Max is the bildungsroman of a young Nazi, from birth to disillusionment at the end of World War II, at which point I believe the reader is supposed to feel sorry for him.
Max opens as the main character is about to be born. He's narrating his life from inside his mother's uterus (so ha, Ian McEwan, your idea for Nutshell is not as unique as you think it is). The unborn baby is waiting until 12:00 AM on April 20, 1936: Hitler's birthday. He knows that he will receive special honor as the first child of the Lebensborn program to share a birthday with the Führer. After practically clawing his way out of his mother, Dr. Ebner, the SS head of medicine, takes the baby away to be measured and analyzed. Does he have a nicely pointed Aryan head? Are his eyes blue enough? Is he well-formed? Of course he is. The baby is perfect, and he doesn't get a deadly injection in the skull like other, less-perfect newborns will.
The baby's mother secretly names him Max, against Nazi regulations, but upon his baptism by Adolf Hitler himself, Max is renamed Konrad. He does not allow himself to think of his mother, who was sent away. He thinks with loathing of the time that he was captured by a Polish escapee from a concentration camp. All he wants to do is grow up to be the Best Nazi Ever and make Hitler proud.
As Max grows, he works hard to excel in every area of his life, and constantly receives special assignments from the government. They use him to lure blond, sufficiently-Aryan-looking Polish children away from their parents to be "reeducated" as good little Germans. He is sent to a training camp to produce tiny child soldiers to fight for the Fatherland. There, he meets a beautiful Polish boy named Lukas who is secretly Jewish. The "secret" part is because his mother didn't want him circumcised because it was distressing to her.
Eventually, Max and Lukas are turned out of the Napola because the Russians have arrived at their doorstep, and the two flee to Berlin, which is a really awful idea (I mean, 20/20 hindsight and all that, but honestly). The descriptions of Berlin under siege are visceral, fetid, and suffused with hopelessness. Eventually, Max is rescued by the Americans and tells his story in order to "bear witness" to what was "done to him" and other babies by the Nazis.
I take umbrage at the statement that Max must survive the war in order to bear witness to the Lebensborn program and all the babies who died and all the women who were turned into brood mares. Conservative estimates place the death toll of the Holocaust at 11 million, and yet Max needs to bear witness? Max the Nazi needs to live to speak for other Nazis?
Even now, people deny that the Holocaust ever happened. It is never-ending fight to bear witness to those who died at the hands of the Nazis: not only the Jewish population, but the Roma, the political dissidents, the LGBTQ citizens, the prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others whom the Nazis deemed inhuman or dangerous. I will continue to bear witness for them. Their stories far outweigh in every possible way that of poor baby Nazi Max.
Technically, Cohen-Scali's writing is good. But I cannot imagine what would possess someone to write this book. Perhaps the desire to be edgy? But I don't care--Nazism and edginess should never be conflated. Murder and hate is not edgy. I kept rolling around in my head why this would win prizes, and I think a lot of it has to do with the anti-Jewish sentiment in France, the country where this was first published. People were looking for a "literary" way of expressing their beliefs, and Max came along and satisfied that desire.
We are seeing more and more "normal" people accept extremist ideology akin to Nazism. The destruction of the Other in 2016 is not so far away from humanity--once again. And that frightens me badly. So here is my conclusion: I hate Nazis. I hate Nazism and what it did and what it continues to do. I hate Max, and I detest this story.
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.