Voyeur in the Nazi abattoir
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