Novelists since the time of Fielding have made speeches to their readers, but few can have done so more ingeniously than Herr Kirst: he includes, as a sort of appendix, a section entitled "A Speech Which Has Often Been Pondered But Never Delivered." The speech is superfluous and rather annoying, but it points up the skill with which the author has balanced suspense, satire, and philosophy throughout the rest of the book. Only when the plate marked "ethical implications" falls noisily to earth do we realize that we have been watching a balancing act all along.
The Night of the Generals is basically a detective story, and a good one. A prostitute is found brutally stabbed to death in wartime Warsaw; a witness claims to have seen a German general leaving her apartment. Major Grau of the Abwehr narrows the suspects down to three: General von Seydlitz-Gabler, a cautious, ineffectual commanding officer representing the Prussian military tradition; Major General Kahlenberge, his able and acerb chief of staff; and Lieutenant General Tanz, the dashing leader of the Nibelungen (Special Operations) Division. But Major Grau is reassigned, and does not resume his investigation until 1944--two years later--when, with all the generals in Paris a similar murder is committed there. The generals are again reunited following a third slaying, and the murder is brought to justice in Berlin in 1956.
Building on this plot, Herr Kirst offers a satirical view of life in the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht as he follows the efforts of von Seydlitz-Gabler's wife to marry their daughter, Ulrike, to Tanz. Ulrike is in love with Lance Corporal Hartmann, who is being kept under cover after inadvertently surviving a skirmish that the German press, for propaganda purposes, reported as an atrocious slaughter. And Hartmann is a young naif (of the sort that seems obligatory in a German anti-war novel) who serves, in his pacifistic innocence, as an effective exponent of the author's views.
The form as well as the content of The Night of the Generals is unorthodox. After every chapter of narrative there is an "interim report" containing excerpts from letters, diaries, recordings, and so forth. Unfortunate- ly, the sections have titles like "Depositions, Comments, Reports, Conjectures, and Assertions Concerning the Events of the Night 19th-20th July 1944," and each statement is burdened by a great deal of spurious docmentation. The final report is effective, however, for there the content of the statements overcomes the artificiality of the technique, and the juxtaposed quotations seem a rising chorus of voices, ending in the book's central question about the nature of Germany.
"Essence of Heroism"
In the sinister figure of General Tanz Nazi Germany, at least, finds a brilliant embodiment. Although most of the other characters are sketched in only with enough completeness to establish them as sympathetic or not, Tanz is fully and compellingly detailed. Looking like "a painting by someone who had tried to capture the essence of heroism," he is nevertheless subject to strange tics and seizures, inexplicable quirks of behavior; a steely disciplinarian, indifferent to the value of individual lives, he displays exemplary courage and single-minded patriotism. Clearly Tanz is meant to be a mythic, archetypal figure--Herr Kirst even goes so far as to suggest that he is "the personification of war"--but he also seems horribly real. Tanz is the sort of man that made Germany's nightmare, and readers are likely to notice him in theirs