Heinrich Boll’s view of Germany at war under Adolf Hitler is utterly devoid of heroics. His soldiers are generally stupid--or, if not stupid, craven or callous. Lacking idealism, they fight not because of their love for homeland or “honor,” but through fear. In the title story, for example, the narrator is a “casualty” who imagines himself lucky that his battle wound, grenade shrapnel in his back, seems serious enough that his doctors will send him out of combat on the Eastern front. Congratulating himself that he has escaped certain death in battle, he travels by medical train through Romania and Hungary, most of the time drunk. By the time he reaches his destination far behind the war zone, his wound has festered and probably will prove fatal. In “Cause of Death: Hooked Nose,” a sensitive German soldier tries to rescue his host, a Russian at whose home he has been billeted, from the slaughter awaiting Jews as part of Hitler’s “final solution.” The Russian’s misfortune is that he has a suspiciously Semitic-appearing nose; along with other innocent victims of madness, he is murdered. The narrator, a horrified witness to the crime, goes insane. In “Unknown Soldier,” a frightened youth prays that the Soviet shells crashing around him will kill him quickly, to spare him from the greater dread of living like an animal.
Equally horrifying are the tales of Germany shortly after the war. In “The Surfer,” two travelers are thrown together, one a procurer and the other a neophyte male prostitute, both selling themselves as commodities to survive. To avoid their sordid reality, they dream of California surfer films. In “The Green Silk Shirt,” a young man tries to sell his only possession of value for a piece of bacon and bread, but he is rebuffed. His consolation is that, for the time being, he can wear the cool, soft shirt, his sole luxury, as he yearns for “the poor, abject face of the city, behind whose contorted features” he has often “seen the human bred by misery.” The youth’s vision is that of the writer. Boll’s Germans, stripped naked to the bone, are themselves among the numberless victims of Nazism.