Uncomfortable truths

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(338)

With The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell has written an important book (Books, Socialist Review, May 2009).

It presents many details of the Nazi crimes, and especially the Holocaust, to a wider audience.

This is why critics in Germany, especially from the mainstream left, were not amused when the book was published in German in 2008.

Many critiques were quite ridiculous. The book was written in a "pre-Proustian" literary style, one critic complained. In a social democratic magazine there was a discussion whether Littell was right to describe these SS officers as people who could play the violin, sing Schumann songs or quote antique authors in ancient Greek or Latin.

The commentator tried to comfort his readers: the SS were at best only "mediocre" violin players. Revealingly, several critics complained that Littell's book presented "nothing new". This nothing new is, however, embarrassing for a Germany that takes part in the occupation of Afghanistan and other humanitarian interventions.

It is embarrassing to be reminded that the SS were all part of the German academic elite, with PhDs and some of them even professors.

I would not agree with reviewer Mary Brodbin's claim that Littell does not present a political explanation. The problem might be more that he presents all the theories he knows of, and leaves it to the reader to choose from a wide range of explanations, for example the idea that the Holocaust was an unexplainable archaic crime like the murder of Abel by Cain, or that it was an imperialist device to prepare for a future East European German empire.

I do not know whether in the English-speaking world a public debate about the book will develop, but socialists should be prepared to defend it against any neo-imperialist commentators.

Thomas Weiss
Berlin, Germany