One of the paradoxes of the Holocaust is that the more we know about it, the less we feel we understand it. Perhaps because of the way that in the last fifty years the Holocaust has become the West’s central negative moral reference point (see the brilliant epilogue to Tony Judt’s Postwar on this), it has become ever harder to comprehend the mentality of those responsible for it. In that context, The Kindly Ones – Jonathan Littell’s 900-page novel told from the perspective of an SS Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a major) who is intimately involved in the Final Solution – is a remarkable achievement of imagination. The novel, which was originally published in French as Les Bienveillantes and won the Prix Goncourt in 2006, powerfully evokes the everyday life of doctors and lawyers who quote Tertullian and Herodotus and discuss Kant and Kierkegaard in between killing Jews. But to me there was something unconvincing about the narrator’s account of “how it happened”, as he puts it in the first sentence of the book. So is this a flaw? Or is it perhaps actually deliberate?
Littell has certainly done his research. Much of the narrator Maximilian Aue’s description of life on the Eastern Front and later in Berlin is clearly informed by recent insights into the nature of Nazi administration – a weird synthesis of organisation and chaos, rule following and initiative, ideology and improvisation. For example, the picture we get of the combination of the mixture of cooperation and rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht owes much to Martin Broszat’s “functionalist” view of the Nazi state, in which, he argued, different agencies with overlapping responsibilities competed with each other to interpret and implement the Führer’s will and thus created a process of “cumulative radicalization”. The narrator’s account of the Holocaust is also informed by Christopher R. Browning’s “ordinary men” thesis – the argument that those who carried out the Holocaust were by and large ordinary men who were not, as Daniel Goldhagen claimed, motivated by “exterminationist” anti-Semitism. The narrator implicitly advocates the “ordinary men” thesis: at the beginning of the novel, he argues that anyone would have acted as he did. “I am just like you,” he says at the end of the first chapter.
However, after a while, all this historiography translated into fiction starts to seem incongruous. It is as if the narrator understands everything that is happening around him with perfect clarity; there is a complete absence of the “fog of war”. His characters (many of whom are historical figures) express insights that it took historians decades to achieve. They seem to have a late-20th century sensibility and use late-20th century language – for example at one point the narrator has Oswald Pohl anachronistically describe the WVHA, the SS business arm he heads, as a “multinational”. It gradually becomes harder for the reader – who has already suspended disbelief in order to accept that the narrator is able to remember the distant past so clearly and in so much detail (e.g. long conversations are reproduced verbatim) – to believe the narrator. Aue himself questions the reliability of his memory. “Is it possible that I thought about all this at the time?” he asks at one point. “Didn’t such ideas come to me later on, when the end was approaching, or even later, when it was already over?”
In other words, it starts to become apparent – although few critics seem to have pointed this out – that Aue is an unreliable narrator. This should probably come as no surprise: after all, as an SS officer personally implicated in the Holocaust, he has every reason to lie, evade and obfuscate. Moreover, we know that he does so about other things – for example he omits to tell the reader that he has killed his mother. Crucially, however, this undermines the credibility of his account of how the Holocaust happened – which, it seems to me, Littell does not intend to be convincing – and in particular his claim that he is an “ordinary man”, which would, of course, exonerate him. (In any case, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out in an illuminating review in the New York Review of Books, Aue is in other respects – above all his sexuality – anything but an ordinary man.) In fact, by the end of the novel – when Aue bites Hitler on the nose in the Führerbunker! - the reader starts to wonder whether he is a fantasist like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (the novel could, in fact, have been called German Psycho).
In short, it seems to me to be a mistake to see The Kindly Ones as a flawed realistic novel, as some critics have done. Maximilian Aue is about as far from a reliable source on the reality of the Holocaust as it is possible to get, so the reader should not take his description of “how it happened” at face value. It is therefore also a mistake to read Littell’s novel as a defence of Browning’s “ordinary men” thesis, as some critics have also done. (It seems to me that, if anything, it might be an illustration of how the “ordinary men” thesis can be used by a perpetrator to absolve himself, though this does not in itself mean the thesis is wrong). The Kindly Ones is, as my friend Ben Hutchinson described it in The Observer, “an astonishing act of ventriloquism”. But it does not help us understand those responsible for of the Holocaust any more than we already do. In the end, in fact, it may even be a novel about the impossibility of understanding them.