About Evil, Part 1

In Jonathan Littell’s controversial and award winning novel, The Kindly Ones (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), Maximilien Aue, the main character who had been a Nazi officer during World War II, asserts that the Nazi systematic mass slaughters of such non-combatants as the Jews “prove … the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity” (p. 147). What, precisely, is this supposed solidarity? We are told that it is inalterable; we are told it is awful, but this hardly tells us just what is the nature of this solidarity; this in itself gives us no insight into the nature of the purported solidarity. Surely this solidarity must be something other than the mere fact that all individual humans are part of humankind. This solidarity must be something more like a shared quality or experience had by virtue of being human. So, what could possibly be the quality or experience that affects all persons and effects a solidarity?

For Aue, the proof of solidarity is to be fathomed from

the reactions of the men and officers during the executions. If they suffered, as I had suffered during the Great Action, it wasn’t just because of the smells and the sight of blood, but because of the terror and the moral suffering of the people they shot; in the same way, their victims often suffered more from the suffering and death, before their eyes, of those they loved, wives, parents, beloved children, than from their own deaths, which came to them in the end like a deliverance. In many cases, I said to myself, what I had taken for gratuitous sadism, the astonishing brutality with which some men treated the condemned before executing them, was nothing but a consequence of the monstrous pity they felt and which, incapable of expressing it otherwise, turned into rage, but an impotent rage, without object, and which thus almost inevitably had to turn against those who had originally provoked it … As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit. Their reactions, their violence, their alcoholism, the nervous depressions, the suicides, my own sadness, all that demonstrated that the other exists, exists as an other, as a human, and that no will, no ideology, no amount of stupidity or alcohol can break this bond, tenuous but indestructible.

On the one hand, according to Aue, the fact that there is a solidarity becomes evident from the reactions of those who are doing the slaughter. Even the gratuitous sadism was, supposedly, a variety of reaction rather than the indulgence of some otherwise hidden perversion. But, to what were these men reacting?

Aue says that the reactions demonstrate the indubitable fact of each victim’s existence as a human and not as something sub-human. Is this supposed to indicate that the reactions were to the fact that the victims were - surprise, surprise! - actual humans after all? Or, were the reactions to something about what was being done to the victims?

Maybe the reactions are to the simple fact of suffering. Aue notes that he had suffered when he was present during and participated in the Great Action; he considers it likely that these perpetrators - these executioners - suffered similarly, and he also notes the obvious: that the perpetrators’ victims suffered. Suffering is commonplace in the human experience, but, ordinarily, suffering in itself or in general is hardly to be called “awful”; therefore, the reaction is to something else, and the solidarity rests in something other than suffering. Besides, suffering can often be alleviated, and, in whatever rests this solidarity, it is supposed to be something “inalterable”.

Elsewhere, Aue says:

others … wanted to wash their hands of it, or at least not assume responsibility for it … If we were committing an injustice, we ought to think about it, and decide if it was necessary and inevitable, or if it was only the result of taking the easy way out, of laziness, of a lack of thought. It was a question of rigor. I knew that these decisions were made at a much higher level than our own; still, we weren’t automatons, it was important not just to obey orders, but to adhere to them; yet I was having doubts, and that troubled me. (p. 43)

This thing called injustice is something which is, in a sense, most definitely inalterable; once it comes to fruition, once it becomes actual, once it occurs, it is - whether in thought or deed - forever. In particular, the acts which make injustice outwardly real can never themselves be eradicated. And it does not matter in the least whether any impetus for these acts comes from elsewhere; it does not matter that the opinions or decisions of others demanded, contributed to, affected, or influenced those acts which bring injustice to reality, to outward reality.

Maybe those who merely demand the acts done by Aue and the other executioners, for example, do not admit of having any part in injustice; maybe they do not think that what they demand is actually unjust; maybe they even deny that there really is such a thing as injustice. They might simply dismiss as mere sentimentality this notion of there being such a thing as injustice.

Where there is no injustice, there is - at most - only the force of will, including the will to be obedient. For Aue, the will to be obedient is something other than - it is something superior to - merely obeying orders. The will to be obedient enables a person to, as he says, “adhere” to what is ordered; this is to say that through the will the purpose being served can become more a part of one’s own person:

it was vital to comprehend within oneself the necessity of the Fuhrer’s orders: if one accepted them out of a simple Prussian spirit of obedience … without understanding them and without accepting them, that is without submitting to them, then one was nothing but a sheep, a slave and not a man. (p. 102)

Adherence is superior to obedience because it veritably forces one to recognize the fact of one’s own responsibility, a responsibility which is present regardless of whether one acts in accord with one’s own will or whether one thinks of himself as acting only out of obedience to someone else’s will. Accordingly, responsibility is another facet of human existence which is “inalterable”, but it is not just inalterable, it would also seem to be somehow virtually unavoidable.

Is injustice likewise virtually unavoidable?

Aue does not deny the actuality of injustice; indeed, those who would deny the actuality of injustice could well be described as seeking to avoid responsibility, which would be to say that they seek to avoid any judgment - even by themselves - about their very selves. But, responsibility for what already is and what has already been done pertains only to the inalterability of injustice. Does that inalterability render unavoidable additional - which would be to say - future injustice?

Aue admits that the killing which they did

was a terrible thing; the reaction of the officers was a good proof of that, even if they didn’t all draw the consequences of their own reactions; and the man for whom killing was not a terrible thing, killing an armed man as well as an unarmed man, and an unarmed man as well as a woman and her child, was nothing but an animal, unworthy of belonging to a community of men. But it was possible that this terrible thing was also a necessary thing; and in that case we had to submit to this necessity. (pp. 102-103)

How very similar this seems to Jesus’s prayer (Luke 22:42), “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” And, yet, the thing to note is that this allegedly “possible … necessary thing” is in no way any less a matter of injustice by virtue of its necessity. Furthermore, it is to be noted that the submission to even a necessary (or inevitable) injustice in no way makes it any less of an injustice, and in no way does the submission eliminate, or in any way mitigate, personal responsibility.

The inalterable thing with which each individual person is faced is nothing more than the fact that each person is and acts in contexts over which no person exercises or has ultimate control, and this lack of complete control is something inescapable; it is something to which each person is not only subjected but to which each necessarily (in the sense of inevitably) submits, acceptingly or not. This is to say that, although each person is - and any number of persons together are - ultimately incapable of controlling the context of being, the impetus or the inevitability or the necessity of the context in no way necessitates the manner in which an individual participates.

Aue might imagine that his recognition of there being an overriding necessary thing or purpose beyond his own interests or preferences somehow justifies the steadfastness he has attained for the injustices in which he participates. But such rationality is precisely the sort of rationalization which makes it possible for him to downplay as injustice what others would call outright evil.

In Vasily Grossman’s far too little known (and, thus, insufficiently appreciated) novel, Life and Fate, there is a character who has some very different notions than does Aue about the inalterable and the inevitable as well as the manners in which they are to be faced. That is what will be taken up in the next installment of this blog topic.

This entry was posted in Literature, Philosophy, The Kindly Ones and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to About Evil, Part 1

  1. Paul Newall says:

    This issue comes up also in the discussion Aue has with Doktor Wirths on sadistic behaviour, in which the latter explains that:

    I came to the conclusion that the SS guard doesn’t become violent or sadistic because he thinks the inmate is not a human being; on the contrary, his rage increases and turns into sadism when he sees that the inmate, far from being a subhuman as he was taught, is actually at bottom a man, like him, after all, and it’s this resistance, you see, that the guard finds unbearable, this silent persistence of the other, and so the guard beats him to try to make their shared humanity disappear. Of course, that doesn’t work: the more the guard strikes, the more he’s forced to see that the inmate refuses to recognise himself as a non-human. In the end, no other solution remains for him than to kill him, which is an acknowledgement of complete failure.

    On this understanding, the so-called industrialisation of death is not a consequence of the inhumanity of the perpetrators but rather the clearest evidence of shared humanity and that they could not overcome solidarity with their victims. Aue mentions this himself (p.147) after his declaration that “the other exists”, remarking that “the hierarchy was beginning to perceive this fact and take it into consideration”. The point is that even in the moment when we might assume we have the greatest control over our circumstances, when we have the opportunity (in this case without fear of retribution) to kill another, it is precisely then that we are not in control: we act in order to drive away our anger and shame at our powerlessness in the face of this unbreakable bond.

  2. Pingback: About Evil, Part 2 | The Kindly Ones

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