Although critics thought the Holocaust was too awful ever to be used for fiction, there have been several good novels on the subject. The best is Andre Schwarz-Bart's remarkable "The Last of the Just" (1960), but other good fictional works include Jakov Lind's "Soul of Wood and Other Stories" (1962) and Jorge Semprun's "The Long Voyage" (1964). These all have the same thing in common -- they are written from the victim's point of view. There has not yet, however, been an adequate effort exploring the tragedy from the Nazi side.
The reason isn't hard to understand. Civilization, through propaganda and other psychological gimmicks, can justify a soldier killing another in battle. But until the Holocaust no one had ever thought it desirable, much less possible, to kill millions of men, women and children because of their race. The Nazis nonetheless carried this terrible thing through despite war requirements, logistical problems and a German psyche nurtured on Bach, Beethoven and Goethe. How were they able to achieve it?
Years ago a friend told me how, as one of the first Americans into the Jewish death-camps and crematoria ("The anus of civilization," a Nazi had called them), he was charged with researching the personnel files of the Nazi operators. One file especially interested him: That of a young German, eminently Aryan, blond and handsome, who had graduated first academically and athletically at his university in the late '30s. He rose rapidly in the army and then went into the SS. After he was assigned to a camp, however, something happened. His performance ratings plummeted, and it wasn't long before he "died" -- in the fullness of health. My friend said that the young Nazi obviously had either been shot or had committed suicide. His head and heart had been with the new order, but his conscience couldn't cope with the duties expected of him. In short, he hadn't had sufficient seelenblindheit (soul-blindness) to survive.
There were doubtless many such "good" Germans. The late Dalton Trumbo's "Night of the Aurochs," however, is not about this kind. His protagonist, Ludwig Grieben, is a madman, a man who works his ambitious way up the SS ladder of command: Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald. Then, near war's end, he becomes commandant of Auschwitz. Grieben is good at his work. He hates Jews; he kills because he loves killing. He is a monster as a boy and gets worse as he grows older.
Trumbo's widow, Cleo, writes in a foreward that had be been able to continue the novel (he died in 1976), Trumbo meant to transcend the inhumanity of Grieben, to come to grips with this evil so that others coming after him could transform it. A large order even for Trumbo, who had written four novels and nearly 40 screenplays, was a leading figure in the Hollywood 10 and was blacklisted from 1947 to 1960, but who still managed to win an Oscar under the pseudonym Robert Rich for "The Brave One." A moral man and sometimes superb writer -- his study of war's victim in "Johnny Got His Gun" (1938) was brilliant -- Trumbo might have deciphered Grieben.
He tried off and on for 16 years until his death, completing 10 chapters, a third-person synopsis and some related letters and notes. Robert Kirsch has gathered all this, edited it and organized it so that the 10-chapter novella is given support and context by bridging notes, Grieben's "diary" and the other material. He has also written an introduction tracing the genesis and development of the book in Trumbo's life. The fragments are so repetitive and reflect so little plot progression, however, that it is obvious that Trumbo was making little headway. The predominant tone of the book is of research and preparation, and there is little compelling writing.
The best occurs in one vignette in which Grieben thinks about a mass execution by machine gun that he witnessed. He rages at the Jews' acquiescence to death. Their submissiveness offers him no combat and degrades him as man and soldier. As he describes the scene, one sees some of the why of submissiveness. Once the Jews were naked, the Nazis' job was three-fourths done. The utter helplessness of a Jewish father leads him to leave his wife and walk to the pit with his son. There he waits, never looking at his wife across the way. The mother, nude and ashamed, consoles the other children while just as assiduously never looking at her husand. The scene's poignance gave promise of what Trumbo might do with the book someday.
But it was not to be. Trumbo never got the six months off from screenwriting he said he needed to make a proper job of it. He always hurt for money and he couldn't spare the time. With an uninterrupted half-year he might have produced an adequate human study. But he would have needed years to get at Grieben and evil and Sisyphus and transformation. And a lot of luck.