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Les Monstres Among Us

Two French best-sellers draw warnings for the present from the stories of Hitler’s henchmen.

Andrea Ucini illustration for Foreign Policy
Andrea Ucini illustration for Foreign Policy

There has been much talk lately, on both sides of the Atlantic, about how democracies die. In their recent book of that very title, the Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize how, in modern times, demagogues and autocrats generally come to power not through dramatic coups but through the ballot box and the complicity of enablers. The recent rise of right-wing extremism in Europe — freely elected populist autocrats now rule Hungary and Poland, and extreme right-wing parties have made significant gains in Austria, Germany, France, and Italy — as well as the election of Donald Trump in the United States, seems to support their thesis. Ugly forces — xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism — are multiplying.

In France, anti-Semitism has increasingly taken violent form, including the torture and murder of a young Jewish cell-phone salesman in 2006, the murder of four hostages in a kosher supermarket in January 2015, and, most recently, the murder of an octogenarian Holocaust survivor on March 23. Lawmakers and politicians from across the political spectrum, including the far-right National Front, have consistently condemned these and similar incidents. On April 21, more than 300 public figures signed a manifesto calling for increased public recognition of, and steps to fight, what they called a “new anti-Semitism” in France. The manifesto called for unity, but it was immediately divisive: It explicitly blamed Islamic radicalization for the uptick in attacks, a statement that provoked condemnation by the French Muslim community.

Given this backdrop, it is perhaps no surprise that last fall France’s two top literary prizes — the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot, both of which receive more publicity and are awaited with far more excitement than the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award in the United States — went to books that evoke the ghosts of the Holocaust. Both the Goncourt and Renaudot winners — Éric Vuillard’s L’ordre du jour (Actes Sud, 160 pp., $18.56) and Olivier Guez’s La Disparition de Josef Mengele (Grasset, 240 pp., $21.46), respectively — highlight the contemporary relevance of the histories they recount. These novels are so strongly rooted in historical truth that to describe them as fiction is nearly a misnomer. The characters they introduce are actual persons, and the major incidents they recount are well documented.

What makes these books novels nonetheless is their narrative style and the occasional liberty they take with imagined details and dialogue. Both authors make clear their indignation at or contempt for the events and the historical figures they describe — Guez in his presentation of his main character, Josef Mengele, and Vuillard by conjuring a first-person narrator who is a stand-in for himself. (This is in marked contrast to another recent Goncourt winner, Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel, Les Bienveillantes — “The Kindly Ones.” Littell’s book is also grounded in historical facts about World War II, but his invented first-person narrator is a former Nazi with a baroque backstory of incest, murder, and sexual fantasy.)

Vuillard’s L’ordre du jour (“The Order of the Day”) is a slim but powerful volume. It recounts, in a series of short chapters, the resistible rise of Adolf Hitler on the world stage following his accession to the chancellorship of Germany in January 1933. Vuillard starts by describing at length a meeting held in February of that year. Hitler and his right-hand man, Hermann Göring, convened 24 of Germany’s most powerful industrialists and financiers, including the leaders of companies such as Krupp, Opel, IG Farben, Siemens, and Telefunken. The single item on the agenda (l’ordre du jour means “agenda”) was money: The Nazi Party’s coffers were empty. Hitler and Göring’s fundraising pitch was that should the financiers help pay for the Nazis’ victory in the upcoming parliamentary election, the party would deliver “order” in return. Hitler promised to vanquish the communist menace. Most of the industrialists present pledged large sums.

Vuillard recounts the story in a tone of suppressed fury, writing that Gustav Krupp, Wilhelm von Opel, and their colleagues treated the event like nothing more than a “banal fundraiser,” writing, “They would all survive the regime and go on to finance many parties.” Pushing the contemporary relevance of this point, he notes: “Corruption is an irreducible part of the budget of large companies and comes under different names: lobbying, New Year’s gifts, financing of parties.”

In the chapters that follow, Vuillard implicates other Nazi enablers, such as Lord Halifax of the United Kingdom, who visited Hitler at Göring’s invitation in November 1937 and later championed appeasement. The author quotes from a letter Halifax sent to his Conservative colleague Stanley Baldwin following the visit. “Nationalism and racism are powerful forces,” Halifax wrote, “but I consider them neither unnatural nor immoral.” Like the American aviator Charles Lindbergh and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Halifax thought of the Nazis as a necessary evil, a bulwark against the greater threat of communism.

Vuillard reserves the bulk of his book, and his most withering scorn, for a detailed account of the events surrounding Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. He begins by recounting the visit of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, whom he presents as a moral weakling, to Hitler’s mountaintop home in Berchtesgaden, Germany,  in February 1938.

Vuillard emphasizes that when Hitler subsequently moved into Austria, his panzer divisions broke down for several hours on the way to Vienna. Had the Western powers put their foot down, Vuillard implies, they could have stopped Hitler in his tracks. Yet “the European democracies responded to the invasion with resigned fascination,” Vuillard writes.

Indeed, on the day of the incursion, Chamberlain received German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop and his wife to lunch, along with a dozen or so other guests, including Winston Churchill and his wife. Vuillard bases his account of the day on the description Churchill himself gave in the first volume of his memoirs of the war, The Gathering Storm. But he embroiders Churchill’s description, imagining how Ribbentrop and his wife might have willfully prolonged the meal with chitchat about tennis and French wines while the British Foreign Office was trying frantically to inform Chamberlain of the invasion. “The Ribbentrops had a good laugh about the joke they had played on everyone,” Vuillard writes in a rare novelistic flourish.

Toward the end of the book, Vuillard returns to the German businessmen with whom he began, detailing their firms’ use of concentration camp prisoners as laborers during the war. “Let us not believe that all this belongs to a distant past,” he writes, describing the companies’ postwar successes. “These are not antediluvian monsters, creatures who pitifully disappeared in the 1950s. … These names exist today. Their fortunes are immense.”

Guez’s La Disparition de Josef Mengele (“The Disappearance of Josef Mengele”) also largely sticks to verifiable events. Relying on historical research (Guez includes a detailed bibliography), the author recounts the postwar life of the Nazi doctor, infamous for his role in selecting who among the arrivals to Auschwitz would live or die and for his gruesome medical experiments on prisoners. But Guez’s Mengele is not a monster. He has a family that supports him and friends who care about him; he likes to dress well, enjoy himself, and blithely dreams of future happiness. He is simply an atrocious human being who never expresses regret over his wartime activities. Mengele maintains to the end that Jews were like disease-carrying mosquitos that “threaten our environment and risk transmitting illness.”

Guez’s story begins in 1949, when Mengele arrived in Buenos Aires armed with false identity papers and the addresses of former Nazis who could help him assimilate into in his new life. Assuming the alias Helmut Gregor, Mengele soon went to work representing his wealthy family’s farm machinery business. Though a fugitive, the Nazi doctor stayed in constant contact with trusted friends and relatives back home. He even returned to Europe once, in 1956, at his father’s suggestion, to meet his recently widowed sister-in-law, Martha, in Switzerland and to visit his family home in Germany. Martha soon joined him in Buenos Aires, and the couple married in 1958 in Uruguay. Mengele’s exile, in other words, was a comfortable one, at least for the first decade.

In 1959, however, as more and more information about the Holocaust came to light and survivors started to organize and seek legal restitution and recognition, a prosecutor in Freiburg, Germany, issued a warrant for Mengele’s arrest and demanded his extradition. Mengele promptly fled Argentina and went into hiding first in Paraguay and later in Brazil. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, which succeeded in hunting down the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bringing him to justice, also attempted to find Mengele. The Israelis tracked him down in Brazil in 1962, but due to political crises back home and the appointment of a new Mossad head, the agency then shelved the hunt. Supported by family money, former comrades, and Nazi sympathizers in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, Mengele succeeded in evading justice. He died a free man in Brazil in 1979.

Not only have these two books won big prizes, but they have also become wildly popular. Both have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in France. They are not great literary works, as they lack a breadth of imagination, but they are very good reads. What these novels do best is reinforce that Hitler could have been stopped; that Mengele could, and should, have been brought to justice; and that if the former had occurred, there would have been no need for the latter.

Yet these aren’t simply stories about the past; they provide a lens through which to criticize the present. Indeed, Guez ends his book with a grim forecast and a warning for current readers. “Every two or three generations, when memory fades and the last witnesses of the preceding massacres disappear, reason takes its leave and men return to propagate evil,” he writes. “Humans are malleable creatures; we must be wary of humans.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is a research professor of French civilization and comparative literature at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of "The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France."

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