January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.
European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.
Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.
II. On The Zone of Interest
The book opens with a particularly stomach-churning bit of Macbeth, as the three witches concoct their vile brew. Among the gleefully recited list of nauseating ingredients are “Liver of blaspheming Jew/ gall of goat, and slips of yew.” These vivid harbingers of chaos and destruction aptly usher us into the strange environment of The Zone of Interest, where an exuberance of language and a darkly humorous style make uncomfortable bedfellows with the novel’s most serious subject matter.
It is a brutal and demanding experience to spend time in the foul stench of the fictional (yet entirely recognizable) environment of Amis’s Kat Zet, and in the company of its variously compromised narrators; it is also a profoundly rewarding reading experience, one that should leave any serious reader with the singular satisfaction of knowing her time was well-spent. Amis once again delivers memorable characters, and displays his unusually alert ear for crafting sentences. Some have suggested this book is his most significant to date—and I am inclined to agree. Through the pages of this fiction, the reader travels on paths approaching difficult and profound truths.
Let’s forego a detailed plot summary. There may be many conversations to be had around The Zone of Interest, but delineating the finer points of a plot that is better discovered as it unfolds would be the least interesting among them. Suffice it to say that the story opens in August of 1942, at a labor and extermination camp in east Poland, where executives from IG Farben are working closely with Nazi officers to expand productivity of the camp and establish the Buna-Werke labor camp. Amis’s fictional camp mirrors Auschwitz and its Buna-Werke plant which, per an agreement between the SS and IG Farben, aimed to use Jewish slave labor to produce synthetic rubber. (Primo Levi labored at Auschwitz-Monowitz, deemed useful enough to survive because of his chemistry degree.) In the camp as Amis renders it, Nazi officers find themselves increasingly whiplashed between fundamentally incompatible demands: the pragmatic economic objective to make the most of Jewish slave labor (encouraged by IG Farben) versus the purely idealistic pursuit of eradicating the very source of that labor (per the directive of the Final Solution). The narrative is told, in turns, from three perspectives: Angelus Thomsen, a handsome and (it seems) mostly ambivalent Nazi, a mid-level officer in the Buna-Werke with major family connections close to the Fuhrer; Paul Doll, the depraved camp Commandant (an enthusiastic Nazi, but increasingly overwhelmed by logistics such as how to extend what he unblinkingly calls “Protective Custody” to the increasing number of arrivals at the camp; and how to then dispose of their remains); and Szmulek Zachariasz, a Jew working in the Sonderkommando, surviving hour by hour in a most complete agony. Thomsen’s influential Uncle Martin is based on the actual Martin Bormann, personal secretary to Hitler, and Paul Doll appears closely modeled on Rudolf Höss, the actual Auschwitz commandant until 1943. Each of these narratives is difficult in its own way, probing the essential questions of the Holocaust, circling them intently and mercilessly.
Fiction that delves into the historical subject of the Holocaust assumes a heavy burden, and, many would agree, is obligated to meet some moral standards. Perhaps most important of these obligations is that any fiction faithfully represent the facts of the Holocaust, without undue or frivolous inventions or fanciful departures from the historical records. The Zone of Interest meets that standard: it is as meticulously researched as it is exquisitely written.
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One aspect of its historical accuracy is, in particular, worth lingering on, in part because so few seem to know about it: IG Farben plays an important (and historically accurate) role in the novel. In fact, IG Farben is just one of many companies that profited enormously from the activities of the Nazi party in general, and from slave labor in particular, and which still exist today in one form or another. Hugo Boss, for example, is now well known for its high-end suits and menswear; but in 1931 the company’s founder filed for bankruptcy and was left with only a very tiny company. He then became a member of the Nazi party and, soon thereafter, the company became the official manufacturer of uniforms for many branches of the party. To keep up with demand, Hugo Boss employed slave labor. IG Farben not only used slave labor at concentration camps to produce synthetic oil, rubber, and fuel; the company also produced Zyklon B, which was used to murder millions in the death camps. IG Farben was technically required to liquidate after the war, as a consequence of its war crimes—but several of its founding cohort of companies continue to this day and prosper, the most well known of these being Bayer. Thus it is important to understand Amis’s portrayal of the layered relationship between IG Farben and the concentration camp is not satirical (more on this in a moment) but realistic.
The Zone of Interest positions itself both within a rich fabric of historical fact and within a formidable lineage of serious creative works around the Holocaust. There are oblique nods to Primo Levi and Paul Celan, and to Tadeusz Borowski’s devastating novel This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and an overt and early acknowledgement of Art Speigelman’s Maus. Though it cannot be said that Amis’s book is as essentially important for the ages as the works of Levi or Borowski, it does merit more serious consideration than what some reviewers, repelled by what they have found to be a comic tone (see David Sexton in the London Evening Standard), have given it. It is an ambitious novel that raises more questions than it can answer or even satisfactorily address. Among these: How can we understand the actions of the nation of Germany? Hitler (who is but a peripheral figure in Amis’s novel and never named) may be one kind of unanswerable and hideous enigma, but how was an entire nation mobilized to participate in his fanatical vision? And what is the function of fiction in dealing with the Holocaust? Why read fiction when we have so many personal narratives, records, history, etc.? What is it that fiction can bring to bear? These are, Amis’s book suggests, not unrelated questions—but they are also, as the mixed initial reception of the book bears out, not easily addressed.
III. Holocaust Fiction, and the Specter of Satire
All the fine historical accounts of survivors are essential and deserve a sustained readership. Yet they still leave us haunted by the impossibility of understanding; and here, perhaps, is an opportunity for fiction—to set the creative mind to work on that which is beyond reason. It is, however, an opportunity fraught with pitfalls. Writing fiction about the Holocaust is an undertaking burdened with a serious set of expectations and moral obligations. But the creative intelligence is, quite predictably, drawn back time and again to this unfathomable event—sometimes with memorable results. Fiction invites us into the consciousness of the other; in this case, three variously troubled others. By imagining the interior lives of those who perpetrated the crime, Amis challenges readers to dwell in a place of nearly unimaginable horrors, within the consciousness of depraved and damaged humans. If we are serious, rather than just rhetorical, when we ask, “How could this have happened?,” then we ought to be willing to take up that challenge.
The Zone of Interest, moreover, treads an even finer line with its dark humor. Some have described the book as satire; but in the sense that satire suggests grotesque exaggeration and parody, I think this is a mistake. It is for the most part a serious book, unafraid to set down on paper the dark ironies of what occurred. The imagined banter between officers, in all its hideous inhumanity, does not seem farcical so much as plausible. That there is at times a creepy kind of humor that emerges from those moments is indicative of Amis’s unflinching portrayal of these scenes. He does not feel obligated to take a pious tone—in part because for most of the book his narrative inhabits not the consciousness of the victims, but rather that of the perpetrators. We may react to these moments with such deep discomfiture that it produces a reaction in us akin to inappropriately giggling at a funeral.
Szmul, the Sondercommando, muses that “Somebody will one day come to the ghetto or the Lager and account for the near-farcical assiduity of the German hatred.” Is such an accounting the task Martin Amis has set for himself? The depth and breadth of that hatred remains unaccountable, yet Amis urges us, with fresh vigor, to strive for a reckoning. “Near-farcical” may be an essential phrase, apt not only in describing the activities of Nazi officers at the camps, but also helpful in approaching Amis’s sharply observed portrait of officer life at the camps—a life absurdly and chillingly replete with luxuries (fine food and drink, comfortable quarters, etc.) and a bizarre set of difficulties (how to manage the nauseating smell from the “Spring Meadows”). “Near-farcical” neatly captures our inability to comprehend, but the farce lays entirely in our stunned perception; that is, the representation of officer life and camp events is a sincere rendering of the historical record, not an exaggerated parody.
Set amid the rampant cruelty and vulgarity of the camp, amid countless daily incongruities, Amis’s narrative is uncompromising, and, as a result, sometimes vulgar, sometimes cruel, and sometimes ironic. Here, for instance, is Amis describing the series of Nazi party officials visiting Hitler’s secretary: “Each of these officials… wore the same expression, that of men who steer their ships by guidance of the highest stars.” Is it sharply imagined moments like these that prompt some reviewers to characterize the novel as a satire (the New York Times)? This kind of reception is puzzling, and other interpretations have been troubling. The Times U.K. blurb on the novel’s dust jacket describes the book as “A joy—and strangely life-affirming.” That would indeed be strange, if it were true; but I remain uncertain of how one might find anything life-affirming here. It seems to require an almost ludicrous series of mental acrobatics to so distort a narrative in which every single character is deeply ethically compromised, and in which most are morally destroyed. As Szmul observes, “The Sonders have suffered Seelenmord—death of the soul. But the Germans have suffered it too; I know this; it could not possibly be otherwise.” Even Nazi characters who raise a disapproving eyebrow at the extermination program are ruined souls. And some of them know it.
So while some reviewers have criticized Amis’s use of humor, others have praised it. Describing the novel as funny or as an “office romance,” or comparing its tone to that of the comic strip “Dilbert,” however, seems too much. This is, I think, a misapprehension—but it is reasonable to then ask, if it is indeed a misapprehension, who is at fault? If critically savvy readers are unsure of Amis’s tone, has he pushed this grave material too far in the wrong direction, or shrugged off the moral responsibilities of the genre, sacrificing that obligation to the temptations of style or easy laughs? I’d suggest that Amis treads mostly on the right side of a thin line—while demanding quite a lot of his readers. And though it is a fine point, this distinction is worth making: despite the humor, The Zone of Interest is not satire. The absurdity of many aspects of camp life is not an invention of Amis’s imagination, but rather an absurdity inherent in the extremism of what the Nazis did. The urge to shelve this material in the category of joke or satire may reveal our anxiety with a relentlessly unpleasant subject, rather than accurately describe what is at work in the text.
This anxiety is understandable. Amis ventures into the damning territory of the officers’ perspective, whereas many readers may be more familiar with, and comfortable responding to, a victim’s narrative. If, for example, we are reading a history text or Primo Levi’s account of life in a camp, we may well understand to take on an attitude of piety, a quiet and deeply serious posture toward that work and toward that information. But confronted with Amis’s detailed and vividly imagined account of the culture of officer life, readers may feel more at sea. How to explain our disconcerting urge to laugh, other than to claim the text is making a joke, or simply satirizing? The impulse is understandable, yet utterly incorrect. What is at work in the comedic moments of Amis’s text is more nuanced, and, painfully, more serious than it is satirical.
But whatever the mode or method of wit in Amis’s novel, some readers may bristle at its presence. As we are all acutely aware at the moment, using humor to talk about serious or sacred issues can be extremely controversial. Such difficulties are not infrequently presented to those who read extensively about the Holocaust. Amis’s willingness to use a tone or allow material approaching comedy is not unheard of in Holocaust literature, but the use of humor to approach such difficult subjects often opens up a host of troubling questions. In his 1987 essay, “Holocaust Laughter?,” Terrence Des Pres discusses how “ferocious irony,” dark humor, and a comic format operate, respectively, in the wildly divergent works of Tadeusz Borowski, Leslie Epstein, and Art Spiegelman. (Indeed, “ferocious irony” may be the most apt way of describing what is at work in Amis’s novel.)
Des Pres’s examination of how dark humor can open up narrative seems especially pertinent to Amis’s treatment of Nazi officers at the camp. Des Pres writes, “laughter is hostile to the world it depicts and subverts the respect on which representation depends.” As the subject of Amis’s work here is specifically the Nazi regime— which has become emblematic of the grossly over-inflated scope of state authority, where orders were followed, more or less enthusiastically, at the cost of all morality—perhaps there is a place for such a risible depiction of it. Readers may understandably balk at the comic vulgarity found in some of the officers’ conversation, or in Paul Doll’s interior monologues, but it’s there within the context of Amis insisting we not spare ourselves any unease as we think about what the thoughts and lives of the officers of Auschwitz might have been. His text remains in open, visceral revolt against the Nazi culture of inhumanity, heaping disgust on his characters’ heads.
It may be worth noting that moments of acute irony and gallows humor arise in nonfiction about the Holocaust as well. In no less serious an endeavor than Hannah Arendt’s famous reporting from the criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, we find a surreal quality to Eichmann’s account of himself—as, for example, when he describes the meeting in which he is informed of the Final Solution. “I now lost everything, all joy in my work, all initiative, all interest…” The “work” Eichmann claims he lost all joy in was the rounding up and deporting of Jews from their homes, stealing their property, and beating, enslaving, and starving them in concentration camps when emigration was no longer an option. And, despite this declaration of despondency, he did in fact go on to assiduously pursue his work under the Final Solution (albeit while complaining bitterly when asked to witness executions by gas and by bullets and report back on the effectiveness of these procedures; for such field expeditions, he felt, he did not have the right temperament).
There may be irony to such moments; there may be an irresolvable schism between what we think must be possible and that which has actually transpired; we may feel a vertiginous confusion peering into that schism. But this is not satire.
IV. Asking the Right Question
History and literature offer layers of answers to the larger question of how Germany was so effectively mobilized (and with so little overt resistance) to perpetrate crimes against humanity. But beneath and within these answers throbs the persistent pulse of the unfathomable.
One layer of our incomplete answer is that Germans participated in the Third Reich to differing degrees. Amis offers a roughly representative cross-section of Nazi enthusiasms: Doll and S.S. officer Boris Eltz, the full-throated supporters; Thomsen, the mostly morally vacant self-promoter, later the quiet obstructionist, later still the saboteur; others, such as Hannah, Doll’s wife, turn their heads in disgust at the camp, but do nothing to act against it. Of these, Thomsen is the most complex, the most interesting: he’s not undone by the horrific acts of violence around him (hardly relatable but, we are forced to admit, in this sense well representative of many Germans), but not convinced that he’d like to participate, either (as when Boris encourages Thomsen to visit the ramp, to experience selection firsthand; Thomsen demurs). Two qualities stand out here, as they so often do across the board when studying the actions of German citizens during the war: first, the governing impulse is, unsurprisingly, self-preservation. And second, the condition that allows that impulse to obtain in the face of such dire circumstances is an underlying, more or less fanatical (depending on the individual) but soundly established anti-Semitism. As Szmul observes, Auschwitz (and the Holocaust as a whole) holds up to each individual a mirror in which one’s essential character is mercilessly revealed. Far too few were willing to risk their lives or even a degree of comfort for what was right. As Max Von Sydow’s character put it in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters”:
“You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’”
This question is exactly why it is so important we are haunted by the Holocaust, and why at precisely this moment a broad-based conversation about Europe’s culture of anti-Semitism is in urgent need of revival.
V. Anti-Semitism Surges in Europe
In a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, three children and an adult were shot to death, and in May of 2014, a French citizen killed three people at a Jewish museum in Belgium. Synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and Jewish-owned stores are routinely targeted for vandalism and destruction in France and Germany, and the use of anti-Semitic language as well as violent attacks on Jews have become regular occurrences. With the dawn of the new year came fresh horror: four Jews murdered at a kosher market in Paris, in a deadly hostage standoff following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, told the New York Times on January 12, “It has become evident that there is an internal war against the Jews being waged by Islamic radicals in [France], and people are very upset that the judicial system and the security apparatus were not able to thwart the attack.” Europe is seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism not only in the traditional vein (the far right, and parts of the far left), but also from extremists within the European Muslim population.
In an essay for the New Republic, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy warns that anti-Semitism has transformed itself from the 20th century version, in part because, that brand of anti-Semitism has “been delegitimized by the apotheosis of horror to which [it] brought the 20th century. What this means is that anti-Semitism will be able to get back to work, to resume drawing crowds and firing them up, to be practiced not just without embarrassment but with a relatively clear conscience, only by hitching itself to a new system of justification.” As Levy sees it, this new system hinges on the tenet that “Jews are detestable because they are inseparable from a detestable state.” This noxious idea seems quite obviously to have taken hold in the new anti-Semitism of Europe.
As a result, an estimated 5,000 Jews left France for Israel by the end of 2014, emigrating from long-established Jewish communities and subtracting from the largest Jewish population in Europe (roughly numbering 500,000). This is a sizeable increase over the roughly 3,000 Jews who left France for Israel in 2013—which was itself a 72 percent increase over the number the year before—and Jewish leaders in France now predict that emigration will increase again in 2015.
In this atmosphere, it is perhaps especially shocking that Martin Amis’s longtime publishers in Germany and France declined to publish this novel. A different publisher in France may publish the novel in Fall 2015, and only recently did the book finally secure a new German publisher—nearly six months after it was turned down by the publisher that had published Amis’ five previous books. How are we to understand those publishers’ reluctance? Isn’t it important for literature to participate in serious conversations about anti-Semitism and what it has wrought in Europe, to face, in particular, the ugliness of the Nazi party, rather than confining our remembrance to revisiting the tragedy of the victims’ tales? Doesn’t the culture that arose around the perpetration of the horrors of the Holocaust call out for our attention, and for the attention of French and German readers?
The French and German publishers who declined the novel have suggested it is a question of literary merit, or murmured obliquely about the difficult environment for such a book, and suggested that they are concerned about how the humor will be interpreted. Even allowing room for the subjectivity of personal taste, and with an understanding that hate-filled speech must never be underestimated in the havoc it can wreak, none of these suggestions seem entirely credible. This failure of select publishers to stand behind Amis’s difficult material is troubling.
VI. The Campaign Against Cliché
“To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen, but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
So Amis declared in 2000 in the introduction to his collected essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché. That vigor, that desire to startle readers out of complacency, has been evident throughout his fiction and nonfiction writings, but perhaps never with more serious intent than in The Zone of Interest.
The abiding moral concern is whether a work of fiction about the Holocaust ought to offer a reader any kind of pleasure—because part of what is discomfiting about The Zone of Interest is that the pleasures of reading feel decidedly out of joint with the horrifying subject matter. The truth is that even the most serious and difficult novels are read, when they are read, for pleasure. It is not a frivolous or superficial pleasure, but it is pleasure. The key is that such works must not make themselves available for passive consumption—a reader should not ride along a slick surface of language, propelled by plot, without engaging with and being challenged by the subject matter.
The Zone of Interest is a devastating and bleak book. It does not offer solace, except insofar as there is some small solace, and perhaps even a degree of justice, in that these events still occupy the conscience of serious people, and that the subject is handled by authors such as Amis (and Peter Mathiessen, whose final novel, In Paradise, is also worthy of extended consideration in this vein) with such a relentless urgency. That there is serious work to be done by fiction, that the novel is, as is evident here, a vital art form—flexible and enduring enough in the 21st century to wend its way into the darkest corners of the 20th—is also of some small consolation.
Though I am troubled others could read Amis’s book and find only a satire, I’ll hope and trust, as perhaps Amis does, that most readers will have a different experience and a more serious takeaway. A novel like this is a rare gift—the kind that cannot simply be received, but which asks something of us in return. The Zone of Interest is a worthwhile addition to the ranks of novels that have contributed meaningfully to a discussion around inescapable moral imperatives: our duty to remember; our doomed obligation to attempt to understand; and, finally, to further a never-concluded reckoning with that which we cannot understand.