Sitting beneath a convalescing cat, held fast by his bulk, I was kept still long enough to finish The Kindly Ones. At last! What a rich and strange text, one that has divided reviewers since its appearance in France in 2006 and its English translation in 2009. It will come as no surprise that I googled reviews of the book – if only to decipher the meaning of the book’s last line and title. The Kindly Ones. The New York Times Book Review cited its reference to the third play in Aeschylus’ Trilogy, “the kindly ones” being the dreadful Furies turned house-cat by Athenian law. The book does end with a state of law, but I couldn’t tell you who became domesticated in the process; there is no happy ending here, for anyone.
Even if it is perceived that Dr. Max Aue has “got away with murder”, he is clearly tormented by his own Furies, even when he claims forgetfulness. The Furies eat their way out of him. They consume him from within. There is, ultimately, no redemption for Dr. Aue – and should there be? Though “The Good Nazi” was given to Albert Speer’s biography, I would have thought this would be a more fitting title. But, to be fair, titles are not my strong suit. Check my CV. But surely, rather than the taming of inner demons through adherence to state law, this book is about how good men can do evil things. Which leads to the next question, of course. Is Dr. Aue a good man? Can you be a good Nazi?
Dr. Aue was certainly an effective Nazi. He was good at being a Nazi. Which is not the same thing as being good. Dr. Aue loves classical music, which serves as shorthand for his culture, his refinement, his class. But even his love of music abandons him in the end, when he destroys a musician for reminding him of beauty. So, it is not that he is a good man; in fact, he commits a catalogue of sins.
But by Nazi standards, then, as a good Nazi he also believes himself to be a good man, because he cares more than most. The last third of the book finds him investigating the camps, from their “hey dey” to their evacuations. He cares more than most by expressing his concerns about overcrowding, diets, hygiene, hypothermia. But still, he does nothing. He is no hero in this tale, but he believes, to the end, that he is redeemed by his own commitment to the Nazi cause, a commitment that only abandons him at the very end.
Aue disdains men who do the work of Nazis without the philosophy. This is summed up in an encounter with Doll, “a good family man who wanted to feed his children, and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree? If he had been born in France or America, he’d have been called a pillar of society and a patriot; but he was born in Germany, and so he is a criminal. Necessity, as the Greeks knew already, is not only a blind goddess, but a cruel one too.” He explains his belief that man is neither naturally good nor naturally evil, ill-equipped to judge the heart of man. “Doll killed people or had them killed, so he’s Evil; but within himself, he was a good man to those close to him, indifferent to all others, and, what’s more, one who respected the law. What more do we ask of the individual in our civilized, democratic cities?” Aue is aware that law began with God, that Thou Shalt Not Kill is always set aside in times of war, as it is “just to kill the enemy of one’s people.” “So for a German, to be a good German means to obey the laws and thus the Fuhrer: there can be no other morality since there would be nothing to support it.” (And Dr. Aue needs a lot of support – staff, privilege, beds, liquor. All that he wants and needs he is furnished with – but it is never, never enough.) “What man alone, of his own free will, can come to a decision and say, This is good, that is evil? How outrageous that would be, and how chaotic too, if everyone dared to act that way: if every man lived according to his private Law.” Thus, he sets up the argument that no good Nazi can be tried alone. All of Germany must be tried in total, for all of Germany followed the same law, uniformed or no.
This really is a most fascinating book. Nearly every third page is folded down for reference. You could open the book anywhere and start a blog post. But I return to my initial query, lest my blog run the length of The Kindly Ones. I want to get under the skin of fascism, to understand how it is made acceptable to a smart individual and a smart culture to so wholeheartedly embrace and enact a very bad idea. I’m less convinced in the book’s writing than in the book’s ideas; if you are interested in the philosophy and practice of Nazism, I can’t think of a better place to start.
And so, back to the history books. For I have a trip to Berlin planned, to place my Good Nazi into her own landscape, to see for myself what does -and does not – remain of her world.