I haven’t had much time to post lately, and so I’m sharing a review I wrote of last year’s winners of the Goncourt and Renaudot prizes that I’ve had in the docket for a while. I began writing it while the 2017 election was still recent news, so my apologies if some of the context feels slightly dated.
Olivier Guez, La disparition de Josef Mengele (Grasset, 2017)
Eric Vuillard, L’ordre du jour (Actes Sud, 2017)
Historians are not always in the business of offering medical diagnoses, but in 1987, this is precisely what Henry Rousso aimed to do in a landmark study of the memory of the Vichy regime in post-war France. According to Rousso, borrowing the language of psychoanalysis, France has suffered since the Liberation from a “Vichy Syndrome.” The collaborationist state that governed France during most of the Second World War was no mere German creation; the collapse of the Third Republic allowed France’s homegrown anti-democratic and anti-Semitic factions to put their ambitions into practice. As the country struggled to reassert its national unity after the war, the Frenchness of Vichy became a sort of repressed memory. The fear of confronting directly the deep divides within French society led to a collective “neurosis,” which leaders across the political spectrum sought to relieve through a glorification of the wartime Resistance. From 1940 to 1944, the nation assured itself, the real “France” was located not in France, but rather in London, in Alger, and in the heart of each résistant. But what was repressed was bound to return, and so in periodic moments of crisis since the end of the war, the French psyche has seen the contradictions between its myths and its reality come to the fore.
For a little over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, it looked as if France was on the verge of curing its Vichy Syndrome. The release of Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah, which in 1985 roughly coincided with the French translation of Primo Levi’s major works, marked a dramatic turning point in allowing Holocaust survivors to tell their stories. A number of high-profile trials of Nazi officials and collaborators for crimes against humanity marked a further moment of acknowledgement of the crimes committed on French soil during the war. The culmination of this moment Jacques Chirac’s 1995 speech at the Vel’ d’Hiv, where roughly 13,000 Jews were rounded up in 1942, which formally acknowledged that Vichy was indeed “France,” and that the nation bore responsibility for its actions.
But if the presidential election that took place a little over a year ago was any indication, the patterns left in the French mind by decades of denial and evasion have not gone away. One might have thought that Marine Le Pen’s reliance on a strategy of “de-demonization” marked a perverse sort of progress: Le Pen could only succeed in reaching the second round of this spring’s contest by downplaying the anti-Semitic and pétainiste history of her Front National party. But when asked her thoughts on the anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv, Le Pen showed her true colors. Predictably, she argued that since the French authorities who aided in the roundup were not truly the representatives of the nation, today’s French citizens should not mire themselves in guilt. She might have believed that by invoking the history endorsed by presidents from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, she proved her true republican credentials. All she showed, however, was that the classic Gaullist call to unity, la Résistance, c’est de Gaulle; de Gaulle, c’est la France; donc la Résistance, c’est la France, was always at least in part a cover for those seeking to avoid responsibility.
Le Pen wasn’t the only 2017 candidate to reprise the classic roles of the Resistance myth. Jean-Luc Mélenchon followed his forebears in both the Socialist and Communist Parties by situating himself at the terminal point of a long French history of insurrection, beginning in 1789 and passing through the Resistance by way of the statesmen of the Third Republic. Unlike Le Pen, Mélenchon had no interest in identifying himself with the hierarchical notion of the Resistance embodied by de Gaulle. Though Mélenchon is a charismatic leader in a rather classic sense, as he would have it, the Resistance has no leader. For his left-wing movement La France insoumise (literally “un-submitted” France), the word “Résistance,” shouted at every rally, is all but equivalent to the notion of popular uprising—to the moral quality of rebelliousness. Mélenchon’s was not the cynical use of history one found in the Le Pen’s invocation of de Gaulle—who, Rousso reminds us, himself cynically rehabilitated some pétainist remnants in his push to rebuild the French right after the war. But his rhetoric nonetheless revealed that the myth of Resistance continues to provide a variety of roles that politicians across the spectrum cannot help but play.
The main political event of last year was not only the rise of these insurgent candidates, but that the third among them, Emmanuel Macron, succeeded in winning the presidency. Macron promised to set his country En Marche!, pulling France out of the quagmires that past leaders of the Fifth Republic have found inescapable. One might have said that his transformative ambitions were limited to labor market reforms. But ever since he faced off against the Front National, he also came to be seen—if only by default, and to the disappointment of many in France today—as the country’s progressive champion against the darker legacies of its past. It appears, however, that now in power, Macron remains ensnared in all the same contradictions of previous generations. Like Le Pen, the current president seeks to emulate de Gaulle’s personification of national unity, but en même temps, he shares Mélenchon’s drive to capture the moral force of struggle against injustice (Macron’s campaign memoir was entitled Révolution). Meanwhile, Macron’s presidency has already weathered a number of major scandals concerning the legacy of French anti-Semitism, from the proposed republication of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s anti-Jewish writings by France’s foremost publisher, to the presence of Charles Maurras on an official government list of figures to be commemorated. The murder of an elderly Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, was swept under the rug during the 2017 campaign, and had only begun to receive media attention when Mireille Knoll fell victim to a similar crime this past March. Nearing a year since the Front National’s electoral defeat, France appears nowhere near a full reckoning with the social forces that both led to and survived Vichy.
In moments such of these, literature has often played a major role in leading to a clearer understanding of what happened in France between 1940 and 1944—the names Romain Gary, Joseph Kessel, and Irène Nemirovsky come to mind (and as Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome observes at length, French film has also long served a similar role). But there is a sense in which this pathology of the French collective conscience has produced a real-life literary genre of its own. As the recent election showed, French discourse around the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust involves a recurring cast of characters: de Gaulle, Pétain, and the faceless heroes of the Resistance repeatedly find latter-day avatars. The Vichy Syndrome also imposes a set of narrative constraints: the atrocities of these years must be talked about only indirectly, and if indeed they must be mentioned at all, best to find a German responsible for them.
In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that France accorded not one, but two of its highest literary prizes last fall to novels explicitly devoted to the Second World War and the crimes of Nazism. The ultra-prestigious Prix Goncourt went to Eric Vuillard’s L’ordre du jour (The order of the day), while Olivier Guez’s La disparition de Josef Mengele (The disappearance of Josef Mengele) took home the Prix Renaudot, a sort of second-place prize announced at the same ceremony. 2017 was not the first year that the French literary establishment chose to honor literary representations of this period—Jonathan Littel’s Goncourt prize for The Kindly Ones in 2006 was another recent example. But unlike Littel’s historical fiction, Vuillard and Guez’s novels are fictionalizations of history. Both recount in a novelist’s voice real events that took place in the years immediately preceding and following the War, respectively, and the authors draw meticulously on archival and historiographical sources.
If the Vichy Syndrome has produced a literary genre, then Vuillard and Guez both follow its conventions to a tee. Both books are explicitly focused only on German military aggression and crimes against humanity in the 1930s and 1940s—French actors appear only in passing—and these atrocities are described directly only in rare and brief occasions. Yet read together, the two novels turn this genre on its head, recounting the actions of Nazi criminals in such a way as to force a confrontation with French historical guilt.
Guez’s novel has as its protagonist Josef Mengele, following the Auschwitz doctor in his sojourns across South America from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1979. Mengele was one of the most highly sought-after Nazi criminals to have never been brought to justice. Based largely on its subject’s own diaries, La disparition de Josef Mengele follows him where the Israelis and the West Germans who sought his capture could not, and attempts to serve him the sentence and punishment he never received from a war crimes court.
Upon his arrival in Argentina, Mengele discovers not only that he is in little danger of paying for the tortures and murders he committed, but that with the proper precautions, he can live like a “Pasha,” as Guez entitles the first half of the novel. Under the pseudonym Helmut Gregor—which the novelist uses to refer to him throughout most of this section—Mengele is protected by Perón’s government and a devoted network of exiled Nazis and their sympathizers. Through a business connected to his family’s agricultural empire back in Europe, he is able to enrich himself rather quickly. He divorces his wife and travels to Switzerland to remarry with his brother’s widow, adopting his nephew as his son—his own biological son sleeps easy, believing his father died on the Eastern front. The family soon establish themselves in a posh neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and by the end of the 1950s, Mengele even reassumes his own name. In the Nazi circles of the Argentine capital, he is discreet, but his reputation as a Jew-killer nonetheless earns him a certain prestige. If the “Pasha” Gregor/Mengele is not happy—he remains too cold and cautious for this, and cannot shake the fear that he will run into a Jewish Auschwitz survivor who might recognize his face—he is comfortable, wealthy, and proud.
Guez details the extent of Mengele’s easy living only to highlight the blow he suffers when this comfort is taken away. The turning point comes with the kidnapping by Israeli commandos of the Holocaust logistics man Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires in 1960. Mengele understands instantly that he can never let his guard down again as he had done during his heyday in the mid-1950s. After Eichmann’s capture, Mengele’s life in Argentina is ruined: no more business success, no more vacations in the Pampas, no more Nazi social clubs, and soon, no more wife and son. Fleeing Argentina, he is condemned to live on the run, often in squalor. When he is not alone, he is surrounded by people he despises, from the idiotic Austrian Nazi wannabe who helps him cross through Paraguay to the unwitting Hungarian family who shelters him on the Brazilian steppes. In a shocking twist, he is even sexually exploited, when the matron of that family, discovering who he is and threatening to denounce him to the authorities, forces him into an affair. For the rest of his life, Guez writes, “he is consigned to bear the curse of Cain, the first murderer of humanity: a fugitive wandering about the earth, whoever encounters him seeks his death.”
We are, of course, not meant to empathize with Mengele—though at times we are tempted—nor merely to enjoy the fictional depiction of a Nazi murderer’s discomfort. The real punishment Guez serves the Nazi doctor is his depiction of Mengele’s peculiar moral transformation. The Argentine “Pasha” Helmut Gregor is not ashamed of what Josef Mengele had done at Auschwitz. He has no reason to regret his crimes as long as his new life continues to reward him so handsomely for them. Mengele is a selfish man, and this selfishness belies a profound nihilism. As we see him in the first half of Guez’s novel, he expresses little conviction for Nazi ideology. He occasionally rambles about the greatness of Hitler and the German race, but, Guez insists, “whatever he may pretend [about] his love of Germany or his fidelity to Nazism, he has never thought of anything but himself.”
The only hints of any motivations Mengele may have other than pure self-interest, we discover in the lingering traces of his passion for medical science. In one scene, for example, an aged and isolated Mengele spends hours capturing and picking apart cockroaches on the floor of his Brazilian hideout. But even this fascination only completes the portrait of Mengele’s amoral egotism. Whatever ambitions he had as a researcher were entirely shaped by traditions of racial pseudo-science that dated back to long before the rise of Hitler. In Guez’s portrayal of Mengele’s past, the Nazi regime appears to the young doctor as little more than an opportunity to throw out the ethical restrictions that stood between him and the hellish quack experiments he had always dreamed of conducting.
Mengele in Buenos Aires is therefore proud of his days as the “Angel of Death,” but he is no Nazi fanatic, and in fact holds most of his exiled comrades in the highest contempt. Second-rate fellow travelers such as the Dutch journalist Willem Sassen disgust Mengele: ignorant of what really happened in the Nazi death camps, Sassen and his like dismiss the reports of six million dead as part of a “global Zionist conspiracy to further demonize and destroy Germany.” Mengele knows better, and will have none of such talk. His greatest scorn, however, is reserved for Eichmann, who indulges Sassen’s attempts at whitewashing in the hopes of clearing his name in public, but in private boasts of his proximity to Himmler and Heydrich and his central role in planning the extermination of the Jews. Though Guez’s Mengele may be “the archetype of the cold and sadistic Nazi, a monster”—there is no “banality of evil” in him—he nonetheless considers his past with brutal clarity, a clarity that allows him to look down on his former comrades.
When Mengele is forced to flee Buenos Aires, it is this clarity and therefore his pride that Guez strips away from him. Forced to depend in Paraguay on ignorant would-be Nazis of Sassen’s ilk, Mengele attempts to retain their trust parroting the negationist lies he had earlier dismissed. As he ages throughout his miserable exile, he becomes nostalgic and downright crotchety. In his final years, he develops an urgent need to reach out to long-lost biological son, hoping that this reunion will serve as an opportunity to speak the truth one last time before he dies. But when Rolf Mengele finally arrives in São Paulo, all he finds is an old man spouting the same banalities about the Reich’s lost glory and the decadence of the liberal West that countless ex-Nazis, far less guilty than he, must have been spouting in post-1968 West Germany.
Guez has suggested in recent interviews that his depiction of Mengele’s physical and moral breakdown is an attempt to give him the trial and sentence he never had. But he knows full well that this sort of fictional trial in absentia is no substitute for justice. La disparition de Josef Mengele’s intervention in current French discourse is not so much to put on fictional trial a man who escaped justice, but rather its disguised reenactment of the real trials where justice was served.
Guez drops a hint of this when he introduces the minor character of Klaus Barbie, the SS commando dubbed the “Butcher of Lyon” for the tortures and murders he orchestrated in wartime France. Like Mengele, Barbie enjoyed a privileged life in South America after the war, under the protection of the Bolivian government and the CIA. In the novel, we see Barbie reluctantly invite Mengele to join him in his hideout, becoming enraged when the latter declines. But unlike his compatriot, Barbie was ultimately extradited to France and hauled to court. This 1987 trial was only possible in Mitterrand’s France because Barbie was a German. Once sentenced, however, Barbie provided a critical stepping stone towards bringing to justice some of France’s own native war criminals. Chief among these was Maurice Papon, a respected politician and former budget minister under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who was convicted in 1998 for crimes against humanity for the deportations he oversaw as the Vichy-era police prefect of Bordeaux.
Not only is Guez’s portrait of Mengele’s monstrous moral clarity a striking indictment of France’s long history of myths, circumventions, and abstractions that helped keep these men out of a jail cell. By giving another German his long-overdue “trial,” Guez demands that the French search for justice once again should turn inward. La disparition of Josef Mengele is a reminder of how rare the opportunities for justice are, and of how close they inevitably come to not taking place. Had Mengele joined Barbie in Bolivia, for example, he too might have died in prison rather than on a Brazilian beach. For every “Pasha” that is taken to court, there is another that slips through the cracks. For him, the only justice possible is fictional.
But justice, whether that of the courtroom or of the novel, has its limits. Namely, there can only be justice in the fullest sense for individuals who are demonstrably guilty of criminal acts. Powerful men like Mengele or Eichman, Barbie or Papon—the men who plan and carry out mass murder and torture—can be captured, brought before a judge, and held responsible. But the crimes that took place under the regimes of Hitler and Pétain were not merely the work of these “Pashas.” What of the countless men and women who made them possible by following instructions, looking the other way, or simply doing nothing? No court, real or fictional, could find them guilty, but no country’s reckoning with its past can afford to overlook them.
Eric Vuillard’s L’ordre du jour is a necessary counterpart to Guez’s La disparition de Josef Mengele precisely because it takes aim at these lesser accomplices. Flitting between stories of the individuals who unwittingly aided Hitler in his invasion of Austria, Vuillard does not so much punish them as belittle them, at times even mocking them. These men (in Vuillard’s novel they are indeed all men) believe they have a clear view of their situation, that they are fully in control of their actions and that they have made the right decisions. Vuillard reveals them to be in way over their heads, caught up plans and procedures far beyond their grasp, and therefore constrained merely to follow the “order of the day.”
L’ordre du jour begins as twenty-four German captains of industry sit down at the table with Göring, Schacht, and Hitler. The newly installed leaders of the Third Reich have called them together for a shakedown: it is February 1933, a month before the passage of the Enabling Act, and they need cash if they are to secure their hold of the Reichstag in “the last election … for a hundred years.” The leaders of companies including Opel, Siemens, and IG Farben are no strangers to dealing with elected officials. “Politicians and industrialists have the habit of getting to know one another,” Vuillard writes, and these seasoned businessmen are even “accustomed to bribes and under-the-table deals.” It is only natural that they get acquainted with the new chancellor. What’s more, they are convinced they have earned a strategic political ally against the Communists and the unions. Hitler promises that under his leadership each of them will become “a Führer in his own company.” It is little surprise when this gathering of “venerable patricians”—which Vuillard describes as little more than a gathering of mustaches, monocles, and bald heads—decides to pay up.
Vuillard’s sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious presentation of these sorts of men offers a familiar moral lesson. In the face of great injustice, we have long understood, there is a near-universal temptation towards complacency and inaction. As one might expect, among the cast of characters in L’ordre du jour is Britain’s hapless prime minister Neville Chamberlain. In a spectacular scene, Vuillard describes Chamberlain’s lunch with Joachim von Ribbentrop the very day of the Austrian Anschluss. Chamberlain is not the only British statesman on chummy terms with his Nazi counterparts—we also see Lord Halifax on a fox hunt with Hermann Göring in 1937—such socializing is par for the course. But at this particular lunch, Chamberlain sits through German ambassador’s endless rant about tennis and French wine while German troops are making their way towards Vienna. In March 1938, it is not yet “appeasement” that delivers Hitler his easy conquest, but the established protocols of European diplomacy. (Meanwhile in France, president Albert Lebrun is hard at work drafting a decree to officially recognize a new variety of red wine.)
But if there’s one thing France needs today, it is not another lesson of the danger of repeating the folly of appeasement. The problem with such lessons is that they rely on a rigidly linear notion of historical time. Wars, genocides, and the events that lead up to them appear decisively in the past, and become accessible only as parables to apply to the present. This, incidentally, is also another shortcoming of the paradigm of justice: we can only establish a legitimate verdict if we establish a clear and distinct distance between ourselves and the events in question.
What makes L’ordre du jour a powerful contribution to contemporary French historical memory is its far more fluid treatment of historical time. Unlike Guez, whose narration of Mengele’s exile is more or less continuous, Vuillard’s rough progression from the meeting at the Reichstag presidential palace through the immediate aftermath of the Anschluss has no clear geographic or temporal center. L’ordre du jour has no main character, and jumps frequently across decades and continents. Constantly calling attention to the artificiality of his text, Vuillard takes great pains to remind his reader that such deviations from linear time are well within his power as an author. As the twenty-four businessmen mount the stairs to Göring’s office, Vuillard muses that he could potentially prevent the Second World War by simply having them walk forever around a “Penrose staircase”: “In literature,” he quips ironically, “we can do whatever we want.”
This linkage between temporal fluidity and the character of fiction is far from trivial. For Vuillard, it is key to understanding history itself. This we discover in a striking detour from the events taking place in Europe, in which the author introduces us to Günther Stern, a Jewish refugee working in Los Angeles in a film costume warehouse. The “Hollywood Custom Palace” stocks everything from “the clothing of Cleopatra or Danton” to that of “jugglers from the Middle Ages or bourgeois from Calais.” As a result of the warehouse’s attempt to cover all the possible needs of the 1930s film industry, Stern has the surreal experience of shining the boots and brushing the coats of Nazi soldiers while Halifax is still on his hunt and Lebrun is still signing his decrees. Before it has even begun, “the war is already there, shelved for the spectacle.”
Vuillard goes even further, declaring that “history” itself is a “spectacle.” Throughout L’ordre du jour, we see how the perspectives of future spectators are already present at the moment of the historical event. And so, conversations between Göring and Ribbentrop planning the Austrian invasion, read years later during the Nuremberg trials based on British intelligence reports, are recited as if they were lines from a theater script (Ribbentrop himself was trained as an actor, and employed his talents to the fullest while distracting Neville Chamberlain in 1938). Joseph Goebbels’s highly staged propaganda films form our primary stock of images of the war. Hitler’s speech become indistinguishable from Charlie Chaplin’s made-up German.
By highlighting the element of fiction in history, Vuillard does not mean to suggest that we can have no certainty in our memory of the past, or that all history is “fake news.” His fluidity of historical time cuts both ways. Though the men we meet at the beginning of the novel are all dead, the “moral persons” they represent are mostly still with us: Opel, Siemens, Allianz, Thyssen-Krupp. Vuillard recounts his visit to the latter company’s website, where after wading through corporate-speak elegies to “flexibility” and “transparency,” he finds a short paragraph on Gustav Krupp, a man who loved his wife Bertha dearly, and who “only” joined the Nazi Party in 1940. No mention is made of the sums he happily forked over to Hjalmar Schacht seven years earlier.
As Guez and observers of recent French history know well, formal justice can work wonders in bringing a nation towards a clearer understanding of its responsibility for historical atrocities. But here, Vuillard provides the beginnings of the ethical vision that is required to push this understanding further. His novel is a rejoinder to those who say we should simply let the past be the past, putting on display the fact that many of those who took part in the crimes of the 1940s are very literally still present. In a time when the Vichy Syndrome persists as a live-action literary genre, it takes novelists like these to separate reality from fiction precisely by fusing them together.
Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Henry Philippe Petain und Adolf Hitler, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.