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Lockdown Reading: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

June 26, 2020

Why did so many Germans hate their Jewish neighbours in the 1920s and 30s? If I could understand that, I might also be able to get a sense of why the Hutu so hated the Tutsi, and why, today, the Hindus of India are indulging in casual and organised acts of hatred against the country’s Muslims.

In the last few pages of his 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis talks about those who have tried and failed to explain how an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Weimar Germany turned, in the hands of the Nazis, into activities that both dragged a significant part of the population into complicity with genocide, and left many others indifferent to the fate of the Jews, Russians and all the others who died in the camps.

What was different between Germany and other Europeans was that Germany elected a party that could and did use persecution as national policy. Only Russia, through its collective farming drive in the 1930s, went as far as Hitler and his gang. Other nations, whether under occupation or diplomatic compulsion, willingly fell into line and allowed their anti-Semites free rein.

I have no more answers than Amis and the writers he quotes. But I do believe that people can be overwhelmed by tides of emotion that sweep away what they thought were their principles. By peer pressure, fear of being seen to be out of line, and, once the regime of persecutors is established, by fear of sanctions against themselves. Hence Rwanda, hence Burma and hence India. And do we think we’re immune in Britain and America?

Most novels about the holocaust are centred on the stories of the victims and the survivors. A few, such as Schindler’s Ark, explore the enablers, the profiteers and the compromised. Oskar Schindler was a profiteer whose conscience turned him into a saviour for the Jews who worked for him. Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszow camp, his principal client, was a man who went with the tide and allowed his worst instincts to prevail.

In Zone of Interest, Amis puts the monsters on to centre stage. Paul Doll, the camp commandant, struggles to deal with the mountain of corpses that accumulates and poisons the air and the water table. Ilsa Grese, the sadistic camp guard, struts around with a horsewhip. An army of bureaucrats and SS men devise ever more devious ways to deceive the arrivals into walking calmly to their deaths.

The other main characters are Szmul, the chief of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates who are roped into greeting the transports, disposing of the bodies, stripping the corpses and feeding the stinking pyres. Doll’s wife Hannah, who nurses a secret contempt for her husband and an abiding passion for the communist activist with whom she feel in love in the early thirties. And then there’s Thomsen, the technocrat who happens to be Martin Bormann’s nephew. He’s building a synthetic rubber and oil factory at the camp, and falls in love with Hannah.

With the exception of Szmul, each of the characters were rendered cynical and damaged in their own way well before the holocaust picked up pace. Szmul is simply numb with pain, driven only by a determination to stay alive, and justifying his collaboration with an imperative to bear witness.

The story opens as the Wehrmacht advances towards Moscow, and moves through to the beginning of the end – the defeat at Stalingrad, at which point all but the most fanatical of the protagonists realise that the game is up. You get a sense of growing rot – not only of the corpses that bubble and ferment in mass graves – but in the characters of those who are at the centre of things.

You also get a sense of the contempt in which senior Nazis hold each other, through the mouth of Bormann, the most cynical of the lot. Also the mad theories beloved of Himmler and his cronies that justify Aryan supremacy. Though most of the protagonists are consumed in the final inferno, a few survive, damaged seemingly beyond repair.

It’s a bleak story, yet spiced with Amis’s trademark savage humour. Perhaps my sense of humour is impaired, but it’s by no means what I would describe as a comedy, as some of the reviews of the time suggested.

To say I enjoyed The Zone of Interest is perhaps to use the wrong word. I’m glad I came across it, because it’s probably the best Amis novel I’ve read, with Koba the Dread, about the young Stalin, coming a close second.

It’s worth reading not because it answers the unanswerable question of how a supposedly civilised people could, even for a second, justify to themselves what they did, but because others have carried out the unspeakable, and some seem ready to do the same today.

So the question Amis seems to be prompting me to ask is not how could we have stopped the holocaust, but can we see future ones coming, and what can we do to prevent them?

Recent history suggests that the answer to the first question is a qualified yes, but to the second, possibly not much, especially if the oppressor happens to be a nuclear power.

From → Books, History

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    A nuclear power may deter governmental action from others, but can’t well be used on their own citizenry, no?
    Seems to me, the answer to stopping such behaviors is as it has always been, in raising voices early and often pointing out the danger, calling it by its true name.
    Am just finishing reading “Stones from the River” by Ursula Hegi.
    I should wait till the end to make comment, but it seems to me that while the main characters in it were portrayed as heroes, and indeed tried to help and put themselves at risk, the main point was missed.
    They didn’t yell loudly enough. They didn’t try to unite like-minded. They didn’t challenge directly those not like-minded.

    Most importantly, they didn’t do any of the above soon enough.

    • Interesting. My point on nukes is that nobody is going to take military action to save China’s Uygurs, or India’s Muslims. Only their own citizens can do that. More hope in India than China, I think. I’ll check out Stones from the River.

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Catching up Steve (I read your column on PC not phone – so it’s a moment of stolen contemplation….therapeutic, thanks). I’m well steeped in 20th century history, so in my 60th year, there’ll be no adding to the searingly painful facts via any (semi-)fiction. It’s a personal choice. I seriously don’t understand killing your neighbour.

    Not a book, but the song “Imagine” will have its 50th birthday in 2021. It’s one of the most important “holes in my soul” that nothing has changed since JL wrote it.

    For me the EU shines a beacon for all the occupied countries of Europe (even neutrals Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain) and the UK just didn’t fit – so be it. Another deep sadness.

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