We know the Nazis either as monsters in jackboots or as banal bureaucrats just following orders. They are Auschwitz demons or Nuremberg fools.
Jonathan Littell's sprawling novel "The Kindly Ones," winner of two prestigious literary awards in France, makes a daring, disturbing attempt to deny such ethical shortcuts: "There was a lot of talk, after the war," the book's narrator observes, "in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity."
The novel is framed as the unapologetic memoir of SS officer Maximilien Aue, who, prospering in France after the Nazi defeat, sees the war years as a "real morality play" -- but not with the lessons you might expect. Aue witnessed and participated in some of the signature horrors of the Eastern Front: the first mass killings of Jews in the Ukraine, the Battle of Stalingrad (where he gets shot), the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later, back in Berlin, the devastation of the capital by Allied bombing.
Especially chilling are the early scenes in the Ukraine, where German officers, including in one instance Aue, climb down into the pits among the naked, just-shot Jews, looking for ones who were still alive in order to shoot them again. Humanity and more humanity indeed.
As the fictional Aue rises through the ranks, he interacts with a rogue's gallery of well-known Nazis: Himmler pins a medal on his chest; Eichmann has him over for dinner and talks about Kant; Speer takes him out grouse-hunting; and in a bizarre scene at the novel's end, Aue meets Hitler in the Führer's own bunker and, let's just say, violates the mad one's personal space.
Throughout, war triggers recollections of Aue's childhood, which was marked by incest (with his twin sister), rage (against his mother and stepfather) and confusion about his own sexuality (he sleeps with men but doesn't love them). In many ways, Aue is trapped in adolescence, betrayed by a sister who has moved on from a childhood love he can't escape.
Littell strains to have these biographical traumas echo and even illuminate the larger war. But while Hitler's race-obsessed message of strength may have been an antidote to German humiliation after World War I, it is hard to see the rise of Nazism as a personal journey writ large, as Aue tries to make it: "In the end, the collective problem of the Germans was the same as my own; they too were struggling to extract themselves from a painful past, to wipe the slate clean so they'd be able to begin new things."
Here and elsewhere, Aue's first-person vantage tries to register an enormous moral wasteland and somehow make us think we might have done the same thing in his or any other German's shoes. And it's true we can understand the appeal of duty and honor, even when these ancient virtues are hitched to a distorted creed.
It's also compelling that Aue could find in Nazism a powerful vehicle of patriotism, spoiled by racism and myth though it is. And we understand that good intentions don't protect us from making morally disastrous choices.
But this novel closes the gap too quickly between what Aue calls our human "need to be guided" and a catastrophic choice to burn Jews. Aue never makes excuses, but his small conscience is too preoccupied with his own traumas to comprehend the tragedies around him. He vomits a lot and has nightmares and gets lost in fantasies -- and probably killed his mother.
It's not just the narrator who is trapped; the novel itself seems trapped. The persistent impression it gives, over its Russia-size thousand pages, is that it can't find its way into the urgent story it wants to tell about big things: the war, loss, self-justification, mass executions of the elderly and children, about sincerity and depravity and a sense that the world may be more Greek in its justice than Christian in redemption ("kindly ones" is an allusion to the mythical Furies).
Partly, the problem is language. Too often specificity is taken for vividness, as when the narrator observes, "The wedding ring of a German soldier gleamed in the early morning sun." Too often war images are quick cliches: gunfire like "fireworks on a holiday," or a traumatized officer "trembling like a leaf."
When more is at stake, this instinct for rushed imagery expands as melodrama.
As a dying soldier, for example, calls out for his mother, it's not just that Aue can't register his response but that Littell awkwardly registers Aue's awkwardness: "The kid's shouts were boring into my brain, a trowel burrowing in thick, sticky mud, full of worms and messy life. I wondered, would I too beg for my mother, when the time came?"
Recalling the time he saw Hitler speak in 1930, Aue reports exactly what we might recall from watching footage in a history class: "I just remember his gestures, made frenetic by emotion, and the way his hair kept falling over his forehead."
There is a disjuncture, then, between the enormous themes the novel explores and Littell's literary management of them. It is a long, attentive book, but it doesn't expand as a big book; it feels important rather than profound.
Littell wants to be blunt about moral responsibility, but there is no vision behind the bluntness. He senses a moral horror, but he doesn't press an idea of why it is horrible, just that it is. The power of the novel dissolves where we need it to concentrate. It is a Nietzschean cold bath without Nietzsche's dazzling gusto.
"The Kindly Ones" reflects immense historical research, and it struck a chord in France, where Littell was reared by his American-born parents. This is a provocative book, raising enduring questions about whether human beings ever stop being human because of their cruelty, and whether tyranny emerges because we abandon moral clarity or, on the contrary, because we insist on it too much.
But the novel staggers beneath the weight of these tremendous themes. To the central dilemma it presents -- why we think Nazis were so different from what we would have been in their shoes -- we might recall, in closing, what Hannah Arendt imagined a judge saying to the all-too-human Eichmann: "There is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done."