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H.H. Kirst and the Problem of Evil

By (June 1, 2007) 9 Comments

Thanks to a multitude of online used book sites, it’s now possible to obtain a copy of virtually any book ever printed. And thus it’s no longer quixotic (or sadistic) to recommend out of print authors. Hence this feature, which will examine and recommend authors whose work has all but disappeared from common view. There’s vast treasure to be found beyond Books in Print; consider these essays pieces of a map.

When Gunter Grass revealed recently, in his new memoir Peeling the Onion, that he’d served time in the closing year of World War II as a member of the SS, he provoked a range of reactions as varied as they were predictable. Literary friends became supporters, stressing the courage of the admission and the silent verity of the author’s collected works. Revered historian Joachim Fest pronounced that he wouldn’t now trust Grass to sell him a used car – and then, to emphasize his outrage, promptly died. The blogosphere chattered for weeks about ethical quagmires; publishing insiders wondered if Grass weren’t so much tired of living with his secret, as he claimed, as he was hopeful that his secret would sell copies of his book.  

Certainly for an author who spent a literary lifetime larding his works with German war-guilt, an admission of membership in the SS comes as a crowning irony, surpassable only if (for his next memoir, perhaps) Grass were to reveal that during the war he went by the name “Adolf Hitler.” And whether he made this revelation for cynical reasons or psychological ones, the central question it raises has a noxious vitality of its own: how do we as readers configure knowledge of an author’s personal life with reaction to his work?
In other words, what do we do with Nazi art?

The Bald Mountain of all such art, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, is no help, mainly because it’s so easily dismissed. Never has the sweaty mind of a madman been so boringly and exactingly rendered on paper, and that very tiresomeness is a tattoo on the text – we can ignore the book because it’s worthless aesthetically. And because it doesn’t move us (except those who would be moved by anything spittle-flecked), it cannot enlighten us.

How much simpler the whole question would be if Nazi Germany’s progeny had simply produced nothing at all of any worth! After all, hate-movements seldom do. Torquemada left us no stirringly ambivalent treatise on torture. No wizard of the Ku Klux Klan has written a searching work to make us question our moral underpinnings. “The Turner Diaries” contain nothing that wouldn’t be better lost. If the literary output of Nazi Germany had been confined to the obsessive paperwork for which they were notorious (and which would feature so prominently in the Nuremberg trials), we should have no ethical dilemma. The whole twelve-year Reich could be comfortably categorized as a soulless aberration.

The problem is geography, and therefore culture. Germany, Austria, Prussia – these lands enjoyed such a rich artistic heritage for centuries before the rise of Nazism that national socialism could only stain but not eliminate it, like a garish repainting laid over a beautiful fresco. That this would become the central damning tragedy of Nazi Germany, the thing that really made it incomprehensible, is not surprising: how to reconcile the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven, the plays of Schiller, the philosophy of Kant, the science of Kepler, the polymath genius of Goethe, and most of all the almost inhumanly beautiful music of Bach – how to reconcile these things with gas trucks, blitzkrieg, crematoria, genocide?

The civilized reader tells himself that it’s the merits of the art itself that should count, and only them. But how can those atrocities be silenced by the simple fact that one of their perpetrators could turn out a pretty sestina, or direct an engaging film, or lead an orchestra well? One of the Nazis most loathsome little traits was their constant twisting of language into clever euphemisms and elaborate doublespeak. Can it ever be right to hand out royalty checks and bookstore-money (not to mention Nobel prizes) to literary talent forged in such smithies? If Torquemada had written a work on the racking, crushing, burning, and hanging of naked flesh, surely it would still be wrong to read it, however gorgeously it were written?

(The reader is reminded that the Bible itself contains a long litany of horrific cruelties and capricious barbarism. It has been the aesthetic wellspring of an entire civilization, and yet its Author’s war-crimes effortlessly eclipse those of any mere human agency).

Grass writes of himself as a pathetic figure, peripheral and half-starving, alternately running from the Russians or the Germans themselves. He makes no allusions to shooting Kansas teenagers in the face, probably because his picture of his wartime participation is accurate. A big admission of a small guilt, with all those entertaining, challenging books thrown onto the positive side of the scales. His marginal involvement in the atrocity becomes the fire in the belly of all his revered lancings of Germany’s moral slipperiness.

How much worse, then, is the case of Hans Hellmut Kirst, now largely out of print in America but once and for a long time a prolific and widely popular German novelist? Grass portrays himself as barely a Nazi and hardly a soldier, but Kirst served in the Nazi army as long as it was possible to do so, from 1933 to 1945. He was born in the easternmost part of Germany (now part of Poland) in 1914 and joined the Wehrmacht with his eyes wide open. He wore the swastika, he attended the rallies, and he rose eventually to the rank of first lieutenant. Possibly he also never shot a Kansas teenager in the face (he may not have seen combat), but through his involvement in officer training during the war he was certainly an active part of the war machine that did.

After the war, Kirst took to saying that his “growing disillusionment” with Nazi Germany gave rise to – and found expression in – his novels. Even before turning to those novels, it bears saying in the coldest terms possible: his “disillusionment” was an awful damn long time growing. One can’t help wondering if, under different circumstances, it might still have been growing when the panzers rolled into London and the last European Jew was gassed to death.

Which makes the problem of the novels that much graver, because they’re all so good. Kirst, more than Grass or any of the other Nazi artists, is the nightmare of accountability made flesh: a fully responsible and committed Nazi who was also a first-rate novelist and born storyteller, the monstrosity of Nazism knottily entangled with the artistic German soul. Here comforting absolutism fumbles – hating these books because we hate what the author did would paradoxically impoverish us, since we would lose the books in the process.

Kirst wrote dozens of novels, and they never stray far from his central theme, a multi-volume, multi-faceted portrayal of the absurdities and inhumanities of the Wehrmacht at war. He achieved fame for his novels featuring the hapless everyman Gunner Asch (titled in English The Revolt of Gunner Asch, Forward, Gunner Asch!, The Return of Gunner Asch, and What Became of Gunner Asch). The main character is a decent fellow caught in the lunacy of organized warfare, doing his best to deal with arrogant or oblivious officers, slovenly and enterprising comrades, colorful locals, and the looming threat of the Allies. There’s a strong pretence of autobiography about the series, and threading throughout a silent plea for some kind of exoneration.

Some of Kirst’s novels are far more historical than fictional. In The 20th of July and The Affair of the Generals, for instance, he takes actual incidents in the history of the Third Reich (respectively, the attempt to assassinate Hitler and the smearing of two high-ranking military officers) and only very lightly fictionalizes them. Like most historical novelists, Kirst is at pains to stress all the research he’s done, and like all historical novelists, he ultimately chooses fiction as his genre rather than history because fiction allows him the greater room for personal commentary. But in the case of Nazi art, this impulse becomes suspect: fiction becomes a layer of insulation against raw culpability.

However, most of this is historical fiction of the first order, smart, intensely dramatic, full of perfectly-realized characters and perfectly-etched dialogue (Kirst is at his best in dialogue – the profound absurdities of German Expressionism find full deployment when Kirst’s characters talk to each other or about each other). The wisdom here is forlorn; the insights are real. The reader occasionally slips, occasionally forgets what should be foremost in the mind always, namely the wisdom and insights contained in the novels that will never be written by the young Jews, Poles, Catholics, and gypsies annihilated by the gang of which Kirst was a fully-vetted member.

Kirst’s most ambitious and commercially successful novel, titled The Night of the Generals in English, sold in millions of copies, was translated into dozens of languages, and was made into a film starring Peter O’Toole as a perfect Aryan general with a nasty habit of eviscerating prostitutes. Kirst presents the story with flawless, operatic confidence, but there’s that familiar worm in the bud: the psychopathic general Tanz is painted as the villain of the piece specifically because his evil is not only unmotivated but unfeeling – and again, the reader can sometimes be lulled by Kirst’s technical mastery into forgetting the enormous implications of this attempted contrast. Tanz is a Nazi combat general, a tank-riding executioner representing a brutal, criminal regime: no further elaboration is necessary to complete the picture of his evil. Implying otherwise, implying that a man can be a Nazi commander and still not yet be a monster, is a dangerously lenient narrative ploy.

Kirst takes this risk knowingly, and the skill with which he succeeds elevates his best work well above the easy designation of “WWII thriller.” The Night of the Generals is more than a study of evil – it’s a mosaic of evil, an entire spectrum of the ways in which men can be wrong. Kirst’s characters are minutely human even in their failings – even the monster Tanz, when speaking of himself, can elicit a twisted kind of sympathy:

“Is your experience of death really so limited? I’ve seen a man staggering across a field of stubble with his entrails hanging out, trying desperately to escape from enemy rifle fire. He fell over, wriggled like a worm and tried to get up, over and over again, but he became entangled in his own guts. So he tore them out with his bare hands, screaming like a wounded horse. He was the only person I’ve ever truly loved. When I reached him he was past recognizing me. He died babbling a woman’s name – the name of a woman I regarded as a whore.”

The psychology in display in this passage (the cliches are imported by the translator, J. Maxwell Brownjohn – Kirst is in need of a new translator) is deftly rendered; the dead man is two kinds of animal before he’s the only person Tanz ever loved, and the admission of love is followed so swiftly by psychotic misogyny that both tangle together and hit the reader simultaneously. The slightly stunned revulsion that results exactly mirrors the reaction of all the book’s characters to Tanz. Such subtleties are well beyond the powers of an Adam Hall or a Wilbur Smith, and oddly, that’s part of the problem: the miniature personal detailing that is the principal joy of reading Kirst’s novels tends to mask the fact that those same novels are ominously silent on the larger world of Nazi iniquity. So agreeable is the prose that the reader (Kirst’s books have sold in uncountable millions, nowhere more so than in America) runs the risk of being swept into a worldview in which Nazism is just another among many other corrupt bureaucracies. Such relativism is patently false and very, very hazardous.

It’s also partly illusionary, and that’s the crucial fascination with this author. He was for many years a willing part of a great evil, and on one level he knows it (Kirst donated a percentage of his royalties to a fund aiding Warsaw war orphans, and he accepted no royalties at all from the sale of his books in Israel). But on another level he’s forever justifying and excusing and warning. In interviews Kirst could allude bitterly to the ways in which the German people were “misled,” but the tenacious intelligence and inquisitiveness so obvious in the novels cannot be entirely postwar attributes. However “misled” Kirst might have been in 1933, he cannot have been so at all in 1938, or 1940, or 1944. Guilt and pride are locked together in his works.

Guilt, pride, and above all sorrow. For all his gimlet-eyed humor (as impossible as it seems, virtually all of Kirst’s books have very funny bits), Kirst views the war and everything in it as a tragedy that has descended on ordinary people. Nowhere is this more masterfully portrayed than in his best novel, The Wolves. Here the story of a good man, Alfons Materna, is told against the backdrop of a Prussian village’s experience with the whole length of World War II. This is Kirst’s most controlled, epic work, dissecting in minute detail the creeping barbarism of Nazi infestation, the unrelieved bleakness it brings:

Ignaz Uschkurat, once Maulen’s highly respected mayor, was weeping silently. The tears trickled down his ravaged face, one by one.
He was drunk, of course, like almost everybody in Maulen that night, but in his case drunkenness showed signs of becoming a permanent condition.
Three of Uschkurat’s five sons had been killed in action. One had deserted, and the fifth still worked, sullen, idle, and rebellious, on his farm. His wife had died too, of rat poison. She had drunk it mixed with run the previous Christmas.
“I’m all alone now,” Uschkurat muttered to himself.
“Cheer up,” Amadeus Neuber said brightly. “Don’t be downhearted; there’s always me.”
“You?” Uschkurat blinked at him through a mist of tears, half hopefully, half in scorn. “You’re as big a rat as the others.”
Neuber kept his temper. “Don’t say that. I’m used to being misjudged, but it still hurts.”
“What did you do when they took all my jobs and property away?”
“No one regrets these things more than I do, Ignaz, but how can I help you unless you help yourself?”
“What am I supposed to do – kill Eis and Schlaguweit and a dozen more besides, including you? There isn’t any other way.”

Half hopefully, half in scorn….

Ultimately, the novels don’t answer the question of H.H. Kirst and the problem of evil. They’re unflinchingly rich in anger, satire, and human insight, they’re fast-paced and wonderfully readable, and they couldn’t have come into being if their author had not served the Nazis for twelve years. These novels deserve to be in print always, not least because the extent to which they’re enjoyable in the same world that once saw Auschwitz and Treblinka is the central question they raise, and every reader should confront that question on their own.

It’s heartbreakingly clear that Kirst himself had no answer. In the mouth of his most faithful avatar, Gunner Asch (here translated by Robert Kee), he gives his closest rueful approximation:

Sergeant Asch said: “I’m not going to die for this sort of Germany.”
“But who’s asking you to?” said Kowalski.
“There must be another Germany which is worth dying for.”

Steve Donoghue was forced into long-term exile in Rhode Island after being accused by John Winthrop of “infernal and diabolical wizardry.” He has since moved back to his ancestral estate in Massachusetts and is busy redacting his diaries from that time. In addition, he hosts the literary blog Stevereads at www.stevereads.blogspot.com.


  • Thanks for this thoughtful piece on HHK, Steve. I’m a long-term fan of Kirst and came upon him first when I myself was in the Army (British). I can’t begin to tell you how popular his books were with us ‘squaddies’ back then: the Gunner Asch ‘his gimlet-eyed humor’ stuff went down really well with the ‘foot-soldiers’ of my day and, I suspect, of any day and any army. I’ve still got a bunch of dog-eared HHKs in my bookcase and take them out periodically for a fond revisit. Always make sure to take one with me on holiday too (along with a good ‘western’).

    As to your central point that HHK as a 12 year veteran was ‘an active part of (Nazi) the war machine’ … yep, he clearly was. And I’m not about to disagree that ‘very hazardous’ danger you rightly identify where ‘the reader runs the risk of being swept into a worldview in which Nazism is just another among many other corrupt bureaucracies.’

    But at the risk of succumbing to “des Pudels Kern”, based on 6 years service in the Army (British) including some active service, I have a personal view that it’s perfectly possible for an individual to be a part of institutional madness, but hold oneself remote from it.

    Anyways, on to brighter thoughts: one of the personal benefits I gained from reading HHK was an early exposure to the works of Goethe. HHK quoted Faust often. I’m travelling on a business trip next week to Frankfurt (Goethe’s home town) and will make a point of visiting Goethe’s House Museum … it was whilst looking up that address that I stumbled upon this article – spooky, or what?

  • Kaye Green says:

    I too am a fan of Kirst, like the british soldier above and I have read Kirst since I was a teen.
    Kirst probably was a convinced Nazi when he joined the Army as a very young man, but the sensitivy that produces great novels must have eaten away at that belief until it was all gone. If you follow the time line in the Novels you can pick up the loss in the russian occupation sections. Kirst came from an area which it was traditional to serve in the military, but militaries are actually very enclosed spaces and what they know about the world they inhabit is never the whole picture. Don’t you allow for growth and change. I was reading a study of denazification following the end of WW2 which has been recently published. Most germans of Kiest’s generation the war generation were never entirly denazified, it was their chirldren who raised in a different world started to seriously question the past. At least Kirst started to question as soon as he could and in print.

  • Philip says:

    Like the other two comments I came across HH Kirst many years ago and have very book I could get my hands on. Now old and yellow but still loved.

    The write up talks about G Grass being in the SS at the end of the war so a comment from a German born friend about those days may be relevant.

    He was called up in 1944 and joined the Air Force to be a pilot, his life’s ambition. He had no idea of the position Germany was in and was surprised when his group were told they were being transferred because there was no fuel to teach them to fly. He says they had the choice of joining the SS or Paras. His friends chose the SS because they got more money and girls. He chose the Paras because he thought he might get back into the Air Force to become a pilot.

    He ended up being captured by British troops after being shelled and wandering around dazed holding a gun. He says the British troops asked him repeatedly to put the gun down before capturing him. They could easily have shot him but recognised he was just a dazed kid.

    It is easy to condemn all SS but some were just ordinary soldiers looking for a good life.

  • Nick Booker says:

    Interesting and challenging essay. I read a lot of Kirst’s novels (in English!) when I was about 16/17 as my school was next to the Central Library in Bristol and had a good selection of them. I took them for what they were – a rattlingly good read, well plotted with good characterisation and clearly written with knowledge. Whilst Kirst may have joined the Wermacht as a committed Nazi we are all allowed to change our views through our life expereinces. On a related point Ian Kershaw’s The End published recently paints a harrowing story, description and explanation of why the Nazis and ordinary Germans fought to the bitter end

  • Ian Lowcock says:

    Fatuous ignorant rot. An old friend of mine joined the Heeren(get the words right) in 1934. He surrendered to the Amis in ’43 and spent the rest of the war fighting fires in Texas. No Nazi was he. He did 10 years service to avoid their attention as both he and his father had been active unionists. Anyone can right an essay long on invective but short on substance.

  • E.M.Heard says:

    I grew up as a small child in a little town in East Germany. My parents were not involved in any party politics, strong Christians, I had no idea we were living under regime of thugs.No knowledge either of the concentration camps. I can understand Kirst found it hard to believe in the atrocities committed under that regime.
    We, a country of poets, composers, writers, philosophers, committing such crimes seems unbelievable. Besides that, from orders of an Austrian too!

  • ROB says:

    I was a soldier on active service. If Kirst was merely a First Lieutenant after twelve years of service in an army whose first line units suffered upwards of five hundred percent casualties he couldn’t have been fanatical about much. The thesis of this nonsensical review is universal guilt. There is nothing in Kirst’s work that suggests he was an ardent Nazi, indeed just the opposite. If anyone is interested, read Willi Heinrich’s Cross of Iron for further insight into the lives of Wehrmacht soldiers. As for the preposterous idea that such a soldier could simply opt out in ’38 or ’40 or ’44, the penalty for that action was beheading. There were plenty of German soldiers hung from lamp posts for desertion as late as April and May of 1945. Frankly this article is a disgrace.

    • ChrisD says:

      Unfortunately Mr Donoghue lacks the intellectual ability to understand the way things stood in Germany between 1933 and 1945. If he did he would of course realise that HH Kirst played the long game of survival and was merely one of millions that reached the end of the war in one piece (physically) and in a position to analyse what had just taken place. What comes out of HH Kist’s writing is a total rejection of Nazism and all it stood for, you cannot be more honest than that. Should we condemn a man for learning to survive on the say so of SD, possibly not. My own mother was a schoolgirl in Austria during the war and while many around her disappeared early in the morning she survived, should I feel guilty that she was not part of the (non existent) resistance? ROB is of course spot on, nothing else to say, exept that SD should not give up the day job. CD

  • Paul Roberts says:

    It is inescapable that there is a hard problem here. My grandfather, a German jew and exile who served in the Royal Pioneer Corps (the only British unit that enemy aliens could serve in early in the war), introduced me to HKK and Gunner Asch.

    I think that one of the best treatments of this from the inside is in Paul Feyerarbend’s autobiography “Killing Time”, but even that is still incomplete. We may just have to accept no good answer for these questions.

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