Hans Hellmut Kirst (5 December 1914 – 13 February 1989) was a distinguished German novelist and the author of 46 books, many of which were translated into English.
Kirst’s first novel was published in 1950, translated into English as The Lieutenant Must Be Mad. The book told of a young German officer who sabotaged a Nazi garrison.
Kirst won an international reputation with the series Null-acht, fünfzehn (Zero-Eight, Fifteen), a satire on army life centered on Gunner Asch, a private who manages to buck the system.
Initially conceived as a trilogy — 08/15 in der Kaserne (1954), 08/15 im Krieg (1954), 08/15 bis zum Ende (1955) — the three book narrative was expanded to five with the publication of 08/15 Heute in 1963 and 08/15 in der Partei in 1978.
The series follows the career of Asch, a common man in an impossible situation, from the years before World War II, to the Eastern Front, and finally into the world of post-war Germany.
The Gunner Asch series was published in English as: The Revolt of Gunner Asch (1955), Forward, Gunner Asch! (1956), The Return of Gunner Asch (1957), What Became of Gunner Asch (1964), and Party Games (1980).
Other major novels by Kirst set during the Third Reich and World War II include Officer Factory, about the investigation into the death of a training officer in an Officer School near the end of World War II, Last Stop, Camp 7, the story of 48 hours in an internment camp for former Nazis, The Wolves, a tale of crafty resistance in a German village, and The Nights of the Long Knives, about a fictitious 6-man squad of SS hit men.
All of these novels featured Kirst’s unique blend of deadpan humor and devastating satire, with leading characters often shown positioning themselves as outspoken, ardent Nazis during the Third Reich era before effortlessly flipping to become equally ardent in their claims to have been anti-Nazi and 100% pro-democracy or pro-communist, whichever was to their advantage, after the tide turned.
Kirst also wrote about the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in Aufstand der Soldaten (1965), which was translated into English as Soldiers’ Revolt.
Kirst’s non-World War II themed novels included The Seventh Day (1957), a nuclear holocaust story that received worldwide acclaim and was dubbed “so convincing, that it doesn’t seem like fiction at all”, and Die letzte Karte spielt der Tod (1955), a fictional account of the life of Soviet spy Richard Sorge, published in the United States as The Last Card and in the United Kingdom as Death Plays the Last Card.
In 1965, Kirst was nominated for an Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for his 1962 book, Die Nacht der Generale, translated into English as The Night of the Generals.
The book dealt with an investigation into a series of murders of prostitutes during and after World War II committed by one of three German generals. The book was made into a fairly successful 1967 film of the same name, which starred Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole.
Kirst also wrote a series of detective novels set in Munich in the 1960s and published in English translations as Damned to Success (and also as A Time for Scandal), A Time for Truth, and Everything has a Price.
In 1972, Kirst was a member of the jury at the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival. He was also a member of International PEN and The Authors Guild.
Hans Hellmut Kirst died in February 1989. He was 74 years old at the time of his death and was survived by his wife, Ruth, and a daughter.
Kirst’s books were translated into 28 languages and sold a total of 12 million copies during his lifetime.
He is considered to be one of the greatest German describer of the fall of the Third Reich and the destiny of the defeated German people.
In his later years he also began writing criminal novels, but those seem not to have been translated into English. (German Wikipedia states that he wrote 60 novels).
Kirst is best remembered as the creator of the “Gunner Asch” series which detailed the ongoing struggle of an honest individual to maintain his identity and humanity amidst the criminality and corruption of Nazi Germany.
Hans Hellmut Kirst was born in Osterode, East Prussia. Osterode is today placed in the Polish part of the former German province.
Kirst joined the German Army in 1933 and served as an officer during World War II, ending the war as a First Lieutenant. Kirst was a member of the Nazi Party, stating later that he had “confused National Socialism with Germany”.
Kirst later indicated that after the war he did not immediately believe accounts of Nazi atrocities. “One did not really know one was in a club of murderers”, he recalled.