Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is a colossal novel in the form of a fictional memoir. The narrator and protagonist is Dr. Maximilien von Aue, a former officer in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the secret service of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the elite Nazi military organization that operated within and alongside the German army during World War II. Now an elderly lace merchant living under an assumed name in the north of France, Max is married, has twin children, and is bored with his life. His attempt to tell “how it happened” mainly covers the period from June, 1941, the beginning of the German invasion of Soviet Russia, to April, 1945, when Russian troops conquered Berlin. There are also frequent flashbacks to Max’s childhood and student days, usually triggered by some stressful event during his involvement in the extermination of Jews and other minorities in the conquered territories.
The external structure of the novel parallels that of a baroque orchestral suite; the individual chapters bear the names of the dance movements of such a suite, and the action described in each chapter reflects the mood and tempo of each musical subdivision. Thus, the first chapter is called “Toccata,” referring to a virtuoso piece to highlight the technical mastery of the performer. Toccatas were used as introductions or overtures to suites and fugues in the contrapuntal works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and François Couperin (1668-1733), all of whom the narrator mentions as his favorite composers. The last chapter is entitled “Gigue,” referring to a lively dance known in English as the jig, and the novel comes to a close in a bullet-riddled dance of death.
Before beginning his memoirs proper, the narrator delivers a brilliant harangue, addressing his readers as his “human brothers,” knowing full well that they will reject any kinship with a man involved in the Nazis’ extermination of millions of Jews and other “undesirables.” Von Aue goes even further; he repeatedly insinuates that most of his readers, given the same circumstances, would have acted exactly as he did and that he regrets nothing, since all he did was his work. However, he explicitly refuses to claim, as many of his colleagues did, that he was only following orders and admits that he did what he did because it was his duty and had to be done. In doing so, he asserts that in war cruel acts are committed not by sadistic monstersthough he admits that there were those as wellbut by “ordinary” people. He himself had once hoped to be such a person before “all this evil” entered his life.
Max ends his address to readers with an impassioned plea for understanding: 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!
This passage presages the main argument his narration attempts to illustrate, stated later in the novel: that there is no such thing as inhumanity, only humanity.
Max’s recollections of his life as an SS officer on the eastern front and as an administrator in the forced labor and extermination camp system constitute a description of a long descent into hell, one that begins even before his war experiences. An incestuous relationship with his sister Una when they were both in their early teens has left him incapable of a meaningful heterosexual love life and driven him to mainly random, often violent, homosexual affairs. His sister has married an older, impotent German aristocrat and has outgrown their previous relationship. Max hates his mother and his stepfather for having forcibly separated him from his twin sister, to the point that he murders both of them after his return from the Russian front.
The horrors of his duties in the Einsatzgruppen, the task forces that accompany advancing German troops and identify Jews, Bolsheviks, and other “undesirables” in order to have them executed, begin to weigh heavily on Max. Although he constantly maintains that he must keep his cool sense of detachment, it becomes evident from increasingly frequent crying fits, nightmares, and bouts of vomiting and diarrhea that Max is losing his sanity, as his task force makes its murderous voyage through the Ukraine, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and finally to Stalingrad. He seems to have suffered a head wound, but he does not remember doing so....
(The entire section is 1817 words.)