Magazine article The Spectator

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Magazine article The Spectator

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Article excerpt

THE KINDLY ONES by Jonathan Littell, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell Chatto & Windus, £20, pp. 965, ISBN 9780701181659 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'You might be wondering how I ended up in the lace business . . . ', so the hero of The Kindly Ones, a doctor of law and former SS officer, introduces himself to readers of his fictional memoirs. Dr Max Aue, an ingenious Nazi of Franco-German descent, has survived the war and assumed a false identity in order to escape 'the rope or Siberia'. As Berlin falls to the Red Army he slips out of the city and makes his way to Paris disguised as a returning French STO, an enlisted worker.

But the war has reduced him to 'an empty shell, left with nothing but bitterness and a great shame'. And so he decides to write his memoirs. What follows is a blow-byblow account of a descent into hell, perhaps the least metaphorical hell invented by man: 1941, the Eastern Front, the Ukraine, Stalingrad, Auschwitz and the fall of Berlin.

Max Aue does not justify what he saw or what he did, but he insists that he was simply 'a man like other men' and that those who had not committed his crimes had merely been luckier than he had been. 'Because if you have the arrogance to think [that you are a better person than I am]', he warns his readers, 'that's just where the danger begins'.

In his case one thing lead to another: 'I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I finally overstepped those bounds'.

Jonathan Littell, an American author who writes in French, has already enjoyed widespread success with this second novel.

First published in France in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, it won the Prix Goncourt and has sold over a million copies internationally. It has been compared to War and Peace and has similar scope and ambition, although a more appropriate title for this version would be War and War. Littell's purpose is to recreate the experience of the second world war from a diligent Nazi's point of view and in doing so to move beyond accusation and punishment to understanding.

By placing SS Obersturmführer Dr Aue in the SD, the internal security service of the SS, Littell can lift his protagonist like a toy soldier around a vast panorama of war, and from the start of The Kindly Ones we are drawn into Max Aue's world. We learn how he ended up in the lace business, and then we are taken through what happened before. The story opens with Aue's unit, an Einsatzgruppe attached to the Sixth Army, advancing out of Poland towards Lutsk through the wreckage and chaos of the Soviet retreat. This is Nazism as an ongoing project, with Dr Aue and his colleagues surging forward with confidence towards a brighter future. For the student of the second world war joining them is like walking into a house through the front door and being invited into every room instead of peering in, as previously, through unlit windows covered in cobwebs.

Shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union, Aue's commanding officer, SS Standartenführer Blobel, has a nervous breakdown. Blobel tries to shoot an army captain who arrives with an order from Field Marshall von Reichenau instructing the SS to round up and execute 1,000 Jews in reprisal for killings of pro-Nazis carried out by the retreating NKVD. Muttering about 'needing a plough to bury the bodies' and 'the honour of the SS', Blobel is sent back to Berlin under sedation. But Dr Aue, ambitious and self-disciplined, is made of sterner stuff. All his life he has had 'a passion for the absolute', and now, in the form of absolute evil, it is to hand.

The task of his unit is 'to identify and eliminate any element behind the lines that might threaten the security' of German troops as they advance on Moscow. It follows that Bolsheviks, Commissars, Jews and Gypsies are to be dealt with on sight.

The region, already butchered by the departing Commissars, is in turmoil. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.