Voyeur in the Nazi abat­toir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

ONE episode from The Kindly Ones will stand for the whole. It is 1941, in a vil­lage near the Ukrainian town of Pereyaslav, south of Kiev. A unit of Ger­man sol­diers is search­ing for par­ti­sans, along with any Jews who may have es­caped a re­cent Ein­satz ( action), in which 50,000 were killed and buried in mass graves over two days.

A sergeant, ex­hausted and anx­ious, ac­ci­den­tally shoots a preg­nant woman in the street. An or­derly per­forms a makeshift cae­sarean to try to save the child. Their cor­po­ral, hap­pen­ing on the scene and fu­ri­ous at the pity on dis­play, seizes the new­born and dashes its brains out.

Such cru­elty, so far in ex­cess of mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity: no won­der ‘‘ Mem­oirs of an ex-Nazi mass mur­derer’’ was the de­scrip­tion used by pub­lish­ers to de­scribe Jonathan Lit­tell’s thou­sand-page novel at the time of its French release in 2006. This neatly provoca­tive tag, or some­thing like it, also has at­tached it­self to Char­lotte Man­dell’s much-awaited English trans­la­tion of the novel, but it is wrong in two im­por­tant re­spects.

When we first meet Max­i­m­il­ian Aue, he is liv­ing un­der an as­sumed name and run­ning a lace-mak­ing fac­tory in France years af­ter the con­flict’s end, and there is noth­ing ex about his po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies. In­stead, the for­mer SS of­fi­cer be­gins his war­time rec­ol­lec­tions on a de­fi­antly un­re­pen­tant note: What I did, I did with my eyes open, be­liev­ing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, dis­agree­able or un­pleas­ant as it may have been. De­spite this ad­mis­sion, he’s no mass mur­derer ei­ther. A killer, yes, some­times, when obliged to save his san­ity or his own skin. But on that day near Pereyaslav he merely watches and records. He is un­will­ing to speak out, even when his col­leagues act in an ab­hor­rent fash­ion.

When it comes to the whole­sale ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the sick, el­derly and dis­abled, women and chil­dren, pris­on­ers of war and ho­mo­sex­u­als, in­ter­nal crit­ics and ex­ter­nal par­ti­sans, Poles, Ukraini­ans, Gyp­sies, and sundry east and west Euro­peans, along with six mil­lion Jews, Max Aue proves to be a voyeur in the slaugh­ter­house, im­po­tent and stu­pe­fied by the re­al­ity be­fore him.

It’s the in­ter­play be­tween th­ese con­tra­dic­tory traits, ide­o­log­i­cal ar­dour and real-world pas­siv­ity, that make The Kindly Ones such a ter­ri­ble ( in the word’s older sense, some­thing awe­some) read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. A gar­den-va­ri­ety psy­chopath, anti-Semite or sadist would have been too small a crea­ture to in­habit the Al­bert Speer-like im­men­sity of Lit­tell’s nov­el­is­tic ar­chi­tec­ture.

As it is, the gap be­tween Aue’s philo­soph­i­cal be­liefs and his daily ex­pe­ri­ence of war pro­voke an in­ter­nal bat­tle ev­ery bit as fe­ro­cious and com­plex as the con­flict out­side. And it is the de­sire for res­o­lu­tion in this in­di­vid­ual strug­gle that gen­er­ates a ten­sion strong enough to draw the reader through events so of­ten re­vis­ited by pop­u­lar cul­ture, se­ri­ous art and schol­arly in­ves­ti­ga­tion that their orig­i­nal shock has been dulled.

Lit­tell claims to have spent five years re­search­ing The Kindly Ones , and the ef­fort shows. He re­turns us to a hell made fresh with new his­tor­i­cal de­tails, ex­haus­tively and minutely ren­dered. Aue’s func­tion here is that of Nazism’s record­ing devil, and not just of its war­time ex­pe­ri­ences. His ca­reer is en­meshed with Na­tional So­cial­ism’s most rad­i­cal un­der­tak­ing: Die End­lo­sung , that blandly eu­pho­nious term we trans­late as the Fi­nal So­lu­tion.

Aue is a fic­tional cre­ation ideally suited to this doc­u­men­tary role. In­tel­li­gent and cul­tured, he be­comes in­volved with the party as an ide­al­is­tic pre-war stu­dent, put for­ward by his pro­fes­sors in much the same way that Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence re­cruited from Oxbridge. A doc­tor of ju­rispru­dence, Aue has am­bi­tions of us­ing his le­gal knowl­edge to cre­ate a Volkisch frame­work of laws for the emerg­ing Fourth Re­ich.

In­stead he is drafted as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer into the SD, the se­cu­rity ser­vice of the SS, run by Rein­hard Hey­drich, where his job is to su­per­vise mop­ping-up op­er­a­tions be­hind Ger­man lines on the east­ern front.

Of­fi­cially, this means the cap­ture and ex­e­cu­tion of crim­i­nals, par­ti­sans and Bol­she­viks; in prac­tice, it mainly means killing Jews. The de­scrip­tions Aue pro­vides of th­ese ac­tions, messy and in­ef­fi­cient fore­run­ners of Auschwitz and Dachau, are the ugli­est in the nar­ra­tive’s bes­tial car­ni­val. Through­out, SS Ober­sturm­fuhrer Aue is the still cen­tre of events: largely in­su­lated from pulling the trig­ger by his po­si­tion, dis­tanced from the sur­round­ing ob­scen­ity by his ide­o­log­i­cal blink­ers. His cu­rios­ity is al­most an­thro­po­log­i­cal in its dis­pas­sion. Af­ter a long day spent su­per­vis­ing the dig­ging of mass graves, then fill­ing them with corpses, Aue re­marks: I could now dis­tin­guish three dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ments among my col­leagues. First, there were those who, even if they tried to hide it, killed with sen­sual plea­sure . . . Then there were those who were dis­gusted by it and who killed out of duty . . . Fi­nally there were those who re­garded the Jews as an­i­mals and killed them the way a butcher slaugh­ters a cow — a joy­ful or dif­fi­cult task, ac­cord­ing to their dis­po­si­tion. But it is an in­di­ca­tion of Aue’s un­sta­ble sense of self that he is un­able to place him­self within any of th­ese cat­e­gories. He is dif­fer­ent, and not just be­cause of his ed­u­ca­tion, in a way that makes him an in­ner emi­gre among his coun­try­men de­spite his po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. Aue’s com­pli­cated sex­u­al­ity places him un­der con­tin­ual threat: ho­mo­sex­u­als, ir­re­spec­tive of rank, are sen­tenced to death if dis­cov­ered.

In Aue’s case, all it takes is whis­pered ru­mour to in­vite trans­fer to the Rus­sian front: to

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