The Kindly Ones (Littell novel)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Kindly Ones (French: Les Bienveillantes) is a novel, in the form of historical fiction, written in French by the American-born author Jonathan Littell. It tells the story of a former SS officer who helped carry out massacres during World War II. The 900-page book was awarded two of the most prestigious French literary awards, the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in 2006.


The book is a fictional autobiography, describing the life of Maximilien Aue, a former officer in the SS who, decades later, tells the story of a crucial part of his life when he was an active member of the security forces of the Third Reich. Aue begins his narrative as a member of an Einsatzgruppe in 1941, before being sent to the doomed German forces locked in the Battle of Stalingrad, which he survives. After a convalescence period in Berlin, and a visit to occupied France, he is designated for an advisory role for the concentration camps, and visits the extermination camps. He is ultimately present during the 1945 Battle of Berlin, the Nazi regime's last stand. By the end of the story, he flees Germany under a false French identity to start a new life in northern France. Throughout the account, Aue meets several famous Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler. In the book, Aue accepts responsibility for his actions, but most of the time he feels more like an observer than a direct participant.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each named after a baroque dance, following the sequence of a Bach Suite. The narrative of each chapter is influenced by the rhythm of each dance.

« Toccata »: In this introduction, we are introduced to the narrator, and discover how he has ended up in France after the war. He is the director of a lace factory, has a wife, children, and grandchildren, though he has no real affection for his family and continues his homosexual encounters when he travels on business. He hints of an incestuous love, which we learn later was for his twin sister. He explains that he has decided to write about his experiences during the war for his own benefit and not as an attempt to justify himself. He closes the introduction by saying, "I live, I do what can be done, it's the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!"

« Allemande I & II »: Aue describes his service as an officer in one of the Einsatzgruppen extermination squads operating in Ukraine, as well as later in the Caucasus (a major theme is the racial classification, and thus fate, of the region's Mountain Jews). Aue's group is attached to the 6th Army in Ukraine, where he witnesses the Lviv pogroms and participates in the enormous massacre at Babi Yar. He describes in detail the killing of Soviet Jews, Communists, alleged partisans and other victims of the "special operations". Although he seems to become increasingly indifferent to the atrocities he is witnessing and sometimes taking part in, he begins to experience daily bouts of vomiting and suffers a mental breakdown. After taking sick leave, he is transferred to Otto Ohlendorf's Einsatzgruppe D only to encounter much hostility from his new SS colleagues, who openly spread rumours of his homosexuality. Aue is then charged with the assignment of proving to the Wehrmacht that the Mountain Jews were historically Jewish rather than later converts to Judaism. After he fails in this task, due to political pressure from the beleaguered Army, his disappointed commanding officer arranged that he be transferred to the doomed German forces at Stalingrad in late 1942.

« Courante »: Aue thus takes part in the final phase of the struggle for Stalingrad. As with the massacres, he is mostly an observer, the narrator rather than the combatant. In the midst of the mayhem and starvation, he manages to have a discussion with a captured Soviet political commissar about the similarities between the Nazi and the Bolshevik world views, and once again is able to indicate his intellectual support for Nazi ideas. Aue gets shot in the head and seriously wounded, but is miraculously evacuated just before the German surrender in February 1943.

« Sarabande »: Convalescing in Berlin, Aue is awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, by the SS chief Heinrich Himmler himself, for his duty at Stalingrad. While still on sick leave, he decides to visit his mother and stepfather in Antibes, in Italian-occupied France. Apparently, while he is in a deep sleep, his mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. Max flees from the house without notifying anybody and returns to Berlin.

« Menuet en rondeaux »: Aue is transferred to Heinrich Himmler's personal staff, where he is assigned an at-large supervisory role for the concentration camps. He struggles to improve the living conditions of those prisoners selected to work in the factories as slave laborers, in order to improve their productivity. Aue meets Nazi bureaucrats organizing the implentation of the Final Solution (i.e., Eichmann, Oswald Pohl, and Rudolf Höß) and is given a glimpse of extermination camps (i.e., Auschwitz and Belzec); he also spends some time in Budapest, just when preparations are being made for transporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Aue witnesses the tug-of-war between those who are concerned with war production (Albert Speer) and those who are doggedly trying to implement the Final Solution. It is during this period that two police detectives from the Kripo, who are investigating the murders of his mother and stepfather, begin to visit him regularly. Like the Furies, they hound and torment him with their questions, which indicate their suspicions about his role in the crime.

« Air »: Max visits his sister and brother-in-law's empty house in Pomerania. There, he engages in a veritable autoerotic orgy particularly fueled by fantasy images of his twin sister. The two police officers follow his trail to the house, but he manages to hide from them. However, Aue soon finds himself trapped when the Red Army rapidly invades and occupies Pomerania.

« Gigue »: Accompanied by his friend Thomas, who has come to rescue him, and escorted by a violent band of fanatical and half-feral orphaned German children, Max makes his way through the Soviet-occupied territory and across the front line. Arriving in Berlin, Max, Thomas, and many of their colleagues prepare for escape in the chaos of the last days of the Third Reich; Thomas' own plan is to impersonate a French laborer. Aue meets and is personally decorated by Hitler in the Führerbunker. During the decoration ceremony, Aue inexplicably bites the Führer's nose and is immediately arrested. When he is transported to his execution, the car is hit by an artillery shell, enabling him to escape. Aue flees through the Berlin U-Bahn subway tunnels, where he encounters his police pursuers again. Though their case has been repeatedly thrown out of court, the two detectives, unwilling to accept defeat, decided to track Aue down and execute him extrajudicially. Barely escaping when the Soviets storm the tunnels and kill one of the policemen, Aue wanders aimlessly in the ruined streets of war-torn Berlin before deciding to make a break for it. Making his way through the wasteland of the destroyed Berlin Zoo, he is yet again faced by the surviving policeman. Thomas shows up to kill the policeman, only to himself be killed by Aue, who steals from him the papers and uniform of a French STO conscripted worker.

The readers know from the beginning of the book that Aue's perfect mastery of the French language will allow him to slip away back to France with a new identity as a returning Frenchman. In the last paragraph of the novel, the narrator, after he ruthlessly killed his friend and protector, suddenly finds himself "alone with time and sadness": "The Kindly Ones were on to me." But in the end, all is not explicitly laid out for the reader; for Littell, in the words of one reviewer, "excels in the unsaid."

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