The Kindly Ones

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Jonathan Littell, Chatto & Windus; £20

The Kindly Ones is a memoir of the Second World War by Max Aue, a fictional SS officer who has escaped being brought to trial at the war's end and reinvented himself as a family man and factory manager in France.

In the opening pages Aue declares that "you might have done what I did. Pure chance makes us either good or evil."

Aue's story spans Nazi Germany's war on the Eastern Front as he participates in the massacre at Babi Yar in Kiev where 34,000 Jews were murdered in two days. Page after page has us wading through the blood and guts of war as Aue shuffles his paperwork. In the Caucasus, while overseeing the firing squads, he researches whether a tribe of "mountain Jews" are "racially" Jewish or converts. In Auschwitz he calculates what rations get the best work out of the prisoners before they are gassed.

The force and cool detachment with which author Jonathan Littell describes the physical realities of war and mass murder are searing. He has spent years on his research and clings closely to the historical record but this fictional presentation brings the accounts horrifically alive.

In France, where it was first published in 2006, the book became a bestseller, as it also did in Germany. But some critics dubbed it "Holocaust porn".

The problem with this book concerns the character of Aue himself. Evil and unsavoury enough as an SS Sturmbannführer, he also murders his parents and has an incestuous relationship with his sister.

Littell's declared object in writing the book is to ask, "Would he have behaved as Aue did?" But having a ludicrously freakish Nazi as the protagonist means this is a question that becomes falsely posed. It relieves Littell of having to give any political explanations.

Nonetheless, I was gripped by this 1,000-page epic, warts and all - interminable passages on Aue's bowel movements, clichéd characters including a Dr Mandelson with his bevy of Aryan Amazon assistants, and two ludicrous German PC Plods who keep turning up mid-carnage to interrogate Aue. Overall it conveys a powerful anti-war message.

Littell, a US Jew who worked for NGOs in Bosnia and Chechnya, also has some words for Israel today. In 2008 he accused Israel of using the Holocaust for political gain and likened Israel's behaviour in the Occupied Territories to that of the Nazis prior to the Second World War: "Look how the Germans dealt with the Jews even before the Holocaust: cutting the beards, humiliating them in public, forcing them to clean the streets. That kind of stuff happens in the territories every day. Every goddamn day."

It is not, as Aue claims, "pure chance that makes us good or evil". More to the point is Rosa Luxemburg's statement from prison in 1915 - "The choice facing humanity is one of socialism or barbarism." Aue was a willing and energetic Nazi who was part of eliminating the opposition. This book further convinces that it must never happen again.