Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Night of the Generals - Hans Hellmut Kirst

I got The Night of the Generals as a gift 12 years ago, read it then, and set it aside. But I was deciding on whether to donate some books and figured I'd read through it again.

The story spans almost 15 years in Europe, moving from Warsaw, to Paris, and eventually Berlin. The connective tissue is a string of brutal murders, with three initial suspects (von Seydlitz-Gabler, his chief of staff Kahlenberge, and General Tanz) each one a Wehrmacht general. The case initially lands in the hands of Lt. Col. Grau, who is determined to press things, only to find himself transferred to Paris to get him off their backs. Naturally, the 3 generals each wind up there two years later, and there's another murder, but larger events in the war interfere with any pursuit of justice.

My memory of the book was sufficiently dim I went in expecting a fairly standard murder mystery, maybe focusing on how Grau maneuvers around the problems posed with investigating prominent generals as suspects in a society that offers them considerable protection. A bit like Stuart M. Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise, only with Nazis instead of the Soviets.

But reading this, that's largely incidental. The murderer is revealed a little over halfway, and I'm not sure Kirst was ever making much effort to disguise it. Grau does not have the moment of triumph where he marches in, reveals the killer before everyone, and hauls him off to jail.

Kirst seems to be working through his thoughts about the war (he was born in East Prussia and served in World War 2). The actions of men who were supposed to lead, why they did nothing about Hitler, or were willing to follow. The kind of men that were given power and command in a system like that. And the attempts to sweep it under the rug after. Von Seydlitz-Gabler wraps himself in the old standard that it's a soldier's duty to follow his leader's orders, regardless of that person's fitness to lead. Ultimately he's too fearful or opportunistic to take any real command. He prefers to sit back and let others act, then ride along with them. Kahlenberge seems a bit more idealistic, though I couldn't shake the feeling he was also opportunistic, just more aggressive about it than his boss. Tanz is hard to figure, because we don't know what he was like before the war. Was he always the way he is, in which case he was someone who should never have been given power, or did fighting and surviving a war affect him and make him into what he became?

I think Kirst's greatest disgust is with the old Prussian officer class, the ones claiming it was duty. Wrapping themselves in that excuse to deflect themselves from criticism. The impression I get is he wanted them to recognize they serve the country and its people, and of they truly believed in honor and duty, they needed to stand up sooner and put a stop to the war, and take responsibility after. Instead they bob and weave, selling their failure as virtue. I'm not sure what it means that the idealists, the ones who believe in justice and doing what's right, have to hide during the war. However, doing so enables them to emerge after, and they're the ones who can make certain the past isn't swept under the rug. You can't let the generals have it all their way, but you have to know when to pick your spots perhaps.

'Detective-Inspector Roman Liesowski of the Warsaw police shook his head a trifle indulgently. "I've never been able to see much charm in a corpse, Herr Engel."

"Not even in your capacity as a Polish patriot?"

"I've been a policeman for almost as long as I can remember and I've come across a lot of dead bodies in my time, but my sole reaction is always: who did it? I've spent a lifetime hunting down murderers without developing the slightest sense of patriotism."'

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