In which I attempt to get a “serious” book out of my system.
A few years back Anthony Beevor, whose historical works I respect and enjoy, had a list up in the Wall Street Journal of what he considered to be the five best works of World War II fiction. The list included Life and Fate, Catch-22, Sword of Honor, Fortunes of War, and The Kindly Ones.
Since I had read, or at least attempted to read, the first three on the list (Life and Fate, bookmark in place, is still on my nightstand), I figured I ought to dive into the over two. Fortunes of War represented a commitment to a new series, while The Kindly Ones was a single novel, newly out in paperback, and available at a discount from yet another local bookstore going out of business. Plus it was by the son of another author I like, Robert Littell. Decision made.
The Kindly Ones is a disturbing book. I could not recommend it in any general way.
I feel compelled to write something about the book, yet at a loss as to what to say.
The book is, by turns, fascinating, disturbing, bizarre, dull, and maddening. Full marks to the author for evoking emotional responses. But what was it really about, why would Anthony Beevor recommend it, and why was it even written in the first place?
On the surface, the book is about Max Aue and what he did during the war. It starts with an address to the reader from Max about his post-war life and his purpose in writing what is, within the frame of the book, his autobiography. He wants to write out his tale for his own benefit and strives to be… claims to be… as close to the truth as he can, since he is not trying to justify his actions for anybody.
The tale of Max tells begins in Nazi Germany, where he is a bright young man with a doctorate in law. He is of mixed German and French origin and spent much of his youth and schooling in France. He is fluent in both German in French. And Max is a homosexual, which puts him at great risk in this time and place.
Max is also fervent Nazi and believes fully in the vision of the future put forth by Adolf Hitler. His German father disappeared after the First World War when fighting with the Freikorps in the east and assumes a legendary role in Max’s personal beliefs. He resents his mother for remarrying, and all the more so in that she chose a Frenchman and moved him and his sister to France. He sees his future in Germany and moves back there as soon as he can.
He ends up in the SS, after a shove in that direction from a benefactor who bails him out after he is picked up loitering at a spot known to be used by gay men to hook up. He is a diligent, dedicated, and thoughtful officer in the SS and is exceedingly bad at the bureaucratic games in the organization. He ends up at various points in the war… in the Einsatzgruppen in Southern Russia, at Stalingrad, helping administer the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, and at the fall of Berlin… and runs into various famous names… Himmler, Speer, Eichmann… while trying to get his various assignments done.
For example, with the Hungarian Jews, Max is working with Speer who wants slave labor to support the war effort, but that means keeping the Jews in good health. Meanwhile, Eichmann, who is running much of the operation, just wants to make quota and stay under budget. So conditions for the Jews are hellish and most arrive unfit for work and are sent to be gassed. Max accepts this with the same level of disappointment a shopkeeper might show if he received a shipment of fruit that had gone bad and needed to be thrown away.
Max isn’t completely immune to the horrors. He begins to be physically ill when part of the Einsatzgruppen and is sent off to recuperate. But he is mostly worried about himself, doing his job well, some close friends, and whether he can seduce some Wehrmacht officer or another. Add in his being a suspect in a bloody double murder, the nature of his relationship with his sister, and the astronomical act of betrayal he commits to survive the war and you want to grab him, shake him, and scream about seeing the bigger picture.
Which is, of course, quite easy in hindsight. We know how the story in the bigger picture ends, who wins, who loses, and can make judgements on right and wrong from the comfort of our living rooms as we go about our lives, swimming with the current of history and barely making any sort of ripple. And it goes towards the author’s stated intent in writing the book, which is spelled out in the Wikipedia article on it; he wanted to explore what he would do in that situation. I am not sure that he shared the result of his exploration. It was left with the reader. What would Nazi Germany and the SS be like from the inside at the time and how would different people react? And in Max’s career he runs into a wide variety of motivations, fervent Nazism being in the tiny minority.
Fine, each author has his or her own motivation. But why would Anthony Beevor, a noted and respected historian, recommend this book? It isn’t a book of history any more than Gone with the Wind. I can go to my bookshelf and pick up Martin Gilbtert’s tome The Holocaust and find a different, and well documented, narrative around events through which Max passes.
I suspect that the book was recommended because of its portrayal of individuals. Anthony Beevor’s work is full of references from individual observers, each with their specific point of view. This adds both flavor and a human layer to his work that helps make them approachable by layman like myself. So I think the portrayal of Germans, Nazis, SS members, and the occasional member of the Nazi Party elite as individuals, each with their own point of view motivation and what not… just like any human being… as opposed to a jackbooted army of identical cardboard cut-out monsters that were completely unlike us, is the key. The latter notion, that the Nazis were some sort of alternate breed, is comforting in its way. It means we’re different and, thus, could never be involved in such crimes. It is practically part of the mythos of Nazi Germany.
It just isn’t true.
Which is what I think was the point of the exercise.