Monday, 10 November 2008

Nazi Germany: 'The Kindly Ones' ?

Book lovers in France and Germany can not stop talking about Jonathan Littell’s latest book ‘The Kindly Ones’. The novel takes you on a 1000 page journey through Hitler’s Third Reich, from the start till the very end; Hitler coming to power, 1933’s Kristalnacht in Germany, the occupation of Poland, the invasion of Russia and the mass murders in Auschwitz. Critics say the book is ‘scary’ and ‘intimidating’, because the writer manages to create some understanding for the situation the main character is in.

The reader experiences the Second World war through the fictional memories of an articulate SS officer named Maximilien Aue Why did he not say no? Why did he follow the Nazi regime so passively? Passage after passage, the reader starts to understand more and more of the why’s and how’s in Germany’s 1930’s.

Many readers were not only impressed but also shocked by the Littell’s writing style. "It was crazy to experience that without noticing it, you are slowly dragged into the head of an active, convinced Nazi. He is called Max and you are taken on the journey that is his life. You even start to sympathise with him and understands why he does certain things. At a certain moment you think, no! wait, I do not want to understand this. I do not want to make myself feel like I am justifying the holocaust," says an Amsterdam based journalist, continuing ‘Why did ‘Max’ undertake certain actions, why did he make certain choices: it suddenly seems quite rational and understandable. You get an intense inside look into the mind and thinking of a convinced Nazi, and that is pretty scary.’

‘The Kindly Ones’ was written in French and was published in France in 2006 as ‘Les Bienveillantes’. The English translation will be released on March 3, 2009. Littell (New York, 1967) said he was inspired to write the novel after seeing a photograph of a Soviet partisan being executed by the Nazi's. He traces the original inspiration for the book from seeing Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah , an acclaimed documentary about the Holocaust, in 1989. Jonathan began research for the book in 2002 and visited many of the sites described in the book. He went to Berlin several times, visited the former concentration camp of Auschwitz, went down to Hitler’s summer villa in the Austrian mountains, hiked outside St. Petersburg (the former Stalingrad) where Germans soldiers suffered a slow and painful defeat by the Red Army, in horrible weather conditions. Littell claims that he undertook the creation of his main character, Aue, by imagining what he himself would have done had he been born in pre-war Germany and had become a Nazi.
In some ways this novel reminded me of another book which caused quite some controversy, especially after it gained world wide attention in 1957. Primo Levi’s ‘Is this a man?’ But with one fundamental difference. Since the Second World War ended most attention, by far, has gone to the victims and the heroes from the resistance movements, understandably. A story, seen from a Nazi’s point of view and seen through his eyes, in which sympathy and understanding are not avoided, is unique - if not, never shown before.

Les Bienveillantes won the prestigious French book price Prix Concourt in and not much later Littell was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman of the Academie Francaise.