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.

Both strategies, ‘numbing’ and ‘doubling’, can be recognised throughout The Kindly Ones. The narrative begins as Aue, attached to the SS Einsatzkommandos as a legal adviser, accompanies the German offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1941. The slaughter starts at once, as the SS units behind the front line set about killing Communist officials and commissars, with a special emphasis on ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’ which rapidly extends to all Jewish males and then to Jewish women and children. Aue regards the killing with detached disgust. He is more interested in technical arguments between SS factions about shooting victims in the head and whether it is more efficient than shooting them in the chest. On a visit to Lwów, once Polish but now in German hands, he notices with distaste that Ukrainian nationalists are littering the streets with dead or dying Jews, which interferes with his appreciation of the old city’s architecture. Soon afterwards, in Volhynia, he is invited to witness an ‘action’. He feels, reluctantly, that he should accept.

I can in all honesty say that I had doubts about our methods; I had trouble grasping their logic . . . Undeniably, we were killing a lot of people. That seemed atrocious to me, even if it was inevitable and necessary. But one has to confront atrocity; one must always be ready to look inevitability and necessity in the face, and accept the consequences that result from them; closing your eyes is never an answer.

When he attends the ‘action’, in a forest where Jewish families are being shot by Ukrainians under German officers, the firing squads are failing to kill outright, the Germans are screaming and swearing at them, the mass graves are half-flooded by rain; Jews waiting to be shot are running away. ‘Such amateurishness . . . ’ Soon, to Aue’s relief, the men get used to the job, grow more professional. A new ‘sardine-packing’ method is brought in, obliging Jews to lie in the trench on top of the dead and dying before they are shot themselves. Still, the work remains exceptionally demanding. ‘With the women, the children especially, our work sometimes became very difficult, heart-wrenching.’ Once, during an ‘action’, a little girl clings to his hand. Aue strokes her hair, quite touched, before handing her over to a Waffen-SS man with a rifle: ‘Be gentle with her.’

The real atrocity for Aue, it becomes clear, is not what happens to the Jews, who have to vanish sooner or later, but the deep suffering endured by those who have accepted their historical duty to ‘eliminate’ them. Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, once wrote of his distress at having to send his favourite Gypsies into the gas: ‘My pity was so great that I longed to vanish from the scene.’ Pity for himself, of course. I remember a television interview with a German woman who had been working at Chelmno in occupied Poland, near the camp where mobile gas chambers were first tested. Emaciated prisoners were daily marched to work along the town’s main street, which she found ‘dreadful, disgraceful’. The ‘disgrace’ was not what happened to the prisoners, but that decent German women and children were exposed to such a nasty sight.

A few weeks after those ‘actions’ in the western Ukraine, Kiev falls to the Wehrmacht. Aue is transferred there, and once the centre of the city has been devastated by a series of delayed-action mines, his SS comrades get down to the job of mass murder. This leads up to the novel’s first set-piece passage of sustained horror, the narrative – over eight pages of reconstructed detail – of the Babi Yar massacre. In a ravine on the city’s edge, an SS Einsatzkommando and its levies murdered almost 34,000 Jewish men, women and children over two days and nights of continuous firing. Littell makes Max Aue a witness, then an unwilling participant. His job is to climb over the slippery mounds of human bodies in the mass graves and finish off the wounded with his pistol: a sobbing young man, a beautiful girl who meets his eye as she gasps for breath – ‘I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit.’

At the end of his shift, Aue goes to a hut erected for SS officers, smokes a cigarette and tries to drink some tea.

Down below, the salvos continued to crackle: tireless, methodical, the giant system we had set in motion went on destroying people. It seemed it would never stop. Ever since the beginnings of human history, war has always been regarded as the ultimate human evil. But we had invented something compared to which war had come to seem clean and pure . . . It seemed to me that there was something crucial in this, and that if I could understand it then I could understand everything and could finally rest.

Aue knows that he could ask to be transferred to other tasks, and that he would not lose standing by that. ‘I would probably even have got a positive recommendation . . . So why then didn’t I? Probably because I hadn’t yet understood what I wanted to understand. Would I ever understand it? Nothing was less certain.’

He pursues this search for inner enlightenment. In eastern Ukraine, he accompanies a punitive raid on a ‘partisan’ village, during which his colleague brains a newborn baby. He moves to Poltava, watching street hangings of Russians with interest and anguish. In Kharkov, he attends the round-up and massacre of the city’s Jews, but he is distracted by the winter landscape, and by concern for his own health:

I was vomiting often now and felt I was getting a little sick; I had a fever, not enough to keep me in bed, but rather long shivers and a sensation of fragility, as if my skin were turning to crystal. At the balka [ravine], between the volleys, bitter upsurges of the fever ran through my body. Everything was white, terrifyingly white, except the blood staining everything, the snow, the men, my coat. In the sky, great formations of wild ducks calmly flew south.

By now, Aue is aware that he is falling apart. The vomiting, which becomes chronic, has no physiological cause. At the hanging of a young woman partisan, he stares into her face and hallucinates, seeming to see his own image bursting into flames and then collapsing into dust. But he is worried that his reaction to violent death is growing numb: ‘thus what I was trying, desperately but in vain, to regain was actually that initial shock, that sensation of a rupture, an infinite disturbance of my whole being; instead of that, I now felt only a dull, anxious kind of excitation . . . slowly, without truly realising it, I was sinking into mud while searching for light.’ He is sent on medical leave to the Crimea, to recuperate from ‘nervous exhaustion’. There, in a sanatorium near Yalta, he meets a handsome young officer named Partenau and sets out to seduce him. With brilliant casuistry, he persuades Partenau that homosexuality is not a crime against the nation but actually at the heart of the National Socialist dream: ‘brotherly love as the real cement of a warlike, creative Volksgemeinschaft’.

So Max Aue is secretly gay: but gay, it turns out, in a weird, self-imposed and even penitential fashion. By this stage in the novel, a succession of flashbacks has told the readers a good deal – but far from everything – about his childhood and youth. The information comes in fragments that Littell slowly connects into a fuller picture. Anticipating later revelations, the picture looks like this. Max and his twin sister, Una, are the children of a fanatically nationalist officer, who fights in one of the Freikorps militias against the Versailles settlement, takes part in the right-wing Kapp Putsch in 1920 and then vanishes. Max adores his father’s memory, and nurses an increasingly violent hatred for his mother, especially when she goes off to Antibes to live with a Frenchman. Meanwhile, the twins – scarcely into their teens – embark on a long incestuous love affair. Once they are discovered, their scandalised mother and stepfather part them and send them to harsh boarding-schools in different regions of France. They will scarcely ever meet again. For Una, the affair becomes a memory belonging to her lost childhood. But for Max, their sexual relationship comes to dominate his life. He manages to get Una drunk and make love to her once more, when she is a student in Switzerland. But she has drifted irrevocably away from him, and Max takes a private oath never to love or sleep with another woman. Obsessive sexual fantasies about his sister cover many pages of the novel. His chosen way of feeling close to her is to imagine and simulate her sexual pleasure, to let himself be penetrated by a succession of rent boys and casual male lovers. When young men are not around, he can impale himself on a smooth tree branch or – in one revolting scene – a sausage pinched from his mother’s fridge and then replaced (he gloats as he watches his mother and stepfather eat it).

This novel’s size allows it to carry an enormous assorted cargo of themes and allusions. It is grand in ambition and sweep, the tale of a man and a family living through one of the greatest wars in history. But Greek legend and tragedy are in the background (Aue and his friends and acquaintances have an improbable capacity to talk to one another in classical Greek), and even Venus in Furs gets a mention (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch came from Lwów). There is also a strong resemblance to Upton Sinclair’s almost forgotten ‘Lanny Budd’ novels. Just as that radical American grandee strolled through the political landscape of the 1930s and 1940s, meeting and chatting to almost every important figure from Roosevelt to Hitler, so Max Aue meets and becomes a confidant of almost every name in the SS hierarchy, from Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Ohlendorf, Hans Frank and Eichmann down to less famous monsters such as ‘Gestapo’ Müller, Odilo Globocnik, Theodor Oberländer and Rudolf Höss. He goes grouse-shooting with Albert Speer, is an old friend and drinking comrade of the French collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach, and impresses Himmler with a scheme for selective breeding from male warriors (drawn from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian romances).

In short, he – like Lanny Budd – is what Viennese wits call an ‘Adabei’, someone who always turns up at the best parties although nobody is quite sure who asked them. Readers soon realise that Max Aue is going to be on the guest list for Stalingrad, Auschwitz and Hitler’s bunker. They won’t be disappointed. But there is far more here than scenes of carnage, name-dropping conversations and obsessional sexual fantasies. For example, Littell includes many lengthy passages describing the tangled bureaucratic warfare between different offices and factions of the SS, police and Nazi Party as they compete for control of extermination policy. Aue becomes an actor in the climax of that struggle: the contest between those who wanted the need for Jewish labour to take priority over the mass killing programme, and those, in charge of the gas chambers and the trains, who successfully obstructed them. All this is pretty accurate and – although heavy-going – essential for an understanding of how the Third Reich’s ‘Darwinian life-battle of institutions’ crippled the war effort while pointlessly consuming millions of lives.

When the SS arrive in the Caucasus, page after page is taken up by horrifying, pedantic battles of ideology over the fate of the so-called Mountain Jews, an ancient minority who may or may not be classified as ethnically Jewish. High-level conferences are held, but reach no conclusion. Race ‘experts’ disagree. There is an interminable but rather interesting discussion about the origin and ethnic significance of North Caucasian and Kartvelian languages – Abkhaz, Ubykh, Kabardo-Cherkess, Georgian, Svan and so on. Even Aue has to break this off eventually. ‘All that is fascinating, Leutnant. But I have to stick to more concrete questions.’

After a quarrel with another SS officer, whom he has reported for needless brutality to Jews waiting to be shot, Aue is punished by being sent to Stalingrad. It is the winter of 1942; the Red Army has halted the German advance and Stalingrad is already surrounded. Trapped in the Kessel (‘pocket’), the Sixth Army is dying of starvation and cold among the ruins. This is another of Littell’s meticulously researched, triumphant dioramas. Aue’s journey to reach the besieged city, now accessible only by German aircraft flying in under constant shelling, is the first part of a tremendous feat of writing which goes on to reimagine what life and death in the Stalingrad Kessel must have been like: the lice, the frozen corpses stacked like firewood, the squalid intrigues to get a place on the evacuation lists, the sleepwalking movements of men drugged by hunger, the furtive cannibalism, the waiting snipers. Aue falls ill and is looked after by his old comrade Thomas, who contrives to turn up in every scene in the novel. Later, he wanders into a sniper’s sights. A bullet goes clean through his brain. He is given up for dead, but Thomas discovers that he is still alive and steals a dying man’s papers to smuggle him onto one of the last flights out. Back in Germany, it takes many months for Aue to recover his memory and power of speech. Soon Thomas reappears, having fiddled his own way out of Stalingrad before the survivors of the Sixth Army surrendered and were marched off into Siberian captivity.

Aue convalesces in Berlin. Unexpectedly, his sister comes to visit him. Now married to an elderly, disabled Baltic baron, she listens in quiet horror as he tells her what he has been doing in Russia. He tries to embrace her, to renew the past, but she pushes him away and he realises that he has lost her for ever. Wretched and half-demented, he visits Paris and then on impulse takes a train south to Antibes. Unannounced, wearing his SS uniform, he walks in on his mother and stepfather. In their house, he finds two strange children, twin boys about eight years old: ‘the children of a friend’. They fill him with unease. Are his mother and her husband hiding Jews? A day or two later, he wakes to find the twins standing silently at his bedside. He goes downstairs to find his stepfather hacked to pieces with an axe and his mother strangled on her bed. ‘To find?’ He is in total denial. Quickly and quietly, he leaves the house of blood.

The novel goes on. Obersturmführer Aue is assigned to Himmler’s staff and given a hugely responsible task: to investigate and report on the growing conflict between those who want to use Jewish labour and those who want to carry on with the killing. This will take him to occupied Poland and to Auschwitz, through ghastly scenes which enrage him because they are wasteful and inefficient. There are more long, clever arguments about how to exploit Vernichtung durch Arbeit – working the prisoners to death – as opposed to ‘adjusting life expectancy according to the degree of specialisation’. In the end, Himmler takes neither side; murderous chaos begins to undermine all arrangements as the Russians approach, and Aue’s mission collapses.

The mystery of what happened in the house in Antibes belongs to another element in the architecture of The Kindly Ones. Early on in the story, in Paris, Brasillach asks Aue if his friend Thomas is ‘his Pylades’. Alert critics have already picked up on this hint. Pylades was the close comrade of Orestes. And Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, soon to be her second husband. Orestes, avenging his father’s memory, seeks them out and – with an axe in some versions – kills his mother and Aegisthus, the fearful act of justice which is at the heart of the Oresteia plays. Afterwards, he is pursued by the Furies, the ‘Kindly Ones’, the Eumenides. In the novel, two Berlin detectives pursue Aue relentlessly for the Antibes crime; the Furies are at his heels up to the very last page. And nobody, not even Pylades, is closer to Orestes in his torments of hatred than his sister Elektra.

Who were those children Aue found in the house? After the murders, his sister hurries to Antibes and takes the boys away to safety in neutral Switzerland. It becomes obvious to Aue that she is their mother. It is fairly obvious to a reader who their father probably was, but – as with the Antibes murders – Aue has closed his mind to what he dare not contemplate.

In the final months of the war, Aue leaves the ruins of Berlin and travels to his sister’s house in Pomerania, now in the path of the Soviet armies pouring into eastern Germany. In the empty mansion, he wanders from room to room, discovers letters revealing that his father committed terrible atrocities during the fighting in the Baltic, and falls into a series of hideous sexual and sadistic fantasies about his sister. At moments, he seems to see her bloodied corpse. Was the house really empty? Or has he shut his mind against what he has done, as he did at Antibes, after killing the one person he loves? Littell leaves us with that doubt. As the Russians enter the nearby villages, Thomas arrives to rescue him. They set off on a nightmarish journey, mostly on foot, dodging enemy patrols and passing through burning villages where the invaders have raped and massacred the German inhabitants. Finally they reach the Oder river, cross to the German lines and make it back to Berlin.

Most of The Kindly Ones has a grand Tolstoyan realism. But in the final section, especially, Littell introduces grossly caricatured and improbable figures and incidents. Shortly after his return from Russia, Aue is invited to tea by a monstrously obese banker called Mandelbrod who is supposed to be Himmler’s confidant. Mandelbrod includes in his retinue three perfect Aryan blondes called Heide, Hilde and Hedwig, who offer their bodies to his guests in the hope of breeding more perfect Aryan specimens. It’s a disconcerting lift from Nazi porn. Later, Littell borrows from another well-worn genre when he introduces a tribe of feral children wandering the Pomeranian forests, spouting Nazi orders and murdering everyone they meet. And at the end of the book there is a switch into crazy comedy: Aue, summoned to the Berlin bunker to be decorated by Hitler, decides on a sudden impulse to bite the Führer’s nose.

Seized and beaten, he escapes from his captors and heads out of the city. But the Furies, the two Berlin detectives, are still on his heels. One is killed by Russian bullets; the other raises his pistol to wreak justice on Aue for those Antibes murders. Thomas, arriving in his usual providential way, shoots him dead. Unwisely, Thomas then turns his back to go through the detective’s pockets. Aue takes the opportunity to smash the skull of his Pylades with an iron bar, pocket his French identity papers and money, and set off alone for the West.

There the vast novel closes. Its account of Nazi cruelty, chaos and callousness has never been surpassed in fiction. Its insight into the mindsets of SS bureaucrats is unforgettable, as is the almost documentary narrative of the evolution of the theory and practice of the Holocaust. Littell’s war landscapes are often magnificent, above in all in the triumphant first months of the German drive across the Russian steppe. But still, it has to be said, this is a novel that doesn’t work. The trouble is not its passages of almost unreadable horror, or its suggestion that some SS officers were men of high culture who found their task repellent. The weakness is Aue himself. He is a monster, but a dreary monster, monotonous, one-dimensional, even boring. Some critics have compared The Kindly Ones to Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, but Schlink is writing about an uneducated, limited woman with no imagination who makes a series of disastrous wrong calls that land her in the dock as an SS killer. What happened to this woman was in its own way tragic. There is no tragedy about Max Aue and his story, in spite of the heavy hints about the Oresteia. For all his rhetoric about fate and death and his pompous quotations from Bossuet and Sophocles, he emerges as no more than a vicious psychopath. This is the reason The Kindly Ones falls apart and, in its later sections, resorts to wild caricature. It is an astonishing fictional re-creation of the worst event in recent human history, with the autobiography of a homicidal maniac tacked onto it.

Certainly the novel offers no help with the ‘ordinary men’ enigma, the question of what it takes to make what sort of men commit mass murder. Aue’s crude assertion that anyone is capable of such deeds and that ‘the real danger to mankind is me, is you’ – all that remains without an answer. One ‘real danger to mankind’ is certainly him. But is it also ‘us’? There, at the end of nearly a thousand pages of sometimes marvellous writing, the tale of Obersturmführer Aue has taught us nothing.