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I was deeply disturbed by this book which, presumably, is the author’s intention. We live in a society in which we have become inured to the daily reports of horror and genocide in various parts of the world, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Tibet, …………We are untouched by these events and, if disturbed at all, take refuge and comfort in the banal trivia that makes up our daily diet of info “entertainment”, Big Brother, reality TV, etc. This book causes us to confront the reality of the primal forces that lurk just beneath the surface of our perceived “civilised” veneer. How WOULD we react if such forces were to be deliberately and consciously controlled and unleashed by state policy? How susceptible are we, even now, to state propaganda and how easy would it be for the state to embark upon a policy of racist hatred into which we would be unconsciously drawn? The establishment of fear towards “the other” is a governing principle in many of the world’s regimes today, leading to an acceptance by many of the citizens of those regimes that the killing of “inferior” peoples, perceived as undermining the state and the common good, is perfectly, morally acceptable.
This book is not an historical work, but a timely reminder that there is an Aue in each one of us, prepared to turn a blind eye to the injustices and horrors perpetrated in our name, in order to protect our ideals, values and prejudices. We are all, at heart, frightened children and any state seeking to harness that fear and turn it towards its own evil ends will always find ready accomplices, even amongst those, like ourselves, who claim to be strong enough to resist such forces. Littell’s book reminds us all of the perils of complacency and apathy. We are all under threat from external forces that promote evil and violence, but perhaps the greatest threat comes from within each one of us. This is, I believe , what the book ultimately addresses.
Neal Ascherson snipes in the London Review of Books (April 30, 2009) in a piece rather oddly titled “Such amateurishness . . .” that Jonathan Littell’s blockbuster novel The Kindly Ones, translated by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Harper, 2009) “offers no help with the ‘ordinary men’ enigma, the question of what it takes to make what sort of men commit mass murder. Aue’s crude assertion that anyone is capable of such deeds and that ‘the real danger to mankind is me, is you’ – all that remains without an answer. One ‘real danger to mankind’ is certainly him. But is it also ‘us’?”
Immediately following the words “Le vrai danger pour l’homme c’est moi, c’est vous,” however, Littell cautions: “Et si vous n’en êtes pas convaincu, inutile de lire plus loin” (pp. 27-28 in the Gallimard original, Les Bienveillantes–I don’t have a copy of the translation). Ascherson evidently missed this or decided to read on anyway.
It needs to be faced, however, that–with rare exceptions, such as the wonderful German composer Hugo Distler, who at the age of 34 committed suicide rather than join the Wehrmacht–very few were found with the fortitude to refuse to perform such deeds when they were demanded of them by the Nazi juggernaut.
As Bryan Mark Rigg notes in Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009) by war’s end, German nationals made up only a little more than a quarter of the Waffen-SS (p. 61). The remainder were drawn from virtually every nation in Europe occupied by the Nazis–and from some that weren’t, like Switzerland.
Moreover, “probably several thousand Jews and over some one hundred thousand partial Jews (or Mischlinge) served in the Wehrmacht” during World War II, Rigg writes. Among these were 21 generals, 7 admirals, and the half-Jewish Field Marshal Erhard Milch, who, along with the half-Jewish General Helmut Wilberg (chief of staff of the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War, which in April 1937 bombed Guernica), was one of the main organizers of the Luftwaffe. In 1947, Milch was sentenced to life in prison for war crimes, including conducting criminal experiments on human beings. Hitler “Aryanized” these officers with the stroke of a pen, because they were useful to him. Yet if he had won the war, they might very likely have found themselves among the victims. Often while Mischlinge were fighting—and in many cases dying—for the swastika, relatives of theirs were being forced to wear the yellow star, mercilessly tormented (even their pets were taken away from them and killed, right down to old ladies’ canaries), and finally murdered. The “partial Jews” awarded a Deutschblütigkeitserkläring (certificate of German blood) might very likely have been shipped to the death camps too in a triumphant Third Reich. See ibid., pp. 9, 171, et passim.
Liddell’s protagonist, Waffen-SS Hauptsturmführer [Captain] Max Aue, is not only a passive homosexual but at least partly Jewish (it can be deduced, in fact, that his mother is Jewish, making him fully Jewish under Halakah law). “Tu es circoncis ?” his lover Willi Partenau, a young Waffen-SS lieutenant he meets in the Crimea, exclaims on first seeing him naked. “Une infection d’adolescence, ça arrive assez fréquemment,” Aue replies (p. 189), precisely what many of the men Rigg interviewed had used to explain why they were circumcised.
In my opinion, The Kindly Ones is a masterpiece, and Jonathan Littell is one of the most important American writers to appear in my lifetime (which began in 1939).