Archive for July, 2009

Nazi Psycho

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell, 2009

Author Littell is American born in New York but raised in France. He has lived around the world working for humanitarian organizations. This novel was written in French and translated into English. The novel is written as a memoir or account of the war years 1939-1945 by an SS officer for an unnamed but specific audience. Littell has obviously studied the Nazi period closely and the level of detail is amazing. The novel is 975 pages, deals with the experience of one man over a six year period, and includes a partial glossary. At first the reader is annoyed that many terms and organizations seem to be missing from the glossary but eventually you get into the flow of things. The novel won prestigious awards in France and sharp criticism in Germany. Reception elsewhere has been mixed. It is well written but tough slogging.

Language plays an important part in this work as it did for the participants, as the author riffs:

I thought about that decision we had made, the extraordinary idea of killing all the Jews, whoever they might be young or old, good of bad, of destroying Judaism in the person of all bearers, a decision that had received the name, now well known, of Endlosung the “Final Solution”. But what a beautiful word! It had not always been a synonym for extermination, though… according to the period, this meant exclusion from public life or exclusion from economic life, or finally, emigration. (A wild plan to move all the Jews to Madagascar was abandoned.) Then, little by little, the signification had slid toward the abyss, but without the signifier changing, and it seemed almost as if this final meaning had always lived in the heart of the word.

And that, at bottom, was the reason for our Sprachregelungen, quite transparent finally in terms of camouflage, but useful for keeping those who used these words and expressions, special treatment, transported onward, treated appropriately, change of domicile, or executive measures – between the sharp points of their abstraction. This tendency spread to all our bureaucratic language… and so things were done all by themselves, no one ever did anything, no one acted, they were actions without actors, which is reassuring and in a way they weren’t even actions, since by the special usage that our National Socialist language made of certain nouns, one managed, if not completely to eliminate verbs, at least to reduce them to the sate of useless appendages, and that way, you did without even action, there were only facts, brute realities, either already present of waiting for their inevitable accomplishment.

The author of this memoir is a young, educated, middle class man. After completing his undergraduate degree in literature and philosophy, Dr. Aue goes on to earn his doctorate in constitutional law. The Nazis have taken control of the government and Dr Aue who considers himself a believer in National Socialism or the idea of a German volk, joins the SS as a logical career move in depressed Germany. We learn that Aue has a twin sister, his mother is French, his father has abandoned the family, and Aue has spent much of his childhood in Antibes France. Aue has had a livelong love for his twin sister, at first innocent and later not so innocent. Aue’s mother and step father separate the two, sending Aue of catholic boarding school where the fathers and older boys introduce Aue to a life of gay sex with Aue as the passive party. He continues his gay activity into the SS until he is apprehended in an altercation at a gay cruising ground. His career, if not his life is at stake, from the homophobic Nazis until the intervention of a young Austrian SS officer, Thomas, who has met Aue briefly at a conference in their student days. For the remainder of the novel Aue lives a celibate life.

Aue starts his account with a few revealing statistics. On the Eastern Front, where Aue served, 23 million people died. Only 5.1 million Jews died. Comparing this to American deaths in 10 years of the war in Vietnam, the American deaths represent only 13 days of Jewish deaths and only 3 days on the Eastern front. This war was a whole other phenomenon.

Aue and Thomas develop a friendship. Both are intelligence officers and are sent to France in the buildup to the Polish invasion to assess likely French reaction. Aue, the honest and naive, concludes that the French will declare war on Germany; Thomas, the politically astute, concludes the French will do nothing. His conclusion, which is what the Fuhrer wants to hear, is forwarded.

Thomas and Aue are assigned to the Ukraine after it is occupied to ferret out resistance. The Germans set up an all German occupation government and set out to kill everyone in sight; Jews, gypsies, mentally retarded, insane, homosexuals, sick, even the occasional resistance fighter. The Wehrmacht and the SS are assigned to execute the captured but this proves bad for morale except for the psychopaths who are reassigned to other duties when their pathologies emerge. The Nazis then start using collaborators in the executions but since they are untrained, the SS are forced to clean up their work. Aue must use a service revolver to finish on some survivors and develops nausea, diarrhea and nightmares that remain with him throughout the war. The Nazis experiment with carbon monoxide poisoning using enclosed trucks to remove the need for executions. The movement toward concentration camps, gas chambers, and huge crematoriums has begun. Aue comments that the Germans must be among the world’s worst colonizers and he envies the British for their skillful use of the stick and carrot.

Aue and Thomas are next sent to the occupied Caucasus where they encounter an unusual situation. The Germans are attempting to set up puppet regimes much like they later put into France and Holland. A tribe of mountain Jews gives rise to the question of whether these people are racially Jewish or whether they converted to Judaism and are therefore to be spared. These people use largely Turkish language but their religious terms are Iranian. No one knows where they came from or when they adopted Judaism. The SS wants to exterminate them and the Wehrmacht wants to leave them alone. Both sides bring in German experts (only in Germany is race the proper subject of academic study) The conclusions are mixed so the Solomon like decision is made to wait until Dagestan is occupied where addition mountain Jews live and a final decision can be made. The offensive has bogged down and it is highly unlikely Dagestan will ever be occupied. Thus the mountain Jews are spared.

Aue clashes with his superiors and is assigned to Stalingrad which by this time is cut off from occupied territory and must be supplied by air lift. Thomas requests an assignment in Stalingrad as well arguing that if he survives, it will be the fastest means of advancing his career. In Stalingrad, everyone lives with lice and are starving, even the officers. In typical German fashion, an Austrian doctor specializing in nutrition is sent to Stalingrad to study the effects of starvation diets on the troops – his conclusion – they die. Just before the fall of Stalingrad, Aue is shot through the head by a sniper. His still breathing body is discovered by the starvation doctor who insists medical staff give him treatment. Miraculously Aue is evacuated to Berlin and when he wakes from his coma, the Reich Fuhrer Himmler himself presents numerous medals including the iron cross to Aue; he is promoted; Thomas has been right again.

Aue cannot serve on the front because of his injuries but he is unable to secure a position in France which he wants. He travels to Antibes to visit his mother and finds her and his step father caring for mysterious twins. On the morning of his departure from Antibes, he wakes to discover his mother and step father brutally murdered. The twins are alive and staring at him when he awakes. He waits til Berlin to notify his sister of the deaths.

Aue is approached by a powerful civilian, Mandelbrot, who claims to have been a close friend and colleague of his father. Mandelbrot is aging and paraplegic and is attended by three uniformed beautiful Amazons that Aue cannot tell apart. Each offers herself to Aue in a patriotic gesture to perpetuate the master race. Aue declines each time. Mandelbrot wants to recruit Aue for an important position on Himmler’s staff working on the “final solution”. Aue reluctantly accepts and is sent to evaluate and write reports about the labor and death camps. He discovers incompetence, graft, and psychopathology. Himmler assigns Aue to head a commission to look into the problem of providing reliable skilled prison labor for war production. Aue starts working with Eichmann. Heydrich, formerly in charge of the “final solution” has been killed. There is an HBO production Conspiracy starring Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolph Eichmann which depicts a meeting where the final solution was planned out.

Himmler and Eichmann himmler eichmann

The author writes that Adolf Eichmann was not capable of making important decision but –

as a middle manager, he would have been the pride of any European firm. I never perceived that he nourished a particular hatred of the Jews: he had simply built his career on them, they had become not just his specialty but, in a way, his stock him trade… when he told his judges that he thought the extermination of the Jews was a mistake, we can believe him…many people in the RSHA and especially in SD thought similarly – but once the decision was made, it had to be seen through to the end… his career depended on it.

Albert Speer speer

Aue is contacted by Albert Speer who is now in charge of war production and is in desperate need of labor now that most Germans are in the military. The problem, Aue quickly discovers, is that the prisoners are destined to die, it is only a question of when. The SS is solely responsible for all prisoners, their food, shelter, clothing, health, and other conditions, but they are ultimately to die. The people responsible for the factories and needing labor must be assured that the slave labor is sufficiently healthy to be able to work and will live long enough to be trained so they can be productive in their jobs. Aue attempts to sort through the conflicting motivations, orders, and objectives, but is unable to resolve anything. Spear loses confidence in Aue and Himmler remains above the fray.

Aue gets leave and travels to his sisters home (somewhere in the East). When he fails to return to work, Thomas sets out to find him. The Russians are everywhere and they spend 17 days on foot trying to back to German controlled territory. In a very chilling account, they run into a group of feral children who have formed an army with sticks and farm implements under the command of the oldest boy. The children kill numerous unsuspecting German and Russian soldiers as they escort Aue and Thomas back to the line. (Thomas has convinced the boy general that they are on a secret personal mission for the Fuhrer.

Hitler and Speer 00706936

The only appearance of Hitler himself in the novel is when, only hours before his death, the Fuhrer presents special medals to ten SS officers including Thomas and Aue. Hitler is obsessed with blowing up every occupied city in Europe and maybe turning his remaining army on their own people in a final gesture. No one is listening to Hitler any more and Speer is running around madly countermanding Hitler’s deranged orders.

Two German detectives keep pursuing Aue, convinced he killed his parents but Himmler protects him. As the government unravels so does his protection. The detectives have also learned that the twins are the children of Aue’s sister.

The war nears its end but Aue remains in denial. He doesn’t have any real work but manages to keep busy. Thomas, ever prepared, has killed a French forced laborer for his clothing and papers. He plans to pass himself off as a forced French laborer after the war. Aue is to black out and commit one final shocking act which will assure his survival and freedom after the war.

This ambitious novel takes you deep inside the mind of a Nazi participant. There are some unusual insights. We know that Karl Marx, a Jew, is credited with the creation of Bolshevism and the Nazis used the Bolshevik – Jewish connection extensively in justifying their actions. But did you know they consider British Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the only Jew to hold this office, to be the father of National Socialism, with his ideas about a master race? A Jew responsible for the Nazis? So who, exactly, was the master race here? And did you know the Nazis contemplated, early on, a plan to create a Jewish homeland themselves for the displaced Jews – in Madagascar?

And the title of the novel? As Aue finds himself in the Berlin Zoo surrounded by dying animals he sees a vision:
“The Kindly Ones were on to me.” Finally a conscience? Who knows? Wikipedia has a thorough discussion of this important novel including controversies over the mixed reviews. NYTs Kakutani writes “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent”, and goes on to question the “perversity” of the French literary establishment for praising the novel. Michael Korda replies: “You want to read about Hell, here it is. If you don’t have the strength to read it, tough shit.”

Mississippi Dreaming

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

The Missing, Tim Gautreaux, 2009

Paddle Wheeler Belle paddle_wheeler_belle

Bolden’s Band boldensband

A novel set largely on an aging Mississippi paddle wheeler in the years after the First World War by a natural Southern story teller. The story is good but what stands out are the details of the old river boat patched together each year for a summer of dance and church day cruises on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Cincinnati and St Paul. North of New Orleans, most crowds have never heard a black New Orleans Jazz band and the boat keeps a white band in reserve for backwater cruises where a black band would cause a riot.

The central story concerns the department store abduction of a talented young girl, daughter of river boat entertainers by backwater villains who have been retained by a wealthy but childless banker. The security guard at the store is fired and he spends the rest of the novel tracking the girl and her abductors. His search takes him on river cruises and he encounters a series of dark characters living beyond the law in the bayous.

New Orleans Quarter 1920 new_orleans_quarter

Louisiana bayou bayou

Inventing Etta

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Etta, Gerald Kolpan, 2009

Katherine Ross as Etta Place etta

Kolpan is a television journalist in Philadelphia and this is his first book. About ten years ago he became intrigued that so little is known about the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend; where she was from; what happened to her after accompanying Butch and Sundance to South America. Theories and stories keep circulating but none seem to have credibility. Kolpan decides that Etta Place would be the ideal subject for a novel, allowing the author to invent anything he wants, and why not take his inventions over the top.

Kolpan’s Etta was born Lorinda Reese Jameson to a wealthy Philadelphia banker. Her mother dies in childbirth and Lorinda is raised by her father. She is as at home on a horse shooting a rifle as she is attending a cotillion. When she is 18, her father kills himself and Lorinda discovers her father has lost everything and owes $20,000 to the Sicilian mafia.

Harvey Girls harveygirls

Her family lawyer, fearing for her life, forges documents establishing her new identity as Etta Place and gets her a job working as a Harvey girl in Grand Junction Colorado. There she is assaulted by the evil son of the most powerful man in Grand Junction and she not only resists (beating him up) but when he starts shooting at her, Etta kills him. She is arrested and sentenced to be hung.

Pinkerton Detectives pinkerton-detectives

Her Harvey roommate and outlaw boyfriend break Etta out of jail and together they journey to Hole in the Wall Wyoming, headquarters and hideout of the Butch and Sundance gang. Fred Harvey hires a Pinkerton detective to find and return Etta to Grand Junction to avoid being sued by the punk’s father. Etta now has the Pinkertons and the Mafia after her.

Etta is quickly at work robbing trains. She becomes the gang’s banker, inheriting the skill from her father, and soon amasses a personal fortune. Butch and Sundance send Etta to New York with their fortune that she stores in a Brooklyn safe deposit box.

ER as school girl and uncle TR eleanor_roosevelt teddy-roosevelt

Waiting for Sundance in New York, Etta meets 17 year old Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) giving dance lessons to immigrants. Etta and ER strike up a friendship and they daily meet at a Turkish bath (they have girlish crushes on each other) Etta provides ER with her sex education.

As the Pinkertons close in, Etta takes a job with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, impersonating Annie Oakley, who has left the show after marrying. Teddy Roosevelt (TR), ER’s uncle and President, attends a show where an Eastern European assassin attempts to shoot him. Etta rides to TR’s rescue, knocking the gunman down and disarming him. She is forced to leave the show to avoid publicity (No photo has yet been taken of her so the Mafia and Pinkertons don’t know what she looks like.

Harry Longbaugh aka Sundance and Etta Place harrylongabaughettaplace

Sundance finally shows up and they have their photo taken (the only one of Etta) at the DeYoung Studio in New York (photo by Alfred Stieglitz no less) before departing for South America. ER and TR (who now knows the identify of his mysterious savior) have to rescue her from the Pinkertons just prior to her departure and the three hide out at FDRs Hyde Park (get it?) until the boat leaves.

Etta comes down with appendicitis in Argentina and must return to New York for treatment. While she is recovering Butch and Sundance are killed in Bolivia following a robbery. Etta returns to Colorado to pick up her own hidden fortune and returns to New York where she meets the Sicilian godfather where she not only gets him to agree to receive the $20,000 without interest in return for her life but she then talks him into giving the $20,000 to ER for her charities. ER and TR have taken care of the Pinkertons.

Etta returns to her birth name Lorinda Reese Jameson and meets and marries the wild son of a prominent Wall Street investor and becomes a pillar of New York society. She helps FDR get the Presidential nomination. When her husband dies, Etta has multiple affairs with younger men well into her 70s. She dies at age 80 in 1960.

Kolpan should join a competition for best Southern tall story tellers. The best part of the novel is the well researched description of the Pinkertons, operating as a private army-police force, their methods and relationships with real law enforcement groups.