Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Imagining the Nazis
Controversy is a strange thing. Unlike rage or disgust, you can't feel controversy – it's not an emotional response to a work of art. It is, at best, an abstract, group phenomenon, a manifestation of the hive mind, something that you can take part in somehow (details are hazy). At worst – and I think this is the case nine-tenths of the time – it is entirely contrived, imagined, a Jabberwocky invented by yellow press that can pursue targets that aren't actually causing any rage, disgust or hurt feelings. Controversy is a red herring – either the problem is something else (the thing in question is revolting, hurtful, dangerous or whatever) or there is no problem.
Over Christmas and the New Year I read a controversial book – Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir of an SS officer closely involved in the Holocaust. An attempt to get inside the head of a Nazi genocidaire, The Kindly Ones was feted in France and condemned in Germany and by the influential Michiko Kakutani in the USA. A delightful miasma of ill-repute surrounded the book when I picked it up in the spring of 2009 - I then proceeded to ignore it on a shelf for some months, intimidated by its length - more than a thousand pages of closely printed hardback.
It took about a month to read - far more time than I'd normally have to devote to a book - but the effort was worth it. It's superb, and I think it's a fairly safe bet that its reputation will grow in the coming decades. Much of its content is revolting: the protagonist, Maximilien Aue, is personally involved in mass-killing of Jews in occupied Russia, and later in the mechanised slaughter of the extermination camps in Poland. He's also a sexual and moral degenerate, possessed by incestuous desire for his sister and sexual hatred of his Mother. It's not easy to like him, but spend enough time in any character's company and (if they're well written) you will at least begin to understand their patterns of thought and the how they see the world.
And Aue is superbly written. The book has its off-passages, where it drags, but at its best it is magnificent. Aue is not a front-line soldier - he is in the rearguard, theoretically charged with military security but in fact among those responsible for exterminating large chunks of the civilian population of the Soviet Union (mostly the Jews). The opening third of the book, 1941-1942, cover the helter-skelter early successes of operation Barbarossa, and for Aue the pestilent absurdities of turning the mystic hatred of a handful of daydreaming bigots into actual "actions". Much turns on the practical question of how to kill very large numbers of people efficiently: and with minimum human cost to the killers. (That's the Nazi state all over - institutional mass violence coupled with soppy-stern nannying.)
In the Caucasus, where the Wehrmacht's advance finally runs out of steam, Aue become involved in steadily more crazy hair-splitting over the questions of which nationalities should be exterminated and which should be considered potential allies – an attempt to fine-tune racial boundaries that is totally in the realm of pseudoscience, given that the whole notion of distinct races is doubtful. One character is able to voice this view at one point – in context, the moment is utterly shocking, as the story is told from the point of view of a man whose entire job is identifying and “dealing with” racial differences. Although Aue is insane – possibly at the start of the book and certainly by the end of it – he's also lucid, and makes his case. Of course he can't come close to justifying the business to the readers, but instead he stirs up clouds of relativism (at the time Aue is writing his memoir, the Vietnam war is being fought, giving opportunities for a lot of “are we really so different” talk) and attempts to show the logic of the actions where it exists. He doesn't harbour any particular hatred of the Jews; instead, for him, the “problem” is all logistics and linguistics – and efficiency, as he is at the perversely humane end of the spectrum of Holocaust engineers: if such a group is subhuman, better to use them as slaves than to waste resources snuffing them out, no? Senseless killing bothers him because it is senseless, not because it is killing.
With its involved (pseudo-)academic debates and bitchy rivalries, for a surreal moment The Kindly Ones feels like a campus novel, with the occasional interlude of ultraviolence (a rhythm that reminds one of American Psycho). This moment is cut short when Aue is sent to Stalingrad.
The Stalingrad sequence is astonishing - an awe-inspiring symphony of human misery, pain and violence that I think propels Littell's book from the merely good to the great. When Aue arrives, the German armies besieging the city have already been encircled, in turn, by Soviet armies. Inside the encirclement, the “kessel” (cauldron), conditions are beyond terrible. The imagery of Aue's arrival in the kessel is haunting – it is snowbound; an ominous mountain of wreckage overlooks the airfield, which is under constant artillery fire; a cluster of radio trucks; a line of railway carriages, buried in snow, serving as a field office. The railway goes nowhere – the airfield and the radio trucks are the only link with “civilisation”. Indeed, the airfield – and Goering's vain promise that the trapped armies could be supplied by air – is the only reason the kessel does not collapse immediately. The promise is that 1940s high-tech (in the form of radio and Junker aircraft) can redeem the situation – but it is doing is prolonging the agony. Many of Aue's (savage and strange) experiences in the city take place in the structures of modernity: theatre, factory, department store.Although it's not written as such, the Stalingrad sequence of The Kindly Ones feels like a mockery of the whole idea of technological civilisation. Having read Antony Beevor's superb book about Stalingrad, I was interested to see exactly how Littell could do justice to the real story of the battle there – but he succeeds, superbly.
There's much else - Stalingrad doesn't even take the book to the half-way point - but this isn't a review or a summary, more a sweeping together of loose ends of thought. Back to the matter of controversy. It's now 65 years since the defeat of Nazism. There is a desire, an understandable desire, to screen off the Nazis from the imagination - to keep them in the realms of heartless supervillains or comic butts of jokes, rather than flesh them out as human beings. It is somehow feared that a book like The Kindly Ones, and a character like Aue, makes Nazism thinkable again. Aue, for all his insanity and despicable traits, says "hey, see things my way", and if we read to the end, we've given him a hearing. And some believe that they shouldn't be given that hearing at all.
It doesn't matter if this is a reasonable position or not - given time, the special cultural status of the Nazis is going to crumble. We're fortunate that the first fruits of this cultural thaw are extremely high quality: The Kindly Ones and Downfall are superb. The "angry Hitler" remixes on Youtube are a sign that the dam is bursting, but luckily standards have been set quite high.