The Kindly Ones Book Review

The Kindly Ones, a novel by Jonathan Littell originally published in French, was named one of the 100 Best Books of the Decade by The Times of London.

The Kindly Ones Book Review

Written by an American author in French and set amid the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany, this book is a challenging read of nearly 1000 pages. But if you’re thinking of reading it or just want a brief idea of what it’s about, consider consulting our book review. 

A Summary Of The Kindly Ones

A former Nazi officer, Dr. Maximilien Aue, reinvented himself after the war.

Now, he’s a middle-class family man who owns a factory in France. Behind his new background, where he is an intellectual with knowledge of philosophy, literature, and classical music, lies a consummate bureaucrat and a cold-blooded assassin.

In The Kindly Ones, we see the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of Dr. Aue as he experiences the disturbingly precise horrors of World War II and the Jewish genocide. 

The Kindly Ones was written over five years, and Littell wanted to focus on the thinking of an executioner and the origins of state murder, and how someone can make decisions that would lead to genocide.

Inspired by his childhood terror of being drafted into the Vietnam War to kill those who had never hurt him, he delved further into the story by focusing on the structure of The Oresteia and other Ancient Greek tragedies. 

The Kindly Ones Review

The Kindly Ones is a sprawling novel that tackles sober themes, and at the time of its release, the literary world was much more fond of smaller works.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t more of a backlash, as the scale of The Kindly Ones will no doubt intimidate publishers for the amount of ink needed to publish it. 

Of course, Littell is not the first writer to tackle the Holocaust. Many unique works tackle this period, but how is The Kindly Ones different? We’ve already seen graphic novels in backward chronology, YA fiction, and many other ways that can be deemed conventional.

How can Littell stand out from the crowd? Littell shows us the bureaucratization of evil instead of the banality of evil, which is no small achievement.

The institutionalization and bureaucratization of the Holocaust stand out as the most horrific development of the twentieth century and the most challenging to portray in literature.

We can only grasp the Holocaust in small pieces, but how can Littell muster the courage and narrative structure to grasp the tragedy?

Bureaucracy as a whole typically falls outside the purview of The Kindly Ones. The narrative goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of individualism and the fascination with subjective perspectives on social phenomena.

So, The Kindly Ones is well-suited to narrate a rags-to-riches tale. Still, the overall standardized activities are horrifically difficult to evoke in fiction.

There is a reason that Tolstoy’s War and Peace was such a remarkable book. While it’s simple enough to describe a battle, war is an entirely different type of beast.

Tolstoy needed to become both a philosopher and historiographer to depart from the usual narrative structure to evoke the horrors of war.

While Littell doesn’t engage much in overt philosophizing, he occasionally offers discourse about Kant’s categorical imperative on the ethics of colonialism and the Greek concept of fate; both are relevant to the unfolding story.

Instead, he focuses on the rise of Dr. Max Aue, a German jurist who turned into a soldier.

Max’s military career takes him around the Eastern front and, as the story develops, further into the orbit of the death camps. He meets several real-life figures, such as Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and Albert Speer, on his journey. Even Hitler makes cameo appearances.

Max is present at numerous historical events, but his most notable appearance is in the Battle of Stalingrad, which may be one of recent fiction’s most vivid war recollections.

While you might be puzzled that Max is so distant from the nexus of evil throughout the novel, as he is usually a few steps removed from the killings themselves.

However, this isn’t due to delicacy, as Littell reminds us that The Kindly Ones reminds us that it doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger. 

There is only one instance where Max Aue is given a gun and is ordered to kill innocents on the spot. Even in this area, he delivers the final coup to those already mortally wounded or dying.

Even Aue quickly realizes that the guilt is not lessened by the extenuating circumstances leading to his actions.

You’ll find that Littell manipulates many characters throughout The Kindly Ones. Each character has different responsibilities, attitudes, and a degree of involvement regarding the unfolding horror. Aue has a positive role compared to many of the other characters.

He struggles to improve the conditions of the Jews in the camps. He tries to move them from the death camps and into factory jobs, which forces him into conflict with Eichmann and others.

Throughout the narrative, the reader is invited to dissect the different levels and degrees of guilt. Still, it’s impossible to establish a hierarchy of who is truly responsible.

While you may be tempted to accuse a character, he continues to show that the bloodshed caused directly by his characters is due to chance.

Even Aue would have done worse things than he did if he had been given the order, and others involved would not have been involved if they had different circumstances.

Aue suggests that the matters he and others are involved in can be dealt with by applying the Greek concept of fate. In this concept, you are still responsible for your actions, even if you did not comprehend the full nature of what you did. The motive and state of mind collapse in comparison.

However, Littell is playing a sly game with his readers, as the Greek way of conceptualizing guilt would turn the genocide into a higher tragedy outside the human actors in control.

The chilling factor of The Kindly Ones is that it portrays the fine-tuning of an organizational structure that aims toward genocide. It can’t be blamed on the fates that this novel is named after, as humans created this horror.

It’s impossible to summarize how Littell conveys a poisonous bureaucracy’s mindlessness. The Kindly Ones contains promotions, demotions, reports, and more. It even needed a glossary to guide us through the German military hierarchy.

However, it is still difficult to understand the labyrinth of organizations and titles that are mentioned on each page.

What’s The Verdict?

The Kindly Ones Book Review

Max Weber was able to describe the theoretical underpinnings of bureaucracy a century ago, in which the nature of this phenomenon is free from the negative connotations applied to it today. 

For him, bureaucracy increased efficiency by removing humans from the organizational process. Substituting rules and guidelines for personal judgment meant that you could run a large enterprise without requiring someone in every role.

As long as the rules were followed, everything would be fine.

However, nowadays, we are less inclined to believe in the nature of bureaucracy. While bureaucracy meant efficiency, it is now synonymous with the opposite. Littell uses The Kindly Ones to uncover darkness beyond a simple critic or organizational structure.

He asks us if we are opening the door to reveal worse evils by removing the human element.

While you might think this inquiry is best left to sociologists, it is a question that makes this an odd departure from any modern novel, especially one that represents war or the Holocaust. 

There’s no denying that Jonathan Littell has managed to cut into the heart of this historical tragedy, making it stand out among other novels representing the same subject matter. 

About Jonathan Littell

Jonathan Littell is the son of fellow author Robert Littell. He was born in New York and moved to France at age three before returning to America from 13 to 16. He would temporarily return to France but would go back to the United States to attend and graduate from Yale.

His first novel, Bad Voltage, was published in 1989. It is a cyberpunk adventure focusing on a half-breed who lives in a futuristic Paris, with much of the novel taking place in the Paris Catacombs. 

He would work as a translator while beginning a ten-volume book that would eventually be abandoned. Before writing The Kindly Ones, he worked for the humanitarian organization Hunger Against Hunger from 1994 to 2001, when he left to focus on his work on The Kindly Ones.

The Kindly Ones would win the 2006 Prix Goncourt; by the end of 2007, over 700,000 copies were sold in France.

Final Thoughts

The Kindly Ones is a Holocaust novel that will stay in your mind. It shows us that the true horrors lie in how organized the genocide was and makes us question what actions people would take when they are ordered to do so.

If you’d like to read any other book reviews, (see also: The Luminaries Book Review)consider checking out our other posts. 

Sophie Andrea