The Kindly Ones
February 20, 2009
The Kindly Ones
by Jonathan Littell translated by Charlotte Mandell
Chatto & Windus,
This epic novel, nearly 1,000 pages long, has already made publishing history in France. Two years ago, it exploded like a bombshell in the semi-stagnant pool of contemporary literature. Littell, an American, who wrote Les Bienveillantes in French, won the Prix Goncourt and has sold more than a million copies in that edition alone. The book has been hailed as a classic work and compared with the masterpieces of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Genet, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Céline and Grossman. It is appearing in some 30 foreign editions. This Anglo-American translation, which is certainly faithful, cannot quite capture the stunning use of language in the French original, in which harsh-sounding German ranks and technical terms strike the ear like the crack of a whip.
The Kindly Ones are the Eumenides, the Furies, and the novel is structured as a classical Greek tragedy. It is written as the defiant confession of Dr Max Aue, an SS officer deeply involved in the Final Solution. Aue, a half-German and half-French lawyer and intellectual, is sent on a variety of missions. This enables him to act in the book as a sort of video camera with a biting voiceover. Through his eyes we see the brutal but clumsy work of the Einsatzgruppen murdering Jews and communists behind the lines during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Following the German Sixth Army, Aue also is present at the massacre of Babi Yar outside Kiev, and he witnesses the mass hangings in Kharkov. He then is sent to the Caucasus in 1942 when the German Panzer divisions race south towards Grozny and the oilfields, but are halted by Soviet counter-attacks.
Aue is transferred to Paulus's Sixth Army in Stalingrad - the pivot of the book as well as of the war. He conducts a long interview with a captured Soviet commissar who is about to be shot. Their revealing ideological cut and thrust is inspired by a similar debate in Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. (Like Grossman himself, who was heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Littell believes in semi-plagiarism as an act of literary homage.) But it is the Germans who are about to suffer as the Soviet encirclement crushes the starving remnants of the proud Sixth Army - the retribution after their hubris. Aue receives a serious head wound and is evacuated by air just before the German surrender.
He returns to convalesce in Berlin. There he is attached to Himmler's personal staff. He is ordered to report on Auschwitz and other camps, where he discovers corruption, the bureaucratic rivalries of different departments and the incoherence of the extermination programme. It is the chaotic apotheosis of Hitler's regime.
Aue is also sent to Budapest in 1944 to report on the rounding up of the Hungarian Jews. Although they are required for slave labour by the embattled Reich, most are killed by a machine designed for the annihilation of people rather than winning the war. He also witnesses the terrible death marches of January 1945 when concentration camp prisoners were brought in towards the Reich through freezing snow without food. Then, just as Soviet armies sweep into Pomerania before delivering the coup de grace on Berlin, Aue drives there to the manor house of his brother-in-law to save his beloved sister. The empty house is isolated in a landscape of deep snow. In the most extraordinary and beautiful passages of the book, Aue abandons himself to his fantasies and dreams, knowing that the Red Army may arrive at any moment and that he, in his SS uniform, would be shot on the spot.
Although Aue may seem improbably cerebral for the SS - one suspects at first that this is to allow him to provide an incisive commentary - he is part of an extraordinarily intellectual clique that really existed within the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service of the SS. As Littell has acknowledged, this helped him to identify with his character and explore his mind and motives.
Aue is fictional, but he meets a number of historical figures, including Eichmann, Himmler, Speer and other Nazi notables. Apart from one or two mischievous tweaks (Aue bites Hitler's nose in the Reichschancellery bunker when presented with a medal during the downfall), Littell has been very faithful to real events: his research is impressive. Where Littell is particularly strong, both in historical terms and as an integral part of his novel, is in his depiction of the Nazi and SS bureaucracy, with their rival departments, each with its own viewpoint and ethos. They are all trying to control this monstrous industry without any sense of objective factors, such as whether their decisions are helping the war effort and thus allowing the regime as a whole to survive. It is indeed a case of “those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”.
The book has caused a furious controversy. This is hardly surprising since in the past 25 years the Holocaust has become a sacred subject, mistakenly separated from and elevated above the Second World War itself. Some critics have argued that humanising one of the oppressors creates a form of empathy, if not sympathy. But I cannot understand how anybody could sympathise with Aue by the end of this book. Littell, a Jew, rightly believes that the prime duty of a writer as well as a historian is to understand. He has succeeded in putting himself inside the tortured mind of his character.
Aue's own sexual narcissism and perverse fixations with graphic scenes of degradation, to say nothing of a scatalogical leitmotif, has prompted accusations that the book constitutes a form of Nazi pornography. Yet it is a far cry from the crass SS orgies of Visconti's The Damned. Aue is completely obsessed by his twin sister, with whom he developed an incestuous relationship at puberty. There are mysterious details, such as the twice-mentioned fact that Aue is circumcised. Littell refuses to explain, saying that he himself is not sure what they signify, but that they felt essential when he wrote them: a form of symbolic logic that is intuitive and completely unplanned. As an author, he feels that it is up to the readers to analyse as they see fit. It is not the job of the novelist to explain his own work.
Littell, while admitting to being intrigued by the images of mirrors, refuses to confirm or deny an intended symbolic parallel between Stalinism and Nazism. There is also another facet to the apparent theme of mutual reflection. During an imaginary conversation, his sister Una suggests to him that the Nazis' anti-Semitic obsession is a repressed form of self-loathing. Hitler's German race, another “chosen people”, is thus a mirror image of the Jewish race. In another context, Littell has quoted Grossman's observation: “The spike of racial hatred is directed against the orthodox Jews who in essence are racists and fanatics of racial purity. There are two poles now. On one side are racists who suppress the world, on the other, Jewish racists, the most suppressed in the world.”
But as Littell reminds us so well, Hitler's obsessive racism became entirely self-defeating: both in the Soviet Union, when he resisted the recruitment of Ukrainian and Caucasian forces to strengthen a desperately overstretched Wehrmacht, and in the astonishing waste of resources to carry out the Final Solution itself.
It is a great achievement to have made this horrific tale recounted by such a profoundly unsympathetic character so gripping. Littell is far better qualified than most to engage in such a dangerous enterprise. Having spent several years working with victims in Chechnya, Sarajevo and Africa, and having encountered a number of mass murderers, he uses this experience to explore the motivation and psychology of such killers. It is an area of vital importance to modern historians, but they are restricted by a comparative lack of hard evidence.
In the early round-ups and often bungled killings by the Einsatzgruppen, Littell suggests that much of the brutality came from an anger among the executioners. This was because they found that their victims, especially the children, were not as dehumanised as they had been led to expect by their superiors and the propaganda of the regime. In the book, as in real life, they suffer mental breakdowns and resort to drink. Himmler soon recognised that one advantage of the extermination camp system was the way that prisoners, shorn of their hair and stripped of civilian clothes, were reduced to human livestock. His SS executioners suffered much less trauma as a result.
Some critics fear that the power and influence of Littell's book is so great that it will distort historical perception of the subject for future generations. But this is a misplaced concern. Even though real characters appear, The Kindly Ones never descends into the sort of faction that is the curse of contemporary history. The author rightly refuses all suggestions that it should be made into a film, despite its great cinematic potential. It will therefore remain what it is: a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come.
Antony Beevor's D-Day, The Battle for Normandy, will be published in June
The exoticism of evil
James Lasdun on a provocative retelling of the Holocaust's horrors through Nazi eyes
Saturday 28 February 2009
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, Translated by Charlotte Mandell , 983pp, Chatto & Windus, £20
One approaches the fictionalisation of any aspect of the Holocaust with suspicion. Art is always at some level entertainment, and the idea of being entertained, however skilfully, by this particular set of horrors seems inherently objectionable.
Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones reprises the familiar atrocities, in graphic detail and at massive length, from the viewpoint of an SS officer intimately involved in their execution. The book, which has already won the Prix Goncourt (Littell grew up in Paris and wrote it in French), is certainly skilful. It's certainly objectionable too, deliberately so: the resentment and repugnance it arouses are evidently a part of its underlying calculus. One's abiding sense of something pornographic about the whole enterprise is orchestrated - cleverly, horribly - into the comprehensive disgust at one's own species that it seems intent on arousing. Despite the title (the Kindly Ones are the Eumenides, agents of catharsis in Greek drama), this is not one of those works that set out to leave you with a feeling of teary uplift about the Holocaust (a strong point in its favour).
The officer, Max Aue, a lawyer in civilian life, presents himself as a cultivated man; a Nazi by conviction rather than expedience, intellectually scrupulous, highly disciplined but also sensitive (the mass killings he observes and helps to organise sicken him to the point of repeated breakdown, even as he constantly affirms, explains and re-explains his belief in their necessity). In its coupling of high culture with demonic brutality, his character seems premised on Celan's line about the preservation of Goethe's oak tree in Buchenwald: "They build the camp, they respect the oak."
The story he tells, roughly speaking, begins with his acceptance of an assignment on the ill-fated eastern campaign, to write reports on the implementation of steadily darkening directives concerning the "Jewish question". As the early victories in the Caucasus (where the unpleasant business of butchering Jews is alleviated by enlightening opportunities to visit, say, the site of Lermontov's duel) stall in the face of Russian resistance and winter, Aue falls foul of his commanding officer, and finds himself dispatched to Stalingrad. Here, after witnessing freshly apocalyptic levels of horror, he is shot through the head, but miraculously survives, waking up back in Berlin to find Himmler pinning a medal to his chest. Following his recovery he decides, after some hesitation (by now he is afflicted by nightmares, hallucinations, constant diarrhoea and vomiting), to devote his talents to ironing out the various administrative difficulties raised by the Endlösung, the final solution. In this capacity, he becomes embroiled in a bureaucratic wrangle between Eichmann, who wants to exterminate as many Jews as possible, and Albert Speer, who wants to keep as many as possible alive to use as slave labour: one of many grotesque moral dilemmas the book explores with gloomy brilliance.
A common effect of reading histories of the Holocaust is the helpless desire for exegesis that they leave you with. The eagerness with which Hannah Arendt's line about the "banality of evil" has been seized on as holy writ is a measure of the intensity of this need. One way of looking at Littell's novel is as an attempt to use the resources of fiction to supply this missing dimension: a kind of gigantic thought-experiment whereby the reader is situated in the Nazi nightmare subjectively, via the consciousness of a living, thinking, tormentedly willing participant, whose nervous system reacts more or less humanly to the inferno surrounding him, whose mind is endowed with a conveniently encyclopedic frame of reference to help us make sense of it. He perhaps even, thanks to his head injury, possesses the legendary pineal "third eye", capable of penetrating into the spiritual essence of things.
In this respect the book rises impressively, even magnificently, to its own occasions, building out of its fact-crammed but stately sentences (the impersonal prose resembles that of a mandarin memoir) vast and phosphorescent tableaux vivants seething with Dantesque detail. If you have an interest in feeling your way into the administrative manoeuvring, the pseudo-scientific argumentation about language and race, and the mass of period-specific social and sensory minutiae that comprised the human reality out of which arose, say, the massacre at Babi Yar, or the final death march from Auschwitz; if you care to revive, in your own psyche, the finer points of cannibalism in Stalingrad or the emotional impact on the war-weary Gauleiters of Himmler's call, at Posen, for total genocide, then this is undoubtedly a book you should read.
It does, however, have some large flaws. The most serious, for me, was Littell's decision to equip his protagonist with a radically abnormal set of psycho-sexual characteristics. An erotic obsession (briefly consummated) with his twin sister Una, a murderous hatred of his mother and stepfather, and an inconsolable grief for his absconded father, form the basic elements of his inner life. Rejected by Una as a lover, he compensates by taking male lovers in order to pretend to himself that he is Una, as they penetrate him. And on a sick leave in the south of France he hacks his mother and step-father to death with an axe (he denies this, but is pursued by a pair of semi-comic furies in the form of two doggedly relentless Kripo cops, throughout the rest of the war).
These quirks establish Aue as a familiar literary type: the rococo personality who believes himself to be impeccably classical. They also fulfil the standard trope equating Nazism with extreme kinkiness. The problem is that they undermine Aue's repeated claim (one that seems to represent the basic philosophical claim of the book) that we, the readers, are no different and would have behaved just as he did under similar circumstances: "The real danger for mankind is me, is you." This Baudelairean assertion may be valid in theory, but a character who gets his kicks watching mother and stepfather eating the sausages he's just sodomised himself with seems perhaps not the most persuasive basis for a claim that we're all alike. At least Eichmann's "banality" is something most people can relate to.
What this novel offers instead is a study in the exoticism of evil. The more perverse it gets, the less representative Aue seems of anything other than himself. By the end, after extended scenes of him having sex with half the furniture in his sister's abandoned house, we're left with a pure singularity: a ghoul belonging more to the fictional universe of, say, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (there's an interesting affinity between Aue's cultural name-dropping and the brand-name obsession of Ellis's Patrick Bateman) than the real-world squalor of Nazi Germany.
Related to this dubious claim of kinship is an intermittent suggestion of larger historical mirrorings. An anachronistic use of the word "terrorists" for the Maquis seems slyly aimed at current political discourse, as does the word "surge" in a remark about the floundering German war effort. And several scenes of soldiers photographing their own atrocities inevitably recall Abu Ghraib.
All of which is interestingly provocative. More troubling is a persistent effort to establish underlying reciprocities between the Nazis and the Jews. In one of his hallucinatory moments, Aue sees Hitler metamorphosing into a rabbi. Another character, citing Disraeli's Coningsby as a proto-Nazi text with its paean to the Chosen People as "an unmixed race ... the aristocracy of nature", observes that the Jews "are our only real competitors ... Our only serious rivals". Eichmann worries that sparing the strongest Jews for slave labour will create "the strongest biological pool", and that "in 50 years everything will start all over again".
Is that intended as an oblique reference to the present? Maybe, maybe not. But this, from Aue himself as he reflects on the Warsaw uprising, surely is: "It's the Jews who are becoming warriors again, who are becoming cruel, who also are becoming killers. I find that very beautiful." It's difficult to read that without thinking of certain contemporary commentators who take pleasure in likening modern Israel to Nazi Germany; harder still to figure out where Littell himself stands in relation to his protagonist's sentiments. At moments like this, the authorial detachment he cultivates with such magisterial elegance seems evasive.
At one point, Aue quotes the critic Maurice Blanchot's description of Moby-Dick as a work that "presents the ironic quality of an enigma and reveals itself only by the questions it raises". I suspect this may express something of Littell's ambitions for his own monumental inquiry into evil. To say that it falls short of Melville's visionary originality (and lacks, also, the breadth and vitality of Tolstoy, despite the claims of some reviewers) is hardly a criticism. It's a rare book that even invites such comparisons, and for all its faults, for all its problematic use of history, The Kindly Ones does just that.
James Lasdun's short story collection It's Beginning to Hurt is published by Cape in April.
Los Angeles Times
'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell
This name-dropping, event-hopping fictional memoir of a Nazi tries very hard but fails in many respects.
By Laila Lalami
March 15, 2009
The Kindly Ones, A Novel
Jonathan Littell, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Harper: 984 pp., $29.99
Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In "The Kindly Ones," the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.
"The Kindly Ones" is ostensibly the memoir of Maximilien Aue, a legal scholar
who joins the main intelligence branch within the SS and slowly rises through
the echelons of power. As a Nazi officer, he witnesses or participates in the
major events of World War II -- the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad, the
massacres in Auschwitz -- but evades capture after the fall of the Third Reich.
He flees to France, uses his prewar connections to start a lace business,
marries, has children and grandchildren, and leads the quiet life of a petit
In occasional flashbacks, the reader discovers a few details about Aue's birth and upbringing. When Aue was just a young boy, his father, a German veteran of World War I, went to visit a relative and never returned. Aue's mother then married a Frenchman, moving the family to the Côte d'Azur. For several years, Aue carried on an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una, until the two were found out and swiftly separated. Aue later has many homosexual encounters because, he says, he hopes to replicate his sister's sexual pleasures with him. If you think this story is unpleasant, or convoluted, or tragically Greek, wait until you get to the last third of the book.
Littell's ambition is to construct a character through whom the reader can witness the gradual making of a monster. In his first military posting in the Ukraine, his commanding officer asks Aue to "go have a look" at the courtyard of the Castle Lubart, where hundreds of corpses are rotting. The abominable stench makes Aue nauseous. "Your first time?" a fellow officer asks. "You'll get used to it." And indeed Aue gets used to it, even if the reader never does. As a genocide unspools before his eyes, Aue's response is not to question its occurrence but, rather, to question the methods of its execution.
For instance, when his superiors round up a thousand random Jews as retaliation for the killing of some German soldiers, Aue stays up at night, bothered by the fact that this was "very unfair; the Jews of goodwill would be punished, the ones who might have come to trust the word of the German Reich; as for the others, the cowards, the traitors, the Bolsheviks, they'd stay hidden and we wouldn't find them." Soon enough, he becomes a fervent defender of the Final Solution: In "wartime, in a context of occupation, and with our limited resources, it is impossible for us to carry out individual investigations. So we are forced to consider the risk-bearing groups as a whole, and to react globally." By the end of the book, even Adolf Hitler's nose starts to seem, to someone so obsessed with the purity and superiority of German blood, "clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic."
Unfortunately, Littell's execution does not match his ambition. As a character, Aue is neither plausible nor realistic. Like Forrest Gump, he conveniently manages to be wherever the most significant events of the war take place, at the time in which they take place, and to interact with all the relevant figures of Nazism -- Paul Blobel, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself. The encounter with Hitler borders on the farcical. (I should mention that Littell can't resist inserting famous people into this book: Una studies psychology in Zurich with Carl Jung, a grandchild of the composer Schubert turns up as a soldier and so on.) Aue lurches from one job posting to another depending on the needs of the plot and engages in conversations whose sole purpose seems to be to provide historical detail, however fascinating or mundane it might be. Even the transformation of Aue from a constitutional law expert into a coldblooded executioner seems too linear to be believable.
Littell tries to save his character from being a stereotypical Nazi officer by resorting to frequent mentions of certain cultural markers. Aue reads Plato and Chekhov; he enjoys good wine; he speaks French, Greek and Latin; he discusses Lermontov with his colleagues; he visits local museums in nearly all the cities in which he is stationed. But while the ability to quote François Villon or Bossuet might not make him a stereotype, it is not enough to turn him into a complex character. One might argue that Aue is not meant to be plausible, but then again neither does he seem to be consistent. He has no private thoughts for a hundred pages, and then suddenly describes his sexual obsession with his twin sister or recalls a childhood episode in which he sodomizes himself with a sausage covered in olive oil, which he then feeds to his mother and stepfather. (There are many revolting memories in this book.)
For the most part, French readers and critics appear not to have had such problems with "The Kindly Ones." The book became an instant literary and commercial success when it was published in France three years ago. Aside from the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, Littell won the Grand Prix du Roman, awarded by the Académie Française. In the last few years, such prizes have occasionally been awarded to immigrant or expatriate writers, but Littell's case was singular. Here was an American writer who, in the midst of American cultural hegemony, wrote in the language of Molière. Mais c'est fantastique! The novel was hailed as a masterpiece and sold more than 700,000 copies. Littell was finally given French citizenship.
Still, the character of Max Aue stirred uneasy passions among a small but vocal section of the French cultural elite. Was it ethical to write from the point of view of the Nazi executioner rather than the Jewish victim? What could possibly drive Littell, a former aid worker who has served in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, to such a choice? Perhaps in an effort to address these questions, Littell wrote a short book last year about Léon Degrelle, a Belgian fascist leader who seems to have been his inspiration for the character of Max Aue (and, yes, of course, Degrelle gets his own cameo in "The Kindly Ones"). But the pamphlet seems to have persuaded only those who had already found Aue believable.
"The Kindly Ones" is divided into seven major sections, each with a title that evokes a musical theme (Toccata, Courante, Sarabande, etc.). This chilling juxtaposition of beauty with evil might have worked better if it hadn't been overshadowed by other stylistic choices. Indeed, while the dialogue is clearly indicated with quotation marks, it is not set apart from the narrative text by white space or line breaks. Every page looks like a large column of words. Perhaps this is meant to highlight the suffocating effect of the terrible events in the story, but the reader is just as likely to feel suffocated by the plodding style that Littell uses.
In the opening section, Littell modulates the first-person point of view several times, so that the tone is by turns confessional ("Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened."); argumentative ("If after all these years I've made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you."); casual; dismissive; introspective and, finally, at once critical and self-critical. These modulations are mixed throughout the book, with the effect that the reader never feels guided by a single narrative consciousness.
Jonathan Littell has undertaken a very ambitious project in "The Kindly Ones," and I think his boldness deserves to be commended. In the end, however, his highly problematic characterization and awkward handling of point of view make this book far more successful as a dramatized historical document than as a novel.
Lalami's new novel, "Secret Son," will be published in April.
This immense novel, first published in France in 2006, has ignited fierce debates wherever it has appeared (including Germany and Israel), and the United States should prove no exception. You may close "The Kindly Ones" in revulsion after the first 100 pages or refuse even to open it once you know what it's about. Or, if you're like me, you will read it to the end with a mixture of fascination and disgust toward its narrator, and admiration for the author who created him.
Jonathan Littell, born in New York in 1967 (son of American thriller writer Robert Littell), grew up in France, was educated at Yale, and spent several years working for nonprofits in hot spots like Chechnya and Bosnia before settling in Barcelona. He had published almost nothing before this book. Winner of two major literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the novel sold more than half a million copies within a few months of publication, and elicited long articles by some of France's most distinguished critics and historians.
Why all the fuss? Mainly because this novel, which gives us a comprehensive and historically accurate account of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, starting in June 1941 on the Eastern Front and ending with the January 1945 death marches from Auschwitz, is narrated by a former SS officer who witnessed it all. Critics have pointed out that this ubiquity makes the narrator a kind of Forrest Gump, highly implausible by realistic standards. The important questions, I believe, are what kind of point of view and what kind of voice does Littell's Maximilien Aue represent, and how are we to respond to him as readers?
Littell's achievement is that the answers to this question are complicated. From one angle, Aue appears as a loathsome human being who commits not only crimes demanded of him by commanders but also some purely "private" ones such as murder and matricide; from another angle, he appears as a reliable witness who offers a pitiless gaze on the Nazi machinery of destruction. The novel's plot is loosely based on "The Oresteia," in which Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, then is pursued by the Furies. In the Greek trilogy those fierce avengers are placated at the end and renamed the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, even as Orestes goes scot free. In Littell's novel too, Aue goes unpunished (he ends his days as the director of a lace factory in northern France), but it's less clear that the Furies have let him go: In many ways he is a haunted man, and the novel's last sentence suggests that the Kindly Ones have clung to him all these years. Paradoxically, he has no memory of his matricide, and he is blind about other private matters as well.
About history, by contrast, he is clearsighted. Writing his memoirs many years after the war, Aue begins with a provocation to readers: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." The "it," the story he will go on to tell at great length, is nothing less than the story of Germany in World War II, with all its madness and megalomania and occasional moments of grotesque humor.
It is this double status, at once "insider" participant and "outsider" analyst, that makes the fictional Aue fascinating and problematic. Some critics blame Littell for having created a character whom they view as historically implausible: a Nazi with such a clear-eyed historical vision. But Littell has explained in interviews that he never intended Aue to be a realistic character. Aue's insider/outsider status is essential to Littell's project, which is to remain very close to the historical record (he did years of research for the book, and even negative critics have recognized the documentary accuracy of his work) and at the same time to plumb some of its most mysterious depths - first among these being the question of motivation. Why did the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes against humanity do what they did, especially if they were thoughtful, intelligent men, as many SS officers were? It is not enough, Littell has stated, to argue that the Nazis killed Jews because they were anti-Semitic; nor, in fact, is any single explanation adequate. In one of the tour-de-force passages in the novel, Aue reflects on a question that historians have pondered: Why did the Nazis insist on deporting the Jews of Hungary, very late in the war, when they could have used their dwindling resources more effectively in resisting the Russian advance? He concludes that "even if, objectively, there was no doubt about the final aim [to kill all the Jews in Europe], it wasn't with this aim in mind that most of the participants were working." Instead, each had some narrow, personal, or professionally circumscribed reason. This can be seen as a restatement of Hannah Arendt's famous thesis about the banality of evil, but it is given a whole new life under Aue's (and Littell's) pen. Charlotte Mandell's translation is excellent, corresponding to Littell's colloquial French.
The historical events of the Holocaust take up more than half of the book, the rest being devoted to other aspects of the war such as the German defeat at Stalingrad, the nightmarish final days of the war in Berlin, and Aue's private story (which involves passive homosexuality and an incestuous love for his twin sister). The link between Aue's private, increasingly delirious sexual fantasies and aberrant behavior and the public madness of the war is never explicitly developed, just as the link between the "Oresteia" plot and the Nazi war machine is left unstated. If Littell wanted to leave the reader with unresolved questions that will continue to haunt us, he has succeeded brilliantly.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of "Crises of Memory and the Second World War," among other books.
The Kindly Ones
Review by Donald Morrison
Published: February 21 2009 00:25
The Kindly Ones
By Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Chatto & Windus £20, 984 pages
Not many contemporary French novels find success in the English-speaking world, but this one comes with a pedigree. First published in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, it won two of France’s most prestigious literary prizes and sold more than 700,000 copies. And that despite its length (nearly 1,000 pages), the grimness of its subject matter (the Holocaust) and the meagre reputation of its author, Jonathan Littell, an American former aid worker who grew up in France, lives in Spain and writes in French.
Some critics praised Les Bienveillantes for its refreshing ambition and realism, others dismissed it as sensationalist. But everybody was talking about it, and the English rights were reportedly sold for a six-figure sum.
Is it worth the fuss? That depends on your patience. The Kindly Ones, as it is now titled for English readers, is revolting, overlong and far from lucid. But it is also erudite, pitiless and mesmerising.
Its narrator, Maximilian Aue, is a half-French SS officer with a taste for boys, a distaste for killing and a creepy obsession with his twin sister Una. He recounts his wartime misdeeds without apology from northern France, where he has made a new life after escaping the Reich’s collapse.
Aue is present for many of the worst moments of the war, from the massacres in the Ukraine to the siege of Stalingrad, the industrialised horrors of Auschwitz and the fall of Berlin. He also has a bizarre encounter with the Führer in a sodden, stinking bunker. In all these events his role is peripheral: he spends much of the book making inspections, drafting reports and angling for a succession of ever-bigger jobs with Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and other celebrity war criminals.
Aue could be a poster boy for Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” school of Nazism, were it not for his lengthy moralising. “What man of sane mind could ever have imagined that they’d push jurists to assassinate people without a trial?” complains Aue, a trained lawyer who has been assigned to deal with “security threats” behind German lines in the East.
The problem is not that people lose sight of morality, he finds, but that they try to make the best choices they can among lesser evils, and then those evils add up. “There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time,” says Aue. “But the ordinary men that make up the State – especially in unstable times – now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”
Aue protests against the extermination of the Jews and gets physically ill at displays of brutality, which he describes in gruesome detail. He lobbies to improve the lot of camp inmates, and retreats into music and literature to salve his despair. He might merit your sympathy had Littell not made him so annoyingly pedantic.
There are two pages on Nazi euphemisms for killing, seven on the history of Caucasian linguistic forms, and more than 30 on Aue’s sexual fantasies involving his sister. Paragraphs and even sentences rattle on for pages. German acronyms and military ranks proliferate until you too know your Obersturmbannführer from your Hauptsturmführer.
Many of Littell’s best points about the war and the Holocaust have been made before. Cruelty is contagious and civilisation fragile. More specifically, the Germans could have learned from the British in handling conquered peoples; the Allied bombing campaign may itself have been a war crime; the Final Solution was a fatal diversion of war-fighting resources; and the Jews were persecuted because they reminded the Germans of themselves.
Himmler chillingly tells Aue that Jewish morality is a threat to the Nazi state, so Christians, as heritors of that code, must be the next to go. Aue concludes that the state, like the world of the Middle Ages, was built “on syllogisms that proved each other”. And only at the end does Littell clear up the matter of the book’s title: in Greek mythology “the kindly ones” is a euphemism for the Furies, who wrought vengeance against crimes of blood.
The marvel is that Littell packs so many furies into one book. He leaves no dead horse unbeaten, no atrocity undescribed, no depth of depravity unplumbed. Little wonder The Kindly Ones is so exasperating. Its scope is impossibly vast, its flaws inevitably visible. That may be why the novel caused such a stir in France, where contemporary fiction tends to be intimate, elegant, detached – and of limited interest to international audiences.
Now France, or at least an American who writes in French, has given the world a huge, untidy 19th-century roman fleuve of the sort Hugo, Balzac or Zola might have attempted. A book that tries to ask the big questions. And fails magnificently.
Donald Morrison teaches writing at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His new book, ‘The Death of French Culture’, is published later this year by Polity Press
Jonathan Littell's extraordinary Holocaust novel asks what it is that turns normal people into mass killers. By Jason Burke
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, pp992 , Chatto & Windus, £20
This remarkable book was first published in France in 2006, as Les Bienveillantes. The first significant work of Jonathan Littell, Francophone son of American spy author Robert, it was an entirely unexpected success. Gallimard, the publisher, originally printed 5,000 copies. Within months, Les Bienveillantes had sold 300,000 copies, had been welcomed by critics as the most important book for 50 years and had won the Goncourt and Femina prizes. Stupendous sums were paid for its foreign rights and it went on to sell more than a million copies across Europe. Now it has been translated into English and will surely cause a similar fuss.
What accounts for the attention? A 900-page work written in impeccable French by an American, albeit one educated in France, was always going to be talked about. But the main reason for the book's notoriety is its subject matter. The novel tells the story of the Holocaust and Nazism through the eyes of one of the executioners, an SS Obersturmbannfürher on the Eastern Front who is attached to the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile execution squads whose task it was to kill Jews, partisans and other "undesirables" in the wake of the German advance. Both in France and across Europe, there were fierce debates about the morality and feasibility of giving voice to such a character. In Germany, Littell was accused of being "a pornographer of violence".
But The Kindly Ones also owes its success to its quality as a work of fiction. Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history.
Max Aue, the narrator, is a jurist by trade, a classicist by training and an aesthete by nature. He reads Flaubert as he treks through northern Pomeranian forests escaping oncoming Russian forces and savours the finest claret. (As German critics pointed out, Littell is more at home with French cultural references than German ones.) Aue is interested in the potential philosophical justifications for the mass murder of Jews and regularly consults Plato. At the same time, he is a closet homosexual who once had an incestuous affair with his sister and is a suspect for the brutal murder of his mother and stepfather. Whether all these elements add up to a plausible character (or even a plausible Nazi) is debatable. But as Littell has stated, with his interest in Greek philosophy and his cold, ironic eye, Aue is an excellent prism through which historical events can be examined.
One of Littell's purposes with this novel is clearly a documentary one. Whatever other criticisms have been levelled at it, no one has questioned the thoroughness of his research, an exhaustive process that took five years and included walking the terrain he describes. (The book was written quickly, by hand, one winter in Moscow.) Littell inserts the character of Aue into a landscape of impressive historical exactitude; the pages describing his arrival in Stalingrad are especially rich in detail, pace and clarity. This is narrative photo-realism, the work of a gifted writer who in lean, sharp prose conjures a powerful sense of place and action. His fingernail sketches of senior Nazis, including one of Hitler in his bunker, are superb. No wonder French critics hailed the return of 19th-century realism and even spoke of a new War and Peace.
Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck. Littell told interviewers that the character of Aue allowed him to examine what he himself might have done had he been born in different circumstances at a different time. In the preface, Aue assumes a creepy complicity between himself and his readers. His opening sentence - "O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened" - recalls, especially in the French original, Charles Baudelaire's: "Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère." Littell's point is that there is no firm line separating ordinary people from those responsible for acts such as the Holocaust. There is no absolute evil, banal or otherwise. There are, as Aue says, simply "reasons, good or bad ... human reasons".
The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how "ordinary men" become killers. Through its first 200 pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly work. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal. As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the "Aktion" at Kiev, which saw more than 30,000 Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters. By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to "the Jewish Problem".
This view of Nazi actions is certainly in keeping with the latest Holocaust scholarship, which has destroyed the "I had no choice but to follow orders" excuse. Recent work has shown that those rare individuals who refused execution squad duty were not punished. The truth is that though many found shooting unarmed Jews, especially women and children, highly disagreeable, there was no great desire to step out of line. An unswerving belief in the necessity of their task meant that initial qualms were overcome and they came to see killing as a job like any other.
The Kindly Ones, unsurprisingly for such an ambitious novel, does have flaws. The copious scatological and sexual references may strike some readers as excessive. From the lengthy descriptions of Aue's diarrhoea to the dying slave workers in the Reich's factories who shit standing up because to stop working would mean certain death, this is a novel preoccupied with faecal matter. At one point, Max, living his own Armageddon as Germany collapses around him, sodomises himself with a tree branch.
Likewise, the incestuous and murderous subplot, that sees Aue pursued across half of Europe and half the 900 pages by two police officers, is overwrought and far-fetched. Littell often allows his narrative to ramble, devoting 60 pages to an impossibly bureaucratic argument between the SS and the regular army over the precise definition of Jews in the Caucasus, and other long passages to turf wars between senior Nazis. These sections make important historical points, but readers may struggle to get through them.
Having read the novel in French on its publication, I also found the translation overly literal. Aue's words seem much more foreign, stilted and sententious than they did in the original. Littell chose to write in French because it best renders Aue's mix of viciousness, chilly irony and confidentiality. In that language, he is precise, ironic, almost intellectually playful and certainly provocative. In English, at least in this translation, he often comes across as precious.
Littell's final message is naturally bleak. Our relative relegation of this greatest of European traumas to memorial days, museums and books is a useful way to avoid confronting the most difficult questions of all, which are not about the victims, but about the killers. Any attempt to portray the perpetrators of the Holocaust as human, such as the recent film of Bernard Schlink's book The Reader, provokes massive controversy. It will thus be interesting to see how this book is received in the English-speaking world.
Whatever reaction his novel sparks, Littell has undoubtedly succeeded where many ambitious writers have failed. The Kindly Ones reveals something that is desperate and depressing but profoundly important, now as ever. Max Aue, the SS executioner, states the truth with typically brutal clarity: "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you."
Jason Burke is a senior foreign correspondent at the Observer based in Paris.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, March 8, 2009
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell; translated by Charlotte Mandell
Harper; 984 pages
Can anyone write a good novel about a thoroughly evil man? And even if some writer could do it, would you, if it were nearly a thousand pages long, really want to read it all the way through?
To highlight evil you need some good for contrast, and in "The Kindly Ones," Jonathan Littell's huge tome, written in French and winner of France's Prix Goncourt and one of the longest novels ever to see the light from an American publisher, there are mostly shades of evil. SS Obersturmbannfüher Max Aue, the narrator and main character of this relentless presentation of the relentless Nazi killing machine, doesn't blink when he sees crowds of Jews rounded up and murdered (though he does develop stomach trouble and vomits a lot, a condition that appears to be a natural result of his presence at the many executions that occur on his watch).
Aue is a sort of Zelig of the Nazi killing machine, the creation of a fiction writer who has done an enormous amount of research and doesn't want to let go of any of his material. From the German advance into the Ukraine in 1941 to the fall of Berlin, this 30- or so year-old Nazi officer always seems to find himself an eyewitness of cruelty and murder. Baby Yar, Stalingrad, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Hitler's Berlin hideaway - all these locations, and more, are places that Aue happens, on his inspection tours of the field for the SS, to visit just at the time the events there are ripening to their utmost. As is Aue's burgeoning depravity. In his public life he is a witness to and sometimes accomplice in genocide. In his private life he is a dedicated pederast and, possibly, a murderer, and in his dreams he is guilty of everything from his waking life plus some particularly vile acts of the sort that sometimes even innocent people conjure up and which, for better or worse, I will not describe here.
Littell's presentation suggests, at least superficially, that only a monstrous pervert and murderer would commit the multiple crimes that we see through Aue's eyes. And it's true that Aue himself, along with the many historical figures our Nazi Zelig rubs swastikas with, many of them even more murderous than Aue, takes on larger-than-life proportions as both killer and sadomasochistic sexual practitioner. In this argument the Nazis are a social cancer on the European body politic, something natural and at the same time something terribly diseased.
But as you read your way in to the novel - which, by the way, is something you might find as relaxing as wading through bogs of blood and mud - you discover that Littell seems to be arguing otherwise. For example, when Adolph Eichmann appears in these pages, at meetings with Aue and in after-meeting conversations, he reminds us of the same man whom Hannah Arendt so powerfully depicted in "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" - not a sociopath but an ordinary man who on the wings of fascist power raises himself to great heights. Which makes much more sense than having to imagine that all Germans were sick and murderous Nazis by nature.
Yes, so Littell tries to have it both ways. From the opening phrases of the novel - "Oh my human brothers" is how Aue addresses the reader - to the pathos of Aue's dreams of mayhem and murder and his consistently upset stomach, this monster of the Third Reich insists on his normality and yet every day takes his place among the murderers in crime after crime after crime against humanity.
It's not a free ride, reading this bloated novel all the way through. Aue ends up pursued by the avenging Furies - "The Kindly Ones" out of classical mythology - and the reader ends up wanting to vomit. If there is anyone in your Facebook friends list who doesn't know about the crimes of the Nazis, give them this novel. The punishment fits the crime.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio.
Written in French by a bilingual Jewish-American, featuring a philosophical SS officer who exterminates Jews in Russia, Poland and Kiev while believing he inhabits a Greek tragedy, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones seeks to approach the Holocaust through the medium of a European novel of ideas. So it’s easy to see why it has caused such a fuss. Awarded the Prix Goncourt and the Academie Française prize in France when it appeared in 2006; condemned by a battery of German historians; decried as “grotesque” in the US; and already dividing the critics in Britain, this novel gleefully squares up to the questions we pose of all creative work that draws on the Holocaust for material.
Can our capacity for empathetic understanding be usefully excited to remind us of the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe? Or should we agree, with Adorno, that “through aesthetic principles or stylisation… the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose”, and so, is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror”?
The Kindly Ones is the memoir of Maximilien Aue, first encountered as the proprietor of a contemporary lace-making factory in France, who loses no time in letting the reader know what not to expect from his war stories. “I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself,” he muses, before embarking on a sequence of blood-chilling aperçus on the principles of Nazi extermination. “In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.
“Total war means there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and a German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method.” He saves his trump card for the peroration: “You should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did… The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”
And so begins a sort of whistle-stop tour of Nazi atrocity, which sees Aue posted, with suspicious fortuity, to the pivotal areas and events in the wartime European theatre. He stands and reports as the Einsatzgruppen embark on their bungled and vicious campaign of extermination during the German invasion of Russia. He assists at the massacre of Babi Yar in Ukraine, in which nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered in two days. In the Caucasus he attempts to establish the ethnicity of various mountain tribes, before being wounded in the siege of Stalingrad. Later he ends up at Auschwitz, tasked with increasing “efficiency of production”, then he returns to besieged Berlin to witness first-hand the fall of the Reich.
The novel relies on jarring contrasts and improbable juxtapositions for its best effects. The passages of violence have a cold-burning, accretive barbarity that reminds less of Tolstoy (to whom Littell has been compared) than the sexualised battlescapes of the French writer Pierre Guyotat, as amid the gore and excrements, moments of ghastly banal clarity surface. “The attitude of the Jews didn’t make things any easier,” reports Aue. “The men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.” Elsewhere, though, the style becomes arresting and coolly beautiful as it annotates the tiniest of details: a duck stooping in flight to land on water, or the snow piling on a roof.
But The Kindly Ones is not simply a product of that vexed genre, docu-fiction. In addition to Aue’s role as detached observer of human catastrophe, Littell furnishes him with a complex erotic back story that in some respects mirrors the Oresteia: his life is dominated by an incestuous relationship with his twin sister in childhood, after which he forswears women and takes to sodomy in an attempt to “feel almost everything she felt”. In a moment of amnesiac possession he murders his mother and her lover, subsequently finding himself pursued by a pair of sinister avenging detectives (The Kindly Ones of the title are the Eumenides, the propitiatory term for the Greek Furies). Combined with his obsessive interest in bodily functions and his tendency to speechify, this all makes for a confusing, hallucinated mix.
Whether it all works or not will depend on the reader. Much criticism has focused on the character of Aue, whose sexual interests and dedicated classicism threaten to draw the clichéd parallel between Nazism and perversity, refuting his claims to be “just like us”. But The Kindly Ones never sets out to be the tale of a Nazi Everyman, a story of the banality of evil: it leaves that to the wealth of documentary testimony and factual commentary on the war. Instead, it is a magnificently artificial project in character construction, a highly literary and provocative attempt to create a character various enough to match the many discontinuous realities of the apocalyptic Nazi world-view. The result is a sprawling, daring, loose-ended monster of a book, one that justifies its towering subject matter by its persistent and troubling refusal to offer easy answers and to make satisfying sense. It feels very important indeed.
N Z Z Online
23. Februar 2008, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Jonathan Littell verklärt den Holocaust zur antiken Tragödie
Von Christoph Jahr
Wohl noch nie wurde ein «historischer» Roman in Deutschland bereits im Voraus mit derart grosser Medienbegleitung bedacht wie Jonathan Littells 1400-Seiten-Epos «Die Wohlgesinnten». Das liegt, so darf man sagen, ohne ihm zu nahe zu treten, nicht am Autor, sondern allein an seinem Stoff. Schon in Frankreich hat Littell Aufsehen erregt, heftige Kritik geerntet, aber auch Lob und Anerkennung. Nun sind «Les Bienveillantes» auf Deutsch erschienen und sorgen auch im «Land der Täter» für aufgeregte Diskussionen. Das ist offensichtlich so gewollt; dass es sich lohnt, darf bezweifelt werden
Littells Geschichte ist verzweigt und lässt sich doch kurz erzählen. Der Protagonist und Ich-Erzähler des Romans, Obersturmbannführer Max Aue, tritt, noch nicht einmal 25 Jahre alt, 1937 in den «Sicherheitsdienst» der SS ein. Dort macht er zunächst nur sehr zögerlich Karriere. Erst der deutsche Überfall auf die Sowjetunion eröffnet ihm die Möglichkeit, als Mitglied des «Sonderkommandos 4a» seine nationalsozialistische Ideologie mit mörderischer Radikalität in die Tat umzusetzen. Mit dem Überqueren des Grenzflusses Bug im Gefolge der Wehrmacht Ende Juni 1941 beginnt, von zahlreichen Rückblenden unterbrochen, der eigentliche Erzählstrang des Romans, der, bisweilen dicht am Landser-Kitsch entlangschrammend, bis in die letzten Kriegstage führt.
Was man Littell nicht vorwerfen kann, ist mangelnde Recherchenarbeit. Wir erleben detailgetreu die Massaker der Einsatzgruppen in Lemberg oder in Babi Jar bei Kiew mit und haben teil am Vormarsch der Wehrmacht durch die südrussische Steppe. Max Aue kämpft im Kaukasus und im Kessel von Stalingrad, er wohnt im Oktober 1943 Himmlers berüchtigter Posener Rede bei, in der der «Reichsführer» der SS in brutaler Direktheit den Judenmord als Ruhmestat preist. Aue inspiziert das Vernichtungslager Auschwitz ebenso wie die von KZ-Häftlingen errichteten unterirdischen Fabriken von «Dora-Mittelbau» im Harz. Ausser bei der Wannseekonferenz, in die sich Aue nun beim besten Willen nicht hineinschmuggeln liess, war der Protagonist bei so ziemlich allen Ereignissen dabei, die man gemeinhin mit den Untaten der SS verbindet. Folgerichtig taucht die Naziprominenz nicht nur in Gestalt von Heinrich Himmler, sondern auch von Reinhard Heydrich oder Albert Speer auf; ganz am Schluss gar Hitler selbst, dem Aue in einer völlig absurden Szene in die Nase beisst. Doch auch die Täter der zweiten und dritten Reihe wie Adolf Eichmann, Otto Ohlendorf, Werner Best, Walter Schellenberg, Franz Alfred Six oder Theodor Oberländer bekommen ihren meist kurzen Auftritt, bleiben als literarische Figuren aber blass. Das ist kein Zufall, denn noch jede biografische Studie zu diesen Tätern hat ergeben, dass sie bedeutend sind allein durch die von ihnen begangenen Verbrechen. Doch diese bescheidene Einsicht genügt Littell nicht, er will die Weltgeschichte als Tragödie.
Bei einem Sujet, das derart eng mit einer der am dichtesten erforschten Perioden der Weltgeschichte verknüpft ist, stellt sich auch für einen fiktionalen Text, der selbstverständlich die volle dichterische Freiheit für sich in Anspruch nehmen darf, die Frage nach der historischen Glaubwürdigkeit. Hätte es den SS-Obersturmbannführer Max Aue, wie ihn Littell porträtiert, tatsächlich geben können?
Die Täterforschung, unter anderem vorangetrieben von Historikern wie Ulrich Herbert oder Michael Wildt, hat unser Bild von den Exekutoren des NS-Völkermords in den letzten zehn Jahren erheblich erweitert und differenziert. Man macht es sich zu einfach, wenn man sich die Mörder als gescheiterte Desperados am Rande der Gesellschaft vorstellt. Die etwa vierhundert zum engeren Führungskreis des «Reichssicherheitshauptamtes», der Terrorzentrale des NS-Staates, gehörenden Personen waren zum grossen Teil jung, gebildet, bürgerlicher Herkunft und verbanden weltanschauliche Radikalität mit dem unbedingten Willen zur Tat. In dieses Bild passt der fiktive Max Aue als promovierter Jurist in vielerlei Hinsicht durchaus hinein, wenn auch in quasi idealtypischer Überhöhung.
Dennoch fällt Littell weit hinter die Ergebnisse der Täterforschung zurück. Sein Protagonist erscheint als schwarzer, faszinierender Dämon, der mit Freund und Feind bevorzugt auf Altgriechisch parliert, dabei die abendländische Philosophiegeschichte mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit durchmisst und sich selbstverständlich auch mit Musik und Kunst bestens auskennt. Mit den Massstäben Normalsterblicher ist er jedenfalls nicht zu messen, Aue ist gerade keiner jener «gewöhnlichen Männer», die den Völkermord exekutierten und die beispielsweise Christopher Browning so genau beschrieben hat.
Ein weiteres Problem liegt schon in der Erzählperspektive begründet. Ein auktorialer Erzähler könnte dieses umfassende, aus Zeitgenossenschaft und geschichtswissenschaftlicher Analyse gemischte Wissen über den Zweiten Weltkrieg und den Holocaust präsentieren, nicht aber ein seinen Lebensbericht ablegender Zeitzeuge und Täter. Eine solche Quelle würden die Historiker gerne finden – und wissen zugleich, dass sie sie nie finden werden, weil sie so von keinem der Täter je geschrieben worden wäre. Anachronistische Begriffe, «Pasta» statt «Nudeln» oder «Cops» statt «Polizisten», sind dabei nur Petitessen. Wenn Himmler als aus «sehr repressivem katholischem Milieu stammend» beschrieben und die Machtkämpfe innerhalb der NS-Führung als «pluralistische Anarchie» gekennzeichnet werden, dann zeigt das nur eines: Es gelingt Littell nicht, dem Täter eine Sprache zu verleihen, die man ihm abnimmt. Stattdessen gibt Aue den Weltgeist; und der ganze Reichtum an historischen Fakten, den er wie eine barocke Preziosensammlung vor dem Leser ausbreitet, ist reines Blendwerk. Denn Aue wird ja nicht müde zu verkünden, dass es auf das Individuum und sein Handeln überhaupt nicht ankomme.
Was schliesslich literarisch von Littells Fäkal- und Sexualjargon zu halten ist, kann jeder Leser selbst entscheiden. Aber für einen historischen Roman erscheint die obsessive Darstellung von Aues Trieb- und Verdauungsleben, seiner Homosexualität, der inzestuösen Beziehung zu seiner Schwester als zumindest überflüssig, weil keine Verbindung zu seinem Handeln als historischer Akteur plausibel gemacht wird. Das Fehlen einer solchen Verbindung herauszustellen, mag geradezu Littells Absicht sein, aber dadurch entwertet er die konkrete historische Szenerie zum Bühnenbild, das ihm garantiert, was er sonst nicht bekommen hätte: exorbitante Medienaufmerksamkeit.
Bemerkenswert an Littells Roman ist darüber hinaus eine erneute Verschiebung der Täter-Opfer-Perspektive. Nach dem Krieg wurden in Deutschland vor allem die eigenen Leidenserfahrungen betont. «Täter» waren fast ausschliesslich die SS-Mitglieder, die nachträglich aus der Gesellschaft ausgeschlossen und dämonisiert wurden. Seit den sechziger Jahren wurden «die Deutschen» dann in einem umfassenderen Sinn als Täter thematisiert. Durch die jüngsten Debatten um Flucht und Vertreibung oder den alliierten Bombenkrieg kommt wiederum verstärkt die Perspektive der «Deutschen als Opfer» zum Tragen.
Littell nimmt nun nicht nur die Perspektive eines Täters ein, er fordert seine Leser auch zur Identifikation mit ihm auf. Zugleich anthropologisiert er die Schuldfrage, indem er Aue verkünden lässt, dass jeder andere an seiner Stelle mit grosser Wahrscheinlichkeit genau das getan hätte, was er getan hat. Indem Littell seinem Roman die Züge einer antiken Tragödie verleiht, wird alles Geschehen und Handeln zum unbeeinflussbaren Schicksal: Jeden hätte es treffen können, gleich ob als Täter, Opfer oder Zuschauer. Alles ist zufällig und beliebig, nicht beschreibbar in den Kategorien von Schuld und Verantwortung. Der Zweite Weltkrieg und der Holocaust erscheinen als ein Drama der Weltgeschichte wie viele davor und viele danach. Im deutschen – und europäischen – Erinnerungskontext ist das ein grosser Schritt rückwärts. Daher bleibt zu hoffen, dass Littells überladener Roman keine Bedeutung für die kollektive Erinnerung an den Nationalsozialismus und den Holocaust erlangt.
PD Dr. Christoph Jahr forscht und lehrt am Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.