The Kindly Ones is a French novel from 2006, written by American-French writer Jonathan Littell. The English translation has been done by Charlotte Mandell. Of all the places in the world, I chanced upon mention of this book in a Slavoj Žižek text, but Žižek, past the layers of willful obfuscation, is always good for wily asides and references, and I’m particularly grateful to him for introducing me to this work.
The Kindly Ones is set in the very middle of World War II. Over the course of this magisterial work of historical fiction, Littell takes us on a virtual tour of Hitler’s empire, beginning with the ill-fated decision to strike ever farther into the East; the events are related from the perspective of one Maximillian Aue, an officer in the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence arm of the Schutzstaffel. By way of his rise through the bureaucratic apparatus, we become privy to Germany’s ever-intensifying struggle to finish what she started, a task as good as lost once the United States entered the war with her superior manpower and resources.
Right off the bat, Aue announces that despite the endless atrocities that he, his party, and the whole of Germany stand accused and guilty of, he isn’t very different from the reader. In fact, he’s just like us all. The banality of evil was a phrase popularized by Hannah Arendt, suggesting that evil does not necessarily have to reside in the mind of a psychotic monster, but can be found in the most common and unremarkable of men. Littell’s achievement in this tome of a book (994 pages) is to make the reader identify with Maximillian Aue on some remote, psychosomatic level. No mean feat considering Aue, contrary to his pleas to normalcy, is not an everyday protagonist at all; he is homosexual, he has an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, and he probably commits matricide somewhere along the way, too. And yet, Littell fleshes out his character, warts and all, to such an extreme that he compels the reader to look within himself before he turns away in repulsion and moral sanctimony.
There are far too many individual incidences worthy of note in a book as big in length and rich with ideas as The Kindly Ones, but a few still manage to stick out in memory. Aue pontificates on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which, to say crudely, is nothing but a universal moral obligation to do the right thing, regardless of personal desires. In a conversation between Aue and Adolf Eichmann (the subject of Hannah Arendt’s book, and a chief organizer of the extermination drives), the suspension of Kant’s categorical imperative during wartime is brought up. Eichmann says that in war, we do exactly that which we wouldn’t want the enemy to do to us, a break-down of the biblical “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Aue works around Eichmann’s doubts by invoking National Socialism’s total debt to the volk, or the nation and its people. National Socialism, moving past the primitive idea of God, instead substitutes it with the nation, and its ultimate representative, its Fuhrer. As such, anything and everything done with the explicit or implicit approval of the Fuhrer warrants no dissent on the subject of the categorical imperative; works done in the service of the volk, and only those works, become the categorical imperative.
Many other discussions of a similarly philosophical bent exist in The Kindly Ones, raising fascinating questions about the mechanisms of indoctrination, and the schism between individual responsibility, and unimaginable things committed in the name of a greater good. At a later point in the war, when the writing is on the wall, Heinrich Himmler summons the SS bigwigs, and in no uncertain terms, makes the realities of the Endlosung, or The Final Solution, clear to those assembled, going to the extent of recording them, in the process irrefutably incriminating the party hierarchy (see: Posen speeches). Aue registers the uncomfortable shock registered among those present; upto that point, most of Germany had continued to naively, perhaps conveniently, believe that Jews and undesirables were being moved to the East for resettlement, but Himmler almost sadistically dispelled the country of its naivete, making The Holocaust – yes, women and children, too – a reality to come into their homes uninvited, leaving no conscience unnettled after the sun went down.
Alongside The Kindly Ones, I also read Hungry Bengal, by Janam Mukherjee, a documentation of the Bengal Famine of 1943 orchestrated by the British in India. Bengal is a state to the east of the country, its primary crops being rice and jute, cultivated along its extensive coastline which opens into the Bay Of Bengal. As Japan started registering its successes in South Asia – Singapore, Burma, Malaya fell in quick succession, much to British chagrin- the British feared for the price jewel of their colonial empire. To deprive the Japanese of making use of local agriculture in case they landed on the extensive coastline of the Bengal countryside, British state policy mandated moving all ricestock out from the coast, hoarding it, and driving inflation through the ceiling. Boats, which formed the primary means of transport along the complex, river network for coastal villagers, indispensable to their supplementary fishing trade, were destroyed en masse, so that the Japanese couldn’t avail of them.
The result was a famine that killed three million people over the next two years, destroying the social, economic, and political fabric of the state, leading in many ways to the brutality of the riots that ushered in Partition. As skeletally emaciated victims of hunger from the coast and interiors started filtering into Calcutta, dying on the streets of the British Empire’s Second City on a daily basis, the sight became as much a source of sorrow as acute embarrassment, to both the British and vested Indian business and political interests. The victims barely looked human, alive or in corpse form; what chance then did they have of figuring into calculations of war and the profits to be derived from it?
The reason I bring up this event is because it shares certain parallels with The Holocaust and how Littell transcribes it through Aue’s eyes. Dehumanization of the other is a premise much beloved of critical theory, but that doesn’t detract legitimacy from it being a prerequisite and a precursor to all events of such ghastly nature; whether it be the genocide of 800 million Hindus by Muslim invaders over five centuries of religious persecution, the plight of gypsies, Jews, and social undesirables in Nazi Germany, the unfed, unwashed poor in Bengal subordinated before the throne of Mars, the Hutus calling the Tutsis cockroaches in Rwanda, or the Bosnian crisis of the 90s, setting up the target of ire as somehow different and worthy of revulsion, is the signature of this unfortunate chain of accidents. The real causes, however, almost always hint at either a need for material resources, or a collective psychological injury or impotency that aims to redress itself by destroying that other.
Jonathan Littell thinks as much. Aue describes a group of Bergjuden, or Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, who have been shortlisted for extermination by the powers-that-be. The Bergjuden, however, have been living there for hundreds of years, and have come to linguistically resemble the Turkic peoples with whom they share the mountains. Aue looks on as a special group from Berlin, designated for solving the Bergjuden question, is sent to the East. The Bergjuden invite their would-be executioners to their dwellings, organize food and entertainment to show them how similar they are to the other gentile tribes, to prove their non-Jewishness, as it were. It is a desperately pitiable sight, but also a sad one to see these simple folk, so distanced from political wranglings, stripped of all pride, scrounging and bargaining for their very lives.
That feeling of sadness and futility resonates through The Kindly Ones, not because Littell overtly manipulates his readers’ emotions, but rather trusts them to their instincts by providing an eloquent meta-commentary on his characters’ experiences. The common theme is that extraordinary circumstances elicit extraordinary responses, even from the most insignificant among us. We should only consider ourselves fortunate in the extreme if we’re not confronted with them with regularity, but reality isn’t so lenient, is it? The line between empathy and expediency is exceedingly thin, and who would want to adjudicate where that lies?