No Hero for the Kaiser by Rudolf Frank
Patricia Crampton’s translation of this remarkable German novel was published last year. She writes here of its author, its history and of what it has to offer to today’s readers.
Rudolf Frank was born in Mainz in 1886. He first studied law, but abandoned that for the theatre where he was an important figure in the 1920s, closely associated with Bertold Brecht and other left-wing dramatists and producers: He was part of a passionately committed anti-war movement in Germany, inspired by the horrors of the Great War, and his pacifist novel for young people (originally entitled The Skull of Sultan Mkwawa) appeared at almost the same time as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. ‘According to Clausewitz,’ Frank once wrote, ‘war is the pursuit of politics by other means. For me it was the pursuit of theatre by inferior, cruel and idiotic means.’ He wrote The Skull of Sultan Mkwawa (set in World War One) as ‘a warning to young people’. Published in 1931 it was a great critical and popular success and was welcomed in German classrooms. But not for long.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich, and following the Reichstag fire in February of that year came a wave of arrests of left-wing intellectuals; some, among them Thomas Mann, managed to escape abroad at this time, but Frank was arrested and briefly imprisoned. In this year too the notorious public burning of books took place, as a measure against ‘the un-German spirit’. Thomas Mann, Erich Kastner (yes, that Erich Kastner), Erich Maria Remarque and Rudolf Frank were among those whose books were first banned and then burned. By 1936 Frank was forced by the labour laws (no Jew to be given employment) to emigrate to Austria and then to Switzerland, where he died in 1979.
In the 1980s, in a world where millions of men and women are increasingly intent on seeing a state of permanent peace established in the world, Rudolf Frank’s son was able to have his father’s book republished in Germany, this time under the title The Boy Who Forgot his Birthday. (The mysterious skull of the original title actually appears in the 1918 Treaty of Versailles (Article 246) as an item which Germany is ordered to return, since it was said to be a sacred relic, on behalf of which many Africans believed themselves to be fighting. As far as can be discovered, no such skull has ever existed – making it a fitting symbol for Frank’s denunciation of the empty sham of war.)
The republished book won honours in Germany for its anti-war message and was subsequently translated and published in Britain and America (where it was awarded the 1986 Mildred Batchelder prize for the year’s best children’s book in translation). Jan, the book’s young hero, himself epitomizes the senseless brutishness of the killing. He is a Pole, and although he is adopted after the destruction of his village by a German artillery unit who treat him with great affection and to whom he becomes extremely useful – the unit’s artillery is being used against Russian troops, with whom his own father may be fighting.
While demonstrating the senselessness of war and the evil of persecution, No Hero for the Kaiser (the inspired title dreamed up by Vanessa Hamilton at Dent for the English translation) remains a full-blooded ‘adventure’ story, from its start in a deserted village under fire from both sides, to a Jewish soldier’s brave defiance of an insolent staff officer, and the many times when Jan and his dog, Flox, save their unit through their quick wits and their knowledge of the countryside. They are experienced enough to be able to pick a safe pathway, even for the guns, through apparent marshland, to run like maniacs across unknown ground with vital messages, and even to detect a dangerous spy, a Russian officer posing as a farmer, whose accent rings falsely on trilingual Jan’s ear. (Jan’s trilingualism is an accident of geography; it is his alertness and ability to question that make him such an asset.)
The book is rich in portraits of a whole series of lively characters, from ‘Papa’ Rosenlocher, the first to adopt Jan, to the various soldier poets and jokers in the unit and their humane officers-in contrast to the arrogant aristocrats in smart uniforms with whom there are occasional bitter and futile clashes.
And for teachers who want to introduce this honest, painful account of the first world war to their classes, it must be interesting to learn how rife, even then, was the anti-semitism that was to bear such terrible fruit in the second.
Subtly emerging through the book is the theme of Jan’s own aspirations, as his eyes are opened to a world infinitely larger and more interesting (in spite of the horrors) than his tiny village. His imagination has been fired by the sight and the idea of bridges – bridges that could link country to country, man to man, however much their purpose is abused by the demands of war. When the unit is shunted all the way back along its desperately fought route and through Germany to the Western Front, Jan has an opportunity to observe construction work, from blueprint to finished building, at first hand, and when he too is wounded, he is able to learn more about figurative bridge-building in a field hospital housing the wounded from both sides. When at the end, now aware of the truths of war, Jan disappears with Flox rather than receive the honour of German citizenship, to be bestowed by the Kaiser himself on ‘our Jan d’Arc’, we are left with the hope that he may ultimately succeed in building the bridges he understands so well.
Much human goodness comes Jan’s way, but this is not a book for the squeamish. Descriptions of the carnage, often ironically linked with nature’s benign cycles, sicken the reader as they are intended to do. An unprecedented number of reviews has come in from librarians all over the United States, recommending this book for today’s classrooms. But a review that I particularly value was written by Naomi Lewis in the Observer. ‘No Hero for the Kaiser is a work so remarkable that you have to wonder why it has taken so long to reach us here. The German-born author served in the 1914 war and wrote the book from that experience… Graphic, memorable… it’s clear to see why the book was put to the flames.’
No Hero for the Kaiser is published in hardback by J M Dent (0 460 06173 9, £8.50) and in paperback by Richard Drew in the Swallow series (0 86267 200 7, £2.25).
Patricia Crampton has an international reputation as a translator and has received a number of awards for her work. She has also served on and chaired the International Jury for the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Award.