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I recently finished Martin Amis’s novel, The Zone of Interest, the plot of which centers around the conflicts of a host of characters inside a Nazi death camp — German soldiers, their wives, children, and, of course, the Jews. The book was rejected by Amis’s German publisher and received mixed reviews when it came out last year. That’s largely because of the unconventional and sometimes uncomfortable use of satire in a Holocaust novel.
The book reads much like a conventional character drama, centered around themes of jealousy, lust, ambition, and longing. Only, in this case, this rather standard human tale happens to be taking place in the midst of the most inhuman atrocities imaginable. Gruesome and brutal crimes of world-historic proportions serve as a mere backdrop for a story that stubbornly focuses on the mundane and rather unremarkable relationships of those guilty of the crimes.
You’ve never read a Holocaust novel like this one. Some readers might feel that Amis’s approach minimizes the heinous crimes that are taking place. But for me, it worked in just the opposite way. Amis’s focus on the trivial “drama” taking place among his Nazi characters has the effect of humanizing them and making the horrible genocide they are carrying out seem all the more incomprehensible. By the end of the book I was left wondering how, how, how did the genocidal mania of Nazism ever take hold of nearly an entire nation of seemingly normal human beings? What was the origin of this great hatred, and of the great collective will to act on it?
The novel, by the way, is based on extensive historical research, including many published interviews, biographies, and histories of war criminals and concentration camp survivors. The author includes a detailed description of all his source materials in the afterword. In that section Amis deliberates on the question of ‘Why’ and ‘How’ the holocaust happened:
I first read Martin Gilbert’s classic The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy in 1987, and I read it with incredulity; in 2011 I read it again, and my incredulity was intact and entire… Between those dates I had worked my way through scores of books on the subject; and while I might have gained in knowledge, I had gained nothing at all in penetration…
Amis brings up the possibility of madness when discussing Hitler. And perhaps Hitler was mad. But it is too easy for us to say the word “madness” when confronted with evil of such unimaginable proportions. That word doesn’t really answer the questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ when you apply it to the masses. Madness may explain the actions of one man. But it cannot explain the actions of a nation of people.
No, the word “madness” does not penetrate to the core of the question. On the contrary, that word draws our attention away from the more obvious and more terrible truth — that the people who carried out Hitler’s diabolical will were entirely sane. And what does their sanity tell us about human nature? About ourselves? Like the sun, it’s a fact too terrible to look at directly.
94-year-old Oskar Groening, a former member of the SS at Auschwitz, is currently standing trial for war crimes. His job was to keep track of all the valuables pilfered from Jews as they headed for the gas chambers. During his testimony, Groening reflected on the same question of ‘Why’ and ‘How’ he did what he did:
“There was a self-denial in me that today I find impossible to explain…Perhaps it was also the convenience of obedience with which we were brought up, which allowed no contradiction. This indoctrinated obedience prevented registering the daily atrocities as such and rebelling against them.”
Groening stands accused of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
“I can only ask my God for forgiveness,” he told the court.
And who but God could forgive such a thing? The scale and deliberate manner of the killing is just beyond comprehension. German cultural conformity can’t explain it. The evil that produced the Holocaust is not a historical anomaly — not a large-scale psychiatric disorder that died out or that man grew out of. No, madness cannot explain it.
It’s tempting to reassure ourselves and say that the arc of history bends toward justice, that social or political progress makes a repeat of that dark history impossible. But actually that sort of history has repeated itself many times and is still being repeated in the world today. The fact is, whenever Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Napoleon or Nero had an evil deed to be done, they also had tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of willing accomplices. And progress hasn’t changed human nature.
We needn’t be fatalists to acknowledge what history tells us about human nature. I see the atrocities of ISIS in the headlines, race crimes right here in America, and, yes, I hold them up against the large scale genocides of the past century and I see the same evil at work. It’s not madness, it’s evil. And that’s a different thing.
And where does that leave me? A human being just like those other guilty men?
I look in the mirror and I see, but for the grace of God, that same evil. And like that man accused of 300,000 deaths, I can only ask God for forgiveness for my many flaws. And it is in that moment of penitence that I find hope, redemption, a door open to beauty and joy and life and all things higher than my own nature. Personally and profoundly, in that moment I connect to all that is good; and I feel free. I am no longer of the same kind as the Nazi or the Stalinist or the Khmer Rouge. That is why I see the evil of human nature yet I do not despair.