The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell


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Unless you are French I suspect you have not read this book. (Most English speaking reviewers will have done their best to dissuade you from doing so)

Not surprising, because it’s a 974 page tome in 9 point type with no real para breaks.  974 pages of wall to wall reading littered with German second world war jargon.  It’s written in French and translated into English. It’s enough to put anyone off. And some describe its content as the pornography of violence.

Whilst an award winning bestseller in France it barely sold 17,000 of its initial English language publishing.

I’ve probably had the busiest six months of my working life which is why it has taken my fully six, maybe eight, months to complete the task of reading it.

But it was worth every second.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first.  Apart from the dense structure and German jargon, which one eventually overcomes, Littell has a tendency, in parts, to be rather florid in his descriptions and at times elements of the plotting are fanciful and a bit Bourne Conspiracy and his writing can be untidy.  He goes off on one from time to time.  He’s obsessed with bodily functions, particularly of a scatological nature, and he writes without an ounce of sympathy.

But put all that to one side and the rest is complete and utter magic.

Magic if the likes of Hungarian movie, Son of Saul, can be described as ‘magic’.  Anyone who has seen that compelling movie will be lured into this in the same horrifying way.

This book fully deserves the description; masterpiece.

It concerns the ‘memoirs’ of an ageing French lacemaker as he reflects specifically on his role in the War as an upwardly mobile German SS officer.

The title refers to a trio of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in which “the Kindly Ones” are angels of vengeance who track and torture parent killers.  This reflects a sub-plot in which the lacemaker (Dr Max Aue) is doggedly tracked by a pair of vaguely comical policeman after the death of his mother and stepfather in France.

These particular deaths are but two of many (26.6million to be precise) that this book celebrates.  I use the word celebrates because, for many reviewers the novel (and although it is historically extremely accurate it is a work of fiction) was felt to almost pornographically dissect the Final Solution and the Battle of Stalingrad and the repugnant end of WWII in Berlin.

As an SS Officer Dr Aue, is intimately involved in the extermination of the Jews but he considers himself removed from the action.  Indeed, for much of it, he seems almost to be a sympathiser, desperately seeking ways to extend the lives of concentration camp workers (haftlings) who are being literally starved to death on atrocious rations in inhumane hygiene conditions.  His motivation is purely practical though.  To get more out of the workforce for the Fuhrer.

The book is broken into seven parts (each named after a Bach dance suite) that capture different aspects of the war and proceed in chronological order, slowly and painfully in minute detail.  Perhaps the most compelling is his time on the Front in Stalingrad as the bloody and atrocious battle comes to an end amidst chaos.  His reason for stationing there is that he is suspected (rightly so) of being a homosexual.  Elements of this are graphically detailed in short interludes.  But his real love is his sister and he desperately desires to continue his fumbling childhood sexual liaisons with her.  She does not share his wishes and it creates huge emotional turmoil for him.

Some of the descriptions of ‘Aktions’, Concentration Camp conditions, Battlefront scenes and the fall of Berlin are gruelling and heart rending but described without emotion reflecting Dr Aue’s view that he is only carrying out a job.  He has no remorse (but some regret) for his actions, but stoutly defends the role of the SS.

For many this could deeply offend and that’s why I recommend it with some conditions.

Indeed this is what Michio Katukani had to say in his review in the New York Times. (It’s a view I can understand but do not concur with.)

Whereas the heroes of the play “Good” and the movie “Mephisto” were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.

No doubt the author intends such remarks to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, but “The Kindly Ones” instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies. That such a novel should win two of France’s top literary prizes is not only an example of the occasional perversity of French taste, but also a measure of how drastically literary attitudes toward the Holocaust have changed in the last few decades.

Clearly Katukani takes the view that Littel is unsympathetic to the Jewish situation.  I take precisely the opposite view that he is bringing to life, albeit dispassionately, a period in world history that cannot be forgotten.

Jason Burke, in The Guardian, shares my reasons for finding the book so important

Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck.

The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how “ordinary men” become killers. Through its first 200 pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly work. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal. As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the “Aktion” at Kiev, which saw more than 30,000 Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters. By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to “the Jewish Problem”.

It is a sombre (not a jot of humour peppers its pages) exploration of what it might have been like to be embroiled in the horror that was WWII in Germany as part of the ‘machine’ that executed the Final Solution and it’s because of this that I was totally immersed in its horrific inevitability and foolishness.

And we are left dwelling on this fundamental consideration of Aue’s personality.  Is he a Sociopath or is he, as Littel has him say; just a guy, doing a job?

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.”

 

 

A stunning visualisation of WWII


Clearly this has been gathering some momentum, with over 1.5 million views on Youtube, but I only just discovered it.

In the year that we commemorate the beginning of the first Great War here is a moving infographic that shows what happened to the balance of powers between the Axis countries (Germany, Italy and Japan) and the Allies with the Norwegians and The USSR adding further complexity on a day by day basis from the start to the end of WWII with a moving soundtrack underscoring it.

The blue represents the Allies and the brown the Axis countries; those in white remained neutral and you can see when the Italians and Russians turned Allied as the video progresses.

It is an outstanding piece of work by EmperorTigerstar…

If you like this there’s a lot more here

The totenkopf


According to Wikipedia, skulls and bones were long used to mark the entrances to Spanish cemeteries (campo santo). The practice, dating back many centuries, led to the symbol eventually becoming associated with the concept of death – not a big leap there, it has to be said. And Skull and crossbones are used and have been used by many military organisations over the years (most popularly to denote Pirate ships, in the style of Long John Silver – the Jolly Roger).

However, I watched a programme on TV the other night about Nazism and the SS in which I was knocked sideways upon spotting this image of SS chiefs having fun in down time at Auchwitz.

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I have commented before on the hideous atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War and received a barrage of abuse from the Holocaust deniers, most notably on this post which has taken on a bit of a life of its own.

I honestly hadn’t noticed before that this was a part of the SS uniform with its own name – The Totenkopf, and it has been widely used elsewhere in military insignia

However, the context of its use among the killing factories of Auschwitz and the symbolism of the skull and cross bones in this context was, for me, a very powerful symbol of the Natzi’s complete and utter disregard for life. I wonder if any of them felt any sense of the appropriateness of the symbolism (it’s so tempting to say irony, only it’s not ironic) that stared out at their victims, just above their murderers’ eyes, as they faced the short walk to their death?

Incidentally, I am reading quite an interesting book on the psychology and mechanisms of decision making by two esteemed academics from the University of Chicago, called Nudge. It is allegedly taking political decision-making by storm.

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In one section the authors use the rise of Nazism to dramatise their thinking – they refer to the findings of another academic, Asch, who studied how Nazism had been possible. His theory demonstrates how easy it is for a bandwagon effect to occur and so-called “pluralistic Ignorance” to set in. He argues that people do things not because they like or subscribe to a practice but because they think that most other people like it and the natural response is to conform.

It’s not “following orders” which was the staple SS defence in the post war trials, but a subconscious need to conform. “If Herr Schnitzel is murdering innocent Jews then it must be OK and I’ll do it too.”

Fascinating.

Hero


This man is the real deal.  Sadly, he passed away today.

During the second world war John Fancy managed to break free from three different PoW camps using a 10in butter knife.

He dug eight tunnels under camps in Poland, Lithuania and Germany and helped several comrades to escape.

That demands respect.

John Fancy. You are… the man.

fascinating insight into history


I am grateful to Ralf for sending me an email today containing an old (presumably dead) US Marine’s photos.

They were taken on an old Box Brownie and the camera had been secreted away in a foot locker for half a century, only to be discovered recently.

Regardless of the politics of Pearl Harbour they certainly capture the experience vividly.

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The Genius of Photography


BBC4 is running an unbelievably good series on the history of photography called “the Genius of Photography”.

It is unmissable.

And this week one of the featured photographers was new to me (I’m ashamed to say)

Nevertheless he is wonderful and I’d like to share his work with you.

A German called August Sander who shot some of the most stunning portraits of the inter-war years.

Here are just a few.

This man is focussed.

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Ditto.

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I love the humour in this shot.

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I believe this is the seminal Sander shot and I can see why…

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And so is this…

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I found this and love it…

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Stalingrad


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I read Antony Beevor’s seminal book, Stalingrad, a few years ago and it’s taken me a while to get round to reading Berlin (the Downfall). But I’m currently 100 pages in and loving it. Am I turning into a second world war bore I wonder? I’m not even over 60 yet either!

Beevor has a neat line in ‘Ronsealesque’ book titles but don’t let that fool you into thinking the content is not engrossing, educational, involving and unputdownable.

Both books are fairly technical and you’ll get pretty acquainted to the maps that he uses to demonstrate the various troop movements and battle strategies that come into play, but both are magnificent.

If anyone’s read his others I’d be interested in your views. In particular I might read his Spanish Civil War book one day.