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Review: The Kindly Ones

February 12, 2010


Title: The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes)
Author: Jonathan Littell
Published: 2006



The Kindly Ones is an epic novel narrated by a former SS officer, Dr. Max Aue, who wants to give an account of what happened. We are invited to read as he observes and partakes in events in the Caucasus, at Stalingrad, at Auschwitz, at the fall of Berlin and the last days of the Nazi occupation.

“A huge novel about the seductive enormity of evil, the ineffable horror of war, man’s inhumanity and the malevolence of the Furies, this is a book that every thinking person should read and to which no one can be indifferent.”


The Kindly Ones, with its imposing size and the subject matter, is not an easy read. It is, at times, complex, cerebral, sickening, it is all these things but it is quite possibly a masterpiece of literature. What Jonathan Littell has produced is an incredibly impressive piece of literature, destined to be a classic.

We begin the novel with an account of his expedition with the Einsatzgruppen, primarily in the Caucasus; giving a highly detailed account of the massacres, the mentality of some officers and his increasing surge of ill health. After that, we are plunged in the last days of Stalingrad, then the question of trying to increase productivity in the concentration camps and finally amidst destruction and death in Berlin.

Aue has many discussions throughout the novel: genetics, linguistics, the accountability of everyone is just some of the highly involved discussions he holds. Littell imbues the novel with the sense that it is not only about the Second World War, but a philosophical conundrum about the mentality and evil of men/women in times of extreme depravity and horror. The book invites us to question our darkest fears: what would we have done in that situation?

Narrated by Dr. Max Aue, an intellectual steeped in philosophy and high art; he hides under a proposed facade that while some members of the Nazi party are animals, he is detached and does his job with the cool, precision of a scientist. We, however, throughout the novel begin to realise that he is more than a cold-blooded bureaucrat, and his mask of superiority and precision slips amidst the destruction of Berlin in the last half of the book.

A cold and unlikeable man, Aue does not hide from showing us his increasing unbalanced state of mind. Occasionally, the psychological and physical detail descends into caricature; especially his account of the incestuous relationship with his sister and the masochistic dovetail accumulating with a grimace-inducing episode involving the branch of a tree. I could have done without the hedonistic masturbatory fantasy he has near the end of the novel but saying all that, he is suitably complex and three-dimensional that you can forgive the lapses.

Some people have labelled the book “Nazi-porn”, which I think debases the richness of the novel into something that is only there to induce controversy. I didn’t get any indication that the book was trying to titillate. I don’t think the depictions ever err on the side of being gratuitous; graphic yes, but always justifiable. I’m writing about the depictions of the Einsatzgruppen’s actions near the beginning of the book, and not the, occasionally bordering on ridiculous, narrator’s depiction of his bowel movements.

I think it all depends on whether you believe a novel, such as this, is justifiable and whether it should have been written. I, personally, believe that that the end result is testimony towards justification that the novel should be read. It is not an easy book to get through but it is a momentous achievement, brave and impressive that produces more questions than answers.

A tough and demanding work, often rendering you numb; you need to be prepared to undertake such a work but, in the end, it should be claimed as a modern classic and one of the best WWII fictions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. farmlanebooks permalink
    February 13, 2010 2:38 pm

    Fantastic review! I have been thinking about reading this for a while, but am put off by the length. It sounds as though it is worth the effort though. I’m going to try to find a copy – thank you for letting me know about it.

    • February 13, 2010 8:59 pm

      Great stuff. It is worth the effort, although it does have some negative points to it and occasionally does get bogged down in detail the good, in this instance, really does outweigh the bad. I hope you enjoy it and that I haven’t condemned you to a mind-numbing read heh 🙂

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