A blog post

Facing the Holocaust: Jonathan Littell’s The kindly ones

Posted on the 17 January, 2011 at 11:05 pm Written by in Books

OK I admit I am guilty. I put this book on the shelf for two years, despite getting a copy as a gift (from Preben Z. Møller). I am a delayed reader of this bestseller. Why?

I did not want a muddle of postmodern thinking and real fact (I thought). I already had a large shelf, three meters total, literature from World War II, including much on Hitler and the German build up. It was only when I got the same book this Christmas, from my son, that I got round to actually read the thousand pages block of a book. I had practical family experience also – my mother, having to flee to Sweden, my uncles, one of them successfully fleeing persecution to join the Norwegian resistance, the other not. My uncle Johan was caught and almost perished in Sachsenhausen.

So did I have to read all this again?

Turned out, yes. I could no longer put it on hold.

The book is so good that it complements rather than detracts from my collection of war histories and memories. It goes into the head of an SS officer serving at the Eastern front, becoming a specialist in the killing of people. It is mainly very realistic, not sensationalist, and when it does go in with a literary angle, it is thought out and demarcated.

My uncle Johan who served in Sachsenhausen is dead now, as is my uncle Eric who joined the resistance, but I feel this book would have been important for them.  Also personally, in the way that Littel goes into the social psychology of the violence, and the inner resistance against the Nazi thinking. This inner resistance existed – although it was overwhelmed.

My mother Harriet Holter, fleeing to Sweden because of Nazi persecution, often said, later – never forget, the struggle was against the Nazis – not Germans as such. My father, Ingemund Gullvåg, serving in allied convoy protection to Murmansk, a lifeline in the war, agreed. The Nazi system was the enemy, not the Germans.

Norway did not want violence.  We were announced as Arians, a white billing, and yet attacked by the Germans in April 1940. It was a shock. Norwegian scholars, especially Kristian Ottosen, have recorded the makeup of the Nazi punishment system, perhaps more clearly than anyone else.

Littell’s work does not give any easy answer “why did Germans support the Holocaust”. Instead, it gives a view of the whole context – including not only revenge-tuned society, but also a “black pedagogy” in Alice Miller’s terms. The Holocaust was a result not only of bad social structure but also of authoritarian socialization. Much can be said about this – but Littel’s picture is convincing.

It is both a pain and a pleasure to get through this book, as it should be. What amazes is that there is scarcely a word too much, or a paragraph without a purpose. A crash course in aggression, in regressive politics, and the male mind – with women contributing too.

Many people, after World War 2, kept silent. Littell puts the silence frequency to the extreme, so to speak, portraying a Nazi officer as a killer, hidden in the background. The truth, or just some of it? History will judge, but there is evidence e g regarding the “Reichsfuhrer” Himmler pointing in the same direction. Himmler, Eichman and Littell’s fictious officer Aue were all very rational killers, not emotional at all, but their killing did have a personal dimension. This is where Littell goes a bit ahead of the currently established evidence, with mixed results, though his attempts to lead the way in this dark and obscured landscape are very important and worthy.