by Jonathan Littell
Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long – a lot of things happened, after all – but perhaps you’re not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you’ll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you’ll see that this concerns you. Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it’s to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae – what do we do with such an appalling realization? Suicide, of course, is always an option. But to tell the truth suicide doesn’t tempt me much. Of course I have thought about it over the years; and if I were to resort to it, here’s how I’d go about it: I’d hold a grenade right up against my heart and go out in a bright burst of joy. A little round grenade whose pin I’d delicately pluck out before I released the catch, smiling at the little metallic noise of the spring, the last sound I’d hear, aside from the heartbeat in my ears. And then at last happiness, or in any case peace, as the shreds of my flesh slowly dripped off the walls. Let the cleaning women scrub them off, that’s what they’re paid for, the poor girls. But as I said, suicide doesn’t tempt me. I don’t know why, either – an old philosophical streak perhaps, which keeps me thinking that after all we’re not here to have fun. To do what, then? I have no idea, to endure, probably, to kill time before it finally kills you. And in that case, writing is as good an occupation as anything else, when you have time to spare. Not that I have all that much spare time, I am a busy man; I have what is called a family, a job, hence responsibilities; all that takes time, and it doesn’t leave much to recount one’s memories. Particularly since memories are what I have quite a lot of. I am a veritable memory factory. I will have spent my whole life manufacturing memories, even though these days I’m being paid to manufacture lace. In fact, I could just as easily not write. It’s not as if it’s an obligation. After the war I remained a discreet man; thank God I have never been driven, unlike some of my former colleagues, to write my Memoirs for the purpose of self-justification, since I have nothing to justify, or to earn a living, since I have a decent enough income as it is. Once, I found myself in Germany on a business trip, I was meeting the head of a big lingerie company, to sell him some lace. Some old friends had recommended me to him; so, without having to ask any questions, we both knew where we stood with each other. After our discussion, which went quite well, he got up, took a book down from his shelf and handed it to me. It was the posthumous memoirs of Hans Frank, the Generalgouverneur of Poland; it was called Facing the Gallows. “I got a letter from Frank’s widow,” he said. “She had the manuscript, which he wrote after his trial, published at her own expense; now she’s selling the book to provide for her children. Can you imagine that? The widow of the Generalgouverneur! – I ordered twenty copies from her, to use as gifts. And I advised all my department chiefs to buy one. She wrote me a moving letter of thanks. Did you know him?” I assured him I hadn’t, but that I would read the book with interest. Actually I had run into Hans Frank once, briefly, maybe I’ll tell you about it later on, if I have the courage or the patience. But just then it would have made no sense talking about it. The book in any case was awful – confused, whining, steeped in a curious kind of religious hypocrisy. These notes of mine might be confused and awful too, but I’ll do my best to be clear; I can assure you that they will at least be free of any form of contrition. I do not regret anything: I did my work, that’s all; as for my family problems, which I might also talk about, they concern no one but me; and as for the rest, I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself, I was off-balance, and anyhow the whole world was toppling around me, I wasn’t the only one who lost his head, admit it. Also, I’m not writing to feed my widow and children, I’m quite capable of providing for them. No, if I have finally decided to write, it really is probably just to pass the time, and also, possibly, to clear up one or two obscure points, for you perhaps and for myself. What’s more I think it will do me good. It’s true that I have been in a rather glum mood of late. The constipation, probably. A distressing and painful problem, and a somewhat new one for me; it used to be just the opposite. For a long time I had to go to the toilet three or four times a day; now, once a week would be a blessing. I’ve been reduced to taking enemas, a repulsive procedure, albeit effective. Forgive me for wearying you with such sordid details: but I do have a right to complain a little. And if you can’t bear this you’d better stop right here. I’m no Hans Frank, and I can’t stand mincing words. I want to be precise, as far as I am able. In spite of my shortcomings, and they have been many, I have remained someone who believes that the only things indispensable to human life are air, food, drink, and excretion, and the search for truth. The rest is optional.
Some time ago, my wife brought home a black cat. She probably thought it would make me happy; of course she never asked my opinion. She must have suspected I would have flatly refused, so presenting me with the fait accompli was safer. And once it was there, nothing could be done about it, the grandchildren would cry, etc. But this was a very unpleasant cat. Whenever I tried to pet it, to show my goodwill, it would slip away to sit on the windowsill and stare at me with its yellow eyes; if I tried to pick it up and hold it, it would scratch me. At night, on the other hand, it would come and curl up in a ball on my chest, a stifling weight, and in my sleep I would dream I was being smothered beneath a heap of stones. With my memories, it’s been more or less the same. The first time I decided to set them down in writing, I took a leave of absence. That was probably a mistake. Things were going well, though: I had bought and read quite a few books on the subject, in order to refresh my memory; I had drawn up organizational charts, detailed chronologies, and so on. But with this leave of absence I suddenly had a lot of free time, and I began thinking. What’s more it was fall, a bitter grey rain was stripping the leaves off the trees, and I was slowly overcome with dread. I realized that thinking is not always a good idea.
I should have known. My colleagues consider me a calm, collected, thoughtful man. Calm, certainly; but often during the day my head begins to rage, with the dull roar of a crematorium. I talk, I hold conversations, I make decisions, just like everyone else; but standing at a bar with my glass of brandy, I imagine a man coming in with a shotgun and opening fire; at the movies or at the theater, I picture a live grenade rolling under the seats; in a town square on a public holiday I see a car packed with explosives blowing up, the afternoon festivities turned into carnage, blood filling the cracks between the cobblestones, gobbets of flesh splattered on the walls or smashing through the windows to land in the Sunday soup, I hear cries, the groans of people with their limbs torn off like the legs of an insect plucked by a curious little boy, the bewilderment of the survivors, a strange, earsplitting silence, the beginning of a long fear. Calm? Yes, I remain calm, whatever happens, I don’t let anything show, I stay quiet, impassive, like the empty windows of burnt-out cities, like the little old men on park benches with their canes and their medals, like the faces of the drowned just beneath the surface of the water, never to be found. I couldn’t break this terrifying calm even if I wanted to. I’m not the sort of man who loses his nerve at the drop of a hat, I know how to behave. But it weighs on me too. The worst thing is not necessarily those images I’ve just described; fantasies like these have lived in me for a long time, ever since my childhood probably, or in any case long before I actually ended up in the heart of the slaughterhouse. The war, in that sense, was only a confirmation, and I have gotten used to these little scenarios, I take them as a pertinent commentary on the vanity of things. No, what turned out to be so disturbing, so oppressive, was to have nothing to do but sit around and think. Ask yourselves: You yourselves, what do you think of, through the course of a day? Very few things, actually. Drawing up a systematic classification of your everyday thoughts would be easy: practical or mechanical thoughts, planning your actions and your time (example: setting the coffee to drip before brushing your teeth, but toasting the bread afterwards, since it doesn’t take as long); work preoccupations; financial anxieties; domestic problems; sexual fantasies. I’ll spare you the details. At dinner, you contemplate the aging face of your wife, so much less exciting than your mistress, but a fine woman otherwise, what can you do, that’s life, so you talk about the latest government scandal. Actually you couldn’t care less about the latest government scandal, but what else is there to talk about? Eliminate those kinds of thoughts, and you’ll agree there’s not much left. There are of course other moments. Unexpectedly, between two laundry detergent ads, there’s a pre-war tango, “Violetta” say, and in a great surge you see the nocturnal lapping of the river and the Chinese lanterns around the open-air dance floor, you smell the faint odor of sweat on a joyful woman’s skin; at the entrance to a park, a child’s smiling face reminds you of your son’s just before he started to walk; in the street, a ray of sunlight pierces through the clouds and brightens the broad leaves, the off-white trunk of a plane tree: and suddenly you think of your childhood, of the schoolyard at recess where you used to play war games, shouting with terror and happiness. You have just had a human thought. But this is a rare thing.
Yet if you put your work, your ordinary activities, your everyday agitation, on hold, and devote yourself solely to thinking, things go very differently. Soon things start rising up, in heavy, dark waves. At night, your dreams fall apart, unfurl and proliferate, and when you wake they leave a fine, bitter film at the back of your mind, which takes a long time to dissolve. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that. Even a man who has never gone to war, who has never had to kill, will experience what I’m talking about. All the meanness, the cowardice, the lies, the pettiness that afflict everyone will come back to haunt him. No wonder men have invented work, alcohol, meaningless chatter. No wonder televisions sell so well. I quickly cut short my leave of absence, it was better that way. I had plenty of time left to scribble, at lunchtime or in the evening after the secretaries had gone home.
A brief interruption while I go and vomit, then I’ll continue. That’s another one of my numerous little afflictions: from time to time my meals come back up, sometimes right away, sometimes later on, for no reason, just like that. It’s an old problem, I’ve had it since the war, since the fall of 1941 to be precise, it started in the Ukraine, in Kiev I think, or maybe Zhitomir. I’ll talk about that too probably. In any case, I have long since gotten used to it: I brush my teeth, down a little shot of alcohol, and continue what I was doing. Let’s get back to my memories. I bought myself a stack of copybooks, the large ones, quadrille-ruled, which I keep in a locked drawer at my office. Before, I used to jot my notes down on index cards, also quadrille-ruled; now I’ve decided to start all over and forge ahead. I’m not really sure why. Certainly not for the edification of my progeny. If at this very moment I were suddenly to keel over, from a heart attack, say, or a stroke, and my secretaries were to take the key and open this drawer, they’d have a shock, the poor things, and my wife too: the index cards alone would be more than enough. They’d have to burn every last scrap quickly to avoid a scandal. It would be all the same to me, I’d be dead. And in the end, even though I’m addressing you, it’s not for you that I am writing.
My office is a pleasant place to write, airy, sober, peaceful. White, almost bare walls, a glass cabinet for samples; and across from my desk a long bay window that looks out onto the factory floor. Despite the double-glazed glass, the incessant clatter of the Leavers looms resonates through the room. When I want to think, I leave my work table and go stand in front of the window; I gaze down at the looms lined up below, at the sure, precise movements of the workers, and let myself be lulled. Sometimes I go down and stroll among the machinery. The room is dark, the filthy windows are tinted blue, since lace is fragile and sensitive to light, and this bluish light soothes my mind. I like to lose myself for a while in the monotonous, syncopated clanking that fills the space, a metallic, obsessive two-step beat. The looms always impress me. They are made of cast iron, were once painted green, and each one weighs ten tons. Some of them are very old, they stopped being made a long time ago; I have the spare parts made to order; after the war, electricity replaced steam power, but the looms themselves haven’t been touched. I never go near them, to keep from getting dirty: all these moving parts have to be constantly lubricated, but oil of course would ruin the lace, so we use graphite, a fine black powder dusted over the moving parts of the mechanism with an old sock, swung like a censer. It turns the lace black and coats the walls, as well as the floor, the machinery, and the men who supervise it. Even though I don’t often get my hands dirty, I know these great machines well. The first looms were British and a jealously guarded secret; a few were smuggled into France just after the Napoleonic wars by workers fleeing the excise duties. They were modified to produce lace by a man from Lyon, Jacquard, who added a series of perforated strips to them to determine the pattern. Cylinders down below feed the thread upwards; in the heart of the loom, five thousand bobbins, the soul, are slotted into a carriage; then a catch-bar (the English term has been carried over into French) grips and sets this carriage swinging front to back, with a loud hypnotic clapping. The threads are guided laterally, according to a complex choreography encoded within some five or six hundred Jacquard strips, by copper combs sealed onto lead, and are thus woven into knots; a swan’s neck carries the rake up; finally the lace appears, gossamer-like, disturbingly beautiful under its coat of graphite, slowly rolled onto a drum, fixed at the top of the Leavers.
Work in the factory runs according to a strict principle of sexual segregation: the men design the patterns, punch the strips, set up the chains, supervise the looms and manage the supply racks surrounding them; their wives and daughters, even today, remain bobbin threaders, bleachers, menders, taperers and folders. Tradition runs strong. Our tulle-makers, up here, are something of a proletarian aristocracy. Apprenticeship is lengthy, the work delicate; a century ago, the weavers of Calais came to work in buggies, wearing top-hats, and called the boss by his first name. Times have changed. The war ruined the industry, despite a few looms kept working for Germany. Everything had to be started again from scratch; whereas before the war four thousand looms used to operate, today, in the North, only about three hundred are left. Still, during the post-war boom, tulle-makers were able to buy themselves cars before many a banker did. But my workers don’t call me by my first name. I don’t think my workers like me. That’s all right, I’m not asking them to like me. And I don’t like them either. We work together, that’s all. When an employee is conscientious and hard-working, when the lace that comes out of his loom doesn’t need much mending, I give him a bonus at the end of the year; if someone comes to work late, or drunk, I punish him. On that basis, we understand each other.
You might be wondering how I ended up in the lace business. Nothing particularly marked me out for commerce, far from it. I studied law and political science and received my doctorate in law; in Germany the letters Dr. jur. form a legal part of my name. Yet it must be said that circumstances played a part in preventing me from making use of my diploma after 1945. If you really want to know, nothing truly marked me out for law either: as a young man I wanted above all else to study literature and philosophy. But I was prevented from doing so; another sad episode in my family romance – maybe I’ll come back to it at some point. But I have to admit that when it comes to lace, law is more useful than literature. Here’s what happened, more or less. When it was all over, I managed to slip into France, to pass myself off as a Frenchman; in all the chaos, it wasn’t too difficult. I returned along with the deported, we weren’t asked many questions. It must be said that I speak perfect French; that’s because I had a French mother; I spent ten years of my childhood in France, I went through middle school there, then high school, preparatory classes, and even two years of university, at the ELSP, and since I grew up in the South I could even muster a Provençal drawl, but in any case no one was paying attention, it was a real mess, we were greeted at the Gare d’Orsay with some soup, some insults too – I should say that I hadn’t tried to pass myself off as a camp inmate, but as an STO worker, and the Gaullists didn’t like those too much, so they roughed me up a little, the other poor bastards too, and then they let us go, no Hotel Lutetia for us, but freedom at least. I didn’t stay in Paris, I knew too many people there, and not the right ones, so I wandered around the countryside and lived off odd jobs here and there. And then things calmed down. They soon stopped shooting people, and then they didn’t even bother putting them in jail anymore. So I started looking around and I ended up finding a man I knew. He had done well for himself, he’d managed the change of regime without a hitch; being a man of foresight, he had taken care not to advertise his services on our behalf. At first he refused to meet me, but when he finally realized who I was, he saw that he didn’t really have a choice. I can’t say it was a pleasant conversation: there was a distinct feeling of embarrassment to it, of constraint. But he clearly understood that we had a common interest: me, to find a job, and he to keep his. He had a cousin up North, a former broker who was trying to start up his own business with three Leavers bought off a bankrupt widow. This man hired me as a salesman; I had to travel and find customers for his lace. This work exasperated me; I finally managed to convince him that I could be more useful to him in management. I did indeed have quite a bit of experience in that field, even though I could make even less use of it than of my doctorate. The business grew, especially in the 1950s, when I renewed my contacts in the Federal Republic and succeeded in opening up the German market for us. I could easily have gone back to Germany then: many of my former colleagues were living there peacefully; some of them had served a little time, others hadn’t even been charged. Given my record, I could have resumed my name, my doctorate, claimed my veteran’s and disability benefits, no one would have noticed. I would easily have found work. But, I said to myself, what would be the point? Law didn’t really interest me any more than business, and I had actually come to acquire a taste for lace, that ravishing, harmonious creation of man. When we had bought up enough looms, my boss decided to set up a second factory, and he put me in charge of it. I have kept this position ever since, and will until I retire. In the meantime, I got married, rather reluctantly I must admit, but up here, in the North, it seemed necessary, a way of fitting in and consolidating my situation. I picked a woman from a good family; she was relatively good-looking, a proper sort of woman, and I immediately got her with child, to keep her busy. Unfortunately she had twins, it must run in the family, mine, I mean – one brat would have been more than enough for me. My boss lent me some money, I bought a comfortable house, not too far from the sea. And that is how the bourgeoisie finally made me one of its own. It was better that way. After everything that had happened, I craved calm and predictability above all. The course of my life had crushed the bones of my childhood dreams, and my anguish had slowly smoldered out, from one end of German Europe to the other. I emerged from the war an empty shell, left with nothing but bitterness and a great shame, like sand crunching in your teeth. So a life in keeping with all the social conventions suited me fine: a comfortable straitjacket, even if I often contemplate it with irony, and occasionally with contempt. At this rate, I hope someday to reach Jerome Nadal’s state of grace, and to strive for nothing except to strive for nothing. Now I’m becoming bookish; another one of my failings. Alas for saintliness, I am not yet fully free of desire. I still honor my wife from time to time, conscientiously, with little pleasure but also without excessive disgust, so as to guarantee the peace of my household. And every now and then, during business trips, I go to the trouble of renewing some of my old habits – but mainly as a matter of hygiene, so to speak. All that has lost much of its interest for me. The body of a beautiful boy, a sculpture by Michelangelo, it’s all the same: they no longer take my breath away. It’s like after a long illness, when food has lost all taste; what then does it matter if you eat chicken or beef? You have to feed yourself, that’s all. To tell the truth, there isn’t much that has kept an interest for me. Literature, possibly, but even then, I’m not sure if that’s not just out of habit. Maybe that’s why I am writing these memoirs: to get my blood flowing, to see if I can still feel anything, if I can still suffer a little. A curious exercise indeed.
When it comes to suffering, though, I ought to know a thing or two. Every European of my generation could say the same, but I can claim without any false modesty that I have seen more than most. And also people forget so quickly, I see it every day. Even those who were actually there hardly ever use anything but ready-made thoughts and phrases to talk about it. Just look at the pathetic prose of the German writers who describe the Eastern Front: putrid sentimentalism, a dead, hideous language. The prose of Herr Paul Carell for instance, a successful author these past few years. It just so happens that I once knew this Herr Carell, in Hungary, back when he was still called Paul Karl Schmidt and, on behalf of Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry, wrote what he really thought, in vigorous, effective prose: The Jewish question is no question of humanity, and it is no question of religion; it is solely a question of political hygiene.Now the honorable Herr Carell-Schmidt has brought off the considerable feat of publishing four insipid volumes about the war against the Soviet Union without once mentioning the word Jew. I know this, I’ve read them: it was tedious work, but I’m stubborn. Our French authors, the Mabires and others like him, are no better. As for the Communists, they’re the same, only from the opposite point of view. So where have they all gone, the ones who used to sing Boys, sharpen your knives on the sidewalk curbs? They keep quiet, or else they’re dead. We babble, we simper, we flounder through an insipid morass made of words like glory, honor, heroism – it’s tiresome, no one says anything anymore. Perhaps I’m a bit unfair, but I dare to hope that you understand me. The television bombards us with numbers, impressive numbers, in the seven- or even eight-figure range; but who among you has ever seriously stopped to think about these numbers? Who among you has ever even tried to count all the people he knows or has known in his life, and to compare that laughable number with the numbers he hears on television, those famous six million, or twenty million? Let’s do some math. Math is useful, it gives one perspective, refreshes the soul. It can be a very instructive exercise. Be a little patient, then, and pay attention. I will consider only the two theaters of operations where I played a role, however minute: the war against the Soviet Union, and the extermination program officially referred to in our documents as “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” die Endlösung der Judenfrage, to cite that fine euphemism. On the Western fronts, in any case, the losses were relatively minor, a few hundred thousand here or there at most. My starting figures will be somewhat arbitrary: I have no choice, since no one agrees on them. For the total Soviet losses, I’ll stick to the traditional number, the twenty million cited by Khrushchev in 1956, while noting that Reitlinger, a respected British author, only finds some twelve million, whereas Erickson, a Scottish scholar who’s just as reputable if not more so, comes to a minimum figure of twenty-six million; thus the official Soviet number neatly splits the difference, give or take a million. As for the German losses – in the East alone, that is – one can take as a starting point the even more official and Germanically precise number of 6,172,373 casualties between June 22, 1941 and March 31, 1945, a figure compiled in an internal report of the OKH (the Army High Command) that surfaced after the war; but one that includes both the dead (more than a million), the wounded (almost four million), and the missing (i.e. dead plus prisoners plus dead prisoners, some 1,288,000 men). So let us say for the sake of simplicity two million dead, since the wounded don’t concern us here, including, thrown in for good measure, the additional 50,000 or so men killed between April 1st and May 8, 1945, mainly in Berlin, to which we still have to add the roughly one million civilians believed to have died during the invasion of Eastern Germany and the subsequent population movements, giving us, let’s say, a grand total of three million German dead. As for the Jews, you have a choice: the traditional number, even though few people know where it comes from, is six million (it was Höttl who said at Nuremberg that Eichmann had told him this; but Wisliceny asserted that Eichmann had said five million to his colleagues; and Eichmann himself, when the Jews finally got to ask him the question in person, said somewhere between five and six million, but probably closer to five). Dr. Korherr, who compiled statistics for the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, totalled up close to two million as of December 31, 1942, but acknowledged, when I discussed the matter with him in 1943, that his baseline figures were unreliable. Finally, the highly respected Professor Raul Hilberg, a specialist in the matter and one who can hardly be suspected of holding a partisan stance, at least not in favor of the Germans, reaches, after a dense, 19-page demonstration, a final count of 5,100,000, which more or less corresponds to the opinion of the late Obersturmbannführer Eichmann. So let’s settle for Professor Hilberg’s figure, which gives us, to summarize:
Soviet dead……….20 million
German dead……….3 million
Subtotal (for the Eastern Front)…23 million
Total………..26.6 million, given that 1.5 million Jews have also been counted as Soviet dead (“Soviet citizens murdered by the German-Fascist invaders,” as the extraordinary monument in Kiev so discreetly puts it).
Now for the math. The conflict with the USSR lasted from June 22, 1941 at 03:00 until, officially, May 8, 1945 at 23:01, which adds up to three years, ten months, sixteen days, twenty hours, and one minute, or, rounding off, to 46.5 months, 202.42 weeks, 1,417 days, 34,004 hours, or 2,040,241 minutes (counting the extra minute). For the program known as the “Final Solution,” we’ll use the same dates; before that, nothing had yet been decided or systematized, so Jewish casualties were for the most part incidental. Now let’s average out one set of figures with the other: for the Germans, this gives us 64,516 dead per month, or 14,821 dead per week, or 2,117 dead per day, or 88 dead per hour, or 1.47 dead per minute, on average for every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year for three years, ten months, sixteen days, twenty hours and one minute. For the Jews, including the Soviet ones, we have about 109,677 dead per month, which is 25,195 dead per week, 3,599 dead per day, 150 dead per hour, or 2.5 dead per minute, over the same period. Finally on the Soviet side, that gives us some 430,108 dead per month, 98,804 dead per week, 14,114 dead per day, 588 dead per hour, or 9.8 dead per minute, for the same period. Thus for the overall total in my field of activities we have an average of 572,043 dead per month, 131,410 dead per week, 18,772 dead per day, 782 dead per hour, and 13.04 dead per minute, every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of the given period, which is, as you will recall, three years, ten months, sixteen days, twenty hours and one minute. Let those who smirked at that admittedly somewhat pedantic extra minute please consider that it is worth an additional 13.04 dead, on average, and imagine, if they can, thirteen people from their circle of friends killed in one minute. You can also calculate the length of time it takes to generate a fresh corpse: this gives us on average a dead German every 40.8 seconds, a dead Jew every 24 seconds, and a dead Bolshevik (Soviet Jews included) every 6.12 seconds, or on the whole a new dead body on average every 4.6 seconds, for the entirety of said period. You are now in a position to carry out, based on these numbers, concrete exercises of imagination. For example, stopwatch in hand, count off one death, two deaths, three deaths, etc., every 4.6 seconds (or every 6.12 seconds, or every 24 seconds, or every 40.8 seconds, if you have a marked preference), while trying to picture them lying there in front of you, those one, two, three dead. You’ll find it’s a good meditation exercise. Or take some more recent catastrophe that affected you strongly, and compare the two. For instance, if you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure, which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost 50,000 troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress. I’ll stop there, we could go on forever; I invite you to continue on your own, until the ground opens up beneath your feet. As for me, no need: for a long time already the thought of death has been closer to me than the vein in my neck, as that beautiful phrase in the Koran says. If you ever managed to make me cry, my tears would sear your face.
The conclusion of all this, if you’ll allow me one more quotation, the last one, I promise, is, as Sophocles said so well: Not to have been born is best. Schopenhauer has written roughly the same thing: It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on Earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer. Yes, I know, that makes two quotations, but it’s the same idea: in truth, we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Now of course the war is over. And we’ve learned our lesson, it won’t happen again. But are you quite sure we’ve learned our lesson? Are you certain it won’t happen again? Are you even certain the war is over? In a manner of speaking, the war is never over, or else it will be over only when the last child born on the last day of the war is safely dead and buried, and even then it will live on, in his or her children and then in theirs, till finally the legacy will be diluted, the memories will fray and the pain will fade away, even though by then everyone will probably have forgotten, and all this will have long gone to gather dust with all the other old stories, those not even fit to frighten children, much less the children of the dead or of those who wish they were, dead I mean.
I can guess what you’re thinking: Now here’s a truly bad man, you’re saying to yourselves, an evil man, a nasty piece of work in every respect, who should be rotting in prison instead of wasting our time with the muddled philosophy of a barely-half-repentant former Fascist. As to fascism, let’s not confuse the issue, and as for the question of my legal responsibility, don’t prejudge, I haven’t told my story yet; as for the question of my moral responsibility, let me offer a few considerations. Political philosophers have often pointed out that in wartime the citizen, the male citizen at least, loses one of his most basic rights, his right to life; and this has been true ever since the French Revolution and the invention of conscription, now an almost universally accepted principle. But these same philosophers have rarely noted that the citizen in question simultaneously loses another right, one just as basic and perhaps even more vital for his conception of himself as a civilized human being: the right not to kill. No one asks you for your opinion. In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit. You might object that killing another soldier in combat is not the same thing as killing an unarmed civilian; the laws of war allow the one but not the other; as does common morality. A good argument, in theory, but one that takes no account of the conditions of the conflict in question. The entirely arbitrary distinction established after the war between “military operations” like those of any other conflict and the “atrocities” carried out by a minority of sadists or psychopaths is, as I hope to demonstrate, a soothing fantasy of the victors –the Western victors, I should specify, since the Soviets, despite all their rhetoric, have always understood what was what: after May 1945, having tossed a few bones to the crowd, Stalin couldn’t have cared less about some illusory “justice”; he wanted the hard stuff, cash in hand, slaves and equipment to repair and rebuild, not remorse or lamentations, for he knew just as well as we that the dead can’t hear our crying, and that remorse has never put bread on the table. I am not pleading Befehlnotstand, the just-obeying-orders so highly valued by our good German lawyers. What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame? What I am saying holds true even if you accept the artificial distinction between war and what the Jewish lawyer Lempkin baptized genocide; for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labor, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn’t have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it’s chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. Another example, taken from the abundant historical literature rather than from my personal experience: the program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, called the “Euthanasia” or “T-4” program, set up two years before the “Final Solution.” Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas; others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate. Questioned after the war, each one of these people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors. The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job – and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty? Everyone, or no one? Why should the worker assigned to the gas chamber be more guilty than the worker assigned to the boilers, the garden, the vehicles? The same goes for every facet of this immense enterprise. The railroad switchman, for instance, is he guilty of the death of the Jews he shunted towards the camp? He is a railroad employee who has been doing the same job for twenty years, he shunts trains according to a schedule, their cargo is none of his business. It’s not his fault if these Jews are being transported from Point A, across his switches, to Point B, where they are to be killed. But this switchman plays a crucial role in the work of extermination: without him, the train of Jews cannot reach Point B. The same goes for the civil servant in charge of requisitioning apartments for air-raid victims, the printer who prepares the deportation notices, the contractor who sells concrete or barbed wire to the SS, the supply officer who delivers gasoline to an SP Teilkommando, and God up above, who permits all this. Of course, you can establish relatively precise degrees of legal responsibility, which allow you to condemn some while leaving all the rest to their own conscience, assuming they have one; it’s even easier when the laws get written after the fact, as at Nuremberg. But even then they were sloppy. Why hang Streicher, that impotent yokel, but not the sinister von dem Bach-Zelewski? Why hang my superior Rudolf Brandt, and not his superior, Wolff? Why hang the Interior Minister Frick and not his subordinate Stuckart, who did all his work for him? A lucky man, that Stuckart, who only stained his hands with ink, never with blood. Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or another. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins. We like to contrast the State, totalitarian or not, with the ordinary man, that insect, or trembling reed. But then we forget that the State is made up of individuals, all more or less ordinary, each one with his life, his story, the sequence of accidents that led him one day to end up on the right side of the gun or the sheet of paper while others ended up on the wrong side. This path is very rarely the result of any choice, or even of personal predilection. The victims, in the vast majority of cases, were not tortured or killed because they were good any more than their executioners tormented them because they were evil. It would be a little naïve to think that way; allow me to suggest you spend a little time in a bureaucracy, even the Red Cross, if you need convincing. Stalin, by the way, conducted an eloquent demonstration of my argument, by transforming each generation of executioners into the victims of the following generation, without ever running out of volunteers. Yet the machinery of State is made of the same crumbling agglomeration of sand as what it crushes, grain by grain. It exists because everyone – even, down to the last minute, its victims – agrees that it must exist. Without the Hösses, the Eichmanns, the Goglidzes, the Vishinskys, but also without the railroad switchmen, the concrete manufacturers and the government accountants, a Stalin or a Hitler is nothing but a wine skin bloated with hatred and impotent terror. To state that the vast majority of the managers of the extermination processes were neither sadists nor sociopaths is now a commonplace. There were of course sadists and psychopaths among them, as in all wars, and these men did commit unspeakable atrocities, that’s true. It is also true that the SS could have stepped up its efforts to keep these people under control, even if it actually did more in that line than most people realize. And that’s not easy: just ask the American generals what a hard time they had of it in Vietnam, with their junkies and their rapists, smoking dope and fragging their officers. But that’s not the problem. There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time. Our quiet suburbs are crawling with pedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs; and some of them do indeed become a problem, they kill two, three, ten, even fifty people – and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the State – especially in unstable times – now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read any further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry, with little profit for you or for me.
Like most people, I never asked to become a murderer. If I could have, as I’ve already said, I would have gone into literature. Written, if I’d had the talent, or else perhaps taught, at least lived in the midst of beautiful, calm things, the noblest creations of the human spirit. Who, of his own free will, aside from a madman, would choose murder? And also I would have liked to play the piano. Once at a concert an elderly lady leaned towards me: “You are a pianist, aren’t you?” – “Unfortunately not, Madam,” I had to answer with regret. Even today, the thought that I don’t play the piano and never will play it suffocates me, sometimes even more than the horrors, the dark river of my past carrying me through the years. I literally can’t get over it. When I was a boy, my mother bought me a piano. It was for my ninth birthday, I think. Or my eighth. In any case before we left to live in France with that Moreau man. I had been begging her for months and months. I dreamt of being a pianist, a great concert pianist: cathedrals at my fingertips, airy as foam. But we had no money. My father had been gone for some time, his bank accounts (as I learned much later) were frozen, my mother had to fend for herself. But somehow she found the money, I don’t know how, she must have saved up, or borrowed; maybe she even whored a bit, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. She probably had ambitions for me and wanted to cultivate my talent. So on my birthday the piano was delivered, a fine upright. Even secondhand, it must have been expensive. At first I was dazzled. I took lessons; but my lack of progress quickly bored me, and I soon dropped them. Practicing scales was not what I had in mind, I was like all children. My mother never dared reproach me for my irresponsibility or my laziness; but I can see that the idea of all that wasted money must have gnawed at her. The piano stayed there, gathering dust; my sister was no more interested in it than I was; I no longer thought about it, and barely noticed when my mother finally resold it, most likely at a loss. I have never really liked my mother, I have even hated her, but this incident makes me sad for her. It’s also somewhat her own fault. If she had insisted, if she had known how to be stern when she had to be, I might have learned to play the piano, and that would have been a great joy to me, a safe haven. To play just for myself, at home, that would have been a delight. Of course, I often listen to music, and I take a keen pleasure in it, but it’s not the same thing, it’s a substitute. Just like my male lovers: the fact of the matter, I’m not ashamed to say, is that I probably would rather have been a woman. Not necessarily a woman living and functioning in this world as a wife, or a mother; no, a woman naked, on her back, her legs spread wide open, crushed beneath the weight of a man, clinging to him and pierced by him, drowning in him as she becomes the limitless sea in which he himself is drowned, pleasure that’s endless, and beginningless too. But things did not turn out that way. Instead I ended up a jurist, a State security official, an SS officer, and then a director of a lace factory. It’s sad, but that’s how it is.
What I’ve just written is true, but it is also true that I have loved a woman. Only one, but more than anything in the world. Yet she was precisely the one I was not allowed to have. It is quite conceivable that by dreaming of myself as a woman, by dreaming of myself in a woman’s body, I was still seeking her, I wanted to draw closer to her, I wanted to be like her, I wanted to be her. This is entirely plausible, even if it changes nothing. I have never loved a single one of the boys I slept with, I just used them and their bodies, that’s all. Whereas with her, her love would have fulfilled my life. Don’t laugh at me: that love is probably the only good thing I’ve ever done. All this, you’re probably thinking, must seem a little strange coming from an officer of the Schutzstaffel. But why couldn’t an SS-Obersturmbannführer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man? There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men, artists, men of culture, neurotics, homosexuals, men in love with their mothers, who knows what else, and why not? None of them was more typical of anything than any other man in any other profession. There are businessmen who enjoy fine wine and cigars, businessmen obsessed with the bottom line, and also businessmen who hide obscene tattoos under their three-piece suits and go to work with a rubber plug up their anus: all this seems obvious to us, so why wouldn’t it be the same for the SS or the Wehrmacht? Our military doctors would find women’s underwear when they cut open the uniforms of the wounded more frequently than you’d think. To state that I was not typical means nothing. I lived, I had a past, a difficult and burdensome past, but that happens, and I managed it in my own way. And then came the war, I served, and I found myself at the heart of terrible things, atrocities. I hadn’t changed, I was still the same man, my problems had not been resolved, even though the war created new problems for me, even though those horrors transformed me. There are men for whom war, or even murder, is a solution, but I am not one of them; for me, as for most people, war and murder are a question, a question without an answer, for when you cry out in the night, no one answers. And one thing leads to another: I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I finally overstepped those bounds; but everything is connected, closely, intimately connected: to argue that if there had been no war I would still have resorted to such extremities would be impossible. It might have happened, but maybe not, maybe I’d have found another solution. You can never know. Eckhart has written, An angel in Hell flies in his own little cloud of Paradise. I always took that to imply that a devil in Paradise flies also in his own little cloud of Hell. But I don’t think I’m a devil. There were always reasons for what I did. Good reasons or bad reasons, I don’t know, in any case human reasons. Those who kill are humans, just like those who are killed, that’s what’s terrible. You can never say: I shall never kill, that’s impossible; the most you can say is: I hope I shall never kill. I too hoped so, I too wanted to live a good and useful life, to be a man among men, equal to others, I too wanted to add my brick to our common house. But my hopes were dashed, and my sincerity was betrayed and placed at the services of an ultimately evil and corrupt work, and I crossed over to the dark shores, and all this evil entered my own life, and none of all this can be made whole, ever. These words are of no use either, they disappear like water in the sand, this wet sand that fills my mouth. I live, I do what can be done, it’s the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!
The Kindly Ones (an excerpt)
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