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  • Forgetting Auschwitz: Jonathan Littell and the Death of a Beautiful Woman
  • Walter Benn Michaels (bio)

In 2006, while Laurent Binet was working on HHhH (2010; the title is an acronym for Himmlers Him heist Heydrich, the name of Hitler’s brain is Heydrich and the subject of the book is Heydrich’s assassination by the Czech resistance), Jonathan Littell’s book Les Bienveillantes (2006; published in English as The Kindly Ones [2009]) appeared. Heydrich plays only a very small role in the Littell, but the general “subject matter” of the two books (Binet describes Les Bienveillantes as “the (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran” [“Missing”]) is, as Binet himself noted unhappily at the time, “fairly similar” (HHhH 227). Why unhappily? Because Les Bienveillantes immediately became a publishing sensation, selling over 700,000 copies, winning the Prix Goncourt and even the reluctant respect of Claude Lanzmann for its “formidable documentation” (Etchegoin)—he and Raoul Hilberg, Lanzmann said, were the only two people in the world who could sufficiently appreciate its accuracy. So, if you were yourself in the middle of a book about the Nazis, and you too were particularly committed to the importance of historical accuracy, to knowing and saying “how things really happened” you might plausibly be nervous about how much attention would be left for you (“Missing”).

In the event, however, Binet need not have worried. HHhH was also a big success, winning its own Prix Goncourt and more interestingly, while acknowledging Les Bienveillantes and even Lanzmann’s praise for it, producing its own critique of that novel’s claim to truth. In fact, Binet takes Littell on directly, objecting especially to an early scene in which the brutal and drunken Kommandant of [End Page 915] Einsatzgruppe C, Paul Blobel, gets driven off for psychiatric attention in his Opel. As with most of the characters in Les Bienveillantes, there was a real Paul Blobel, who did command Einsatzgruppe C, and who was both a brute (he was hanged for war crimes in 1951) and an alcoholic who (like Littell’s Blobel) temporarily lost his command because of his drinking. So what’s the problem? The Opel. How, Binet wonders, does Littell know that Blobel drove an Opel? And did Lanzmann, “before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain ‘a single error, a single flaw,’ check this detail?” (“Missing”). “If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research,” Binet writes. “But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book” (HHhH 226).

Why does it weaken the whole book? Binet’s way of putting the point here—either the sentence about the Opel really is true, which he doubts, or it’s a bluff, designed to make the reader believe it’s true when Littell doesn’t really know if it is or not—makes it sound like the issue is the genuineness of the writer’s commitment to truth: you should only say things about the past if you have good reason to believe that what you’re saying is true. Directed at historians, this injunction would seem reasonable but superfluous since historians are always at least trying to say what seems to them true—trying to tell the truth about the past is for them not so much a virtue as a job description. But of course, Littell, for all his command of the relevant history, is a novelist, not a historian. And it’s this to which, in the end, Binet really objects. Suppose, he says, it were discovered that Blobel really had been driven off in an Opel: “fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.” Why not? Because, narrated as it is by a “fictional protagonist,” the SS officer Dr. Max Aue, the novel cannot tell us what we really want to know—”how things really happened”; what it tells us instead is “how this writer imagines Nazism” (“Missing”).

Understood as an epistemological objection, this might sound naive, at least to those historians and philosophers of history who would argue that there is no such thing as knowing “how things really happened” and that all history is in some epistemically significant sense imagined by the historian. But...


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pp. 915-930
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