Jonathan Littell: The Kindly Ones (review)

THE-KINDLY-ONESSo if you’re looking for a book detailing the logistic issues of genocide, this is your book. 983 pages about the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II told from the point of view of SS-officer Maximilian Aue. Yeah. What’s not to like?

Actually, quite a bit. But not as much as you would think with it being a book about an SS-officer being involved in the destruction of the Jewish race. And that was one of my issues with the book. But now, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and look closer at the book itself.

Even though this is not so much a book you summarize as it is a book that makes you think, I still wants to give a quick idea of what the book is about. Maximilian Aue is a young man, working his way up in the army. He struggles to get a break but finally succeed, not least because of powerful friends. We get to follow him to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Berlin in 1945 and other places of importance, Babi Yar for instance. Before reading this novel, I had never heard of Babi Yar which is apparently probably the largest two-day massacre during The Holocaust. It took place in a ravine close to Kiev on September 29 and 30, 1941 and 33.771 Jews were killed on these two days – and later they killed other victims too at the ravine (source: Wikipedia). It was interesting to learn about this, however, even though the book featured scenes like Aue taking a little girl by her hand, leading her down in the ravine, getting her to lay down on top of corpses and letting others shoot her, it was written in a way that didn’t move me in the least. I tried to explain this with Aue being without empathy and somewhat of a psychopath, but the problem is that Aue does appear to feel remorse at some points and to see that what he is participating in, is wrong. And since other of the soldiers participating in Babi Yar are breaking down because of what they have to do, I as the reader should feel something too. Maybe the intention is to show that the killing of the Jews became just another chore, causing a lot of logistic issues, that it all became just another new normalcy but it was too early in the book for this – as readers we need to be shocked at scenes like this and it’s a problem, if the author can’t get us to feel anything at scenes like this.

There’s a lot of questions we don’t get answered in this book, most of these because Aue is such an unreliable narrator. Delusional even. He experiences things and narrates things that can’t possible be true. And then, it turns out they are. Other things we believe to be true, but we never get confirmation. We just have to make up our own mind about Aue’s actions, his relationship with his family and his experiences – and especially about who he is. The book also raises questions about memory – how far can you trust your memory? You think you remember something, yes, but is it actually true?

Would this book be more powerful if the narrator had been a normal person, just caught up in the Nazi war machine instead of a delusional man with sexual feelings for his twin sister? Instead of a man who always resented his French mother and idolized his absent German father and therefore of course works for the promotion of the German Reich? Yes, I think it would. I think this unreliable, sick and delusional man is to easy to see as a nasty perpetrator. It’s too easy that a man like this would take his issues out on an entire people if given the chance – and Hitler’s delusions definitely gave him and others like him the chance. However, the people who was in charge of the Concentration Camps were not all twisted people like Maximilian Aue. Of course some of them was. But not all. And I think it’s a bit easy to have a man like Aue as your main protagonist and narrator when most people participating in making Hitler’s dream for Germany come true, were just ordinary people. Would it have been more horrifying then? Yes, I think so – and more true. I think his actions are to easy to dismiss because of his childhood issues and deviant sexual desires (and just to make it clear, I’m not talking about his homosexuality although that of course was deviant in the eyes of the Nazis). It would have created a whole other set of moral issues and complexities if the protagonist of a book like this, had been a completely normal man, maybe even a father, and to detail how he could justify – or at least live with – his actions.

This is one of those books which most people either love or hate. I, however, fell squarely in the middle. There are parts of it that are disgusting and parts of it that just seem wrong or too much but other parts are fascinating and it does tell the story from a point of view I at least haven’t read before. Is it a good book then? Well. For the first 350 pages or so, I really didn’t like it. Too much going back and forth between commanding officers, too much stating of military ranks. Just plain boring. And there are some linguistic parts that are so dull. Littell does gets props for mentioning Kant’s Categorial Imperative though.  However, when Aue got himself to Stalingrad, it improved somewhat and it was better for most of the remaining 600 pages. Will I recommend it to others, then? Not sure. It’s not for the weak-hearted, definitely. It is interesting if you are interested in the World War II, in what makes people able to perform atrocities. But it’s not a good book so don’t expect that. It has created a lot of controversy so it can be worth reading to know what the fuzz is about too.

There are so many accounts from the point of view of the victims, especially the Jewish victims. And that is exactly as it should be. But it’s good that there are books written from the other point of view as well, I think. Attempting to give us the point of view of the perpetrators of this series of horrendous crimes, maybe trying to explain how it got so far out of hand, how ordinary people were able participate in or at least secretly condone these atrocities.

Does the novel then give an answer to this? Well, yes and no. It does suggest an explanation as to why and how ordinary men turn into monsters in order to deal with what they had to do to men, women, children. But it doesn’t really explain it – probably in part because of the narrator – but how could you really? Of course, the book raises some interesting questions. Would we have condemned the Endlösung as much if Germany had actually won the war? I definitely think Littell has a point here because victors are never wrong. And maybe that’s the whole point of the book, that as long as you are on the winning side, you can justify anything. Were the Germans all war criminals then? No, not according to Aue. (I don’t know if he speaks for Littell too, on this point.) Aue plainly states that there is no such thing as inhumanity, just humanity and more humanity (p. 589). The people performing these war crimes, were just unlucky to be born in Germany at this point in time and really, had no choice. If they wanted to live, to feed their families, some things were necessary to do. He freely admits that some people lost their heads but he also removes the blame from a lot of the people who performed unspeakable acts. But again, Aue is not a good representative for the German people. He is too twisted and the novel looses some of it’s power and importance because of this. So ultimately, we don’t get an answer to how Hitler managed to seduce so many people, to tap into a already existing hates and distrusts and make it grow. Or really, much of an answer to anything.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the poop … lots and lots of poop …

  • Title: The Kindly Ones
  • Author: Jonathan Littell
  • Publisher: 
  • Year: 2009 (2006)
  • Pages: 983 pages
  • Source: My boyfriend’s collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

6 thoughts on “Jonathan Littell: The Kindly Ones (review)

    • I can certainly understand why a lot of people don’t want to read this book – and not only because of the subject but also because it is a rather bad book. Still, I think it’s a good thing that a book like this exists that tries to explain the genocide from the side of the perpetrators and not in a revisionist way like David Irving. I think books like this, with the controversy they create, are helping in preventing this from happening again. Or at least I hope books can help with this.

      • I understand what you’re saying, and usually I try to see both sides. But killing/torturing/starving/degrading people just because? I’m not too sure that’s a side I’d want to hear from. I’d also prefer not to buy or even borrow a book like that to support something I’m so against.

        But I do watch jail shows and see inmate perspectives on why they are in jail, so it can be seen as similar I guess.

  1. I loved this book, but don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fall in the middle. Most people seem to hate it! I liked the fact he was unreliable and we didn’t get answers to everything. There was something really powerful about nothing being black/white. Some of the scenes in this book were the most powerful I’ve ever read. I love books that can move me in that way, but I am interested to read Wiesel so that I can compare the two.

  2. Reading your comment, I don’t think you’ve fully understood this book. And I don’t think you’ve understood the human mind, either. The twists and turns of Aue, which you judge to be abnormal, are actually part of every human being. To a certain extent, we are all obsessive-compulsive, controlling and dillusional. What puts people off is that Littell is well able to project Aue’s mind onto the page — something we’re not used to.

    That’s not to say that we are all potential mass murderers and war criminals. Although Aue has a point in saying that most humans would’ve participated, had they lived in the time. Many Germans were just adapting to the existing circumstances, trying to fit in and get along. We all know what the alternative was. In a way, this is something we do every day: don’t we all do things we can’t fully stand behind and support?

    Of course, Littell takes this logic to the extreme, which is very disturbing, precisely because it gets us to truly think about such things from this perspective. Therefore, accrediting it all to Aue’s insanity is a very closed-minded approach to understanding this book. Certainly not what the author had in mind.

    • I certainly don’t accredit it all to Aue’s insanity. I do think the author sets him up so it’s very easy to explain why he is able to do the things he does and I think that’s a missed opportunity. I really think the book would have been more powerful if the narrator had been an ordinary man caught in these circumstances to show what Aue says – that (most) people would have participated had they been born in Germany at this point in time. It’s to easy to say that Aue just did what he did because of his childhood issues etc and therefore not discuss the deeper issues about how Hitler got a whole people and country to go along with his insanity. So of course you are right in saying that we all do things we don’t fully believe in – and that’s why I think the book would be more intriguing and interesting and get the author’s points better across if the narrator had been just a normal German man.

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