The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell


Bill Keeth with an overlong book about truly dreadful deeds that were perpetrated in Europe in the great long ago

I recall reading in the press some years ago about a young churchman who proposed to study pornography.

Were his church elders mad, I wondered, in not preventing him from doing so. The very least they might have done was warn him that pornography is the devil’s handiwork and, where his handiwork is to be found, the devil himself is never far away, since he is quite incapable of concealing his pride in it.   You may call me an old fuddy-duddy if you will, but the churchman’s subsequent affair with a parishioner, a mother of three, caused major problems for two families and cast a long shadow over the churchman’s future career and vocation, too. So beware of the book title listed here. Because I had the self-same feeling of apprehension on turning to it.

This 900-page book became a bestseller in France and was widely discussed in newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books and seminars. It was also awarded two of the most prestigious French literary awards, the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in 2006. Come December 2009, the book had been translated into seventeen languages.

According to Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad and Berlin, The Downfall, 1945, it is “A great work of literary fiction to which readers will turn for decades to come.” Well, maybe so – but I won’t be one of them.

Because The Kindly Ones sees Dr Max Aue, an industrialist and family man living in post-war France – a lover of literature and classical music, reminiscing in the first person about his life as an SS intelligence officer and cold-blooded serial killer on the Eastern Front during WWII.

At least that’s where I left him. Because The Kindly Ones runs to just short of 1,000 pages and, though length alone won’t put me off a book (check out my abiding love for Fielding’s Tom Jones, which I devoured, aged 21 years of age, together with John O’Hara’s masterly On the Terrace), the length of Jonathan Littell’s book seems needless.

Jonathan Littell later takes Max to Stalingrad, the death camps and to Berlin itself, his world populated by Eichmann, Himmler, Speer and Hitler himself. But around p.200 I’d had quite enough of it – thank you very much. The story Max has to tell us is sickening – and in a sense this is the author’s intention, of course (for which I sincerely thank him), with page after page listing and describing the manner in which the Germans (NB the Germans, not just the SS) carry out the doctrinaire Nazi policy of genocide, village by village and town by town as they push through Russia to the outskirts of Moscow.

Even the arrangement of the text in The Kindly Ones – extensive blocks of sheer verbiage (often enough), together with minimal chaptering – underlines the monotony and repetitiveness of the violence visited upon the indigenous population wherever German jackboots tread.

Meanwhile, the concerns of the individual soldiery would appear to be banal in the extreme, displaying their gentlemanly annoyance at slithering about in mud and blood . . . at getting it on their uniforms . . . at struggling to stand upright whilst walking on corpses, literally thousands upon thousands of them.

A couple of startling vignettes persist in haunting my mind, though this tome has long since been quite determinedly slammed shut.

Early on in the narrative, during a lull in the dawn to dusk shootings (in the back of each individual’s head, by the by), with the killer Germans briefly experiencing difficulty burying the bodies due to the water table, a bunch of prisoners make a break for the tree line. Some are shot, of course; others escape. And surely happier are both (the quick and the dead) than those who continue standing there, mute, inactive, meekly awaiting the coup de grace.

Better still, there’s a lightly-sketched story about Yakov, a young boy kept alive as a mascot, so to speak, his singular virtuosity as a piano player endearing him to his captors. Indeed, our big-hearted narrator, music lover that he is, goes so far as to order Yakov a volume of sheet music from Paris, which just so happens to be delivered to Max (now holidaying at Yalta in the Crimea) by no less a personage that Adolf Eichmann. Sadly, the sheet music comes too late for Yakov who, despite his rare musical ability these brutes have had working under a vehicle suspended by a jack that goes kaput and falls on the lad, rendering his hand useless and in need of amputation. Not to worry, though. Because there’s no need to waste morphine on the boy, a bullet being cheaper by far.

Personally, I found The Kindly Ones gave rise to much thought concerning something I had previously believed to be true. For instance, after reading as much as I needed to read of The Kindly Ones I no longer believe that genocide as practised in WWII was exclusively the work of the SS. Not at all. Because what I now believe is that as many Germans as could be roped in by the presiding power share the responsibility for this same heinous crime. Certainly, the Wehrmacht is implicated, only airmen and seamen having any claim to innocence in the matter due to special circumstance.

. . . There is further clarification of thought on offer, too. Killings such as are described in The Kindly Ones – that is to say killings by an invader/terrorist may never properly be described as “executions”. Because according to my dictionary at home “To execute” (v.t.) means “to put to death according to due process of law” –and “due process of law” specifies court procedure prior to judgment together with a specific form of execution subsequent to judgment being delivered, neither of which facility accompanies summary killings.

Finally, it would appear that Jonathan Littell’s over riding thesis with The Kindly Ones is to stress that the German perpetrators of the crime of genocide during WWII are not monsters, they are simply human beings.

This much I freely accept. But what I cannot and never will agree with is Littell’s further hypothesis to the effect that, since we are all human beings, every last one of us is capable of genocide.

Not so, Mr Littell – or rather not necessarily so. Because an additional and very essential characteristic is required before a human being is capable of genocide, something which Germans living in the Third Reich believed implicitly, and certainly something the characters in The Kindly Ones share in abundance – namely, the totally erroneous assumption that members of a certain section of society (a race, country or creed, say) are somehow less than human, even sub-human; that they are, in fact, untermenschen.

Here’s how Byron Marlfield, the brighter of the two narrators of my debut novel, Every Street in Manchester sees it: ‘Blow an attitude like that up to national level and you can bank on genocide before too long: the Sioux nation, the aborigines in Tasmania, 6 million Jews in WWII, 4.7 million babies aborted in the UK in the past 40 years,’

Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website,

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