Title: The Kindly Ones
Author: Jonathan Littell
No. of Pages: 992
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 3 March 2009
Bottom Line: Tough book to read for its physical descriptions and flights of fancy; not for the weak
“A former Nazi officer, Dr. Maximilien Aue has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France. An intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music, he is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man we experience in disturbingly precise detail the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer, Heydrich, Höss—even Hitler himself—play a role in Max’s story. An intense and hallucinatory historical epic, The Kindly Ones is also a morally challenging read. It holds a mirror up to humanity—and the reader cannot look away.”
Thoughts: The Kindly Ones is a densely-packed, minutely-detailed look into the eastern front of Hitler’s battle for world supremacy. Mr. Littell leaves no character actionless and no detail indistinct in this tome. Rather, he feels that a reader must have all of the details in order to best assess the psychological impact of the war and the Nazi doctrine on party members, collaborators, and unwilling participants alike, and he truly means all of the details. Dialogue is excruciating as every major and minor soldier has a line, no matter how trivial it may be. The unfamiliar German military ranks only serve as added weight to an already endless narrative, as does the pre-Cold War geography. The narrative and dialogue occur as if a reader is there next to Aue, watching the scene unfold firsthand and with the appropriate level of historical context to be able to understand the major players and meaning behind their actions. For readers without the historical knowledge, this makes the entire novel slow, ponderous, and more than a little confusing.
There is no doubt The Kindly Ones is controversial. In fact, it rivals American Psycho for its descriptions of the sick and perverted things one human can enact against another. The matter-of-factness with which Dr. Aue’s contemporaries and fellow soldiers execute the Jews and the gypsies and anyone else on the official “no friend to the Nazis” list, including inmates and hospital patients is terrifying. Similarly, the imagery is stark and gruesome. While Mr. Littell acknowledges that most soldiers struggled with the mass murders, this admission in no ways lessens the impact of such scenes. However, it is not these scenes with which readers will take the most offense. The controversy lies in Aue’s fantasies. As the war progresses, his hallucinations become more ghastly and more extreme, fueled by the strain of hiding his sexuality from the outside world and the compounded trauma associated with the war and the damage incurred by his highly inappropriate relationship with his sister. The last chapter is the culmination of this toxic stew and will simultaneously turn readers’ stomachs as well as render them breathless with Aue’s pain and suffering.
In spite of all of The Kindly Ones’ faults, Dr. Aue is a fascinating character by whom to study the psychology of peer pressure and justification of actions. Early on in the novel, Aue has this to say about guilt:
“What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame?…I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.” (p. 18-20)
It is with this in mind that a reader enters the first chaotic scene of the Germans following the Soviets into Poland and Czechoslovakia and beyond. These few statements not only provide keen insight into Aue’s frame of mind as he writes his memoirs, the fruit of which becomes the novel, but also a curious sense of remoteness as the reader ponders whether Aue is correct in his conclusions – something that leaves quickly upon a reader’s increasing emotional involvement within the story. It definitely raises one’s awareness about the idea of complicity, something that has plagued Germans since the end of the war.
The Kindly Ones is meant for readers with tough stomachs and even tougher psyches. Any scene involving the Jews is achingly brutal in the unflinching details. It is one thing to know of their fate; it is quite another to have their fate described down to the last blood drop or twitch. The nonchalant attitudes of the Germans are equally difficult to accept, as is their sometimes bizarre justifications for their actions. Still, it does no one any good to forget such things, and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes it impossible to forget.