In a barely fictional Auschwitz, SS officers lead commonplace lives of office politics, busy adultery, marital warfare, child-coping and bureaucratic frustration. Elsewhere in the day they conduct the routines of mass murder. Oh, the problems. Ovens are out of order, batches of jews misbehave, orders from on high ask the impossible given shortages of materials and money. Over all of this is the smell of the dead and dying, an olfactory reproof that penetrates every Nazi household in this eastern Polish neighborhood, a smell no technical wizardry will ever neutralize.
“Zone of Interest” punches holes in the paper-thin histories so many Germans have written for themselves. You would be amazed at how many cultured Germans and Austrians believe to this day that World War II was a tragic struggle against international jewry, its plottings guided by such international jews as Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Contradict these people and be greeted by condescending contempt for yet another naive American. We are “Kriegsopfer” they like to say, victims of war. Look at what you Americans did to Dresden.
Amis describes his book as a comedy of sorts, and indeed middle-class lives are intertwined with an unspeakable abandonment of humanity that creates a theater of the absurd. Amis’s men deal with the daily problems of mass extermination with the same obsessive dedication that produces such splendid vacuum cleaners today.
What probably frightens Amis’s German publishers most is even the most delicate hint of the collective insanity represented in European aniti-semitism of the 20th century. In France, Gallimard also said no to “Zone of Interest” though Amis found someone else there to take his book. Read Frederick Brown’s recent “The Embrace of Unreason” to understand just how virulent French racism was, from Dreyfus to the Nazi occupation and beyond. If those French at war’s end who claimed to be members of the Resistance really were, the Wehrmacht would have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers.