At the dawn of the 21st century, humanity is still trying to come to terms with the scale of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and to attempt to understand how a civilised nation such as Germany could practise genocide in such a massive and mechanised way.
Jonathan Littell explores these questions through the eyes of a former SS intelligence officer, in the course of a 992-page novel, The Kindly Ones, which has taken the literary world by storm.
Littell was born in the United States but raised in France. His novel, originally published in French in 2006 with the title Les Bienveillantes, picked up two major French literary awards, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and the Cunhambebe Award in Brazil. An English translation appeared in 2009.
It is not hard to understand why the book became a runaway bestseller. Although a work of fiction, it convincingly captures the dark atmosphere of the Third Reich and the ethos of the regime's devotees.
The novel takes its name from the ancient Greek term Eumenides (the Kindly Ones), a euphemistic epithet for the Erinyes (the Furies, or goddesses of vengeance). Greeks superstitiously used to call the Furies "the Kindly Ones" in the hope of placating them and avoiding their wrath and destruction.
Littell's narrative, written from the perspective of its protagonist, former SS intelligence officer Dr Max Aue, begins decades after World War II. He recalls the chaos of the collapsing Third Reich and how he used it to his advantage to slip into France where he has been living ever since under a false name. (Before the war he had spent many of his formative years in France).
In post-war France he became a salesman for, and later owner of, a lace factory. He appears to be the embodiment of respectability. However, his underlying personality flaws soon reveal themselves.
By his own admission, he married for respectability and to get ahead in business. He rationalises his complicity in genocide by arguing that he was merely obeying orders and that if he is to be blamed, so too should the entire German nation.
Aue denies that he feels any guilt. However, the reader infers that he has merely repressed his guilt, since he admits to having suffered from recurring vomiting fits since the middle of 1941, when the Nazis began to murder Jews en masse.
The scene then shifts back to the middle of 1941, immediately after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. As a member of the SD (the intelligence arm of the German SS), Aue is involved in the massacre of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (SS paramilitary death squads).
Aue relates how he was effectively blackmailed into joining the SD by Thomas Hauser, who ironically becomes his trusted ally. Aue, while still a law student, was arrested in a homosexual "beat" after an illicit encounter.
Aue is detained for questioning. Thomas offers to provide him with an alibi that will prevent charges being laid, but only on condition that he join the SD.
During Aue's time with the SD, he is posted to Kiev, where he witnesses the notorious Babi Yar massacre, then to the Caucasus region, before being posted to Stalingrad. After being evacuated from there, he is stationed in Berlin.
His later career sees him travelling to Hungary in 1944, where Jews are being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. He is present at the closure and evacuation of Auschwitz. The novel concludes in 1945, with the Soviet Army capturing Berlin.
Throughout the novel, Aue's complex psyche and motives are analysed. He resented his mother, who he believed had betrayed his German father - who had vanished in 1921 and been declared legally dead - by afterwards remarrying a Frenchman. This prompted the young Aue to leave France to pursue tertiary studies in Germany.
However, it becomes apparent that the absent father was hardly a role mode. He not only abandoned his family but, as the readers eventually learn, he had been a particularly sadistic soldier during World War I.
Aue's relationship with his twin-sister Una is also a complex love-hate relationship. His complicity in the massacre of innocent human beings, the ways in which he manipulates other people and the sordid details of his private life are, at various points of the novel, candidly described.
Aue is a repulsive and utterly evil character, incredibly self-absorbed and willing to murder innocent people without compunction.
The narrative maintains its momentum by keeping the reader in suspense. Although at the beginning of the novel we encounter him several decades after the war, and know that he must have survived, there are several war-time episodes when his life hangs in the balance, particularly at the Battle of Stalingrad and in his escape in 1945 from the clutches of the victorious Allies.
Jonathan Littell shows a thorough knowledge of the historical background of the events he describes. For example, he provides an extensive excursus on the Nazi study into whether an obscure tribe of Jews in the Caucasus region were racially Jewish (and thus, liable for Hitler's Final Solution) or whether they were not racially Jewish, but merely culturally Jewish because they had converted to Judaism centuries beforehand, and thus were to be exempt from extermination.
The Kindly Ones is a macabre portrait of a repulsive human being. However, the novel is engaging and hard to put down and has been hailed by many critics as deserving to become a modern classic.