Jonathan Littell created a world we know, sometimes intimately, but almost always through history: texts, documentaries, photos, memoir. Reading “The Kindly Ones” was an effort in keeping in mind that some people go to war out of pure conviction of ideals, and find themselves caught in something — a nightmare; Hell — they had not thought would be their reality. Sounds like Vietnam, or Iraq (after the invasion, as an occupier), or even modern Israel with their suppression of Palestinians.
But this story is about a Nazi SS officer, a party member, a believer.
Dr Max Aue is a jurist, and got caught up in the idealism of National Socialism while yet a student. We can think about our own student days, and pick the political leader you back at that time. Would you still back him now?
We of the modernist, post-warring industrialized community, must understand, I think, that Europe was a far different place in the 1930s than it is today, with its 17 union members, trading goods and helping each other with banking problems. Between 1921 and 1946, the 25+ nations of Europe were ruled by no less than 15 dictators. People were poor. People were angry. Mussolini gave hope to Italians. Franco gave hope to Spaniards. The Greeks had their own little fiefdom. So too the Turks. Meanwhile, Russia was trying to figure out how to communize its new holdings. And then Adolph Hitler came to power. He offered hope to people that were humiliated by the Versailles Treaty, angry people over industrialist hegemony, proud people who had a sense of (albeit over-inflated) self-worth despite hardly being a homogeneous group.
War for these Europeans was something familiar, something to be proud for their service: you fought an enemy out of duty to your country far more than following following a single leader’s vision. Mostly. (sound familiar?)
This is the situation at the beginning of Hitler’s reign, and Max Aue fed on it. When the war began, he found himself in need of a job, and with desires to distinguish himself. The SS was not (yet) how we think of it today: in 1938 this group of elite soldiers had the ability to thrust a man into the light of the highest orders of distinguished service to country and fellow man (Ger-man).
And then the Nazi High Command invaded Poland. And then, and then, and then … it was too late for Dr Aue. It was too late for anything. Especially it was too late when he found himself part of an “einsatzgruppe” — an action group ordered to “cleanse” villages following the Panzer drive and infantry sweep. Cleansing meant rounding up partisans, communists, intellectuals, the mentally retarded, sick children, Gypsies, undesirables, and Jews. These people were gathered, taken into the woods, and shot in the face or stomach or chest, as they stood, naked, at the ridge of a trough dug for this purpose. Never were they shot in the back of the head, for that was how cowards dealt with enemies; that was for the Communists.
However, so many Germans in this war had fought in the last war, and killing civilians, women and children, old men and women, the sick or retarded, was not what German soldiers did. THIS was cowardly. But they couldn’t disobey a command on the war front. That meant death by courtmartial-ordered firing squad. And so they killed; and so they lost their humanity. Dr Aue saw this, and he wondered if he, too, would lose himself in this war.
Excerpts from “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell:
Nearby, another group was being brought up: my gaze met that of a beautiful woman, almost naked but very elegant, calm, her eyes full of an immense sadness. I moved away. When I came back she was still alive, half turned onto her back, a bullet had come out beneath her breast and she was gasping, petrified, her pretty lips trembled and seemed to want to form a word, she stared at me with her large surprised incredulous eyes, the eyes of a wounded bird, and that look stuck into me, split open my stomach and let a flood of sawdust pour out, I was a rag doll and didn’t feel anything, and at the same time I wanted with all my heart to bend over and brush the dirt and sweat off her forehead….
Our system, our State couldn’t care less about the thoughts of its servants. It was all the same to the State whether you killed Jews because you hated them or because you wanted to advance your career or even, in some cases, because you took pleasure in it.
He made a sign for me to follow him and led me to a little room where Vopel, half dressed, was sitting on a folding cot. Some shrapnel had hit his arm; he seemed very happy, he knew that now he could leave. Pale, envious, I looked at his bandaged shoulder the way I must have looked at my sister suckling our mother’s breast.
As I left Himmler’s office, I have to confess, I felt as if I were floating in my boots. Finally I was being given a responsibility, an authentic responsibility! So they had recognized my true worth. And it was a positive job, a way to contribute to the war effort and to the victory of Germany by other means than murder and destruction.
Schellenberg had the habit of calling people he didn’t like whores, and this term suited him well — and when I think about it, it’s true that the insults people prefer, the ones that come most spontaneously to their lips, often in the end reveal their own hidden faults, since they naturally hate what they most resemble.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.