Such amateurishness …

Neal Ascherson

On the night of 4 February 1983, Klaus Barbie was sitting on the cold metal floor of a transport aircraft. Kidnapped in Bolivia, the former head of the Gestapo in Lyon was being flown back to French territory, to be charged with crimes against humanity. As the hours passed, Barbie answered some of the questions put to him by a journalist. Much of his talk was a sulky protest about the illegality of his seizure. But he also meditated:

Death is cruel, and that is how it has been in the history of the world, beginning with Cain who murdered Abel . . . The first part of my life was my youth, the second the war, the third Bolivia. The balance is that I have suffered a lot . . . Whoever wins the war was right. If you know history, you know the words vae victis – woe to the conquered – from the Romans. Who wins the war, wins everything; who loses, loses everything.

Barbie, who died in prison a few years later, was a pretty average specimen of Fascist Man, whose mentality was once described by Esmond Romilly as a ‘mixture of profit-seeking, self-interest, cheap emotion and organised brutality’, and his reflections on the cargo plane struck exactly the note of amoral, self-pitying, tinpot fatalism adopted by most Nazi and SS survivors facing defeat and retribution.

The Kindly Ones is the fictional wartime memoir of Maximilian Aue, who served as an SS officer in the elite Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence service. Aue witnessed and took part in the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’, from the firing-squad slaughters beginning in 1941 through to the extermination camps of Operation Reinhard and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Brought up partly in Provence and so bilingual in French and German, he escaped from Berlin as it fell to the Russians and fled to France, using stolen papers to give himself a new French identity. Now, after tranquil years spent as the manager of a textile factory, he is settling down to write an account of his hidden Nazi life – ostensibly for his own satisfaction, or perhaps ‘to kill time before it finally kills you’.

Jonathan Littell, an American educated in France, wrote The Kindly Ones in French. It won the Prix Goncourt and sold a million copies in Europe. The reception in Anglophone countries but especially in Germany has been much more critical. Yet from the first pages of this gigantic novel, Littell reproduces the Barbie tone: the phoney veneer of learning, the might-is-right fatalism, the assumption that all are equally guilty but only the defeated have to take the blame. Cheap nihilism, flea-market shreds of philosophy abound. Aue gives us Schopenhauer: ‘It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on Earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.’ On the notion of guilt, he says:

the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air-raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases the man who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame?

A conscientious reader may want to go to a number of other books to check out Littell’s account of events, personalities and organisations. The best is the old classic Anatomy of the SS State (1968), written by four members of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich after they had given expert evidence at the 1963 Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. This massive book confirms that Littell has done his research. But then comes the question of attitudes: the enduring mystery of how a large number of human beings could have consented to carry out these appalling acts – or been aware of them without overwhelming revulsion. Is Max Aue’s recollection of his own reactions, and those of the SS and police executioners, convincing?

‘I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do,’ Aue observes at the outset. In a passage that upset many readers of the novel’s original version, he suggests that sadism had little to do with the Final Solution, pointing out – correctly – that the SS ‘ethic’ condemned gratuitous cruelty and savagery. (Heinrich Himmler, as the Reichsführer-SS, insisted that the ‘grim task’ must be carried out by men who had retained their human sensibilities but had subordinated them to a proper understanding of ‘political necessity’.) Then Aue adds: ‘The ordinary men who make up the state – especially in unstable times – now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read any further.’

Two other works throw light on this, and Littell seems to have studied both of them. One is Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 (1992), which revealed that the men of a police unit that systematically shot the Jewish inhabitants of one village after another were not Nazi fanatics or passionate anti-semites. They were mostly middle-aged husbands and fathers obeying orders to carry out an ‘unpleasant’ task. A fair number found the job too upsetting; they were allowed not to take part in the shooting, and suffered no punishment.

The other helpful book is Robert Jay Lifton’s magnificent The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986). Lifton interviewed a number of doctors who had worked at Auschwitz, some of them prisoners and others SS medical officers on the camp staff. No research comes closer to answering the ‘How could they have?’ question. In the course of the book, Lifton defined two mental strategies adopted by the SS doctors in order to distance themselves from what they were doing and seeing. He called the first of these strategies ‘numbing’. The doctors armoured themselves against impulses of pity or horror in various ways. Heavy ritualised drinking was one, and an odd variant of racial ideology another: Lifton suggested that the doctors regarded Jews not just as ‘subhumans’ but as people who were already dead, through the mere fact of their presence in the camp. (Medical experiments on living prisoners could therefore be regarded as autopsies.) Another strategy was ‘doubling’: the SS officers developed a second ‘Auschwitz’ personality which allowed norms of behaviour to acquire quite different meanings. ‘Conscience’ meant striving to carry out orders, including orders to kill, in spite of the camp’s endemic chaos. ‘Improvement of camp conditions’ meant taking measures to keep it functioning efficiently, which could involve sending whole sections of inmates to the gas chambers to reduce overcrowding.

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