Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Little is a book that touches upon one of the most important problems in the interaction between people, the problem of the link between the absolute and the particular. How can we reconcile our idea of a nation with the specific elements we might encounter? Do we need to have “an idea of a nation”?
The book is a first person account of the life of an SS officer, Dr. Max Aue, from the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union to the day Berlin fell. The officer writes this many years later as a French citizens (we later learn that he is bilingual and spent many years in his youth in France) and it is only in the last few lines that we learn how he managed to survive the Reich’s fall.
Dr. Aue is not just any SS officer but one that is directly involved at higher and higher levels of responsibility in the solution of the Jewish question, first in the East where Jews were viewed as potential troublemakers behind enemy lines and then in Poland in the camps. He does not enjoy it but the portrayal of Dr. Aue’s character is not as clichéd as the typical Schubert-lover-among-the-barbarians: he is sexually and emotionally cold, engaging only in casual sexual encounters with men hoping that one day he will sleep again with his twin sister, he hates his mother in a ferocious way and longs for a long lost father that later turns out to have been a Freikorp monster. When faced with the horrors he has to witness or take part he is annoyed (for lack of better word) but he does not rebel against. He is just normal which of course for the reader means only a little monster instead of a large one, but for him it is just being normal. In many ways (the love for his sister could be a clue) he reminds me a little of Ulrich in “The man without qualities”, although I am not sure if it is intentional.
The first violence we see is the one perpetrated by the German SS in Ukraine but even more by the local population in Lublin against the Jews and the suspected NKDV officers. It is a general orgy in which no one seems to question what happens; Max watches from the sides. However the more the war continues and the more many Jews are found the more a practical problem is symptoms of something deeper. Why were the gas chamber introduced? It was not only because one could kill people on an industrial scale, but also because it eliminates the intermediate steps between the absolute idea “exterminating the Jews” and the actual action carried out by the guards. The soldiers executing the early orders either reacted with horror or took too much pleasure in it, a sadistic tone that no professional army would want among its troops. It is a telling paradox the one where the people at the top wanted the orders to be carried out but without displaying any emotions in either way. Why were the decisions kept in secret, why were the Wansee conference minutes cleaned of any statements too explicit? One reason is the fear, particularly towards the end of the Allies revenge, but another was that all this, even in case of victory, had to be kept secret from the German people, because one thing is to approve of the absolute idea, another is to approve of the particular.
A critic often made of this book is that it is too long and at times pedantic, a particular section being taken as example is the one about the Tats. I believe that it is the opposite and that section is crucial (besides being extremely interesting). When the Germans arrive in the Caucasus they cannot decide whether to consider a local Jewish population, the Tats, which as far as customs, language and relationship with their neighbours are concerned are indistinguishable from their Muslim fellow men as being truly Jewish. The alternative is to consider them Bergjuden, a people descending from the Khazars, an ancient tribe that converted to Judaism: if they are related to people that have converted, they are not racially Jewish and therefore should be spared. The SS wants to consider them as truly Jewish, the Army, in order to avoid having to fight off potential retaliations from other mountain tribes, disagrees. The absurdity of the situation is a typical example of the need, in the eyes of the leaders of the Reich, to consider the matter in the absolute way: if one does not, there is a risk of getting lost in the particular.
The book is too long however in other aspects, particularly the family angle. It is needed to give a backdrop to the character, but it should be kept to a minimum. The long reverie in the frozen waters in Stalingrad reminds me of another reverie (the skiing-cum-Port scene) in another good but too long book, The Magic Mountain: we would not have suffered its absence.
It is hard today to gauge which direction the world is taking in this respect. The unlikelihood of a large conventional war and a media that brings us closer and closer to the events would suggest that we are moving away from a conflict of absolutes but there is always someone behind that pushes for it (the Christmas Truces in WWI were stopped to keep the clash between absolutes neat and tidy) and in our age this can only mean something even worse that what the world has witnessed, maybe a spectacular terrorist attack, a nuclear deployment ….