The elevator pitch for my story, “In the Land of Armadillos,” was this: a bad man who feels nothing meeting a good man who feels too much. Taking place in World War II, the plot follows a brutal SS man who, to his own astonishment, finds himself protecting a Jew. Max, my Nazi, was inspired by Felix Landau, a vicious SS man who first worked in the Einsatzgruppen, Germany’s mobile killing squads, and was later the Reich Chief of Labor in Drohobych, Poland.
Max sees himself as reasonable, even sympathetic. While he’s working, he’s an unfeeling killer; but he adores his wife, loves his son, and he feels very protective of Toby Rey, a Jewish artist painting murals in his villa.
Every morning, after putting my kids on the school bus, I had to get into this man’s body and walk around in him. He wrote gooey love letters to his wife. He mailed home stamps for his son’s collection. He grumbled about his bosses’ demands, like any other mid-level manager.
The research was emotionally grueling. I read testimony from former Einsatzgruppen shooters, men from a Hamburg police squad, where they described their first day on the job, how they learned to break through their moral objections, and the lies they told themselves to justify their crimes. I introduced Max’s brutality as casually as I would introduce the tasks in any other job — in one instance, Max resolves a labor dispute by whipping and shooting the workers, and in another, he shows his displeasure with the Jewish Council by executing them — to show that atrocities were just as much a part of his average working day as filling out paperwork. I gave him thoroughly ordinary thoughts, an ordinary routine, ordinary emotions. The story is seen through his eyes, and he doesn’t see himself as a bad man. But since it was me telling the story, me who was building his system of logic, it was also me creating excuses for him. A weird place to go, when you’re the child of Holocaust survivors.
To some extent, you have to love every one of your characters to make them come to life. Living inside Max’s head, I saw events from his point of view, making his worst actions explicable. Several times a day I had to get away from him, had to physically lift myself up from the desk and walk away, wash the dishes, pet the dog, listen to music or the news, in order to put distance between us, to remember that however Max saw himself, he was still a killer with an untroubled conscience.
From the beginning, I felt queasy humanizing him. In his diary, he describes watching a group of Jewish women digging their own graves, wondering in a worried way why he doesn’t feel anything. He shoots the patients at a hospital and eliminates an orphanage, but frets that Toby isn’t eating. He massacres the ghetto’s Judenrat because they haven’t carried out one of his demands, but gleefully fixes Toby up with a pretty girl, hoping it will cheer the artist up. By the time the reader meets him, Max has participated in the worst crimes that World War II had to offer. Max is irredeemable.
There were many men like Max, capable of dashing off letters to their mothers or girlfriends or children or wives a few minutes before marching off into the forest to execute civilians. What did they think about, as they stood in front of toddlers, with their fingers on the trigger? Did they know what they were doing was wrong? That they had left the boundaries of civilization far, far behind? Are they deserving of redemption? Of forgiveness? Of understanding? And why do I feel the need to humanize them?
The Nazis are gone. Today’s extremists blow themselves up in cafes and airports, open fire in concert halls or movie theaters, ram their cars into crowds at bus stops, stab mothers in their own kitchens or old men at prayer. It’s too easy to excuse people who commit these atrocities by calling them “monsters.” Once we label someone a monster, we let him off the hook for the evil he commits. After all, monsters have no control over themselves. We don’t expect them to act responsibly. But if they’re human — if they have wives, children, jobs, hobbies, indigestion, ordinary workplace gripes — then they are just like us.
And if they are just like us, they are accountable.