Story of Hitler's rise wins France's top book award


French author Eric Vuillard poses at the window of the Drouant restaurant after winning the Goncourt Literary Prize 2017 for his book L'Ordre du Jour.
French author Eric Vuillard poses at the window of the Drouant restaurant after winning the Goncourt Literary Prize 2017 for his book L'Ordre du Jour.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS (AFP) - Two books about the Nazis took France's biggest literary prizes on Monday, with Eric Vuillard's story of how German industry and finance backed Adolf Hitler winning the top Prix Goncourt.

L'ordre du jour (Agenda, in English) had been among the favourites for the Goncourt prize - the most prestigious in the French-speaking world.

Vuillard, 49, said he was taken aback on hearing he won for his elegant, 160-page book which charts how the financial support of German industrialists was crucial in Hitler's push for power.

"One is always surprised, sometimes fatally," he told reporters at the Paris restaurant where the winner was announced.

Asked whether the book was a warning for today's populist times, the writer said he wanted to set out how the "elites slid into a situation where they compromised themselves".

His novelistic account of Hitler's rise, which sticks doggedly to the facts, turns on a secret meeting in February 1933 between Hitler and the heads of Krupp, Siemens, Opel, IG Farben and other major industrial groups where they agreed to bankroll his election campaign.

The Renaudot award, often seen as a consolation prize for those not shortlisted for the Goncourt, went to The Disappearance Of Josef Mengele, another book about the Nazis which walked the tightrope of historical fact.

Journalist Olivier Guez spent years retracing the secret post-Holocaust life of the SS doctor, notorious as the Angel Of Death at the Auschwitz concentration camp for his often lethal experiments on prisoners.

Mengele managed to escape to Argentina and even got a West German passport in his own name in the 1950s so he could return for a holiday in his hometown.

"I wanted to understand what is left of a person after they have done that kind of evil," Guez told AFP after he won. "I wanted to know what Mengele's life was like afterwards, whether he had been punished or not. I think in Europe today (with the rise of the far-right), we need to understand the extraordinary mediocrity of evil," he added.