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Hans Hellmut Kirst: Goose-Stepping for NATO

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

German writers on peace and war

Hans Hellmut Kirst: Selections on war and peace

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The Saturday Review
February 22, 1964

Goose-Stepping for Nato
Joseph P. Bauke

Since The Revolt of Gunner Ash and Officer Factory, Hans Hellmut Kirst has been the unofficial chronicler of the German army and its absurdities. His world remains the same in The Night of the Generals (Harper & Row, $4.95), but his grip on it is firmer. The forbidding facade of Prussian soldiering has never been hit by such missiles before, and German officers must have a difficult time holding on to their reputation as long as Kirst is allowed to lie in ambush in the bookstalls. The grand tradition of the Wehrmacht dies a mock-heroic death in the pages of this exceedingly funny novel.

The Night of the Generals is a fast-moving suspense story that begins in wartime Poland, shifts to German occupied Paris, and ends in contemporary Berlin. The dead bodies of three prostitutes mark a slimy trail that engages the police of several countries and that leads into the upper echelons of the German army. The villain is General Tanz of the elite Nibelungen division, a monster in shining armor, who conducts himself like a latter-day god of war. Like most of Kirst’s officers, Tanz proportions and hides his morbid soul under a collection of medals. He is by far the most memorable character in Kirst’s staff of generals.

On another level this uproarious comedy is also an expose of the attitudes of the German military caste and its fast adjustment to postwar realities. Hitler’s minions now serve Ulbricht or NATO with the same efficiency and devotion with which they fought the wars of the Third Reich. Kirst combines fact and fiction in a spell-binding narrative and often achieves the immediacy of a newspaper story with a Berlin dateline. But The Night of the Generals is, first of all, a superbly written thriller.

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Hans Hellmut Kirst
From The Night of the Generals (1962)
Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn

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Except from a leading article published in the magazine Sword and Spirit in November 1942. Its author was Captain Kahlert, the war historian attached to General Seydlist-Gabler’s staff. This article appeared under the tile: ‘Resistance and the Consequences’:

‘We are waging this war in order to create a better world. It is an historic mission of which no one who is conscious of his responsibility toward Greater Germany and a New Order in Europe can or may deprive us.

‘But, as always occurs when light wrestles with darkness, the most sinister forces are unleashed. Sub-humans are incapable of observing the clearly defined rules of fair play. Their favourite weapons are cunning and deceit. We must not only be prepared for this but take positive measures to meet it, and this plainly entails the extermination of all criminal elements.

‘Such is the situation that has been forced on us in several places, notably Warsaw. While we regret it profoundly, we should not hesitate for one moment to draw the necessary conclusions. For what are the real facts of the matter? Poland persistently provoked the Third Reich and imposed a war on her by force of arms. We had no alternative but to meet this challenge, and we did so victoriously. We occupied the country and began to govern it according to the historic rights of the victor and the eternal laws of humanity.’

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‘It is a cheap excuse, nothing more, to mouth platitudes like ‘sacrifices are inevitable’ or ‘the innocent always suffer with the guilty’ or ‘human beings are the manure of history because their death prepares the ground for national greatness’. In the view of certain historians, the road that leads to a better world has always been paved with corpses – not that they themselves are, or would wish to be, among those corpses.

‘Yet how can anyone who remembers his mother, who has known and loved a fellow-being, who knows what children are, ever look on human life as a form of war material to be employed with mechanical indifference?…’

*****

‘Ever since the beginning of time, humanity has occasionally thrown up creatures of appalling and monstrous perversity. Some of them have been called kings, others statesmen; at least one was a Pope and other have been soi-disant scientists or outwardly respectable citizens. Some, needless to say, have been soldiers.

‘Tanz was the personification of war – of a war which was nothing more or less than a cruel, pointless, uncontrolled blood-bath. A man who devotes himself to war in the same way as others fall prey to an irresistible vice is exactly like someone infected with the plague, syphilis or any other virulent disease.

‘Thus the face of the general named Tanz – christened General Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) by one of his men – was merely the mask of war, an iron mask concealing blood-lust, destruction – perhaps, even, Hell itself.’

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mark Conrad
    November 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    1964 5 don’t remember any more — walking through the front entrance of Europejski Hotel in Warsaw I am faced with 2 German Genrals in full uniforms with medals etc.. Bit of shock One was Peter O’Tool 2nd I don’t remember – they were filming “The night of the Generals”
    Splendid movie.

    • richardrozoff
      November 12, 2012 at 10:48 pm

      That’s a fascinating account you’ve given.
      And, yes, it is a superb film.

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