Littell said he was inspired to write the novel after seeing a photograph ofZoya Kosmodemyanskaya, aSovietpartisanexecuted by theNazis. He traces the original inspiration for the book from seeingClaude Lanzmann’s filmShoah, an acclaimed documentary aboutthe Holocaust, in 1991. He began research for the book in 2001 and started the first draft eighteen months later, after he had read around two hundred books about Nazi Germany and theEastern Front,as well as visiting Germany, East Europe and Caucasus. Littell claims that he undertook the creation of his main character, Aue, by imagining what he himself would have done had he been born in pre-war Germany and had become a Nazi.
Littell's only previously published book, thecyberpunknovelBad Voltage, which Littell considers "a very bad science-fiction novel",tells the story of Lynx, a "half-breed" who lives in a futuristicParis. Many scenes in the novel take place in theParis Catacombs; he also includes an unusual appendix in this novel which lists all the music and songs he listened to while composing. In addition, Littell has published a detailed intelligence report about the security organs of theRussian Federation, an analysis ofLéon Degrelle's bookLa Campagne de Russie, influenced by the works of the sociologistKlaus Theweleit, one book with four texts written beforeThe Kindly Onesand, finally, a short essay.