A Philosophical Historical Novel about Evil: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

A Philosophical Historical Novel about Evil: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

I am usually reading one historical novel and listening to another one on my ipod. I like ones that include philosophical and theological themes. But they are somewhat rare. And I like to read/listen to books about World War 2 and the Holocaust (and their aftermath). I suppose that’s because those 20th century events especially raise philosophical and theological questions.

Recently I stumbled quite by accident on an outstanding historical novel about WW2 and the Holocaust. It’s very long—something else I like in a book if it’s good. I like epics. One thing especially novel about The Kindly Ones: A Novel by Jonathan Littell (Random House, 2010) is that it’s written from the perspective of a German SS officer directly involved in the mass killings of Jews, Gypsies and other “undesirables” by Germans (and others) during WW2. Most novels (and movies) about the Holocaust are written from the perspective of victims. In The Kindly Ones Littell imagines what must have been going through the mind of a German SS officer organizing and leading special units of the SS in Poland and the Ukraine during Germany’s invasions of those countries in 1939 and beyond. I’ve often wondered about that. What would a highly educated, “civilized” German officer involved in that series of massacres of totally innocent men, women and children have thought about it? How would he have justified it? What kind of impact would it have had on him? What would have prepared him to do it? What would he have thought about it years later assuming he was not executed during the war crimes trials? Littell offers one set of answers.

Littell’s protagonist is Maximilian Aue, a relatively young, highly educated, German SS officer directly involved in organizing and leading special action troops in, for example, the Ukraine in 1941. (He was also involved in the invasion of Poland earlier.) At the beginning of the novel Aue is old and writing his memoirs—for himself and not for others. But we get to read it. (I haven’t gotten to any explanation yet of how the autobiography survived or was suppose to have gotten into others’ hands.) Aue’s interest in writing about his life is to work it all out for himself, to understand himself and what he did.

The Introduction (“Toccata”) is worth the price of the book. It consists of Aue’s philosophical reflections on why the war waged by Germany, including the Holocaust and mass killings of innocent civilians, was justified. In the end, it wasn’t, but that’s only because Germany lost. But Aue is not a crude skeptic or cynical person; he’s highly educated philosophically and knows exactly what is what in the absence of any absolute authority transcending humanity. Germany turned out to be wrong because it lost. But while it was winning, it was right even if much of what units like his did was cruel and barbaric.

In the Introduction Aue speaks to readers as if he is trying to convince them of something. He argues that the whole idea of “crimes against humanity” is something of a farce. After all, as he carefully explains, everyone was involved, not just those put on trial after the war. Claims by war criminals that they were “just following orders” were rejected out of hand. And yet, Aue claims, that’s exactly what they were doing. And everyone from the driver of the civilian train that transported Jews to Auschwitz to the “kapos” who shoveled the bodies out of the gas chambers and pulled gold teeth from their dead heads to the bakers who baked bread for the officers’ mess were involved and responsible. At exactly what point, he asks, should someone have refused to obey orders? If the soldier who shot Jews in Ukrainian forests should have refused, why shouldn’t the driver of the truck who transported them to the pre-dug trenches in which they would be buried have refused? And what about the gas station attendant who put gas in the truck? And what about the mechanic who fixed the truck? And what about….?

Then Aue claims to the readers (paraphrasing) “You would have done the same as we did under similar circumstances so don’t get all self-righteous.” It’s a pretty powerful argument. I can’t begin to do justice to it here, but Aue goes into great detail explaining the whys and wherefores of the German invasions of Poland and Russia and the Ukraine and why killing supposedly innocent civilians was necessary. He more than hints that America did much the same in Vietnam and that all modern wars, at least, include mass killings of civilians. The Germans’ methods were crude at first, he argues, but the circumstances made them necessary.

Of course, Littell, an American author, is not promoting Aue’s arguments; he’s simply letting us listen in on them to sense how sensible they seem to someone on that side of the conflict.

Then the historical action begins (after the Introduction) and gets quite graphic in descriptions of the SS killings of civilians, especially Jews, in Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. Much of the dialogue is between SS officers and officers of the regular German army discussing why the killings are necessary and justified.

At one point Aue, who grew up Lutheran but attended a Catholic boarding school, reflects on Germany’s imperialistic conquests of other countries. The ultimate reason for it was Germany’s desperate need for “Lebensraum”—”space to live.” Germany was over crowded and lacking in many of the natural resources to make life good for Germans. There were vast open spaces to the east. Germany needed that space and the natural resources there. So they simply took it in order to survive and flourish as a people. (He could have said, but didn’t, just like Americans took North America from the Native Americans.) Their original intention, he says, was to push the inhabitants of those needed lands further to the east—beyond the Ural Mountains and into Siberia which was largely uninhabited.

“Was that fair?” Aue asks? Here’s his answer:

“So long as we had the strength and the power, yes, since as far as justice is concerned, there is no absolute authority, and each people defines its own truth and justice. But if ever our strength weakened, if our power gave out, then we would have to endure the justice of others, terrible as it might be. And that too would be fair.” (p. 161)

Indeed. What “absolute authority” was Aue (or author Littell) thinking of? Surely God. In other words, so it seems to me, Littell, using the “voice” of his protagonist, is stating the obvious but not always admitted conclusion that must be drawn from atheism.

I have no reason to think Littell is a Christian. Nothing I have read about him indicates one way or the other. And the book is anything but a “Christian novel.” It overflows with vulgarities, profanities, sex, blood, almost gratuitous descriptions of executions including of children. I can only tolerate that because I’m convinced it’s realistic, true to what happened, and that we need to know about it in all its horrible details. Neither the violence nor the sex is in the least attractive or erotic. It’s repulsive and not for the faint of heart. But it well illustrates the depravity of humanity and the relativism that is the natural, logical outcome of atheism.

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