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One-Armed Nazis và Albino Children: The Year"s Surprise Bestseller Turns the Holocaust inlớn a Sentimental Mess

Doerr’s novel, for those who have spent the last few months in a concrete bunker, is the impeccably implausible tale of two children caught in the violence of World War II. One of them is Werner, who, being an albino, is preternaturally gifted at assembling radios. His paramour, Marie-Laure, is a blind French girl, who, being blind & French, is prone to vague musings on the wonders of nature. The Nazis, who are handsome and dastardly when they are not crippled và humane, assign Werner lớn the task of hunting down the hidden radquả táo of the Resistance. Members of the Resistance, who are more interested in French recipes than French resisting, hide a radio transmitter in the house lớn which Marie-Laure is evacuated, in the conveniently attractive seaside town of Saint-Malo. The plot grinds toward the meeting of Werner & Marie-Laure with the subtlety of a Tiger tank. The story ends with multiple detonations of high explosives và twee sentiment.

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The blond leads the blind: Werner leads Marie through the rubble to safety, but dies by stepping on a landmine. After enduring so many of Werner’s trivial reflections, we are spared his final thoughts. They might resemble those of the reader, trying khổng lồ identify fragments of actual history as they whizz past like so much fictional shrapnel. A novel is not a historical document, but it does become one, regardless of its author’s preference. Our entertainments reflect their times: how we choose to lớn rethành viên historical events, và how we prefer to remember them. Especially when the worst of times, World War II, becomes material for the lighchạy thử of entertainments.

Historians Gọi this sort of thing “normalization,” or, if they are German, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, "coming to lớn terms with the past." Through books và films, we process the exceptional và traumatic inlớn the banal and mildly diverting. In a new book, Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture, the scholar Gavriel Rosenfeld describes a dispiriting catalog of normalizing strategies, political và commercial. Normalization is integral khổng lồ memory và is always with us: the term "Holocaust" was popularized not by historians, but by a 1978 television series featuring James Woods and Meryl Streep. That said, the popularity of websites devoted to lớn "cats that look like Hitler" suggests that what matters is less the normalization, and more how it is done.


Rosenfeld identifies three types of normalization: relativization, universalization, và aestheticization. The “relativizers” want lớn diminish the “moralistic aura” that comes with "exceptionality," the taint of particularly appalling actions. Recent practitioners include not just the obvious nationalist politicians, but also writers who, like Anthony Doerr, equate the Allied bombing of German targets with the earlier German bombing of everyone else. In Air War and Literature (1999), W.G. Sebald described the Allied rsida with a Nazi term for the mass killing of Jews: a Vernichtungsaktion, an "act of extermination." Similarly, Jörg Friedrich"s 2002 bestseller The Fire used Holocaust terminology lớn describe the suffering of German civilians: Air raid shelters became "crematoria."

The “universalizers” want lớn inflate the aura of exceptionality và liberate it as a license for present ambitions, especially humanitarian intervention. In her 1999 essay "To Suffer by Comparison," Samantha Power nguồn suggested that "Holocaustizing," the drawing of analogies to the Holocaust, had helped "stir the conscience" of American politicians during the Yugoslav Civil War and the Rwandan Genocide. But Power nguồn also saw that "Holocaustizing" could be counter-productive sầu. Holocaust analogies did not force the Clinton administration lớn intervene in Rwanda, or after Srebrenica. The analogies could, however, attract a "backlash from those who believe sầu in the uniqueness of the Holocaust," and could even encourage passivity: By comparison to lớn the Holocaust, every humanitarian crisis might look "not so bad after all."

The third circle of normalizing Hell is reserved for the “aestheticizers.” The West, Rosenfeld writes, has a tradition that “historical events should be depicted from a realistic perspective sầu.” Realism respects “a prevailing desire to lớn preserve sầu the integrity of the historical record.” This desire has “clear moral underpinnings,” even if, as with many of our moral underpinnings, we observe the principle in its breach. Many of those breaches are inspired by another tradition, more recent in origin, but now familiar to the point of tedium: the revolt against realism và its ethical implications. If the past can be shorn of its historical reality, it sheds its historic traditions, & the ethical demands they place on the present. Not all "relativizers" mix out to neutralize the past. Many "relativizers" adopt new forms of representation in the hope of expressing "deeper moral agendas.” Sometimes they attain them. Chaplin và Mel Brooks prichồng the vanities of Nazism by ridicule. The fractured narrative sầu of Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come và See is a devastating recreation of the trauma of a child in the path of the Blitzkreig.

For Rosenfeld, all three forms of normalization distort the "historical record." Yet aestheticization is especially risky. It is less about the “moral dimensions of the past” than the “artistic challenges of representing it.” There is an inherent risk of “sacrificing substance for superficiality”—of falling for surfaces over depth, & for simplicity over complexity. Over time, this preference for form over content empties out the past. The willful amnesia of “normalization” smoothes out the abnormal discomforts of memory. Only the pretty, reflective surfaces remain. Beauty, Osoto Wilde wrote, “reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.”

Doerr"s novel is an unsavory mixture of "relativizing" and "aestheticizing." As a relativizer, he presents all violence, Nazi or Allied, as equivalent: the sản phẩm of amoral, deterministic forces. This mechanization might dumb the moral sense, but it raises the aesthetic value. As an aestheticizer, Doerr admires the shiny boots and tailored uniforms: Fascism, as Susan Sontag noted, always fascinates. There is, though, little depth to his reflections.

Ethical dilemmas, sadistic violence, technological cruelties, & sexy uniforms are all splendid sources of period style & emotional intensity. But, lượt thích rations of ersatz coffee & powdered egg, they are ready-made substitutes for the real thing. Realism brings us closer lớn the past, and lớn an understanding of its difference. The aesthetic perspective sầu distances, & flattens difference. Instead of horror or heroism, we see only a lazy reflection of our own preferences và prejudices. Doerr’s German children speak lượt thích modern American children: they “vì math on their fingers”, & Điện thoại tư vấn each other “gimp” or “pussy.” Doerr’s narrator speaks of “skunked” wine & “taffy-colored” hair. The difference between past và present has vanished.

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Moreover, Doerr"s writing is pompous, pretentious, và imprecise. Every noun is escorted by an adjective of reliable but uninspiring unique. Eyes are “wounded.” Brown hair is “mousy.” Absurdly, Wehrmacht recruits are “greyhounds, harvested from all over the nation for their tốc độ và eagerness to obey.” I always thought greyhounds were bred, not picked like fruit. But then, I’m not a scientist. And neither is Doerr. He clutters his novel with technological whimsy about time, speed, & connectedness. Every event, especially a fatal one, is “destined” for reasons too mysterious & complex to explain. Science is an object of gawping wonder, but its merits remain beyond mô tả tìm kiếm, venerated but incommunicable.

“The incommunicable,” Sartre observed, “is the source of all violence.” There is a lot of violence in this novel. Most of it is sexualized & sadistic, slichồng with the voyeurism of horror films & pornography. Trapped in an attic for days, Marie-Laure is tormented by her imminent rape or murder at the hands of the man who has broken in downstairs; outside, the war machine approaches, “grinding and grinding its inhuman truth inkhổng lồ the floor”.

The boys at Werner’s military academy chase their weakest members across the fields, then beat them with a thiông xã rubber hose. The narration strokes the monstrous implement of punishment—“blachồng, three feet long, stiff in the cold”—and savors the pain it causes. When the boys discover that dreamy Frederichồng has hidden his weak eyesight, they force-feed hlặng eye charts, then beat hyên into a vegetative state. There are moông xã executions, and the ritual killing of a Slavic prisoner who is tied khổng lồ a stake và freezes to lớn death after repeated dousing in cold water.

Did I mention Doerr’s Sea of Flames? Apart from being a Wagnerian metaphor, the Sea of Flames is a đá quí with magical powers. Marie-Laure’s father must hide it from the diabolical Nazi jeweler, Sergeant von Rumpel. We know he is diabolical because he walks with a limp, wheezes a lot, và has uncharitable thoughts about Jews.

Sergeant Rumpel is not the only villain to lớn telegraph his wickedness by his ugliness. There is the one-armed sadist who leads exercises at Werner’s military academy, the cock-eyed soldier who is only following orders, và the French collaborator with bad breath & a weight problem. Eye trouble, on the other hvà, indicates virtue in Doerr’s aesthetic, but also the kind of torments that stigmata portend for a medieval saint. Apart from blind Marie-Laure, the only other child with a conscience is Frederick. He gets pulped by his fellow cadets for hiding his myopia, và Marie gets bombed by the Americans.

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When World War II is reduced to lớn a conflict between technological determinism and innocent children, the difference between aggressors và defenders is erased. We see no evil, only “normalized” reflections in the Sea of Flames. Sometimes, the aesthetic is merely an anaesthetic.

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