The Holocaust Is Still Relevant to French Literature: An Interview With Eric Vuillard

Vuillard's ninth book, winner of the Prix Goncourt, is a powerful story connected to the rise of Nazism in Germany and Europe's blind advance toward the abyss in the years preceding the war

French writer Eric Vuillard posing during a photo session in Paris.
JOEL SAGET/AFP

The ninth book of French author and filmmaker Eric Vuillard, “L’ordre du jour,” isn’t really a novel. It is only 150 pages long, costs just 16 euros ($19), and is defined by the publisher as a “story.” But that didn't stop the book - set to be translated in the United States as “The Order of the Day” - from winning France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, two months ago.

The Prix Renaudot, France’s second most important literary prize, was awarded to “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele,” by Olivier Guez – another book related to the deep wound that Europe can’t stop picking. “World War II and the Holocaust are the central events of the last century, and they never stop providing us with explanations of human nature, diplomatic relations, compromises, betrayals, hypocrisy.” Vuillard, 40, tells Haaretz.

“Until World War II, the formative text about war was Stendhal’s novel ‘The Charterhouse of Parma,” which describes its protagonist Fabrice del Dongo at the Battle of Waterloo. At the end of World War II, the ‘Great’ War, when shell-shocked troops returned home with amputated limbs, after freezing in the trenches or drowning in the mud, people thought that it would be impossible to write literature about war any longer. And despite that, writers like Hemingway, Curzio Malaparte, [Erich Maria] Remarque and Celine wrote unforgettable books.

“The same was true after World War II and the Holocaust. People thought it would be impossible to say anything or to say anything new, but masterpieces like Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ or Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ were written, and later Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones.’ Every writer writes from his own point of view and each one has a different take on history.”

Vuillard's book is a powerful story that relates, with a simplicity free of mannerisms, two historical events connected to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and to Europe’s blind advance toward the abyss in the years before the war. Vuillard seeks to show how “sometimes the greatest catastrophes herald their arrival in small steps.”

Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach receives the golden medal of the Nazi Party from Adolf Hitler in the German city of Essen In 1940.
Stapf Bilderdienst / Nationaal Archief

The first event was a meeting on February 20, 1933 of 24 wealthy businessmen, owners of famous German companies such as Krupp, Siemens and Opel, with the chancellor who had been elected only a month earlier, Adolf Hitler. At the meeting, held in the office of the President of the Reichstag, Hermann Goering, the two Nazi leaders demanded that the businessmen finance their election campaign, and in exchange promised government stability for “at least 100 years.”

The second event discussed at length by Vuillard took place five years later, on March 12, 1938, the day of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. The event, nearly every hour of which is documented in the book, began in effect a month earlier, during a meeting between Hitler and Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, in the fuehrer’s home in the Bavarian city of Berchtesgaden. Hitler presented Schuschnigg with an ultimatum: Within eight days you must restore power to the Austrian Nazi party, appoint National-Socialist ministers in your government and pardon all the Nazi prisoners. When Schuschnigg hesitated, Hitler exercised his power, and the rest is history.

The Prix Renaudot, France’s second most important literary prize, was awarded last year to “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele,” by Olivier Guez.

How do you explain the ongoing interest in the Third Reich? I ask Vuilllard, who is speaking from his home in Rennes.

“World War II and the Holocaust are the central events of the last century,” he replies, “and they never stop providing us with explanations of human nature, diplomatic relations, compromises, betrayals, hypocrisy. Until World War II, the formative text about war was Stendhal’s novel ‘The Charterhouse of Parma,” which describes its protagonist Fabrice del Dongo at the Battle of Waterloo. At the end of World War II, the ‘Great’ War, when shell-shocked troops returned home with amputated limbs, after freezing in the trenches or drowning in the mud, people thought that it would be impossible to write literature about war any longer. And despite that, writers like Hemingway, Curzio Malaparte, [Erich Maria] Remarque and Celine wrote unforgettable books.

Eric Vuillard's "L'Ordre du Jour" or "The Agenda" was awarded the Goncourt Prize in a Paris cafe, part of a long-running tradition.
Michel Euler/AP

“The same was true after World War II and the Holocaust. People thought it would be impossible to say anything or to say anything new, but masterpieces like Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ or Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ were written, and later Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones.’ Every writer writes from his own point of view and each one has a different take on history.”

Why did you choose these two historical events in particular?

“I recently reread Churchill’s memoirs, and I specifically chose relatively less important moments, which in my opinion attest to the willingness to compromise, the cowardice and the blindness that led to the catastrophe with which we’re all familiar. The event with which the book opens, the meeting of 24 wealthy businessmen with Goering and Hitler and their immediate agreement to contribute to the Nazis’ election campaign, seemed to me symbolic and current in many senses: In our political context today the dominant power is the global economy, and it is present in our lives all the time in relation to concentration, aggressiveness and social gaps.

“The meeting of the businessmen with the Nazi leaders, as documented in the archive of the Nuremberg Trials, reverberates to this day, and the documentation enables a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the financial world. After all, we don’t know how the decisions that affect our lives are made. Do we know today what was said at the Davos forum meetings?

“In his memoirs Churchill also mentions the lunch in which British Prime Minister Chamberlain hosted Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, on March 12, 1938, the day of the Anschluss. At that event Ribbentrop violated all the rules of etiquette when he prolonged the meal with endless chatter — and he did so in order to delay as long as possible Chamberlain’s reaction to the annexation of Austria, which was taking place at the very same time.

French writer Eric Vuillard, left, toasts in front of the Drouant restaurant after he received the French literary prize Prix Goncourt for his novel "L?Ordre du jour" (The order of the day), in Paris, France, November 6, 2017.
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/REUTERS

“In the book I also described the huge and grotesque traffic jam of the German Panzer tanks that sank into the Austrian mud as soon as they crossed the border and caused a delay in the heroic entry into Vienna about which Hitler had dreamed.”

In your book it’s hard to determine the boundary between fiction and history. The detailed, juicy descriptions, the atmosphere, the setting, everything as though taken from a novel.

“In my staging of the historical events I didn’t invent a thing. The more you get into details, as in a ‘zoom in’ in a film, the more you reduce the pomposity of famous historical scenes, and in that way they become more genuine. Even in political speeches that are aired today in a direct broadcast, for example, we often notice funny, grotesque, ironic details. What I tried to do in this book is not fiction. It’s possible that the pomposity of the situation is a fiction but my details turn it into history.

“I recently visited an exhibition of works by the American photographer Vivian Maier, and I was impressed by a photograph taken in New York in the 1930s: You see a fat man sitting in a luxurious car, who sticks out a foot from inside the car and a skinny child on the sidewalk polishes his shoe. That’s a situation that weighs a ton. I’m also a big fan of Chaplin, who succeeded in transmitting in his films the tragic-grotesque atmosphere of the 1930s more than anyone else.”

Is that why you also make films?

“Yes, I’ve written and directed two films, ‘L’homme qui marche’ and more recently ‘Mateo Falcone,’ based on a novella by Prosper Merimee.”

Hints about the French election?

Your book appeared in May 2017, between the two rounds of the French presidential election. Many people tried to find criticism of the candidates in it.

“Before the second round, when Marine Le Pen reached the finish line opposite Emmanuel Macron, many people insisted on seeing ‘L’ordre du jour’ as an allegory about the rise of the right that’s endangering democracy. After the victory by Macron — whom many people call ‘the president of the rich’ — they focused on the chapter about the meeting of the industrialists with the Nazi leaders, they thought I was alluding to a shady process of election financing.

“I didn’t intend to criticize specific candidates, but I wanted to emphasize the weight of financial power. The victory of the Nazi Party in March 1933, a month after the meeting with the business moguls who agreed to contribute to the election campaign, was no coincidence, but it’s impossible to claim that the money was the reason for the Nazi victory. Masses of people voted for Hitler, believed in Goebbels’ propaganda, went with the flow and built Nazi Germany.

“Despite the dominance of economic power in our times too, I don’t think that democracy is in danger, in spite of the strengthening of the right in many countries. At the same time I want to mention Montesquieu, who insisted that a the abuse of power by the rulers could only be checked by an opposing power. In our day there is no ‘opposing power,’ everyone purchases weapons from the same manufacturers.”

You devoted the last chapter of your book to Gustav Krupp, the steel industrialist who also appears on the book’s cover. At the meeting with Hitler and Goering in February 1933 Krupp hastened to contribute a million marks — the highest sum — to the election campaign. Why did you focus on him?

“During the period of Nazi rule Gustav Krupp, like other industrialists and people of means, ‘hired’ prisoners from the concentration camps at Mauthausen, Flossenburg, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz for work in their factories under terrible conditions of slavery, in hunger, dirt and cold. If a prisoner was lucky and didn’t die immediately from the epidemics, he died within a short time from hunger or froze to death. The war was profitable for those industrialists: They had working hands, free of charge. Out of a shipment of 600 prisoners who arrived at the Krupp factories in 1943, only 20 remained alive after a year.

“After the war Alfred Krupp, Gustav’s successor, refused to pay compensation to the Jewish survivors. When, after endless trials, he was nevertheless forced to pay about $1,200 to each survivor, Krupp summed up the deal as follows: ‘In the final analysis the Jews cost us a lot of money.’

“Today corporations like Siemens, Agfa, Opel, Krupp and Thyssen, which survived the war, are flourishing and leading the global economy. On the ThyssenKrupp website today there is only the barest mention of the 1940s, and the main emphasis is one the technical inventions of the factories in those years.”

Israel, as you’ve probably heard, is also buying submarines from ThyssenKrupp that can be armed with nuclear weapons.

Vuillard is evasive: “I’ve heard about that but I’m not familiar with the details.”