It’s certainly an ambitious book, absolutely meticulous in its research into the grisly details of mass killing. The novel’s structured as the memoir of Max Aue written towards the end of his life. Though trained as a jurist, Aue became an SS officer, intimately involved with the execution program in Poland and then later with the administration of the camps. What’s more, he writes as someone still ideologically committed to Nazism.
On first reading, that’s the most impressive aspect of the book – the way Liddell recreates the mentality of Nazi war-criminals. Aue’s is an erudite, cultured voice, regularly digressing into discussions of music and literature. Though on occasion he’s forced to kill Jews personally, he spends most of the book arguing for better treatment in the camps — in the great bureucratic debates between Himmler (who wants the Jewish question settled at once) and Speer (who wants to use the Jews for forced labour), Aue is very much with Speer. He and his friends have nothing but contempt for those who take joy in extermination. For Aue, the genocide is distinctly unpleasant.
That being said, he’s still a committed anti-Semite and a loyal Nazi, albeit an intelligent one. In too much Holocaust fiction, the Nazis are presented as almost metaphysical incarnations of evil, which, by definition, takes them out of human society and thus presents us from learning anything about how to stop future Holocausts. But of course there were plenty of smart, charming people loyal to Hitler – this is a book about one of them.
It’s an old, almost cliched, point that the Holocaust relied on a huge bureaucracy. But Littell presents that bureaucracy better than anyone I’ve read. Aue and most of his contemporaries spend their time engaged in intercine wars with each other, as the various branches of the Nazi forces squabble for precedence. It’s not that they don’t understand what they’re doing in facilitating mass murder; it’s more that the killing of the Jews is simply taken for granted, while they devote themselves to writing letters back to Berlin complaining about this or that rival.
In one scene during the invasion of the Soviet Union, Aue gets drawn into a dispute about the ethnicity of the so-called ‘Mountain Jews’ of the Caucasus. If they are ‘real’ Jews, they must be killed; if they belong, as some of them claim, to a different ‘race’ they might be spared. The investigation involves various ‘racial experts’ who Aue recognises as more-or-less charlatans. But what matters most is that the classification of Mountain Jews has become a stake in a battle within the bureaucracy. In that context, Aue gives the actual fate of the people themselves very little thought. After all, millions are dying all around them — what difference does a few more make?
Much of the criticism of The Kindly Ones has centred on Littell’s treatment of Aue’s personal life. The NYT argues:
Aue’s inner monster is a textbook doozy who busts out to commit a hands-on Oedipal murder — which Aue himself can’t remember after the fact. (Later on, he’ll commit more murders while fully conscious.) As if that weren’t enough, Littell also afflicts him with an improbably engineered case of narcissism. As a boy, Aue regularly has sex with that Jungian twin sister, gets caught and is forcibly separated from her. As an adult, he obsessively seeks to recreate their union — her name, significantly, is Una — by taking on both their identities: either by finding men to penetrate him anally or by doing the job on himself. You have to admire his single-minded ingenuity. On a walk in the woods, he finds a fallen tree and impales himself on the stub of a branch, which he custom-whittles for the purpose; on another occasion, he self-administers a sausage, which he scrupulously washes and then allows his mother and stepfather to eat. What does Littell hope to reveal with what Aue calls these “infantile obscenities”? I suppose we’re to connect this compulsion for self-completion with his indifference to the mass murders in which he’s complicit, but such peculiarity hardly seems necessary. Plenty of ordinary Germans, for whom a sausage was just a sausage, didn’t let the Holocaust ruin their appetites. Still, novelists love those kinky, stinky Nazis — like Norman Mailer’s excretorily fixated young Adi Hitler in “The Castle in the Forest” and A. N. Wilson’s full-grown flatulent Führer in “Winnie and Wolf” — with their telltale mania for purity, order and efficiency. Without anality and sexual dysfunction, the rationale seems to be, how could you make them credible? Ron Rosenbaum, whose 1998 book “Explaining Hitler” administered the definitive reproof to such shopworn psychosexual prurience, wrote in a recent article for Slate that the durable rumors of the Führer’s sexual oddities suggest “our need to prove that Hitler was not ‘normal,’ thus not like us,” and “a refusal to face the profundity and complexity of evil . . . by blaming it all on ludicrously unserious and ahistorical sexual mythologies, and the Freudian-influenced notion that all behavior has a sexual explanation at heart.” This is why “The Kindly Ones,” for all its aspirations to profundity, is less a moral challenge than a sheer test of endurance. Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously. When he tries to give us the moral willies by arguing that “you might also have done what I did,” visions of sausages dance in our heads.
There’s definitely something in that. Had The Kindly Ones simply focused on Aue’s public life, it would have been politically a much more effective book.
But in some ways that’s not really what it’s about. This is a book chronicling excess, a book that, at close to a thousand pages, replicates the condition it documents. Rather than offering an explanation for the Holocaust, it offers, at various points, almost every explanation you’ve ever heard. Yes, Aue’s sexual proclivities do play a role (he joins the SS to avoid a charge of homosexuality) but then, as the NYT also suggests, his incestuous relationship with his twin sister has an obvious metaphorical significance, made explicit towards the end of the book, when a similar relationship is suggested between Germans and Jews. Indeed, by the conclusion, the mode of the book changes, as its earlier dryness gives way to a kind of grotesque slapstick, so that when Aue finally meets the Fuhrer in the bunker, he bites Hitler on the nose.
If that sounds like the novel’s a bit of a mess, well, in some ways it is. But I can’t think of a recent book that’s made me think more.