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Digging up the past

August 17, 2011

Jonathan Littel's novel, "The Kindly Ones," broke old cliches about Holocaust criminals by portraying an intelligent and cultured but brutal Nazi. Now as a play, the story engages audiences in rethinking the past.

The main gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp
How nuanced is the criminal mind?Image: picture alliance/dpa

They were seen as cogs in the wheel, as hollow subordinates or willing helpers. For a long time, only the very few Nazis in the top ranks of the hierarchy were considered responsible for the atrocities committed under the Hitler regime. After the Holocaust, the offenders of that time were viewed in a cliched way by German society, and sometimes even pardoned.

Today, things are different. Crime research is an established academic field, and biographical and social factors are taken into account when looking into human behavior in situations of war and violence. Literary fiction has embraced this topic, too.

In his historical novel, "The Kindly Ones," American writer Jonathan Littell created a figure that does not match the long-maintained stereotype of the Nazi henchman. When the book came out in the summer of 2006 in France, it attracted a lot of discussion as its main character, Max Aue, was a multifaceted figure: homosexual, educated, well-read, philosophical and cultured. But, despite his positive qualities, he was capable of brutality and murder.

All places, events and many figures in the story are real - only the main protagonist is fictional. The novel created some controversy, and many readers found it hard to accept that Max Aue did not fit any of the established cliches.

Contradictory character

"On one hand, Littell's figure represents the largely unknown, intellectual Nazi officer - on the other, the author also drags a modern figure through a historical context," said historian Jörg Baberowski from Berlin's Humboldt University. "Max Aue is gay and, as an intellectual, he talks about himself and his sexuality very matter-of-factly. He is a man who doesn't have to kill, but who does it anyway. Killing gives him a pleasure similar to the pleasure he draws from his sexuality."

According to Michael Wildt, a history professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, the literary figure of Max Aue does have a likely real-life counterpart.

Jonathan Littell
Littell's book evokes many strong feelingsImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

"[Nazi group leader] Otto Ohlendorf is the same type of person," said Wildt. "Ohlendorf studied economics and worked as a lecturer. He decided against an academic career and rose through the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy till he became head of inland security. He gave a cold and unemotional testimony at the Nuremberg Trials about his responsibility for the murder of 90,000 eastern Europeans."

In Max Aue, Wildt sees a reflection of Otto Ohlendorf, who at the time of the war trials was described as a good-looking young man by the American chief prosecutor. His intelligence and the accuracy of his testimony shocked and silenced many observers of the trials in 1948.

Hard to swallow

Over 800,000 copies of "The Kindly Ones" have been sold in France. The book is a bestseller there, while in Germany it has only seen a fraction of this success. It has been heavily criticized by many literary critics and historians alike - perhaps because it is still difficult for Germans to accept the idea of a Nazi who was not on the margins of society.

A project at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater is expected to revive the debate on this topic - as well as a discussion about whether it is possible to depict the events of the Nazi era in a just way. Director Armin Petras is currently working on a stage version of "The Kindly Ones," due to premiere in September.

"The idea of taking the offender's perspective to the stage was particularly fascinating for me," said Petras.

The play will contribute to presenting a not yet thoroughly researched chapter of history from an artistic angle.

"This is one of the great advantages of this book - and also of the stage play," said Baberowski. "It achieves something that no crime research can achieve. Academia cannot hear criminals speak like they do in literature. You learn a lot about the behavior of people who kill."

Author: Wolfram Stahl / ew

Editor: Kate Bowen