Book review: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, pp.992, published by Chatto & Windus
Of all the millions killed in WWII, the fate of a fictional character has concerned me more than any. Stranger still, I have found myself rooting for a German and a high ranking SS officer at that. The same might be said for you, if you’ve read the Kindly Ones, a book which turns preconceptions about the Second World War on their head.
Max Aue is one of those educated, cultivated Nazis you often hear about. He has a doctorate in law. He loves French classical music and wishes he could play the piano. Towards the jews, he harbours no personal hatred. But all the same, from an ideological perspective, he believes in enslaving them and co-operates in massacres at the front and the institutionalised murder of the camps.
But early on this bloody-handed narrator insists that the men who pull the triggers are no more culpable than, say, men working in gun factories or even the builders of roads. You, dear reader, would have done the same, says he, and this dispassionate, involving epic soon fosters a certain level of collusion with Aue. His guilt soaks into you.
The ObersturmbahnfÃ¼hrer’s crimes go back to the nursery and later return to the family home with devastating effects, or so it seems. Only the horror that surrounds this character offers any sort of expiation at all. Where civilisation breaks down almost everyone is as bad, or worse. The book is full of shocking, unfilmable details which cannot but be true.
Despite all this or perhaps because of it, The Kindly Ones is filled with excitement. Aue is a great escapologist, surviving Stalingrad, near capture behind Russian lines and a final apocalypse set in Berlin. There are meetings with Eichmann, Speer, Himmler and even Hitler. His involvement with the 20th century’s greatest conflict is total.
Jonathan Littell has demystified the German regime and taken the romantic sheen off what has been called the last just war. His book left me with great sadness and no little amazement.