Taking the absurdity of Nazism seriously

Jonathan Littell’s revelatory tale of an SS officer - ‘a man like other men’ - sheds light on the Nazi era and also on the willfully inhuman, people-hating tendencies of our own times.

Stephen Bowler

Topics Books

Jonathan Littell has written a difficult book. This isn’t because it’s translated from the French or the fact that it’s almost 1,000 pages long – The Kindly Ones is consummately, enormously readable. What makes it difficult – initially – is the subject matter, as relayed by a fictional SS officer ‘at the heart of terrible things, atrocities’. Truly gruesome events follow, on an epic scale. Many other things happen too. But the range and depth of barbarism is overwhelming, as it is meant to be.

This, however, is not the crux of The Kindly Ones. What is most disturbing is the way in which the story is told, from the point of view of the narrator, Obersturmfuhrer Maximilian Aue. Ideally Max would be a sadistic monster, a character proportionate to his deeds. And in many ways he is. But in the main he is not. And this is the key to the book’s difficulty – the narrators’ argument that he is, at bottom, ‘a man like other men… a man like you’.

Before we consider this alarming proposition, let us first note the book’s main themes.

The Kindly Ones begins in France in the postwar period, where Aue has settled into a comfortable existence as a manufacturer of lace, having miraculously escaped the fall of Berlin in April 1945. A homosexual with a doctorate in law and fluent in many languages, Aue readily admits he was a willing and able functionary within the SS, serving on the Eastern front during the most brutal phase of the war. What follows is a fictionalised account of actual events from mid-1941 to the war’s end, largely in the Ukraine and Belarus, but also in Stalingrad, Paris, Antibes and Berlin. Aue’s own story is woven into the blood-soaked tapestry of Nazi atrocity, acquainting the reader with historical detail that is all the more shocking for being so manifestly well researched.

As Aue picks his way through the carnage we learn about his character, including an incestuous relationship with his twin-sister as a child and the murder of his own mother and step-father while on leave from the SS. This leads, by turns, to Aue being doggedly pursued by two policemen from the Nazi Kriminalpolizei. Allegorically, the two policemen are ‘the kindly ones’, mythical avenging furies from the psychic underworld seeking justice for a primal crime.

All of which suggests that Max is hardly ‘a man like other men… a man like you’. Or if he is, then we readers are far less reasonable creatures than we might imagine. Which is, in many ways, the thrust of Littell’s thesis: there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the Western imagination. So far, so po-mo.

There is, however, more to the book than cultural pessimism. For sure, The Kindly Ones tackles a distressing topic in terms of a mythical structure that suggests human agency is an illusory trick played on us by the gods. But in this respect the novel is also redeemed as a bold engagement with the darkest of historical moments, considering the terrible price of indifference and disinterest on the part of those who realised the terrifying novelty of total warfare. One may imagine industrialised slaughter as the work of monsters from another moral planet. But Littell’s argument is that the barbarism was the work of men, distinguished only by the peculiarity of their circumstances. And instead of Wiki-history, where local voices get stitched together to form a multi-coloured narrative of an allegedly more authentic hue, Littell weaves a tapestry of Homeric proportions, situating real events in terms of historical threads that made it possible then, but which also run through to today. This is, in other words, a meta-history, arguing the case for the human condition against a baseline of its greatest failing, positing the worst of our weaknesses in terms of their real and terrible consequences in order to sense the direction of travel attendant upon a lost moral compass. And the net effect of all this venomous historical material – weirdly enough – is to begin to sense the opposite of what’s on offer; to know the antidote to the poison of meaninglessness.

On any score this is an ambitious and difficult undertaking, risking confirmation that we’re all doomed and may as well tend our gardens rather than imagine a world fundamentally at odds with what we’ve got. And it is difficult to say that this isn’t Littell’s agenda anyway. But in lifting the lodestone of modern morality to expose its dark underside, through a character who is indeed just a little bit like us, but also utterly unlike anybody we’ve ever known, Littell invites us to know the meaning and value of our own agency in terms of the wider determinations of a given era.

Littell elaborates such themes by giving us other men like Aue, such as a Soviet political commissar captured in Stalingrad by the Nazis and about to be executed but nonetheless unrepentant. Each respects the other, barely mentioning the military struggle raging all around them, instead focusing upon the ideological ends to which they each subscribe. Beatitude cannot be theirs, they know, but providence is due those who strive toward ‘the Third Rome’, be it in class or national terms. And to the extent that National Socialism and ‘socialism in a single country’ are ‘both essentially deterministic’, Aue and the commissar are spirited adversaries – avatars of their epoch – arguing back and forth across that which Hegel once called the ‘slaughter bench of history’.

For all his lofty credentials as an intellectual within the SS, Aue remains a hollow philistine, a personification of Nazism’s ‘delight in meaningless activity’, as Karl Jaspers once put it (1). In this, Littell echoes Hannah Arendt’s argument, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, on the roots of mass support for Hitler. She argued that an entire generation exchanged ‘the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought for the total explanation of an ideology’, not because they were bewitched by charismatic leaders, or possessed of authoritarian personalities, or trapped within a backward cultural constellation that churned out willing executioners, but because they were so deeply disenchanted they would prefer the uncertainty of a manifestly mad movement – aggregated toward an entirely mythical end, but aggregated nonetheless – rather than the absolute certainty of enduring, anomic isolation (2).

Max Aue is merely a more colourful example of this general despair, an exemplar of Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘Man will sooner will nothingness than not will’. In willing nothingness, Aue is released from the hateful something he knows himself to be, displacing an infantile rage out on to the rest of society in ways that would be patently psychotic in any other context, but which here – in the age of the Einsatzgruppen – amount to a career opportunity.

This emptiness at the heart of modern life is well captured in The Kindly Ones, oscillating between an abstract classicism and a brute utilitarianism, with precious little in between in terms of love or solidarity. The spiritual hollowness linking the lives of ordinary men to their extraordinary roles on the Eastern Front is weighted in just the right proportion, forcing us to reckon with the difficult proposition that something might seem better than nothing, even when that something is the injunction to lay waste to other men. As Arendt argued, ‘it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth’ (3).

Such a sand storm is difficult now to envisage. But Littell’s achievement is to capture its magnitude as a social force, and its intensity as reflected in one man’s experience. In so doing he invites the reader to question the point of view by which the subject matter is organised, challenging us to wonder how on earth anybody could have acted in such ways, when we know that this is precisely what happened. In lesser hands this might be just another ‘death of the author’ trick, subverting the idea that any truth might exist beyond contingency. But this isn’t Littell’s game. His point is about the stakes of History-making, and the price demanded therein. One could read this entirely negatively, and conclude that history should be left to its own devices; or theologically, as a salutary glimpse into hell itself. But here is a glimpse into the soul of one who would will the end of the world rather than acknowledge his own spiritual poverty, who would cleave to the apocalypse rather than cleave from his own egoistic emptiness, who would know ‘no positive ideal’ of his own, and instead ‘let nothingness be the ideal’, as Georg Lukács once rhetorically posed it (4). Grasping this dimension of barbarism is an essential prerequisite to neutralising it.

Of course, one might reasonably object that there are other – more philosophically rigorous – ways to this end. And in many ways one would be right. But the modern novel is an excellent register of modern subjectivity, connecting with the solitariness of meaning in disconnected times. And at this level there is a case to be made for Littell’s bold interrogation of objectively verifiable events through the prism of the narrator Aue’s imagined subjectivity. Littell doesn’t sidle up to the terror and let the known facts overwhelm all else; he puts his character there at the centre of the process, cannily understanding Nazism as adolescent rebellion against reality, as escape from responsibility, as ‘a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out of the window’.

In pointing up the absurd dimension of nationalised nihilism, Littell doesn’t dilute its terrible effects. He intensifies them, stressing over and over an essential pointlessness which increases in proportion to cruelty. Whether Aue is addressing inefficiencies in the Einsatzgruppen’s methods, or ‘colossal misappropriations and thefts’ at Auschwitz or attempting to increase output at IG Farben by treating the slave labour ‘a little better,’ the same demented logic shines through. And when Aue reflects on all this ‘pointless agitation’ he reasons that ‘the uselessness of all these efforts… was the uselessness of reproduction itself, since it served only to produce more uselessness’. Its ‘absurd violence’ is acceptable to Aue because it reflects how he sees things anyway, the ‘reductio ad absurdum of everyday life’.

In any other context this would be a trigger for psychosis. But here, amid generalised crisis, a vacant and murderous nihilism is represented not just as situational adaptation but as a triumph of a glacial, atomic subjectivity, bereft of the very possibility of transcendental salvation. The sort of redemption offered by Dostoevsky, for example, at the end of Crime and Punishment, is impossible in an environment where ordinary human kindness was a kind of failing; where ‘to be inhuman was human’, as Elie Wiesel put it (5). When Aue admits to ‘still prefer fear and emptiness and the sterility of my thinking, than to give way to weakness’, he intuits the Faustian nature of his bargain, that he has foregone the very idea of love – let alone its practice – in favour of the power that is the all-too-real prerequisite of survival in the war of all-against-all. The fear, emptiness and sterility of ‘everyday life’ is rationalised as an end in itself.

In his most recent work On Evil, Terry Eagleton makes the point that evil has ‘no practical purpose’. It is ‘supremely pointless’ because it is wholly negative in its rejection of reality – ‘a kind of cosmic sulking’ that ‘rages most violently against those who threaten to snatch its unbearable wretchedness away from it’ (6). Of course, ‘evil’ is a weighty term, but perhaps not wholly inappropriate. For it’s the sheer pointlessness of evil that The Kindly Ones takes head-on and explores in such a way as to make the opening assertion of the main character – that he is ‘a man like other men… a man like you’ – a fascinating and pertinent charge levelled against our own era. This isn’t because of any resurgent fascism or the like, but because existential despair seems to have crystallised in a most particular form today. Now is not then, of course. But the denial of any possibility of human progress is now so conventional as to pass unrecognised. From ‘assisted dying’ and population control to an imperious scientism and an authoritarian public-health function, the misanthropy that follows hard on the heels of fragmentation and existential despair has never been more acceptable.

A current example is Jonathan Franzen’s blockbuster, Freedom, which centres on the struggle of one man to make room for one species of bird in one particular place in modern-day America. But a less likeable character would be hard to find, chewing on his own cynicism as he pushes through a scheme that is, by any standards, ludicrous. And yet Franzen is full of ambiguity. He invites us to identify with the inner rage of one man as it sediments down to an all-pervasive misanthropy. Franzen would have us inhabit the subjectivity of one man and share with him the travails of modern life, while also accepting the view that there are too many humans on the planet claiming too much freedom. Which is it to be? The troubled soul of a miserable wretch who hates everybody else; or everybody else?

To have ‘no controlling narrative’, as does Franzen’s lead character, is the cue for a narrative of environmental activism. The project is bonkers. But no matter, it is something rather than nothing, a response to a rage his readers will understand, because we are similarly disenchanted. And when his lead character explodes in public, screaming at an audience that ‘IT IS A PERFECT FUCKING WORLD AS LONG AS YOU DON’T COUNT EVERY OTHER SPECIES IN IT! WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET! A CANCER ON THE PLANET!’, it is hard not to hear the author’s own voice. A cynical outlook, never intended as a practical contribution to real human need, inevitably implodes, leaving the ‘hero’ all washed up on his own solipsistic reef, to be rescued from ‘all the vileness inside of him’ by the thinnest, coolest of love interests.

If ‘all the vileness’ accounted for vile acts, like participation in an Einsatzgruppen for example, we might perceive a link between moral degeneracy and immoral consequence. Franzen ducks this, intimating instead an essential sympathy for a character who finds in population control an ideal expression of his own misanthropy. But to the extent that population control and environmentalism are wholly conventional themes, Franzen plays to the gallery. All the vileness on the inside – ontological chaos, if you like – is allowed to spill over to the outside where it demonstrably fails to remedy anything, save the wellbeing of our feathered friends.

By contrast Littell has taken seriously the trajectory of a disengaged cynicism and played it through the mind of a character no less outrageous than that at the centre of Franzen’s tale. In Littell we see nothingness attain its own mad, murderous reason for being, and are invited to perceive our own addled subjectivity in its historical light. In Franzen we see nothingness as an all-too conventional norm, and the something-ness of environmental activism as a legitimate response, even though the response is premised upon lies and distortion and is doomed from the outset.

The impossibility of an authentic interiority – a clear conscience, if you will – has been a staple of modern fiction for well over a century; an inescapable corollary of the ‘Modernist’s hatred of the modern’, as Peter Gay once put it (7). At the same time, and in much of the same literature, the impossibility of any alternative has also predominated. This tendency to ‘self undermining in the very process of self assertion’ (8) is the literary complement to that which Arendt termed the ‘perverse self-hatred of the spirit’ of a European elite who found it ‘easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become absurd banalities, precisely because nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously’ (9).

Taking anything seriously today is uncommon. To his credit, Jonathan Littell has at least attempted to take seriously the absurdity of barbarism, one that isn’t rooted in an uptight need for order or a clear vision of historical destiny, but something else: an essentially empty, negative hatred for life as it surrounds the pitiful, isolated individual, who didn’t even know he had a soul until he sold it so cheaply. He tells this from a provocative angle, indeed. But one that merits applause, if for no other reason than that he isn’t afraid to take the absurdities seriously. In so doing he strikes a more positive note than many an author today.

Stephen Bowler is a freelance writer and researcher.

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Topics Books


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