrator is not unprecedented: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal (1949) was among the first novels in English to use it, and the various attempts in French include a prior winner of the Prix Goncourt, Michel Tournier’s The Ogre (1970). But in Littell’s hands, it is used in a new and inflationary way, allowing the novel to track the stages and sites of the genocide of the Jews from beginning to end, and with a degree of detail that lends authority to the tale. Maximilien Aue, Littell’s protagonist, is present in the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that began the ethnic cleansing of the East behind the lines of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. A year and a half later, after a brief and eventful interlude in Stalingrad, Aue fetches up in Berlin, where as a functionary on Heinrich Himmler’s staff he visits Auschwitz and the Operation Reinhard death camps, which become the factories of the “final solution” when the primitive methods of shooting Jews are supplanted by the technically evolved elimination through gassing and cremation. In 1943 Aue hears Himmler’s chilling Posen speech, in which the Reichsführer-SS speaks of the Holocaust’s glory in an almost public setting; and in 1944 he travels to Hungary, to be present while Adolf Eichmann condemns the nation’s Jews to a massive paroxysm of death. Toward the end of the novel, Aue follows the death marches in the winter of 1945, the catastrophic months of the regime’s collapse. And in the book’s closing pages, he encounters Adolf Hitler in his bunker. Aue is a Nazi Zelig.
It is the implausible fact that Aue is everywhere that European critics attacked most frequently. Claude Lanzmann, whose film Shoah apparently piqued Littell’s interest in the era, acknowledged that The Kindly Ones is learned but complained that it is not a persuasive memoir of one man–even a fictional man. Instead, Lanzmann alleged, it is more a ventriloquism of the history books Littell read while researching the era, which are precisely not one man’s experience. In other words, no such Nazi ever existed. That objection made little sense, for what is a novel but a work of fiction, and what is a character but a fabrication? Implicit in Lanzmann’s narrow dismissal, however, is a narrower question: whether this monstrosity of a novel ought to be read simply or even primarily as a compendium of facts–as a vivid summary of, or accessible proxy for, the frequently dreary books of historians.
I tend to doubt it, even though Littell is a gifted writer and what he achieves in fluently portraying the main characteristics of the SS “state within a state” during the war is unparalleled, to my knowledge. His depiction of the confusing summer and fall after the Soviet invasion–when the SS came to grips with its “special tasks”–is particularly interesting. (Less so, perhaps, is the mammoth narration in the novel’s longest section of the SS’s attempt to square its mission to eradicate the Jews with pressure to make the Reich’s Eastern acquisitions economically productive, or at least useful in the war effort.) The details are assured throughout, and–despite the irritation of some European historians–Littell is rather impressively up to date; at times the novel reads like a fictional précis of the most recent scholarly research on the Third Reich. To take just one example, Aue’s scattered reflections on the Soviet invasion as a colonial project, and how it might compare with its American, British and French precedents, comport with my colleague Mark Mazower’s masterful Hitler’s Empire, published last year.
But in the end, no matter how absorbing, Littell’s thousand pages are hardly an easy or obvious substitute for historical scholarship or narrative history. The chronicle Aue presents is told from his idiosyncratic and self-interested point of view; more important, it is entangled with his wholly fictional–and perhaps even more gripping–personal story. There is too much else going on for “real” history to be the main event. At two critical junctures the jaded Aue suspends his narration of what he saw–“these camps have been amply described in the historical literature, better than I could do,” he sighs at one point, leaving aside any description of the bulk of the killing apparatus–and these pauses prove beyond any doubt that the catastrophic history of the era is the occasion for a deeper and more complex fictional stratagem. If the novel needs to be so scrupulous in its period details and so generous in its scope, it is not merely for the sake of the facts.
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.
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.
At all of these levels, the novel teems with erudite allusions, beginning with classical sources, which are in turn refracted through recent intellectual currents deeply embedded in the novel’s orchestration. The novel’s title is the euphemistic moniker for the Furies of Greek mythology and the title of the third part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia sequence. In Aeschylus’ telling, the Erinyes, or Furies, are forced by Athena’s intervention in their relentless pursuit of Orestes for killing his mother to become the “Eumenides,” or kindly ones, and join her in generously acquitting him of his crime. Indeed, the bare facts of the Oresteia provide the template for the specific acts Aue commits, and the defensive contrition of his preface certainly indicates that he expects a similar act of redemption.
Littell updates these classical themes by recalibrating their dynamics with psychoanalytic theories, especially the unclassifiable German thinker Klaus Theweleit’s old and generally forgotten analysis of the psychology of fascism. (Theweleit became the chief German defender of The Kindly Ones and a pen pal with its author.) A generation ago, Theweleit published Male Fantasies, which analyzed the inner lives of the Freikorps, a group of soldiers who refused to demobilize after World War I and formed paramilitary units to put down the socialist revolution whose specter briefly haunted German cities. (Aue’s father, not coincidentally, was a Freikorps officer.) Theweleit’s theory focused–rather impressively at the time–on the psychic, lived reality of reactionaries. He highlighted, most of all, their desperate attempt to expunge any traces of femininity from their being, to achieve an impermeable “armored” body that would repel the miasma of pestilence and infirmity they attributed to the revolutionary left. Theweleit’s influence shows most of all in the “atmospherics” of The Kindly Ones: in Aue’s constant, striking immersion in viscous fluids–mud and his own shit, above all, but also vomit and semen. Far more than any explicit killing, it is the almost constant eruption and flow of greasy putrescence that saturates these pages with an inescapable feeling of nausea and abjection.
Yet Littell just as clearly wants to apply Theweleit’s meditations on the psychosexual roots of reactionary politics to the Nazi era–and to a deeper syndrome. Another title for The Kindly Ones, given this aspiration, might have been Female Fantasies. For Aue, the goal is anything but to expel the feminine; it is to revel in and return to the feminine, and the various strands of his life are all dyed in the hue of this wish. Indeed, he has an intuitive understanding of Theweleit’s discoveries before their time, and the femininity that could “wreck” men’s “dominion” and “dissolve their control,” so secretly feared by Theweleit’s fascists, is precisely the self-loss that Aue consciously seeks.
Above all, the plot’s fundamental motor, and the heart of Aue’s quest, is his incestuous passion for his twin sister, Una. Aue’s homosexuality is one feature of his governing fantasy to rejoin his sister, even to be her, or perhaps to return to their enwombed unity. Aue hates his mother for breaking up his love affair with his sister (and for driving away their father). But other passages indicate that Aue’s melancholic longing for Una is fixated on something early and metaphysical and not late and sexual. In an aside during his work for Himmler, Aue confesses to missing “that other life that could have been, if something hadn’t been broken so early. It wasn’t just the question of my sister; it was vaster than that, it was the entire course of events, the wretchedness of the body and of desire, the decisions you make and on which you can’t go back, the very meaning you choose to give this thing that’s called, perhaps wrongly, your life.”
The symbol of the twin–and, without giving too much away, it bears noting that there are many pairs of twins in the novel–seems to stand for the outrageous imperfection that drives Aue’s transgression: the constant presence in the psyche of another, more perfect self one also knows is lost forever. All of Aue’s regressive fantasies of reconciliation come to a head late in the novel in an extraordinary onanistic interlude–a sordid but unexpectedly spellbinding one–in which he indulges in his sister’s empty house, as Soviet troops remorselessly close in. And yet, even in his orgy of self-involvement, Aue recognizes that he seeks not sexual ecstasy but metaphysical bliss. It is “these imaginings, these forever rehearsed obsessions, and not the thing itself,” Aue says (emphasis added), “that are the frantic driving forces behind our thirst for life, for knowledge, for the agonizing struggle of self.”
A rather obvious parallel is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Much as for Gustav von Aschenbach, the symbolism of personal abasement and perhaps extinction through feminine transformation is central to the landscape of Aue’s dreams, some of which–notably an epic reverie after he is shot in the head at Stalingrad–are enigmatic in the extreme. It is also as a kind of feminine self-loss that Aue understands what one might otherwise criticize as an utterly stereotypical link between his Nazism and his homosexuality. The comparison with Death in Venice extends to Littell’s crystalline and resolutely unexperimental prose style: dreams and sexuality trigger thematic fireworks, but the rhetoric is almost always measured, and the syntax never breaks down.
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.
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.