Jonathan Littell has written a remarkable novel, expertly translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell, out of the gaps in the historiography of the Final Solution and the war on the Eastern Front. He insinuates his narrator, an SS officer named Max Aue, into a series of actual events, running from the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar in 1941, through the doomed German assault on Stalingrad the following year, to the Third Reich’s ultimate ignominy in the Führer’s bunker in Berlin in April 1945.
In the climactic scene, Max is presented to Hitler in order to receive a decoration, just as Soviet guns are levelling Potsdamer Platz outside. As Hitler leans forward to pin the medal on Max’s chest, the SS man is overcome by a gust of fetid breath and, in a reflex of disgust, bites the Führer on the nose. “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed a word about this episode,” confides Max in a characteristic aside to the reader. “Nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.” (Max is telling this story years later, having settled anonymously as a factory owner in northern France after the war.)
Everything in this gargantuan novel turns on the wager that Littell is making here – that the reader will find Max a convincing witness to the defining moral catastrophe of the 20th century.
Even though The Kindly Ones won many literary prizes and sold in huge quantities when it was originally published (as Les Bienveillantes), in France in autumn 2006, some prominent historians questioned Littell’s command of the record and, with it, the plausibility of his narrator. In any case, Littell’s mastery of the bewilderingly variegated nomenclature of what Hannah Arendt called the “complicated machinery of destruction” (SS, SD, RSHA, RKF, and so on) will strike all but the most assiduously tutored eye as more or less complete. And his ear for what one might call the music of Nazi bureaucracy imparts to the novel a densely oppressive texture at the level of the sentence.
Littell’s response to such critics was to remind them that this was a work of the imagination, and that “novelistic truth is of another order to historical or sociological truth”. And “novelistic truth”, of course, is a matter of psychology, imaginative sympathy and point of view. What is most daring about The Kindly Ones is, therefore, not the attempt to write a kind of history between the lines of the works of Trevor-Roper, Bullock and the rest. The novel’s provocation lies not in the author’s choice of subject matter, but in his decision to put himself in Max’s shoes.
Littell is not the first serious novelist to choose to try to “get inside the skin of a Nazi”, as he has put it, or to seek to give the “executioners” a voice. The Kindly Ones has close affinities, for instance, with a book published in French some 50 years earlier, Robert Merle’s 1952 novel La mort est mon métier, which is narrated by the same Rudolf Höss with whom Max dines at Auschwitz. Indeed, it is tempting to read Littell’s novel as a response, at least in part, to something Merle wrote about his own narrator. Höss, Merle observed, “was not a sadist. Sadism certainly flourished in the death camps, but at lower levels. Higher up, a very different psychological make-up was required.” In this book, Littell is exploring the psychology of the higher functionaries of extermination.
The novel opens, as it ends, with the narrator buttonholing the reader: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.” With this malicious apostrophe, Max invites the reader to enter a pact – to accept that he is like us, not an inveterate sadist or psychopath, but an educated and cultured man who had the misfortune to be born in Germany in 1913, rather than the United States in 1967. Consequently, the central aesthetic problem of The Kindly Ones (how to get inside Max’s head) is also a moral and philosophical one: is human evil always the work of moral monsters whose motives will always lie beyond our comprehension?
For some critics, it is unforgiveable even to ask that question. And for Littell to have ventured into the “forbidden places” where his narrator takes him is to have allowed himself to be corrupted. He makes evil something human rather than authentically demonic. But what if, in regarding wicked human beings as proxies for supernatural agents, we undermine the principle that we are responsible for our actions, and with it the ambition of the novel to tell the truth about our moral lives? Getting us to ask that question is Jonathan Littell’s profound achievement.
Jonathan Derbyshire is a contributing editor of the New Statesman