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The banalisation of evil

Michael Mönninger on Jonathan Littell's scandalous and sensational first novel

The bomb of this year's literary autumn in Paris was dropped by an American Jew of Lithuanian origin who lives in Spain, is married to a Belgian and writes in French. As soon as Jonathan Littell's novel "Les Bienveillantes" (Gallimard) appeared, French magazines started flipping out, drawing comparisons with Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (Nouvel Obs), with Vassily Grossman's "Life and Fate" (Express) and even with Oresteia (Point).

Even if the distinction between criticism and advertising was a bit blurred, the sensation was deserved. The 39 year old debut author describes World War Two and the Holocaust from the perspective of a German SS man. The last attempt to do something in this vein was in 1952 with the much acclaimed novel "Death is my trade" by French author Robert Merle based on the recordings of Auschwitz commander Höß. But since then, the French post-war literature of war horror has constituted primarily the stories of victim's suffering.

Littell writes the fictitious biography of a former SS officer but lines it with so many historical details and personalities from the Nazi era that the novel has something of a semi-documentary historical work. This is not just he story of a wartime fate but rather an epochal panorama told with incredible narrative force over the course of 900 pages of small print.

A masterpiece or the product of craziness? Before the French pick up the book, they already know everything there is to know about the author, thanks to the many interviews he's given. Born in New York, he is son of a respected Newsweek journalist and spy novel author. He came to France as a child. Following his Baccalaureate in Paris, he went on to study literature at Yale and to translate classics such as Blanchot, Genet and de Sade. After, he travelled to war regions in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, China and Africa with the aid organisation "Action contre la faim." In 2001 he was ambushed in the north Caucasus, escaped wounded and decided to take a break in order to be able to see his two children grow old.

Since then, Littell has been working on his epic. He considers the spark to have been Michael Herr's book on Vietnam and Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah. In his research, he talked to survivors, visited Russian, Polish and Ukrainian archives, studied analysis of the Battle of Stalingrad and the Caucasus campaign. He fought through the literature of the Nazi era and wrote his work by hand in 120 days.

Littell recounts that, while working in the former Yugloslavia and Rwanda, he saw no end of horror but always reached the same conclusion: "The butchers never speak- and if they do, their words are hollow." Thus he invented the SS officer Max Aue, a doctor in law and cultured man who killed not out of a sense of fun and perversion, but for ideological reasons. Aue doesn't talk because he has a bad conscience, but because he wants to relieve himself in old age.

The title "Bienveillantes" comes from the goddesses of revenge in Greek mythology, the Furies that, out of fear, are called bienviellantes, well-wishers. In the preface, Littell adopts the tone of antiquity: "Be happy that you were born in a time in which women and children are not being killed and you are not being asked to kill other people's women and children. You have been lucky, but you are no better of a person than me. If you think that, and get arrogant, that's where the danger begins."

Aue is obsessed with the absolute, which for him is not god but the nation. Genocide makes no political or economic sense, but rather acts as some kind of great ritual sacrifice: it unites those who commit it and prevents them from ever returning to what they once were. The mass killing is made possible by the disinhibition of the bureaucratic chain of command that Aue describes, not along the lines of Hilberg or Arendt, more the Marxist alienation of the worker from his product. The streets, he says, are full of psychopaths and sadists. "But they are harmless. The real danger is in the normal person." He recognises this banalisation of evil in Stalin's fighters and the French soldiers in Algeria. He puts the question to them all: "Neither a Jewish child that died in the gas chambers, nor a German one that died in the fire bombing played a role in the war. Why does everyone believe the butchers, that their deaths are necessary and justified?"

Aue's path through the eastern front begins in Poland, where fat field marshals debate head verses neck shots over snaps and standard bearers despair because they "so many Jews don't get shot, just ploughed under." Aue meets Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Höß whose bad breath he finds repellent, nothing else. He escapes the "kettle" at Stalingrad and inspects the extermination camps, discussing technical problems and nutritional issues. He never dirties his own hands. He treats the most imploring victims with the politesse of a hotel porter, his disgust of the blood orgies is only evident in his chronic diarrhoea.

In the violent scenes, where skulls burst and bone shards fly, Littell takes great pleasure in violating historiography's visual conventions, according to which the greatest horror is described from a distance. He develops an aesthetics of horror which, contrary to the French critics, have less to do with Stendhal's directness than with the horror film genre.

It's not just mother-killer Aue's homosexual, incestuous disposition that makes the novel scandalous kitsch in places. It's the poetics of horror that turn a very talented contemporary author into a pornographer of violence. While in France, the fictionalisation of the Holocaust has been a taboo since Claude Lanzmann, in Germany, the sensationalism of history fell into disrepute with Daniel Goldhagen. But now German publishers are competing with astronomical sums for Littell's novel which is both a scandal and worth reading.


This article orginally appeared in Die Zeit on September 21, 2006.

Michael Mönniger is the Paris correspondent of Die Zeit.

Translation: nb - let's talk european