Les Bienveillantes - Prix Goncourt et Prix du roman de l'Académie française 2006

by Jonathan Littell

Other, 2006



Call number




Gallimard (2006), 904 pages


In this powerful fictional memoir, a former Nazi official, now reinvented as a middle-class family man in northern France, tells the story of his life and times, promising that the story he has to tell is one that will implicate the reader as well as the teller. Maximilien Aue graduates with a law degree just after the Nazis come to power and begins a new life in the security branch of the SS. Through him we experience the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust in vivid detail from the dark and disturbing point of view of the executioner rather than the victim.

Media reviews

Some of these ambitions are brilliantly realized; others much less so. But all of them make Littell’s book a serious one, deserving of serious treatment. While some will denounce Littell’s cool-eyed authorial sympathy for Aue as “obscene”—and by “sympathy” I mean simply his attempt to comprehend the character—his project seems infinitely more valuable than the reflexive gesture of writing off all those millions of killers as “monsters” or “inhuman,” which allows us too easily to draw a solid line between “them” and “us.” [...] Aue is a human brother with whom we can sympathize (by which I mean, accept that he is not simply “inhuman”), or he is a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage; but you can’t have your Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and eat it, too.
5 more
The novel’s gushing fans [...] seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” [...] is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies. The novel [...] reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.
Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history. The Kindly Ones reveals something that is desperate and depressing but profoundly important, now as ever. Max Aue, the SS executioner, states the truth with typically brutal clarity: "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you."
Littell has been very faithful to real events: his research is impressive [...] Littell, a Jew, rightly believes that the prime duty of a writer as well as a historian is to understand. He has succeeded in putting himself inside the tortured mind of his character. The Kindly Ones never descends into the sort of faction that is the curse of contemporary history [...] a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come.
The novel is diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever. It is also impressive, not merely as an act of impersonation but perhaps above all for the fiendish diligence with which it is carried out. [...] This tour de force, which not everyone will welcome, outclasses all other fictions and will continue to do so for some time to come. No summary can do it justice.
Maximilien Aue es Doctor en derecho, casado, con hijos discreto y calmado. Desde un lugar tranquilo de Francia y después de 30 años, se decide a contar su pasado. No porque sienta necesidad alguna de justificación, simplemente quiere contar la historia tal y como él la vivió. Porque Maximilien era oficial de las SS. Jonathan Littlel nos hace revivir los horrores de la Segunda Gerra Mundial desde el lado de los verdugos, al mismo tiempo da cuenta de una vida como pocas veces se ha hecho: Las benévolas es la epopeya de un ser arrastrado por su propio recorrido y por la Historia.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RickHarsch
The Kindly Ones is probably the best straight historical fiction that will come out of WWII. The narrator (Aue) experiences most facets of the German side of the war--he is with the SS--including, delightfully, the initial stages of battle in the Caucusus and the final stages in Pomerania. The main value for the reader is that the author has distilled innumberable sources into a presumably accurate description of both the processes so well known and the experience of those who put them into motion, less well known. The formula is easy to decipher--Littell knows more or less all there is to know in great detail about German machinations and he has a believable narrator, who is believable as a true believer and as a humane witness. Littel also believably manouvers his narrator from place to place, position to position, in order that he may narrate, for instance, the degraded circumstances of mid-war Lublin, the size and insuck of Stallingrad, the progression of Jew-killing methods, the petty administrative struggles that undermine the war economy...The humane witness, the Nazi as humane witness and participant, is not as problematic as it may seem, for in a massive work of realism a lack of shock or nausea at endliess nearby atrocities would hardly be convincing. Naturally, the book is populated with a wide variety of sadists, and, to put it one way, those both cunningly and congenitally oblivious.
However, as the book stands as the memoirs of a single man, more than excellent history is required, more than adept realism. The narrator must be a fascinating fellow to keep a reader interested for more than a few hundred pages, or, in such a congested circumstance, more than six or seven hundred. The failure of Littel in this regard is fascinating. Aue is a rather stunning combination of the kind of guy you did not notice at the party and an unpredictable, deeply disturbed lunatic capable of let's just say anything. I would not accuse Littel of creating an unbelievable character, rather one who badly selects his monologues, not to mention their timings. In this manner, I think he avoided a cliche, but at the cost of boring the shit out of the most forgiving of readers. My guess is that different readers will begin to skim at very different places, and that most will do so well into the narrative. In fact, for me the war was clearly lost before I started my intense skimming, where I saw no point in the further belaboring of logistics related to the proper care and feeding of the labor force/condemned. Later, Aue the psycho was even more boring, going dozens of pages in detail about behaviour we had already been made to understand, allowed to read, come to accept, and so could not help but find excruciatingly dull in the redundant detail. No further insight into the character was gained--I skimmed carefully to be sure--and no virtuoso writing was offered [an example of virtuoso writing came during a very long dream sequence that was so well written, the innate impatience of the reader for the lengthy details of dreams in works of realism was overcome].
I heard once a man of moribund writing authority tell the author of a brilliantly seamless work of surrealism that the story did not succeed because one cannot begin with the real and end with the surreal. You can see instantly what an ass he was. Yet, in reviewing The Kindly Ones, I think that the failure of the book is in its inability to find the right balance between the real and absurd, the mix of the real and surreal. There is great potential comedy in some plot contrivances, yet good jokes fall flat when ill-timed. This likely has to do with the effort to combine vast and authentic detail with the voice of a fascinating character. Little has to choose where the events take precedence and where the personal foibles of Aue need expression. I hate to post-op a novel, but in this case I believe Littel may have chosen the wrong narrator. Aue's excesses/perversions would have been delightfully told by Thomas, Aue's Robinson, the revenant beneficent friend, who, unlike Aue, always likes a good time.
Following, to support some of what I am trying to get across is something that could be, in a world where ideas are in death camps, called a 'spoiler':

Aue does not like to fuck ladies, absolutely refuses, and yet he has a long relationship in the latter half of the book with someone we already know--not only because of who he is, but because, unnecessarily, he tells us. There may have been a good page or two to make from the interplay of Aue and this lady, yet Littel allows here to remain everpresent throughout most of the latter half of the book. And it;s a very strange feeling to, rather than strain in reading for any resolution at all to simply known that none will be forthcoming. This creates the demand for skimming.

An unspoiled last word:
I highly recommend the book to anyone who would be interested in a marvelously researched and believable account of the war from the eyes of a rather highly placed German; I don't recommend it to a reader looking for a masterpiece. Despite my disdain for the star system i will play along, giving it four because 3 might suggest mediocrity and five would suggest masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
[The Kindly Ones] by [[Jonathan Littell]] (2006,2009)

This nearly 1000 page tome is everything you've probably heard about it: gruesome, disgusting, repulsive, difficult to take. It is also gripping, intelligent, informative, insightful, and well-written. It is the story of World War II through the eyes of Max Aue, SS officer. Aue is with the Nazis when they invade Poland; he's at Babi Yar and the Battle of Stalingrad; he's with Eichmann at the concentration camps; he's in Hungary near the end of the war when the Germans proposed "blood for trucks;" and he's in Hitler's bunker in April 1945. When we meet him, in present time, he is a well-respected French lace manufacturer with a past no one questions. He is also unrepenetant.

Aue is a cultured and intelligent man, but never a sympathetic character. His personal life mirrors the depravity of the war--he is sexually obsessed with his twin sister and acts out this obsession in homosexual affairs. His mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. And, as you may have read elsewhere, there's a lot of diarrhea, blood, vomit and guts.

When Aue is not on the frontlines, he is a bureacrat--a clear manifestation of the banality of evil. His job involves such things as determining how much food a concentration camp inmate should get daily. What is the optimal amount of time to keep a concentration camp inmate alive so as to maximize the benefit of his labor vis a vis the cost of his upkeep? Should Jews get less food than other types of prisoners, since they are destined for execution anyway?

There are also endless discussions with "racial anthropologists," linguists, and other experts as to what circumstances make a person or group of people Jewish, which would almost be silly if these weren't life or death matters for the people under discussion. There's even the discussion among the starving soldiers at Stalingrad as they consider cannibalism on whether they should eat a dead Russian or a dead German. If they eat the meat of a Slav or a Bolshevik, won't they become corrupted? On the other hand, wouldn't it be dishonorable to eat a German?

Aue is clearly a psychopath. I don't know if all SS officers were psychopaths, or whether some were just temporarily insane. This book isn't The Diary of Ann Frank. You will know whether you can stand to read something like this or not. If you can stomach it, and you want to try to understand how and why the Germans did what they did, it is a book you should read.
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LibraryThing member bhowell
I read the reviews of this book in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian, and immediately went to the book store and bought it. I have now read about 500 pages. The book is brilliant and I have already given it a 5 because I cannot imagine how it could be any better. The story is written as a memoir in the 1st person. The narrator, Dr Max Aue, is an SS officer in Germany during the second World war.

There are so many aspects of this book that could be discussed in a review. For example, I could write in awe of the linguistic analysis of the languages of the Caucasus by the character (not the main character who is Dr Aue), Leutnant Voss. I was fascinated. This is not merely an intellectual excercise by the author. The debate becomes very real when Voss argues with his superiors, asserting that a Caucasian mountain tribe of about 6.000 people are not Jewish and hence should not be slaughtered.

This book is almost 1,000 pages and it is not a light read. Before paying the full price for a newly published book, most people need to consider whether they will actually read it. I have some tips for anyone who is struggling with this vast historical epic. Reading is a private thing and don't be shy about using any aids which will enhance your enjoyment of the book. I am exposing mine in this review. In the first 50 pages of the book I made some notes of the characters who were introduced rapidly and I got out a map to keep with the book. There is a glossary at the back of the book which should be read in detail before starting the book but you don't need to memorize it. As the terms come up and you don't remember them, flip to the back but you really only need to do this for the first part of the book and then you will recognize the most important terms. There is also a Table of German Ranks with approximate American Equivelants at the back. I don't like flipping back and forth too much and I made a list of the most important glossary items and used it as a bookmark. A more efficient method might be to photocopy the glossary and keep it with the book.
I don't mean to imply that this book needs to be studied rather than read as an exciting novel. It is an exciting novel but if you are confused about the characters and have lost track of the geography you will tire of the book. There is no need to consult any history books or other sources. Mr Littell's book contains all the history you need and is according to the experts flawlessly researched.

I will write more later and keep you up to date.

Other recommended and related books in my library:
Nine suitcases by Bela Zsolt
If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Antony Beevor
A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red army: 1941-1945
House of Meetings by Martin Amis
Forest of Souls by Carla Banks
Hunger by Elise Blackwell
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LibraryThing member richardderus
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell makes me feel deeply unclean. I don't have any idea what I would do, in the same circumstances as the author sets his protagonist into, but I suspect I would have been this protagonist had the same things happened to me at the same ages. Now...well, a 50-year-old is a different creature than a 22-year-old, no matter that us 50+ers want to think otherwise.

I abandoned this book, a library 14-day checkout, at p364. Ivan and Max (who is our protagonist) are scuttling around looking for Croats, and I ran aground when "Feldgendarmen" and "ACHTUNG! MINIEN!" occurred in close proximity. I just could not endure one more moment of German military terminology and I dislike the German language with sincere fervor, and then there is the slickly sickly slimy Max, with whom I can't bear to spend one more eyeblink; but good lord people, the amount I've already read would be a novel by itself!

As anyone who's ever read one of my reviews knows, I don't do book reports. The events of this book aren't in any way a surprise to you if you've been awake in the past year. I can say, though, that anyone who wants to deny the existence of a Holocaust would do well to read this novel. It feels like the events could not possibly be true. No one could live through this, perpetrator or not, and face life as a sane being ever again. So far as I am aware, the German nation did not have a huge insanity problem after WWII, so ipso facto there was no Holocaust!

Littell's story shows how well he understands the history of the (factual) Holocaust, and his choice of a protagonist shows how well he understands human nature and its strengths. It's a deeply disturbing book for that reason alone. That a man could imagine this character, could write about him in his own voice and with clarity, precision, and artistry, is unsettling to my vision of authors as refiners of reality into truth.

If Truth can contain this, there is no safe place anywhere.

And there isn't.
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LibraryThing member priamel
So what's all this about then? 900 pages of first-person narration from a SS officer who starts off with an allusion to Villon just to confuse us.

There are certainly some good things about the book--it gives a feeling of space as we see a place in a certain aspect at one time of the war and differently a couple of years later--it all rhymes and echoes. And you get a feeling of the bureaucracy of horror--the need to kill Jews as against the desire to extract some work from them, and the ceaseless internecine warfare of different administrations.

The question then is: Why is this a novel? In large part, the narrator wanders through scenes of horror without taking much part in them (apart from shooting some Jews at Babi Yar), rather like Andrei Rublev in the film, and his voice is hardly characterised at all.

As ever, the reader of novels wants to know not what it would ahve been like to be an SS Officer, but what it would have been like for someone like him/her to be an SS Officer; so our hero is a Greek scholar and would-be literary man. But then again we do not want to feel sympathy with him, so he has an incestuous passion for his sister which means his sex life consists of paying men to bugger him and in fact we get the plot of the Oresteia tacked on to try to make the protagonist more individual or something.

Are the two policemen who keep on popping up to ask Aue about his mother's murder the Furies of the title? They should surely be more numerous and more female. And we get Yuri Zhivago's brother Evgraf introduced under the name of Thomas to ensure that Aue gets out of the various plot holes he finds himself stranded in.

So this is a first-person recitation of part of the history of Nazi Germany and the Second World War with some literary decoration tacked on. But the history from a different angle was interesting and it kept me reading for 900 pages in a foreign language....

But there are some things that keep on worrying me. For a start, children who are brought up together from an early age do not develop sexual feelings for each other, but I suppose ignoring this is a widely-accepted literary device. Secondly, the Greek scholar mananges to avoid saying anything very much about how large a proportion of the Nazi ideology was founded on their ideas of ancient Greece. Thirdly, there are many places where the narrator interrogates suspects or prisoners--and he is himself interrogated when he returns from behind Russian lines at the end--but we never find out how he does it or what it's like. There's the set-piece interrogation of the commissar captured at Stalingrad, but that's more along the lines of an exchange of professional pleasantries.
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LibraryThing member RJRutstein
The Kindly Ones, the title of the novel, refers to the Greek goddesses of justice and vengeance. The story in some ways parallels the Greek story of Orestes, but this is not a Greek tragedy, it is a human one, born of the 20th century. In Greek tragedy one looks for the fatal flaw of the character which will lead to his inevitable downfall. But Dr. Maximilian Aue, like most of us, has more than one flaw. Dr. Aue is human caught in human times. His faults are common human faults, fear, ambition, desire for love. In a calmer world or a calmer time Dr. Aue could have led a normal life, but he lived in Nazi Germany, a time when moral strength could easily have led to death; his weaknesses, human weaknesses, kept him alive and made him a participant in the events of the time.

Littell's novel is a long sometimes harrowing read. It is not the type of book one should read if one carries the novels one is reading into their dreams, as this book can only cause nightmares. In the opening chapter, which takes place close to the present time, Dr. Aue states that part of the problem of our understanding of those horrific times, is that we monsterize the perpetrators and see only the victims as human. But Aue argues that the perpetrators were equally human, that what happened was entirely done by humans to humans. There are so many novels that have come out of World War II and the Holocaust that it seems hard to justify another. But this novel is important, not because it relives well-known events, but because it vividly portrays how a regular person can be drawn into such evil. The world we live in sees too much in black and white, in the privileged world in which we live we don't have to make decisions like he did. We too easily say what was done was wrong, and indeed it was, but we don't truly know how we would react if we were in the same circumstances, and that, more than anything else is what Littell is trying to get us to understand. This seems to be the type of book that you either love or hate. I have read good reviews of it, and I read the reviews of people who hate it. It was a bestseller in France where first came out, but Barnes & Noble didn't even carry it, and if you look for on their website isn't there. I found it completely by accident while browsing a small independent bookstore in Millerton New York. If you decide to read it you can find it online through Amazon but I would encourage ordering it through a local independent.

Jonathan Littell is an American who was raised and educated mostly in France as it says on the dust jacket. He has worked for humanitarian agencies which him for brought him to places of conflict and he has seen the effects of war and genocide. He understands that we cannot deal with what we are unwilling to accept. We too easily say I would never do that, we too easily condemn without understanding, and while condemnation is necessary so to is understanding. With that in mind Dr. Aue tells his story completely, from beginning to end, with no holds barred. Littell is trying to force us to face the fact that the decisions made by Dr. Aue might too have been made by us. It is the cumulative effect of many small decisions that lead Dr. Aue down his path. In the end we must still condemn him, but we also begin to understand him.

Dr. Aue is an educated man, he has a degree in law, is well read in the classics of literature, and in philosophy. He is an intellectual National Socialist; he believed in the cause of his party, in the unification of the German people, and the need for expansion. He is also a homosexual. One night when he is arrested in an area known for homosexuals to congregate he is offered a way out by a friend. This friend offered him a position working for him in the SS. It is a position where he is an observer and analyst. He collects data, offers observations, and draws conclusions. It is an easy choice for him to make, but it is only a first step down a path that Germany is leading its people.

A number of the reviews that I've read of this work compare it closely with War and Peace, however, the proper Russian novel to compare it to would be Crime and Punishment. This famous work by Dostoyevsky focuses mostly upon the single character of Raskolnikov; and Littell's novel focuses entirely on Dr. Aue. The Kindly Ones is a psychological novel in the same sense as Crime and Punishment. However, while Raskolnikov's issues are eventually resolved Dr. Aue’s spiritual crisis is of a different nature, and his fear of being caught stays with him for the remainder of his life, until finally enough time has passed he feels free enough to tell his tale as not as a justification or rationalization, but rather as an accusation, challenging the reader—would you have acted any differently?

Shortly after the war with Russia begins Dr. Aue finds himself in the middle of the Aktion, that is the beginning of the extermination of the Jews. In observing the men who were ordered to carry out the killings he noticed several different types of soldiers: those who refused, those who enjoyed it, those who managed to get through carrying it out, and those who by carrying out went insane. Dr. Aue finds himself occasionally having to carry out some executions, and while in the short term he seems able to deal with it, in the long term he finds himself physically and psychologically breaking down. As a new commanding officer is brought in he recognizes that the state of several of the officers under his command is clearly unsound and Dr. Aue finds himself transferred to a facility where he is able to somewhat recover.

"From the very beginning, things weren't as I would have liked them: I had resigned myself to that a long time ago (yet at the same time, it seems to me, I never accepted things as they are, so wrong and so bad; at the most I finally came to acknowledge my powerlessness to change them). It is also true that I have changed. When I was young, I felt transparent with lucidity, I had precise ideas about the world, about what it should be and what it actually was, and about my own place in that world; and with all the madness and the arrogance of youth, I had thought it would always be so; but the attitude induced by my analysis would never change; but I had forgotten, or rather I did not yet know, the force of time, of time and fatigue. And even more than my indecision, my ideological confusion, my inability to take clear positions on the questions I was dealing with, and to hold it, it was this that was wearing me down, taking the ground away from under my feet. Such a fatigue has no end, only death can put an end to it, it still lasts today, and for me it will always last."

This novel carries many allusions to Greek literature, and like a story in a Greek tragedy, we know the outcome, and the outcome is not nearly so important as how we get there. One reviewer claimed that Dr. Aue's homosexuality was due to his unfulfilled love for his sister; I find this a rather simplistic view as it completely ignores the parts of the book dedicated to Dr. Aue's youth and education, and what he had to endure that time, as well as his own nature and tendencies. Whether or not Aue would have been homosexual had he had a different childhood are irrelevant. It is part of who he is, and in part shapes his story.

Toward the end of the book Dr. Aue finds himself alone in the Villa belonging to his brother-in-law and sister. His insanity at this point has completely overcome him and he destroys the inside of the Villa in a rather disgusting manner. And while some reviewers read this as an excuse for Littell to entertain a disgusting type of exhibitionism, again I find that a simplistic view. You can argue that Littell carried it to an extreme and may have drawn it out longer than is necessary, but to deny that there is any meaning in this part of the novel is to deny the role that culture plays in the story itself. Dr. Aue is an educated and cultured individual, and for him to carry out the destruction that he does represents not only his own emotional turmoil and insanity but the insanity wreaked all over Europe by National Socialism; thus Dr. Aue's unhealthy relationship with his sister and brother-in-law can represent what became of German culture and the relation of Germany and the rest of European culture during the second world war.

It is impossible for a single review to even begin to cover this novel with anything approaching completeness. It is almost 1000 pages long, and is very dense reading. There is little doubt in my mind that at some point in the future scholars will dedicate themselves to completely studying this work. I will also recommend that this book that this book be regularly taught at the college level in order to help knock young people out of their complacency and black and white thinking. “There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity….”
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LibraryThing member dalekk
I read this novel over last summer - a bit of an odd choice for holiday reading. While I couldn't say that I 'enjoyed' it in the conventional sense of the word, I certainly found it interesting both in what Littell was attempting - the sheer scope and size of his research is mindboggling - and in the way he chooses to do it. He draws out the mythical thread of The Kindly Ones, in what is otherwise a work of brutal realism, in order to present the protagonist's mental decline. This is a major feature of the novel; Littel often uses his painstaking research to demonstrate the strangeness of Aue's world, for example when a colleague speaks for pages and pages about linguistics systems in the midst of chapters on atrocities.

I did struggle with it as the narrative becomes more and more commandeered by Aue's descent into utter madness. The extremely unerotic sexual scenes and the fantasy episode make this a hard book to stick with until the end, which is inevitably disappointing. As the whole text is set out as a flashback, we're left wondering how he could possibly conceal this madness in his new life.

The book becomes less about the reality of the Holocaust and more spiralling uncontrollably around the obsession of Aue with The Kindly Ones (no spoilers, but if you know what they are you can probably guess). He develops a sort of fatalistic idea of his approaching judgement, which is in his mind not for the thousands of innocents he has helped to kill but for a far more personal crime. We simultaneously condemn him for his blindness and wonder if, as a projection, it is another unpleasant effect of his circumstances - leading us again to question how far he's responsible for his own actions.

I've given it 3 stars because, while it is thought-provoking, I honestly don't know who I could recommend this book to, if at all. I don't think it's something I'd read twice. It leaves you feeling that it's fallen short somehow, that justice is not done - but the same is true of history.
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LibraryThing member Dill_the_Collector
My interest in the Holocaust led me to read Jonathon Littell’s novel and overall, I think it works well, as it did what it’s supposed to do (I believe) and get the reader to think about the Holocaust perpetrators on individual, human terms. What’s more, for all its shortcomings, the book consistently allures by putting one inside the mind of Max Aue, who sees the evolving horrors around him through unmovable, guiltless, and understated perception. There’s not much of a plot but a great book doesn’t need much turning to be successful (I’m thinking of Kerouac’s On The Road) and it is long (I estimate 385,000 words), but the simple prose and Mandell’s refined translation let one read fast.

Littell obviously reveled in his own research but students of the holocaust will note nothing new with the horrid details. For instance, one memorable passage where Max leads a little Jewish boy to his execution (who wandered from the crowd) is a nicely done elaboration of an anecdote in Kuznetsov’s novel-account "Babi Yar". What does make The Kindly Ones as a keeper for your library, though, is the unworldly landscape (the jacket blurb uses “hallucinatory” –an accurate term that caught on with reviewers), to which Littell transports us through his relentless but subtle observation. As others have noted, moments of brilliance occasionally arise (early in the novel, where Max interviews an old man to determine if he’s Jewish and then has him executed, is as a finely crafted “short story” as you will read).

Yes, it's very good but following 945 pages of subtle, engrossing, and intellectual narrative, we have developments (I count seven) that are so implausible and forced, it makes one question if it’s just been one large joke played upon the reader. Warning, plot spoilers follow: A group of rabid children kill Max’s driver while the SS officer Aue and his colleague helplessly watch. Max sadistically murders a male lover in a bathroom. During a medal ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, Max nearly bites the Fuhrer’s nose off. While arrested and being transported, Max is rescued by an errant Russian shell that kills nearly everyone but him. While again fleeing amongst the Berlin ruins, Max runs into a subway tunnel where he suddenly meets up with two detectives that have been pursing him throughout half the book. Here he is again magically rescued by a sudden Russian attack. Max stumbles upon and visits the office of an industrialist-acquaintance whose three amazonian women-servants casually lie murdered in the room. Max runs away to a zoo, but there one of the detectives catches up with him only to be murdered by Max's friend, Thomas, who also suddenly turns up. However, Max then kills that only friend he's had, perhaps just to wear his civilian clothes of escape.

In addition to these final absurdities, the book does present a contradiction, of sorts, or perhaps faulty logic by the last line of the first chapter. Here Max states directly that he really shouldn’t be blamed because in the end, he’s very much like you (the reader). At least that's Max's opinion, (probably and hopefully not Littell's opinion). Of course, Max really isn't much like me, you, or even the average German of the 1940s. Yet, in the end, this really doesn’t matter, as it’s not a fundamental to enjoying and (learning from) the involving, haunting, and memorable narrative. In fact, the first chapter (really a prologue) is the weakest, as it’s little more than a Ripley’s believe-it-or-not kind of compendium of Holocaust death statistics.

So, a good work, almost masterpiece of a first novel, (Littell’s youthful, punk science-fiction opus notwithstanding). I much anticipate his next book, whatever it may prove.
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LibraryThing member Clea_Simon
I never thought I would want to read a 1,000 page (more or less) first-person novel about a Nazi who basically sees the Holocaust in terms of the bureaucratic nightmares it causes. But I cannot put it down.
LibraryThing member tonysomerset
A huge book, not to be taken on lightly. Ploughed through first third. Ploughed because the translation is cold clinical and completely lacking in the nuances I anticipate the original has. A thoroughly depressing and dispiriting read. With slow deliberate careful steps all the sentimental easy get outs are set aside, which is great, and you are then led along this slow path to increasing examples of bestiality justified in so very reasonable, plausible and understandable consequences of action followed on by further action. Despite that It is engrossing, the amount of detail of the German military hierarchy, operations sequences and knowledge of the diversity of Russian peoples is breathtaking phenomenal let alone contained within a work of fiction. The feel for the inter-rivalries between different branches of the army comes alive, the rivalries that make the policy so more inevitable. As the house of cards is so carefully constructed, each base checked for firmness before proceeding remorselessly onto the next hierarchical exposition layer of the Final Solution, so festering away inside me is a reluctance to accept the offered inevitability of it all. I struggle all awhile to find the kernel of objection as I wallow in thoughts that the missing essence of mankind is the absolute acceptance that we each have the potential to be better and we must give each other due respect and dignity for that . When with skillful aplomb our author puts in place his trump top card to counter the Final Solution, we, mankind, cannot be defined by our race, religion, language or history alone.

Now at the start of middle third, waiting to see whether this bleak initial view of humanity prevails or whether a more enlightenment might emerge but it is not a book that you can lightly pick up then put down.
Time to steep myself in it is in short supply currently.
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LibraryThing member johnthefireman
Written in the form of the memoir of an SS officer, I would characterise this not only as a narrative of the gritty horror of war, but also an attempt to explain (and I think it "explain" rather than "justify") how ordinary people can get caught up in perpetrating something as horrific as the holocaust.

It does not dwell on "only obeying orders", but rather on someone who, as a committed Nazi, believes that unpleasant actions, even things which he may disagree with personally and believe to be wasteful and misguided, may be necessary during a time of total war. It is compounded by the aura of the Fuhrer and his claim to represent the Volk. It is made worse by the inhumanity of war. At a time when life is so cheap, particularly on the Eastern Front, soldiers routinely commit such acts of brutality and inhumanity that performing a few more (or a few million more) hardly seems to matter.

The narrative deals with more than the killing of Jews. Quite early on many categories of Germans were killed (mentally ill, elderly, etc) to get rid of useless mouths to feed. Behind the lines in eastern Europe people were killed because they might become, or support, partisans and saboteurs. The narrator recognises that not all, in fact not even a majority, pose a threat, but in the fog of war who has the time to really investigate? Easier to kill them all. At times he questions the issue, but not on what might be considered moral grounds. Wouldn't some of the overrun populations be more use to their conquerors if they were assimiliated rather than exterminated? What a waste that so many healthy concentration camp inmates were killed or died due to poor conditions and ill-treatment when Germany was desperate for slave labourers in its armaments factories. No such sympathy for the useless women, children and elderly, though.

It's a long book (over 900 pages of small print) and at times it is hard going, not only because of the horror of the subject but also because the writing is a bit turgid in places. There are also long philosophical discussions, some of which are interesting but others not so, and rambling dream sequences when he is wounded, sick or unstable. I'm not really sure what their relevance is, nor that of his relationship with parents and sister, unless it is to emphasise how mad people become in that sort of war situation.

It ends as Berlin falls to the Soviet army, with an unexpected twist right on the last page. All in all excellent, albeit not light, reading.
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LibraryThing member irsslex
This book was a slog. It showed the inside of the mind of a man engaged in some of the most brutal acts you could imagine. I remember one reviewer saying it was like a Nazi "Zelig", and he was right. The protagonist, an SS officer, is difficult to like, but Littell did a magnificent job getting inside his head and letting us explore the perversion all around him,and making the perverted seem absolutely normal. It was very long, and when I got through, I wasn't sure that I had done anything but be voyeur to acts and people that I'd just as well rather not met, even on a page. I remember thinking at the beginning of the book that it really was the masterpiece the Prix de Goncourt said it was -- making the inhuman human. By the end, I have to admit I had lost my initial enthusiasm as Dr. Aue ambled through his life as the implementer of the endlosung - the Final Solution.… (more)
LibraryThing member g026r
In some ways, it's easy to see why this novel, in the original French, won le prix Goncourt; it's a sprawling, quite obviously heavily-researched (though how accurate the results of that research was is a matter of no small debate), and above all ambitious work, taking as its focus the whole of the Holocaust, and the morals of Greek tragedy as its inspiration.

On the other hand, its ambitious nature is also its downfall: in its sprawling desire to include everything, it perhaps covers too much; in its wish to reach the heights of ancient tragedy, it frequently oversteps in its attempts at seriousness and occasionally moves into adolescent pretentiousness. Many of the long digressions onto only marginally related topics would have been better presented had they been shortened or even excluded altogether. (e.g. The long piece on languages in the Caucasus. Appropriate to be coming from a linguist? Perhaps, but we as readers don't need all that detail, and it smacks of Littell including it solely because he researched it and therefore doesn't want to let that effort go to waste.) The same goes for the multiple hallucination sequences, which could have been better served with trimming — though my own biases against extended dream and hallucination sequences are something I acknowledge.

Finally, both the plotting and the prose are not enough to sustain the book's nearly 1000 pages. The former frequently drags and meanders to ill-effect, particularly in the opening and longer sections, while the latter frequently comes across as convoluted and over-wrought. (The latter, it should be noted, may be partially a problem with the English translation. I have heard complaints about it, but have never seen the original French. It still doesn't excuse some of the more scenery-chewing characters and moments, however.)

So in the end: I admire the ambition, but I'm still not sold on the execution.
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LibraryThing member Lapsus16
Perhaps one of the most compelling WWII books dealing with Nazism. Possibly the best contemporary book I read. And I read a lot!
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
The Kindly Ones is a densely-packed, minutely-detailed look into the eastern front of Hitler’s battle for world supremacy. Mr. Littell leaves no character actionless and no detail indistinct in this tome. Rather, he feels that a reader must have all of the details in order to best assess the psychological impact of the war and the Nazi doctrine on party members, collaborators, and unwilling participants alike, and he truly means all of the details. Dialogue is excruciating as every major and minor soldier has a line, no matter how trivial it may be. The unfamiliar German military ranks only serve as added weight to an already endless narrative, as does the pre-Cold War geography. The narrative and dialogue occur as if a reader is there next to Aue, watching the scene unfold firsthand and with the appropriate level of historical context to be able to understand the major players and meaning behind their actions. For readers without the historical knowledge, this makes the entire novel slow, ponderous, and more than a little confusing.

There is no doubt The Kindly Ones is controversial. In fact, it rivals American Psycho for its descriptions of the sick and perverted things one human can enact against another. The matter-of-factness with which Dr. Aue’s contemporaries and fellow soldiers execute the Jews and the gypsies and anyone else on the official “no friend to the Nazis” list, including inmates and hospital patients is terrifying. Similarly, the imagery is stark and gruesome. While Mr. Littell acknowledges that most soldiers struggled with the mass murders, this admission in no ways lessens the impact of such scenes. However, it is not these scenes with which readers will take the most offense. The controversy lies in Aue’s fantasies. As the war progresses, his hallucinations become more ghastly and more extreme, fueled by the strain of hiding his sexuality from the outside world and the compounded trauma associated with the war and the damage incurred by his highly inappropriate relationship with his sister. The last chapter is the culmination of this toxic stew and will simultaneously turn readers’ stomachs as well as render them breathless with Aue’s pain and suffering.

In spite of all of The Kindly Ones’ faults, Dr. Aue is a fascinating character by whom to study the psychology of peer pressure and justification of actions. Early on in the novel, Aue has this to say about guilt:

“What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame?…I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.” (p. 18-20)

It is with this in mind that a reader enters the first chaotic scene of the Germans following the Soviets into Poland and Czechoslovakia and beyond. These few statements not only provide keen insight into Aue’s frame of mind as he writes his memoirs, the fruit of which becomes the novel, but also a curious sense of remoteness as the reader ponders whether Aue is correct in his conclusions – something that leaves quickly upon a reader’s increasing emotional involvement within the story. It definitely raises one’s awareness about the idea of complicity, something that has plagued Germans since the end of the war.

The Kindly Ones is meant for readers with tough stomachs and even tougher psyches. Any scene involving the Jews is achingly brutal in the unflinching details. It is one thing to know of their fate; it is quite another to have their fate described down to the last blood drop or twitch. The nonchalant attitudes of the Germans are equally difficult to accept, as is their sometimes bizarre justifications for their actions. Still, it does no one any good to forget such things, and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes it impossible to forget.
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LibraryThing member GaryN1981
The Kindly Ones is an incredibly ambitious book, taking in the whole scope of WWII from the Nazi invasion of Russia onwards, all through the eyes of Max Aue, as SS bureaucrat. And for the most part Littell pulls it off. He has constructed a story which actually keeps you invested as you swing between detailed historical events. But there are criticisms, as is inevitable with a story of this length and scope.

The book seems a little unsure of what it wants to be. On one hand it is a thoroughly reseached piece of historical fiction (Littell spent 5 years traversing Germany, France and Eastern Europe to visit the locations in the book). On another it is a study of morality from an ancient Greek perspective. This leads to many references to Greek mythology (the title refers to a Greek myth) such as incest and matricide which often test the readers suspension of disbelief.

There are also criticisms which could be made over some of the gratuitous descriptions, not of violence which is to be expected, but of mastubatory orgies and diarrhea episodes.

For me, the biggest criticism, however, is that the opening chapter sets out the gambit that you are just like the narrator and that anyone could have found themselves in his shoes.

But Aue is anything but ordinary. He has an incestous love for his twin sister to whom he has devoted himself leaving him, to all intents and purposes, gay. He hates his mother and has abandonment issues over his father. This makes it difficult to identify with him in an 'it could have been me' sort of way.

But despite these criticisms I would recommend this book. It takes you right into the heart of some of the most hellish times and places in history, such as Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and the prose is so descriptive as to have been compared to the realism of Tolstoy.

You will, despite yourself, develop a connection with Max Aue as he kills and then tries to save Jews. Never out of his own convictions or sense of good or evil, but to accomplish his orders to the best of his ability.

And that is perhaps the biggest triumph of this monumental piece of prose. I only wish I had the abilty to read it in it's original French.
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LibraryThing member otterley
not a perfect book, but one so vital, so important and so shattering that everyone should read it. The challenge from Dr Aue, SS man and lace factory owner is simply = 'What would you do, if you'd been there?' Littell takes us from the killing fields of the Ukraine and the Caucases to the fall of Stalingrad and the apocalypse of Berlin. We experience the killing squads working out how to murder; the dashing SS officers seducing young girls and boys, the industrialisation of the camps and the bureaucracy of genocide. And at the same time we experience this with Dr Aue, through his psychosexual traumas, stresses and his assent to the most horrific of crimes. The war in the east was not a war for gentlemen. And yet anyone who has worked in an ordinary office or lived an ordinary life will see parallels with the decisions and actions that we take part in every day. Extraordinary and overwhelming… (more)
LibraryThing member Laine-Cunningham
There were times while I was reading this that I thought perhaps the vast amount of history could have been cut. A thousand-page novel...really? When is that actually necessary?
Well, it is for this book.
I had also thought at times that the dialog could have been trimmed up for pacing. But then I also considered that the author was handling the dialog that way for a purpose, and that eventually the purpose would be revealed. It was, in the last 100 pages when the protagonist retreats to his sister's house and spends a bizarre few weeks there in isolation.
So, the two elements that I thought maybe could have been trimmed in the end revealed themselves as masterworks by the author. I don't want to say much more because, despite this being 1,000 pages long, there's actually not much I can detail without providing spoilers.
Know this one thing: The most important revelation comes literally with the last sentence. The entire work...how the history is handled, that dialog, the protagonist's journey through the war as well as his personal events...all come together in that single masterful last sentence.
This is a brilliant novel. Well worth the dedication to read all 1,000 pages.
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LibraryThing member camharlow
Not for the faint-hearted! But don’t be discouraged by the length of the book or its subject matter, it fully rewards perseverance.
The novel is the purported memoirs of Dr. Max Aue and traces his life and experiences from joining the SD (part of the SS) in Germany in 1934 and his rise through the ranks until the end of the war in 1945. Using Aue as an individual example, Littell explores how a seemingly cultivated and sensitive person could be enthralled with the Nazi ideals and despite being revolted by the methods employed in the Final Solution, can rationalise them as acceptable to achieve the desired result. Intertwined with these psychological and moral perspectives, are descriptions of Aue’s time working in concentration camps, his involvement in the Battle of Stalingrad and the final days of the war in Berlin.
The tone varies between the investigation of Aue’s state of mind, to vivid and graphic descriptions of the horrors of the war. Through it all, Littell’s writing commands one to follow Aue’s progress.
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LibraryThing member PennyAnne
At nearly 1,000 pages and with paragraphs that run to several pages, this was a very difficult book to read. The author, though of American heritage, lives in France and originally wrote the book in French where it won numerous awards and was highly praised. I really wanted to read this book but found it such heavy going that I ditche...d it after getting through about half - and I really never do that, if I start a book and get further than about 20 pages, then I'm committed and will finish it. The subject matter is distasteful (the story of an SS officer who was present at all the 'big' WWII moments - the initial Jewish cleansings, the siege of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Birkenau and he even meets Hitler) but I also just didn't 'get' what the author was aiming for. I think the point of the book was to demonstrate how 'anyone can do anything' given particular circumstances. Littell is not an apologist for the Nazis but he does make the point that war is drudgery, boredom, terror, orders and the gradual desensitising of human feeling - but I get that, I didn't need to read this novel to understand that and I'm not sure who would. I found it interesting that UK reviews praise the book highly while US ones have tended in the opposite direction. I think the translation is part of the problem but it's also a book that once you start to think about it, the coincidences are too much, the failings and depravities of the narrator are too obvious while at the same time the narrator's obvious cultural and intellectual background are also used too often to drive home the message - anyone can do anything. The author has a lot of promise but apparently he wrote the book freehand in a matter of weeks (albeit after years of research) and it shows… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
"A new War and Peace ... Never, in the recent history of French literature, has an early work been so ambitious, so masterfully written, so meticulous in its detail or so serenely horrifying."
-Le Nouvel Observateur, taken from the back cover

E€EWhat is this shit?E€E
-A former French resistance fighter on this book, as quoted by Laurent Binet in The Millions

This is a book that could have been. There were brief flashes of fascination, tantalizing ideas, lost in an interminable sea of dreck.

The opening Toccata gives us a few teasing sentences: "y human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." says the SS-Officer, and ends with "I am a man like other man, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you." Now is this a pleasing lie to himself or a plea to persuade? This brings to mind Arendt's study Eichmann in Jerusalem, on how ordinary people can be convinced or seduced to commit great evils and justify them.

But the book turns sour. The chapters with their musical titles of Allemandes, Courante, Sarabande, so on, are played largo in E minor.

It is to be understood, in a book like this, that there is due to be excessive violence. This is, after all, about an SS-Officer in the Eastern Front. It is gruesome, but endurable. And furthermore, I must give credit to the author for doing his research. He apparently got the hierarchy of titles and organizations right, as far as I can tell. And his long information dumps are intensely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of languages and ethnicities of the Caucus, and the absurdity of trying to classify them into Jewish or not-Jewish so they can be exterminated shows the foolish ideal of the Nazi goal of racial conquest.

For those, I give the author credit. And he has had his experience with war and suffering - mainly, volunteer work in the DR-Congo.

But after that, there is little investigation of moral dilemmas at all. Just chronology. Atrocity, extermination, rear-guard action, pincer movement, all become a dull sludge. Only a few cursory fragments, as tempting as they are, give us reason to think. But otherwise it is a catalog of atrocities.

Speaking of sludge, what is it feces and this book? Perhaps it may have been written as a shock factor, but instead of any contemplation or angst at all, we see a more physical psychosomatic reaction. Do something evil? Just poop it out! Your nation and ethos crumbling around you? Put a sausage up your butt in the Siege of Berlin, 1945 and cry thinking about fucking your twin sister!

I'm not saying that feces as a metaphor is inherently bad. Nor does the gratuitous and forced incest make an inherently bad novel, although they can understandably disgust so many readers and either dissuade or titillate so many others. Instead, they are more like a substitute for something more important, as though a long and difficult conversation is being avoided or hidden with more gratuitous shock value.

The author seldom mentions the simmering occupation of France. Only a few mentions, if perhaps at all. If the author spoke of atrocities there, say Oradour-sur-Glane, would the book arouse such prurient interest, visceral recognition of true evil? But that, too, is another omission.

Tant pis. 1 star, not because the whole work is to be discarded (at least, all but the beginning), but because of how much it frustrated and disappointed.hhap
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LibraryThing member MaineColonial

The persistent question about the Holocaust is how Germany, such a cultured, civilized nation, could decide--in the 20th century, no less--that the life of the nation depended upon wiping out all of Jewry. Littell confronts this dichotomy through the person of his narrator, Max Aue.

Aue is knowledgeable about and interested in art, literature, philosophy and, most of all, classical music. But he is also a mid-level SS functionary and a cog in the machinery of death. He observes and writes reports about the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings, and selections and crematoria in the death camps. He regularly meets with Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer and other big names in the history of the Nazis' genocide.

Aue suffers severe gastrointestinal illness from his field work, but he never connects it to the horror of what he observes. He believes in National Socialism and the Final Solution. When he becomes friendly with a linguist who tells him that Nazi racial science is utter hogwash, Aue responds that he has been given something to think about and wishes to return to the discussion, but he is saved from the necessity when his friend is killed. Instead, he continues to plod along in his career path and blandly reports it all to us in this lengthy novel.

So what's it all about? I came to the conclusion that, in essence, this is a history of the management of the worst corporation ever. A corporation whose mission is the most spectacularly wrong-headed and horrific thing imaginable---but whose failure to achieve its goal is attributable to those most prosaic banes of so many companies: office politics and the Peter Principle. All the various functionaries spend most of their time squabbling with each other for position or to try to achieve whatever they think the Führer's will is. Since they are all petty men of limited imagination and intelligence, of course it's all a complete schweinerei, as Aue likes to call it.

Does that mean this is another novel whose point is the banality of evil? Not exactly. Aue is not just some Aryan in an SS uniform. He is one screwed-up bizarro. He has a sexual fixation on his twin sister, with whom he had childhood incestuous relationship, broken up by his mother and stepfather. He often digresses from his tales of another lousy day at work into lengthy, hair-raising descriptions of violence, repulsive bodily functions and sexual perversions, real and imagined.

Littell is not the first author to try to connect Nazism with sexually-related mental illness. It makes a sort of sense. It's somehow easier to understand the Holocaust if we tell ourselves that those Nazis weren't like normal people; they were a bunch of sickos. But I think this detracts from the story.

Littell could lose all of the psychosexual and endless scatological stuff and have a much more powerful narrative. Aue's screwed-up psyche gets in the way of Littell's point that there is not, in fact, some bright-line difference between normal, ordinary people and those who can participate in unspeakable horrors. Littell does an excellent job of showing how Germans involved in the genocide become increasingly desensitized and brutalized. It's unfortunate that this, the most powerful part of the book, becomes obscured by Aue's psychosis and his escalating perversity, including a ridiculously over-the-top murder subplot.

Still, despite its huge flaws, this is a tremendously ambitious book, well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member KidSisyphus
A monstrous account of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi bureaucrat who participated in it.
LibraryThing member justplainoldcj
Lush storytelling that seems so authentic, so true, at times I forgot I was reading fiction. I just really loved this book. I had to read it twice--the first time I raced through to see how it would possibly end, then went back through and savored it. Beautiful.
LibraryThing member shawnd
After reading a review, I was so ready to love this book. Alas I read about 90% of it, and was let down from my high expectations. The book is really a historical fiction, not a contemporary novel or thriller. It follows Dr. Aue through his progression and wartime life as an SS officer. It includes atrocities he witnessed, heard about, and occasionally participated in. It included his own musings on morality both much later and mostly concurrent with the events. It dips into just about every form of atrocity, depravity, crime and non-normative life choice. It is not for the faint of stomach.

How could the book have been better? First, it could have been a little more taut--they could have cut 40 pages of troop and SS movements through Poland and Russia. Second, the introduction/first section, at first abstruse, becomes a wonderfully well-written intriguing psychological venture--but then that voice disappears and never returns as it plunges almost immediately into the war. Almost like having an appetizer that's better than the entree, speaking as one not enamored especially of WWII historical fiction. Third, it does have, as mentioned elsewhere, construct and other issues with the story of the parent crime tying in with the basic story, and some more relationship parts of the book seem unrealistic. On the positive side, this is perhaps a very realistic look into the life of an SS officer, and seems very well researched.
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Original publication date

2009 (English)

Physical description

904 p.; 6 inches


207078097X / 9782070780976
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