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Jonathan Littell
The Kindly Ones, translated by Charlotte Mandell
reviewed by
Stash Luczkiw
Chatto & Windus, 2009 £20 (UK)

This review is about 15 printed pages long. It is copyright © Stash Luczkiw and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Stash Luczkiw

The Devil in the Details

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones


From time to time an ambitious author sets out to write a novel that would cover a subject or historical incident in exhaustive detail — once and for all (though for every “once and for all” there’s always another ambitious author waiting in the wings). Think of what readers of War and Peace learn about the Napoleon’s Russian campaign, or readers of Moby Dick about whales and whaling. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a huge book of nearly 1,000 pages packed tight with endless paragraphs and no line breaks for dialogue, can safely be considered the single most exhaustive work of fiction about the Nazis’ Final Solution. [1]

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To say it’s a very disturbing book would be an understatement. But given the subject matter, The Kindly Ones would be worthless if it didn’t disturb. “Grim” is another word for it. The book’s third sentence describes itself as such: “It’s quite true that this is a grim story [sombre histoire], but edifying too, a veritable morality tale, I assure you.” And with the narrator’s caustic sense of irony unleashed right from the start, you can’t help but take everything he says with a grain of salt. Then, when the horrors start, you say: Disturbing, yes. But grim? Must it be so grim? And edifying? Is it really? Depends on the reader.


The title refers to the Eumenides in Greek mythology, also known as the Furies, or more euphemistically “the kindly ones”: chthonic spirits of revenge surging up to wreak havoc before reestablishing the natural order of things. The time frame of action (excluding a brief prelude covering the postwar years) takes us from the first days of Operation Barbarossa in late June 1941, when more than three million German troops attacked the Soviet Union in the largest invasion in history, to the days just prior to Berlin’s fall and Germany’s final capitulation. The events are interspersed with flashbacks and reveries, many of which read like a cross between Marcel Proust and William Burroughs.


What really disturbs, however, is the narrator: Littell has chosen to tell the story from the perspective of an unrepentant SS bureaucrat, Maximilian Aue, looking back on the war after years of reflection. Why he’s writing his memoirs is unclear even to the narrator. Certainly not out of a sense of remorse. Not for money either — he makes a good living manufacturing lace. He initially says, “If I’ve resolved to write, after all these years, then it’s to set things straight for myself, not for you.” But a few pages later, he describes how when he gives himself up completely to his thoughts, “… things come up in waves, heavy and black… But let there be no misunderstanding: this isn’t about guilt or remorse here. There’s that, too, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex. Even a man who hasn’t been to war, who hasn’t had to kill, will experience what I’m talking about.”


Aue disturbs us with his view of humankind, tainted by an undercurrent of self-loathing presented with gentlemanly sarcasm: “I came out of the war an empty man, with only bitterness and a remaining shame, like sand crunching between your teeth. So life in keeping with all the social conventions suited me: a comfortable straightjacket, even if I often contemplate it with irony, sometimes with hate.” But the most disturbing thing about Aue is that he is too much like us, and he knows it, and he throws it in our faces as he enjoins us into his circles of hell: “… I am a man like you. So let’s go, because I tell you, I’m just like you!”


That Littell, an American who spent his childhood and youth in France, chose to write the book in French has also created a lot of noise, but the narrator Aue — an Alsatian with Francophone mother, who also grew up in France — is so clearly “continental” that his thought process in English would sound much less plausible. And plausibility is a major consideration in such a book, one which grows in importance as the narrative progresses. Nevertheless, Charlotte Mandell’s excellent English translation finds the right balance between that continental tone, given to flights of abstraction, and a flowing not-too-Frenchified English. [2]


It must also be mentioned that Littell himself is Jewish. It shouldn’t matter, but it does — at least to those who won’t judge the book on its literary merits alone. And it would be ridiculous to judge any book so entrenched in a historical catastrophe, one that is regularly cast into doubt by revisionists, as merely “fiction.” History and perspective are crucial to this novel. And yet, one can’t help but wonder whether a German 40-year-old who had never lived through the war could have written a similar book with as much impunity. [3]


It should come as no surprise that The Kindly Ones is a long drawn-out kick in the teeth of a book. It’s full of blood, full of shit — and has a fair share of vomit, too. There’s no conventional love story, no search for meaning, no quest for redemption beyond the palliative force of nostalgic reverie. And when it’s not describing war horrors like Stendhal on steroids, it wends its way though bureaucratic picayunishness like a humorless, overzealous Gogol; then, just to spice it up, it reads like Proust writing porn (the kind of porn Proust might have been into). And these are not negative criticisms. Littell exhibits virtuosity. He knows exactly where, when and how to kick in order to get the desired effect. It’s the effect he strives for (or gets by accident and sticks with) that often leaves you scratching your head.


But no matter what goes on in the narrative, the details are relentless. They work like water eroding a solid surface. At times the pressure is strong; other times it comes in steady drops. But no matter, it’s constantly eating away at you, disturbing, leading you on with a poignant philosophical idea, an intellectual dialogue, insight into a historical character, all told intelligently, civilly, with good manners and refined elocutions. Then a sudden smack: a face full of violence (or sex) at its extreme. And Aue indulges with gusto the way only an old man nostalgic for the life of a body long on the wane recounts the exploits of more active times. Only in Aue’s case, more active times coincided with perhaps the largest-scale collective insanity the world has ever known. And as fate would have it (if you believe in such Greek notions) he wound up in the belly of the beast.

Why bother?


So given that the book is a detailed account of industrial genocide told from the perspective of a cog in the wheel, so to speak — and, one would assume, a narrator to whom justice has not been meted out by his fellow men since he is an old man living comfortably in the north of France at the time of writing, unassumingly manufacturing lace (a fact rife with irony that reveals itself in one of the later Proustian porn reveries) — given that the media was in a frenzy about this book when it came out in France in the fall of 2006, and should create a stir in the U.S. as well, you have to ask yourself: Why am I reading this? Why am I subjecting myself to what I know will be 975 pages of the most mind-boggling brutality, in terms of sheer scale, there has ever been? Is it just because everyone is talking about it? Because of a sense of intellectual duty? A need to be up on all the latest dinner conversation topics in high-brow circles? Is it because of some notion of literary aesthetics? That the beauty of a book, its language and structure, can somehow transcend its subject matter? I’m sure there are those who consider themselves Holocaust memory-keepers and read every book about it that appears on their radar — to ensure that the Shoah is not only remembered, but remembered “correctly.”


Perhaps you just like a good war story. All good narratives involve some degree of conflict. Wars, by definition, entail conflict, a lot of conflict — and in this case maybe too much. By extension, there are those who enjoy blood and guts even without the war. Or perhaps there might be some sort of redeeming quality to the book, something “edifying,” as Aue claims — I mean after all, it did win Prix Goncourt — maybe there’s some insight to be gained about the human condition, and that’s why we indulge in literature.


Obviously there’s a mixture of most of these ingredients in anyone’s decision to read such a book. And the precise doses of each ingredient will no doubt determine the reader’s emotional response. For my part, all the abovementioned motives were involved, but I especially wanted to read the book because I read anything I can get my hands on about the Eastern Front during WWII. My father was born in Western Ukraine (then part of Poland) in 1925, the youngest of 12 children born to a Ukrainian father and Jewish mother converted to Byzantine Rite Catholicism, the religion of most Ukrainians in Galicia. His mother died in 1938, so she was spared any difficulties with the Nazis. When the Germans invaded, my father lied about his age by one year: because at 16 you were considered old enough to either fight or do man’s work (e.g., digging mass graves). My father’s eldest brother was in his 40s and managed to stay clear of the fray, for at least a few years. His two other living brothers, both in their 20s, joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera’s faction to be precise (OUN-B). [4] By lying, my father avoided going underground (the choices were either OUN or Soviet partisans, which was an unlikely choice for most Western Ukrainians), avoided getting called up into the Ukrainian police units that collaborated with the Nazis and carried out so many of the massacres. Still, he was eventually taken to Germany as slave labor and spent practically the entire war in Bavaria, doggedly hiding the fact that he was half-Jewish by blood.


Meanwhile in 1944, his eldest brother was drafted into the Red Army as it pushed the Germans back. Within a year his two middle brothers, while fighting on the side of Ukrainian nationalist guerillas, were killed by the Red Army. Ultimately my uncle wound up marching on Berlin (raping and pillaging all the way according to historical accounts) with the army that killed his two brothers. When he came back he was a hero. His sisters, however, were tortured by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police and forerunner to the KGB) and sent to Siberia as collaborators.


So if there’s one thing I appreciate above all others in The Kindly Ones, it’s Aue’s insistence on exploring the moral ambiguity and relativism inherent in real life, on the ground — as opposed to facile theories that trickle down from pedantic ideals. And let’s remember that fiction is about life, not theories, not even facts for that matter.


Right from the outset, Aue counters any reductive condemnation of himself as individual (footnote 12 addresses collective guilt) by claiming: “You object that killing another military combatant is not the same as killing an unarmed civilian; the laws of war permit one but not the other; as does common morality. A good argument in the abstract, surely, but one which absolutely disregards the conditions of the conflict in question. The completely arbitrary distinction established after the war between, on the one hand, ‘military operations,’ like those of any other conflict, and, on the other, ‘atrocities,’ perpetrated by a minority of sadists and madmen, is, as I hope to demonstrate, a consoling fantasy of the victors.” [5]


Further on he says, “What I did, I did fully aware of the cause, believing it was my duty and it needed to be done, no matter how unpleasant and unfortunate. Total war is this, too: there is no longer any civilian, and between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child who dies under fire bombs, there is only a difference of method; these two deaths were equally vain, and neither shortened the war by even a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed believed that it was just and necessary; if they were wrong, who’s to blame?”

The plot (spoiler warning — skip this section if you intend to read the book and haven’t yet)


Apart from the initial prelude, the novel is a straightforward linear account of the war years punctuated with tangential reflections and remembrances. Divided into seven sections, six of them take the title from the name of an 18th century dance: Allemande I and II, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet (en rondeaux), Air, and Gigue; the first section is called Toccata. The entirety forms a not-so-subtle Dance Macabre.


Aue begins his career as a “Doctor in Law”; the irony is milked throughout the book. He eventually joins the Schutzstaffel, or SS. Events — be they chance, or perhaps guided by ambivalent career decisions — take Aue to the Eastern Front, through Ukraine, where he is assigned to an Einsatzgruppen (those responsible for gathering and exterminating Jews, communists, Gypsies and other “enemies”), down to the Caucasus, eventually to Stalingrad, then back to Berlin.


The narrator witnesses many of the salient events that had a bearing on what methods were to be used in the extermination of the Jews. Aue describes how in the first days of Operation Barbarossa the Wehrmacht came upon the rotting corpses of Polish and Ukrainian prisoners massacred by the NKVD. The Germans’ original plan was to carry out the invasion with “extreme ruthlessness”; seeing just how ruthless the enemy could be only served to reinforce their intention. As the Germans sweep through Ukraine, Aue’s task is to observe the Einsatzaktionen (a euphemism for rounding up Jews and shooting them at the edge of the town) and write up reports. He is there at the infamous Babi Yar massacre outside of Kiev, in which 30,000 Jews are killed in two days.


Aue begins to suffer from a psychosomatic gastrointestinal illness — he is troubled by spontaneous regurgitations that will last the rest of his life — and is sent to a sanatorium in Crimea. From there he goes to the Caucasus, where an altercation with a fellow officer and maladroit political maneuvering get him sent to Stalingrad shortly after the 6th Army is encircled. How Aue manages to break out of the famous Stalingrad Kessel (cauldron) and return to Germany, when reduced to a summary, might seem implausible to the point of discouragement: he is shot through the head by a sniper, falls into a coma, and is miraculously not left for dead thanks to his friend and SS colleague Thomas Hauser, a cynical bon-vivant with deft social and political skills, who always appears to save the day. While the incident is highly unlikely, its treatment in terms of language — a 17-page long hallucination straight out of a Joel-Peter Witkin photo, replete with dirigibles, dwarfs, a school production of Electra and a mid-winter sub-zero plunge beneath the ice of the Volga river — ratchets up the narrative force and sets the book on another plane entirely, emphasizing the undertones of irrationality that vibrate continuously beneath the heap of details. [6]


After Stalingrad, Aue recovers on the Baltic coast, then returns to Berlin. Before picking up work again he travels to the south of France where his estranged mother lives with his French stepfather and two mysterious seven-year-old twins, whom he suspects might be Jews saved from deportation. During his visit, Aue wakes up nude and finds his stepfather has been hacked to death with an axe and his mother strangled. The twins appear to have seen the killer. Aue returns to Germany.


It’s clear from the logistics that the murders were carried out by Aue, but the narrator never commits to a confession, not even as an old man telling his story, when he merely brushes it aside: “I regret nothing. I did my job, that’s all; as for my family problems … they concern only me.” If he was indeed the murderer, then he has either removed all memory of it or maintained an ignoble silence.


Back in Berlin, Aue is assigned the job of improving the level of nutrition in the concentration camps so that the forced labor of mostly POWs and Jews can be exploited more efficiently. (Tons of bureaucratic details serve as ballast to keep the irony from getting out of hand.) In this section, Aue comes into contact with historical figures such as Albert Speer and Adolf Eichmann. The narrative riffs through the morass of details involved in implementing the Final Solution while facing the prospect of defeat. He tours several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the descriptions of what could be a circle of Dante’s Inferno are counterpoised against a backdrop of run-of-the-mill corruption, political infighting and bureaucratic snafus.


In the last part of the book, as the Red Army closes in on what’s left of the Reich, raping and pillaging their way westward through Prussia, Aue decides to go to the estate of his twin sister’s husband in Pomerania. The leitmotiv of the twin sister, Una, is introduced early on and is woven deftly throughout the entire book, allowing the narrator plenty of fodder for maudlin reminiscences. But of course in a book that’s meant to disturb, there simply has to be an incestuous component to their relationship. Not only that, but she’s married to an aristocratic music composer who was wounded in World War I, leaving him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. By the time Aue gets to the estate, his sister and her husband have already left for Switzerland.


Aue spends a besotted week mining their wine cellar and conjuring up new approaches to onanistic debauchery — with lace, no less. The great revelation comes when he goes through her drawers and letters and realizes that the twins staying with their mother were her own children. And speaking of debauchery, did I mention that Aue was homosexual? He regales us with detailed descriptions of his anus’s comings and goings. He revels in the ecstasy of his ersatz vagina, and the entire book is laced with longing and pining for the vicarious joy of his twin sister’s womb being filled by him and thus completed.


Thomas, like the cavalry, eventually arrives to save him from the Soviets. After a harrowing walk back west of the Oder River, they manage to get to Berlin along with the millions of refugees fleeing the Asiatic hordes. The book’s final scene, set in the bowels of Berlin’s metro, raises the implausibility factor to almost absurd heights. Aue is saved again from the clutches of death by Thomas, now dressed as a forced laborer and carrying false papers that say he’s French, so the Soviets won’t summarily execute him. To express his gratitude, Aue takes a metal rod from a broken cage of Berlin’s zoo and kills his friend with a blow to the back of the neck. We assume Aue will bugger off to France with Thomas’s papers. The end.

History, myth and fiction: the raw, the cooked and the steamed — (spoilers in [brackets])


That’s the plot. But in this book, plot is almost incidental. The storyline follows two axes (excuse the pun): 1) the fate of the Wehrmacht and SS on the Eastern Front, and 2) a loose analogy of the Orestes myth. Indeed, the third play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia Trilogy, the Eumenides, bears the name “Les Bienveillantes” in French, from which the original French title of this book. As all important historical novels should be, Littell’s is at once a commentary on the historiography of its subject matter and on the form of the novel.


Which brings us to the problem of the historical novel in general. Many readers prefer to get their history from novels, where historical events are either presented as background and context for the stories of individuals (Tolstoy’s War and Peace) or historical figures themselves and the events they take part in are central to the novel (Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian). In either case, the characters are expected to come to life in the novel’s economy of rising action, forward motion, denouement, catharsis, etc. The reader comes to identify with the characters, worry about them, love them, hate them.


Others prefer their history from drier, more factual sources: first-hand accounts, biographies, historical analysis chock-full of footnotes. I fall into this category. My reasoning goes something like this: Reality is complex, as is history. It already gets reduced to bite-sized pieces in a good work of scholarship. I don’t want to have that reality further processed and homogenized in order to fit the limiting conventions of a work of fiction — at least not if I’m primarily interested in the history — as is the case with a book about the Eastern Front during WWII written by someone who didn’t live it.


That said, there are some writers who can take the conventions of a novel, follow them up to a point, then “write beyond” them. It’s a sort of magic that occurs in our favorite literature. The conventions are there because they have traditionally proven to be the most effective way (or ways) to tell a story — and let’s face it, there’s no more pleasurable read than a good story. When the writer “writes beyond” the conventions, the language takes on a life of its own, the characters reflect a degree of complexity that approaches reality and illumines it. Often this is achieved by discarding the convention of realism.


The possibilities are theoretically limitless; but in reality, if the reader’s attention is to be kept, the process is like walking a tightrope. Littell walks the tightrope. For those interested in history, he has clearly digested copious sources in numerous languages beyond the capacities of most mortals and dilettante historians such as myself. The amount of research that must have gone into this novel is staggering. But it’s still a novel. And it feels like a novel — which is both a critique and a compliment. As in a good novel the language soars, cuts, whispers and screams to tear you away from the domain of the factual and stir emotions and sympathy. On the other hand, there are some story-telling devices that remind the reader he is being prodded to continue, despite the dreadful subject matter.


Moreover, Littell has consciously spread another layer of meaning onto the story: the myth. The Orestes dimension gives The Kindly Ones added depth, makes you think of the cycle of revenge central to Aeschylus’ trilogy. Littell insinuates the Final Solution into the realm of mythology, the terrible mythology of capricious gods whose priority is not necessarily the well-being of mortal humans. [7]


[But in Aeschylus, Orestes avenges his father’s murder. The Greeks gave that sort of vengeance gravitas with all their talk of Fate. Aue’s vengeance, while brutal and gory, struck me as half-assed, ambivalent, almost petty — which is okay for a novel whose narrator and protagonist is a vile antihero. But when it seems forced, made to fit a preset outline, then you begin to feel manipulated; and throughout The Kindly Ones I definitely felt manipulated by the added mythological dimension. [8] Granted, referring to pagan mythology was a common Nazi trope used to slacken the hold that the Judeo-Christian mindset had on European culture. Still, Aue’s desire for revenge lacked the gravitas I’d expect from such a patent analogue of Orestes — to me it seemed like simple sour grapes over his mother’s decision to remarry after having been abandoned by her husband. But you can’t expect everything, can you?]


By setting the story against the Orestes myth, by invoking the Eumenides, one is inclined to read the Holocaust as a turbulent, bloody, yet necessary episode in the process of achieving some sort of cosmic harmony. And here is where the book will raise the hackles of many Shoah memory-keepers. Is Monsieur Littell suggesting some teleology — if not divine plan — behind the Holocaust? God forbid. The mere thought verges on taboo. But then again, Aue is all about taboo. The Kindly Ones revels in flouting our taboos — [not least of which matricide].

Frick and Frack (this section also contains spoilers)


Perhaps the most problematic of the book’s “novelistic” devices is what I call “the Frick-and-Frack MacGuffin.” After the murder of his mother and stepfather, Aue returns to Berlin. Because this is a kick-in-the-teeth novel and because an entire long section of the book ends with the extremely aestheticized description of Aue walking over a blood-soaked rug to discover his stepfather’s hacked-up body, you assume Aue is the murderer — that is, unless the author is setting up a red herring, which seems unlikely in such a book. It’s odd (or too convenient) that this narrator, who otherwise seems to have total recall of events, has had a blackout and is in complete denial. But, of course, this is a novel, and there has to be some forward motion generated to help the reader slog through the mire of blood and shit. So the blackout, combined with the whodunnit element, serves as a MacGuffin.


Now for those unfamiliar with Alfred Hitchcock’s theories of cinema, a MacGuffin is a device that advances the story. As Hitchcock explained it in a 1939 lecture: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” In the context of this story, the MacGuffin is the appearance of inspectors Clemens and Weser, a pair of German policemen [9], who, Aue says, seem right out of a Hollywood film. They regularly appear in the most improbable situations and places in order to question Aue about the death of his mother and stepfather. Later, they present him with evidence such as the fact that the bloodied clothes found at the crime scene by French police were tailored in Berlin by the same tailor used by Aue. But since Aue is working directly for Heinrich Himmler, he is untouchable; various other obstacles thwart Frick and Frack’s investigation as well.


I, of course, expect something to come of this. And something does: stratospheric irony and burlesque. In the book’s very last pages, with Berlin about to capitulate and Hitler preparing to commit suicide (if not already dead) in his bunker. Aue literally bumps into Weser and Clemens in Berlin’s metro. It’s an extremely implausible encounter. They act as judges — embodiments of either Aue’s conscience or the Furies themselves, thirsty for justice — and recount in detail how Aue must have murdered his mother and stepfather. Then Weser gets hit by a stray Soviet bullet. Aue escapes. Clemens catches up to him. As Clemens is about to mete out justice, Aue is saved yet again (as already mentioned) by his faithful friend Thomas, all dressed up as a foreign worker and ready to get out of Dodge. That’s when Aue kills him, in the second-to-last paragraph. The last line of the novel, in an over-the-top dollop of irony, rings solemnly: “The Kindly Ones were on to me.”

Plausibility, irony and the quest for truth


When Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful came out, a polemic raged about whether it was appropriate to make a comedy about the Holocaust. The film’s success probably raised as many questions as it answered. With the burlesque Frick and Frack episodes and the cheekiness of The Kindly Ones ending, you have to ask: Is such cynical irony — yes, Aue, when not indulging in nostalgia, is cynical about the human species, and whatever sense of humor he may have springs from that cynicism — a valid approach to recounting the Holocaust? Shoah memory-keepers will be up in arms. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the primary purposes of the novel: to question and undermine our understanding of the real. All is licit in the novel, and Littell has shown extraordinary courage and skill in depicting Aue’s cynicism with all its caustic eloquence: “Despite my failings, and they have been numerous, I’ve remained one of those who think that the only things indispensable to human life are air, food, drink and excretion, and the search for truth. The rest is optional.”


Courage and skill aside, though, I can’t help wondering what, if anything, Aue’s unrepentant attitude undermines. Because it has to undermine something. And if it doesn’t undermine anything… well, then nothing is sacred, is it? Not even the telling of the story.


And let’s not forget the problem of plausibility. The novel, as I’ve said, is astonishingly well-researched. Aue, too, has had the benefit of reading the memoirs and history books that came out after the war. He comments on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, with whom he worked. The descriptions of troop movements and places — Ukrainian and Caucasian villages, Berlin before and during its destruction — are all so detailed that you are literally there, sucked into the dream fiction is meant to weave. But when a novelistic device intrudes to make you question the plausibility of events, then you might also question your identification with the characters. You might stop caring and read as if the book were a series of cold facts, as in history, or linguistic flourishes, as in poetry.


Another novelistic device in The Kindly Ones that undercuts plausibility is how conveniently Aue manages to wind up in so many important places on the Eastern Front and meet with so many of the Nazi hierarchs. He witnesses Babi Yar, he escapes from the Kessel in Stalingrad, he gets sent to report on the efficiency of concentration camps; he meets Eichmann, Speer, Himmler, even the Führer. [10]


Personally, I don’t mind the fortuitous insertion of the narrator in all the “right places” as much as I do a bogus MacGuffin that also refers grandiosely to Greek tragedy. But I’m already predisposed to slogging through a fat book of Nazi horrors. Other readers, I imagine, could use the benefit of a whodunnit element to generate forward motion. [11]


And who knows, you can also argue that Aue is exactly the type of guy to mythologize his memoirs. All important historical events get mythologized to one degree or another. No one understands this better than those brought up on the Old Testament — which is why the Shoah memory-keepers are rightly paying so much attention to this book. They understand that over time many educated people will be getting their information about the Final Solution and the events on the Eastern Front exclusively from this book. And that statement on its own should attest to the book’s importance.

The invisibility of evil


With the reference to Greek tragedy, the novel immediately sets up an almost Nietzschian opposition between Greek (pagan) and Judeo-Christian ethics.


About midway through the novel Aue encounters another officer, Untersturmführer Döll, who works at the Sobibor concentration camp. Döll confides to him that during the first months of Operation Barbarossa he was part of a special operations team charged with euthanizing wounded German soldiers. In the wake of his conversation, Aue delves into a philosophical reflection about ethics. He touches on the Kant-Hobbes dichotomy as well as the Judeo-Christian view that superceded the Greek. While Aue doesn’t seem to commit to any one viewpoint and by no means tries to justify his actions, this section serves as the book’s philosophical linchpin. [12]


Which brings us to the crux of the book. Stated simply, this is a novel about evil. The subject matter is the most horrific expression of evil in recent history, and certainly the largest ever in terms of sheer numbers. What separates the Nazis from all other perpetrators of massacres is how they did it so systematically, adapting methods of industrial production to the extermination of a people.


Hanna Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, has lent numerous commentators a catchphrase with which to approach The Kindly Ones. But what exactly did she mean by “banality of evil”? [13] After studying Eichmann’s life she determined that he probably did not harbor any psychopathic hatred toward the Jews. He was following orders based on premises that he didn’t have the imaginative faculties to question. That the Jews were different (or “other” to use pomospeak) in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe (especially in Eastern Europe) is undeniable. They were set apart and set themselves apart. You can get into a chicken-or-the-egg debate, but the fact remains that the Jews were different — i.e., they weren’t Christian. And in Poland and Ukraine they spoke their own language, Yiddish, and even looked very different with their payas (forelocks) and black gabardines. The same could be said for the Gypsies.


So Eichmann’s (and most of Germany’s) reasoning went like this: The Jews’ difference threatens the Aryans. Therefore they are the enemy. Therefore we must rid ourselves of them, destroy them. Of course, the reasoning is based on ludicrous premises, but it wouldn’t be the first time societies act collectively on what turn out later to be false assumptions. [14] So the banality refers to the everyday carrying out of decisions based on such horrific (in hindsight) premises. Duty often involves unpleasant tasks.


François Busnel, literary critic and editor of Lire magazine, suggests that in contradistinction to the “radical evil” of Kant and Arendt’s “banality of evil,” Littell is proposing a “third way” — i.e., The Kindly Ones depicts the “invisibility of evil.” According to Busnel, “You invent so many chains of responsibility that you don’t see where evil is. On the other hand, you see it where it isn’t.” [15] Indeed, the heinous actions become buried under heaps of reasoning and laboriously worked out logic — such as in the Nazi’s theories of racial superiority. These abstract considerations are further buried under a mountain of bureaucratic details: reports, enquiries, requests, supplies, statistics, numbers. Efficiency and logistics are crucial.


Here the import of the Nazi approach becomes apparent when compared to how the Red Army sought revenge. Nazi soldiers were not supposed to murder in the heat of the moment. [16] The massacring was viewed as a dirty job, but one that needed to be done. It was unavoidable. So they’d do it like gentlemen and find ways to do it more efficiently, with less blood, less gore. Hence the gas trucks, then the gas chambers. The Soviet soldiers, on the other hand, were nowhere near as efficient and rational as the Nazis. Many took revenge on German civilians freely and with gusto. And while there were officers who would rein in their men, there were others who encouraged the slaughter. [17]


The Final Solution, and by extension the killing machine it required, sprang from a Frankensteinian ideology that cobbled the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment with both the Romanticism and Darwinism of the 19th, then spread the paste over a flimsy veneer of Norse mythological heroism. The ethical inconsistencies that now seem obvious to us were camouflaged at first by the painstaking reasoning process that went into putting the ideology together, then subsequently by the details involved in implementing it.


If anything gives The Kindly Ones the right to be exalted, it’s the book’s relentless details. We get to see, through the interminable rationality and maudlin Romantic nostalgia of Maximilian Aue, how the evil of actions and events gets rationalized and rendered invisible — or, after the fact, just plain lost, forgotten in a miasma of memory less concerned with rectitude than some recherche du temps perdu.

Aue, the man (spoiler in [brackets])


The novel is as much about a single man as any historical event — an “everyman.” You’d think spending time with an unrepentant Nazi would be repulsive, but to Littell’s credit, Aue is not such a bad guy (or at least not as bad as you’d expect). Aue would argue that his main defect stemmed from the fact that he was born German in 1913. Otherwise Aue is intelligent, extremely well-spoken, cultured, sensitive, proud, and quite the gentleman in many respects. Even during the scenes in Ukraine, Aue only once fires on Jews, at Babi Yar, and only in order to put them out of their misery so they won’t be buried alive.


But apart from a young piano prodigy and a mystic mountain Jew in the Caucasus, with whom Aue converses in ancient Greek, there are no Jews in the novel — only the zombies found in the concentration camps, and it’s not clear how many of those are Jews and how many are Russians or political prisoners. It’s all abstract: ciphers in a ledger. Aue, and thousands of Germans like him, are only going about their business.


So what is it about Aue that lets me (and I assume other readers) want to continue spending time with him? Quite simply, his humanity. And when I say humanity I don’t mean compassion. There’s little compassion going on here. No, his humanity comes from the fact that he is supremely inadequate. Aue lives in the past, he loves music and regrets never having learned the piano; he’s wistful about the father who abandoned him when he was a child, just after the First World War, and he wrongly blames his mother for that abandonment — the mother to whose milk he was allergic. He buries himself in work to stave off that gnawing sensation of inadequacy. The Nazi party and the war have given him a chance to live according to ideals. Unfortunately, he might just be intelligent and sensitive enough to see through those ideals, so he buries himself in work again, or indulges in romantic reveries.


But while he does many of the same things “normal” people do, Aue does everything with a perverse twist. First of all, he’s not just homosexual, he’s an avowed sodomite, preferring to get “drilled up the ass” so he can feel “at-one” with his twin sister Una (pun intended — also by Littell). His sexual experiences are usually fleeting encounters with rough trade; one of the few men who can carry on an intellectual conversation (a Romanian diplomat), he eventually kills.


As far as Una is concerned, they had two incestuous experiences, once as children, just prior to their being split up and sent to separate boarding schools, and another just prior to her getting married; and he pines for her throughout the book as she becomes the star of his unseemly masturbatory fantasies. Their encounter in Berlin, shortly before he sees his mother in the south of France, is quite moving, worthy of a fine romantic novel. She tells him it’s over. He doesn’t believer her — why else would she have married a paralyzed man? He’s the only man for her — literally her other half. The only problem is she’s his sister, and he’s sick — a sick man in a society gone mad, conducting Aktionen of absolute insanity.


[Oh, and did I mention? Those mysterious twins who observed the murder were very likely the fruit of Max and Una’s last incestuous encounter. Aue never says it outright, but if you do the math it all works out.]


However, for long stretches of the book you forget about the sickness. You get hypnotized by the details, the memories, the poetic flourishes, the past, the politics: all the stuff of hurly-burly storytelling. And amid the details you realize there’s a stubborn integrity to Aue, a likeable sense of defiance. When he goes on a hunting trip with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister for armaments, Aue comes along but keeps his rifle on his shoulder. When Speer asks why he’s not hunting, Aue replies: “It is necessary at times to kill out of duty, Herr Reichsminister. Killing for pleasure, that’s a choice.” Speer then says, “I, thank God, have only killed for pleasure. I haven’t known war.” Aue’s wit can be scathing. But he does make you think. And yet, he’s a coward, and a killer — Nazi scum enslaved to his uptightness, who only feels free when he’s dreaming of taking it up the ass or fucking his sister. So much for a likeable narrator.


But I was hooked from the get-go. And I can’t speak for other readers, but I identified with Aue’s humanity and perversity and would get shivers when it crossed my mind that had I been born in more extreme circumstances, I too could have succumbed to similarly extreme behavior. This is one of the questions the narrator himself raises early on, and then rams down your throat throughout: “I’m not looking to say that I’m not guilty of such and such an act. I’m guilty, you aren’t, that’s fine. But you should at least be able to tell yourself that what I did, you would have done as well. Perhaps with less zeal, but also with less desperation… ”


And if identification is not troubling enough, then he throws a vitriolic caveat into your face: “There were, of course, sadists and deranged men, as in all wars, and they committed unnamable atrocities, this is true… But these sick men are nothing. The real danger is from the ordinary men of which the State is made up. The real danger for humanity is me, it’s you. And if you’re not convinced of it, then it’s pointless to read further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry, with no gain for either of us.”

The last judgment — if only


Ultimately, The Kindly Ones, is a novel with all the fine qualities and many of the defects [18] of its narrator Maximilian Aue: insidiously horrific, longwinded, overindulgent. Its gutters run with blood and its narrator spews rivers of literal shit and vomit; his dreams and waking nightmares reek of rotting corpses. It is peopled by callous scheming technocrats, paradigms of common mediocrity caught up in history’s vortex. Love abideth not here. In fact, if there were anything even remotely resembling love, then by the time it reaches Littell’s pages it has been twisted into something perverse, something with a distinctly sulfuric aftertaste. And yet, you get the feeling that love could abide here, if only things weren’t so fucked up beyond measure.


The Kindly Ones, the novel, is often moving, even endearing at times, and it makes you think about one serious thing: evil, how it takes hold of individuals and societies — despite reason, and often with reason’s collaboration. But to call The Kindly Ones a novel, or even literature for that matter, would be cutting it short. It’s a book, an unforgettable book. Arguably the most important one to have come out so far this century — if not since WWII. [19] I place it alongside War and Peace, Memoirs of Hadrian and Don DeLillo’s Libra as fictions that will irrevocably corrupt my understanding of specific historical events and people.


I can’t imagine Napoleon’s Russian campaign without thinking of Tolstoy’s account. When I see a sculpted bust of Emperor Hadrian, I hear his voice through Marguerite Yourcenar. Don DeLillo did the same for Lee Harvey Oswald in his maniacally detailed fictionalized biography. And now, when I think of Babi Yar, or Adolf Eichmann and Albert Speer, I think of Aue, a man who didn’t exist, but could have. And the men, women and children who lived and died, who killed and were killed, the war he witnessed and fought in the name of something that strikes us now as absurd; all of it will be made myth. Littell is aware of that, and makes sure the myth is told bereft of teleology — though the “kindly ones” may beg to differ.


[1] Many reviews of Les Bienveillantes mention Robert Merle’s 1952 novel La Mort est mon métier, a fictional biography of Rudolf Hös, the director of Auschwitz. While I haven’t read the novel, its length is about half that of Les Bienveillantes and it covers a good deal of his childhood and early life. Les Bienveillantes is set almost entirely during the war years.

[2] Huge kudos must be given to Charlotte Mandell for successfully handling the daunting task of translating a novel by an author for whom the target language is his mother tongue. I wrote this essay not long after Les Bienveillantes came out in France. I read it in French and translated the quotes here myself. I chose to leave my own off-the-cuff, less polished and more literal translation because my Frenchified syntax reminds me of the impact the original had on me. I only reverted to Mandell’s version in instances when hers was embarrassingly superior.

[3] Which is not to say Littell hasn’t gotten slammed with harsh criticism. In Die Zeit Michael Mönniger wrote that the book was “scandalous kitsch in places. It’s the poetics of horror that turn a very talented contemporary author into a pornographer of violence.” (quoted from Claude Lanzmann, director of the film Shoah, called the book a “poisonous flower of evil” in Le Journal du Dimanche. “In spite of the best efforts of the author,” he goes on to say, “these 900 stormy pages are completely unconvincing… The book as a whole is simply a scene setter and Littell’s fascination for the villain, for horror, for the extremes of sexual perversion, work entirely against his story and his character, inspiring discomfort and repulsion, even though it’s hard to say against who or what… ” (quoted from Natasha Lehrer’s article “French Press” in

[4] I, like many people, came at this book with draggers drawn and hatchet ready. Littell’s treatment of the OUN and OUN-B (the faction led by Stepan Bandera) in particular served as a litmus test; and he passed it easily. The Banderites have long gotten bad publicity, especially from Soviet historians. Littell, however, did his homework and showed matter-of-factly that Bandera’s faction collaborated with the Nazis in a tactical alliance for all of eight days, until June 30, 1941, when Bandera was arrested after the Ukrainian declaration of independence and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained until October 1944. Throughout the war the OUN-B continued to create problems for the Nazis. They suppressed their anti-Jewish rhetoric and there were many instances of their military wing, the UPA, sheltering Jews. However, the prevailing sentiment, which the book gets across, is that the war was the priority. And for the OUN the objective was clear: an independent Ukraine. Whether the Jews were coddled, herded into ghettos or exterminated was secondary or irrelevant for most — even the Wehrmacht. And indeed, one could safely assume that if Stalin had to choose between sheltering Jews at the cost of losing the war and winning the war at the cost of exterminating the Jews, he would have chosen the latter without hesitation. In a situation where over three million Soviet troops were taken prisoner by Nazis (tantamount to death as most estimates give the survival rate at less than 10%) by October 1941, the Einsatzaktionen were viewed as tangential horrors.

[5] Aue continues by qualifying the statement “… the Western victors, I should specify, since the Soviets, despite their rhetoric, always understood the situation: Stalin, after May 1945, once the initial gesticulations for the audience were finished, virulently mocked this illusory ‘justice’; he wanted something solid, concrete, slaves or material to rise up and rebuild, not remorse or lamentations, because he knew as well as we that the dead can’t hear us crying, and regrets never put beans in the soup.”

[6] Elsewhere, Littell ventures a five-page run-on sentence. And while such grandstanding may seem presumptuous, sophomoric or just plain unnecessary, you have to admire his balls.

[7] Any such overlay of a novelistic setting on top of a Greek mythological story brings me invariably back to James Joyce’s Ulysses. And this, on its own, is a high hurdle to jump.

[8] But I don’t mind feeling manipulated. Not only don’t I mind, I expect it. Isn’t that what we all want from a novel? — to be manipulated into a world so thoroughly beyond yourself that you feel like you’re flying. In this case, however, the myth element gave me more the sensation of intellectual diddling (which is still okay) than actual flight.

[9] Clemens and Weser are Berlin-based police investigating a murder in the territory of Vichy France. Littell does a few backflips to explain how it’s plausible, but the bullshit detectors rang nonetheless.

[10] Spoiler warning: [In one of the last, ridiculously slapstick scenes, Aue is decorated by Hitler in his bunker just days before the end. Aue is so fascinated by Hitler’s appallingly un-Aryan nose, that he is compelled to give it a tweak, which sets off the final chase scene through Berlin in flames.]

[11] Spoiler warning: [I would’ve liked to see an attempt at coming to terms with the war horrors and his own matricide, a sort of metanoia, as in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (With Aue, who is somewhat of a cold fish compared to Raskalnikov, such a metanoia could have borne very strange fruit.) Granted, that might be expecting too much since the whole premise of the book is that it’s written from the perspective of an unrepentant SS officer. Still, a tinge of sincere torment — anything but that gentlemanly sarcasm. Then again, you could probably argue that the entire book is a cold fish of a metanoia.]

[12] The Kindly Ones is an eminently quotable book, and here the whole section, which can practically stand on its own, deserves to be quoted at length:
“What I wanted to say was that if man is certainly not, as some poets and philosophers would have him, naturally good, then neither is he naturally bad: good and evil are categories that can serve to qualify the effect of an action of one man upon another; but they are in my opinion fundamentally inadequate, indeed, unusable, to judge what happens in this man’s heart. Döll killed people, or had them killed, so that is Evil; but inside he was a good man to those close to him, indifferent to others, and also respectful of the laws. What more could be expected from the individuals in our civilized and democratic cities? And how many philanthropists throughout the world, famous for their extravagant generosity, are on the contrary cold and selfish monsters, greedy for public glory, puffed up with vanity, and tyrannical with those close to them? All men want to satisfy their needs and remain indifferent to those of others. And for men to be able to live together, to avoid the Hobbesian state of “all against all” and, on the contrary, thanks to the mutual assistance and increased productivity that come from it, to satisfy more of their desires, you need regulations that draw the limits of desires and arbitrate conflicts. This mechanism is the Law. But men, selfish and greedy as they are, must agree to the Law’s constraints, which themselves must thus refer to something beyond man, must be founded on a power that man recognizes as higher than himself. As I already suggested to Eichmann during our dinner, this supreme and imaginary point of reference had long been the idea of God; from the invisible and omnipotent God it slipped into the physical person of the king, the sovereign with divine rights; and when the king lost his head, the sovereignty was passed on to the People or the Nation, and was founded on a fictive “contract,” with no historical or biological basis, and therefore as abstract as the idea of God. German National-Socialism wanted to anchor this in the Volk, a historical reality: the Volk is sovereign, and the Führer expresses or represents or incarnates this sovereignty. From this sovereignty derives the Law, and for most men of all countries, morality is nothing other than the Law: in this sense, the moral law of Kant, with which Eichmann was so concerned, deriving from reason and identical for all men, is a fiction, as are all laws (though perhaps a useful fiction). The Law of the Bible says: Thou shalt not kill, and foresees no exception; yet every Christian and Jew accepts that in wartime this law is suspended, that it is just to kill the enemy of one’s people, that there is no sin; once the war is over, the arms put down, the old law takes its peaceful course again, as if the interruption had never taken place. So for a German, to be a good German means to obey the laws, and therefore the Führer: there can be no other morality because nothing would be able to establish it (and it is not by chance that the rare opponents to power were mostly believers: they kept another moral reference point, they could judge Good and Evil without referring to the Führer, and God served them as a support that enabled them to betray their leader and their country: without God it would have been impossible for them, because from where would they have drawn their justification? What man alone, out of his own will, can decide once and for all this is good and this is evil? It would be sheer excess, and chaos too, if each person got it into his head to do likewise, if each man lived according to his own private Law, no matter how Kantian, and we’d be back to Hobbes). So if one wants to judge the German actions during this war as criminal, then it’s all of Germany you have to call into account, and not just the Dölls. If Döll wound up in Sobibor and his neighbor didn’t, it’s chance, and Döll is no more responsible for Sobibor than his more fortunate neighbor; at the same time, his neighbor is as responsible as he is for Sobibor because both serve the same country with devotion and integrity, the country that created Sobibor. A soldier, when he is sent to the front, doesn’t protest; not only does he risk his life, but one obliges him to kill, even if he doesn’t want to kill; his will abdicates; if he stays at his post, he’s a virtuous man, if he flees, he’s a deserter, a traitor. The man sent to work at a concentration camp, like the man assigned to an Einsatzkommando or a police battalion, usually reasons likewise: he knows that his will counts for nothing, and only chance has made of him a murderer rather than a hero, or a corpse. Then you must consider things from a moral point of view that is no longer Judeo-Christian (or secular and democratic, which is essentially the same), but rather Greek: the Greeks made a place for chance in the affairs of men (chance, one must say, often disguised as the intervention of the gods), but they felt that this chance in no way diminished their responsibility. The crime refers to the act, not to the will. Oedipus, when he kills his father, does not know he is committing parricide; killing a stranger on the road who insults you, for the Greek conscience and law, was a legitimate action, there is no fault; but that man was Laius, and ignorance in no way changes the crime. Oedipus recognizes this, and when he finally learns the truth, he chooses his own punishment and inflicts it on himself. The link between will and crime is a Christian notion, one which continues into modern law; criminal law, for example, considers involuntary or negligent homicide a crime, but less of a crime than premeditated homicide; the same goes for juridical notions that attenuate responsibility in the case of insanity; and the 19th century has managed to stow the notion of crime into that of the abnormal. For the Greeks, little matters that Heracles kills his children in the throes of madness, or that Oedipus accidentally kills his father: it changes nothing, it’s a crime, they are guilty; one can feel sorry for them, but they cannot be absolved — and with that their punishment is often referred to the gods, not to men. From this point of view, the principle of a postwar trial that judges men on their concrete actions, without taking chance into consideration, is just; but it was done clumsily; judged by foreigners whose values they denied (while acknowledging their rights as victors), the Germans can feel relieved of the burden, and thus innocent; just as one who hadn’t been judged considered one who had as the victim of bad luck. He absolved him, at the same time absolving himself; and the one who rotted in an English jail, or a Russian gulag, did the same. But could it have been otherwise? How, for an ordinary man, can something be righteous one day and a crime the next? Men need to be guided, and that’s not their fault. These are complex questions with no simple answers. The Law, who knows where it is? Each of us has to look for it, but it’s difficult, and it’s normal to give in to common consensus. Everybody can’t be a legislator. (pp. 591-593)”

[13] I assume analyzing The Kindly Ones in light of Arendt will become a cottage industry in academic circles. And while I’m almost entirely ignorant of Arendt’s writings, I’ll nevertheless hazard an unfairly cursory interpretation based on all the allusions to her book that Littell’s has generated.

[14] One need only look at the situation in Iraq, where the U.S. population overwhelmingly supported a colonial adventure under the pretext of a preemptive invasion in order to eliminate WMD that weren’t there.


[16] Though they often did, and there was no shortage of German sadists. But more than just lip service was given to the need to maintain discipline with regard to the extermination process. The Nazis felt that meting out justice individually would undermine the collective effort.

[17] See Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945, pp. 28-32, with regard to the Red Army’s contradictory attitude toward raping and pillaging as they came through Germany. In fact, both The Fall of Berlin 1945 and Stalingrad by Beevor are two examples of proper history books that are as engaging and entertaining as any novel.

[18] I think this natural tendency of critics to point out defects in a novel reflects, above all, our own limited expectations of what the novel should be. This, along with the stilted idea of so-called “literary quality” — which in this case has been consistently pooh-poohed, even in Busnel’s backhanded compliment: “The Kindly Ones is not this year’s best written work of literature, but it’s the most troubling and exciting book in a long time” (quoted from a Lire editorial, December 2006-January 2007) — tends to sabotage whatever quest for poetic truth lies in the language.

[19] I only wish it came with index, footnotes and bibliography — though I’m sure some entrepreneurial spirit is working on such an edition right now.

Stash Luczkiw

Stash Luczkiw

Stash Luczkiw is a New York-born poet, fiction writer, translator and journalist based in Italy. He currently works as editor of Cartier Art magazine. He has recently completed a book-length sequence of poems, “Selah”.

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