The killer’s song

A novelist views the Holocaust through a Nazi SS officer’s eyes

The killer's song

“Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.” So opens Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (McClelland & Stewart), the fictional memoirs of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a Second World War SS officer and mid-level cog in the Nazi genocide machine, a man who was everywhere and knew everyone during the Final Solution. This fat (almost 1,000 pages), multi-layered novel is almost indescribable in its complexity and achievement: narratively powerful and hallucinatory; well-researched and quasi-pornographic; implausible and convincing; cartoonish at times but mostly, in the words of British novelist Anita Brookner, “diabolically—and I use the word advisedly—clever.” And, finally, deeply disturbing:the Holocaust from the killers’ perspective.

First published in France in 2006—the English translation arrives in bookstores March 3—The Kindly Ones has often been compared to War and Peace, for everything from its fatal-invasion-of-Russia backdrop to its length. But what its first words actually bring to mind is Leo Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Like Anna Karenina’s opening, “All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion,” Aue’s insinuation of universal brotherhood seems destined to stand, in miniature, for the vast edifice of the entire novel. It’s certainly the primary provocation in the ferocious criticism the book has attracted, which is a match—almost—for its surprising popularity. Littell himself expected “it might sell 5,000 copies.” Instead, the book racked up sales of 800,000 in France, surprising too its publisher, Gallimard, which was forced to temporarily stop printing its latest Harry Potter cash cow in order to meet the demand. It garnered fulsome reviews of the sort that predicted that “every book about the Holocaust will be measured against Littell’s work,” and went on to become only the second novel ever to win both of the country’s two most prestigious literary awards, the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix de l’Academie.

At the centre of this media cynosure is an author who, ironically enough, is the very definition of a “rootless cosmopolitan,” one of the Nazis’ favourite epithets for Jews. An American who writes in French and lives in Barcelona, Littell, 41, is the son of journalist and thriller writer Robert Littell, a father he described to an interviewer—before he more or less abandoned talking to the press a year ago—as “more Jewish” than he is. “My father says you are a Jew because the people who want to murder you define you as such. Well, if someone wants to slit my throat because I am a Jew he is a raving idiot—that will not turn me into a Jew.” And that’s why, Littell continued, his Holocaust was “less Jewish” than most. “It also includes the extermination of the homosexuals, the Gypsies, the disabled and other minorities.”

His interest in writing his book goes back 20 years, to a youthful obsession with the eastern front (“images of snow, tanks, that sort of thing”) and to a childhood nightmare of being “drafted and sent to Vietnam and made to kill women and children who hadn’t done anything to me.” When Littell saw, in 1992, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust film Shoah, he became fascinated by the bureaucratic aspects of the genocide, the way the trains functioned, how the SS needed to pay the railways for the transport of Jews to the death camps. “That kind of issue—the need, for instance, for an extermination budget—affected me deeply.”

It would still be almost a decade before Littell began the five years of research that culminated in a 120-day marathon of actual writing, years he spent working in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, China and Africa with the aid organization Action contre la faim. He met a lot of murderers, including one in Bosnia who killed hundreds of enemy civilians because, he told Littell, one had stolen his fishing rod. After being wounded in an ambush in Chechnya, Littell left his job to start on The Kindly Ones. He knew what he would write. It would be first person, and it would be from the perspective of a genocide bureaucrat: “I am much less interested in victims than I am in perpetrators. It’s very easy to understand the victim. Something terrible happens to him and he reacts accordingly. The perpetrator is more complicated to understand, along with the apparatus that activates him.” That earnest explanation contrasts with Littell’s silence about aspects of Aue’s character that have troubled some critics as much as his cold-blooded devotion to duty—his probable murder of his mother (he claims not to remember), his incestuous relationship with his twin sister, and the rest of his graphically described sex life.

Given all the hot buttons pushed, it’s not surprising that commercial success and critical acclaim didn’t prevent a scorched-earth attack on The Kindly Ones from a diverse group of French intellectuals, including Lanzmann, who considers his film Shoah (1985) to be the last word on the Holocaust. Lanzmann particularly detests attempts to enter into the minds of the executioners, thinking it both ultimately impossible—“One fine morning you wake up, and you start to kill, massively. How do you explain that?”—and inherently dangerous. Historian Édouard Husson and philosopher Michel Terestchenko agree: what Aue asks of readers in his opening words is a “perverse pact.” It’s simply “inadmissible,” they write, to accept the SS officer’s argument that most of us are simply luckier than him, not better: “If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others,” Aue says, “then render thanks to God and go in peace.” To do that, the academics argue, abolishes the distance between radical human evil and mere criminality.

In Germany, where praise and sales have been more muted than in France (although the book has still sold 100,000 copies there), the criticism has been as blistering, though focusing less on the impropriety of trying to enter the mind of Nazi murderers than on the portrayal of the Holocaust as only one instance in history’s endless chain of horrors. For two weeks after publication, media ran daily reviews by scholars and literary critics, mostly negative. “Why should we read a book written by an educated idiot who writes badly, is haunted by sexual perversities and abandoned himself to racist ideology and an archaic belief in fate?” ran a Die Zeit evaluation. Others were less dismissive. One critic regretted the “scandalous kitsch that turns a very talented author into a pornographer of violence,” but in the end threw up his hands: “it’s both a scandal and worth reading.”

The object of all this adulation and contempt is worth reading, both as an attempt to grapple with history and as a work of art. With an eye for recorded detail that’s accurate, heartbreaking and appalling, Littell has Aue describe the first, chaotic days of mass murder, before the genocide was codified into the production-line efficiency of the death camps. At Babi Yar outside Kiev, where more than 33,000 Jews were shot over two days, Aue did duty as an officer administering the coup de grace to the wounded; he recalls how everyone’s extraordinary efforts to remain focused, to not appear unmanly or un-Nazi before their brother officers, came undone when lunch arrived and it turned out to be tins of blood pudding.

Everyone in the SS was anti-Semitic, of course, Aue writes, but few, at first anyway, were murderously so. They were merely doing their duty by the Reich, which was dedicated to the idea that violence was the answer to social problems. And if they were particularly zealous toward Jews it was because Jews were Hitler’s obsession, and working toward the Final Solution was more likely to bring promotion than, in one officer’s words, “concerning yourself with Jehovah’s Witnesses or homosexuals.” As for the brutal violence visited on the victims before death, Aue says that was because the killers could not, try as they might, escape from a pity they could only express as rage, thereby “revealing the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity.”

None of this is kitsch or scandalous or even unbelievable. Neither is it persuasive, as Lanzmann and others fear. Aue seems refreshingly honest in his open admittance of the murders he commits or aids, refusing to take refuge in the euphemisms adopted by many of his countrymen, but readers eventually realize this apparent honesty is its own refuge. He admits what he has to—“I killed, massively, as part of my duty”—so he can ward off, as long as he can, the knowledge it was wrong. “The kindly ones” is the euphemistic name the Ancient Greeks gave to the Furies, the relentless, harpy-like pursuers of those guilty of blood crimes. They certainly torment Aue, in forms human—two dogged cops investigating his mother’s murder even as Berlin falls—and metaphorical: Aue never loses his tendency to daily vomiting, first manifest in Ukraine. (Evidently, for all his sang-froid, he found some of his experiences impossible to digest.) Aue does get away clean from the war. He’s near retirement age as he writes his account: respectable, prosperous, on his way to dying in his own bed. But he’s no man’s brother.