Regular readers of aware of my enthusiasm for Sven Hassel‘s gritty WWII pseudo-memoirs about a battle section of former prisoners fighting in one of Hitler’s penal battalions on the Eastern Front. They are bawdy, high-adrenalin thrill rides with gruesome battle scenes. Hassel was a bestseller throughout the 60s and 70s so many other authors jumped on the bandwagon. Konzalik is one such writer who got his chance due to the market Hassel had created.
I’m euro-jaunting now, having been on the road since the last weekend of March. As expected my productivity has nose-dived . I finished coaching a week-long residential on Friday and have another one starting tomorrow. I’m a busy man!
Still, it’s roasting hot outside and the streets are dead. It’s physically draining just to be out in this weather, so instead I’m sitting in a quaint old study room in a rustic city centre apartment I’m sharing with GGG. It feels like the kind of room Ian Fleming would write a James Bond story in. With my feet up on a footstool, reclining in a wing-backed chair, I finally finished Highway To Hell, a book I started on the flight out over three weeks ago.
The nominal story is that it’s late-1944 and the war has already turned decisively against Germany. Their threadbare army is strung out along the steppe east of Minsk with barely enough men, munitions or food to stave off collapse. The Russians are amassing offensive formations ominously as the German soldiers in the trenches mutter about how it’ll all end. Over the course of the book, the Russians attack and the Germans retreat in chaos along the highway to Minsk, or to hell according to the title.
It’s interesting what Konzalik is trying to do with the book. Although marketed to the Hassel demographic, it lacks most of the Dane’s signature elements. Hassel focused exclusively upon a small group of recurring characters – Porter, Tiny, Old ‘Un, Heide, Legionnaire etc – as they were engulfed in chaos. We lived right alongside them as they were sent on suicide commando raids behind Soviet lines, fought pitched tank battles against Russian T-34s, or garrisoned towns far behind the front. Hassel’s books were pseudo-memoirs of a small band of brothers who often had no idea how the war was progressing. Told in first-person, the fighting was always raw and immediate, which is why I liked the books.
Konzalik throws these elements in, but seems half-hearted about it. I suspect his first books never included any of it but his editor likely told him, “make it more like Sven. Give me blood! Give me fanatical Nazi officers and murderous Siberian snipers!”. So the central dynamic in Highway To Hell is between battle-hardened foot-sloggers Leskau and Strakuweit who are proxies for Hassel’s Porter and Tiny. This is supported with a dynamic between officers Scheider and Vogel, who represent the “guts n glory” fanaticism of Hassel’s vainglorious officer corps, and also two surgeons in military hospital each on the verge of defeatism under the weight of broken men sent to them from the front. There’s some light comic relief with RSM Kunze, a fat coward who constantly abuses his position to sell out his comrades, and his chubby Russian girlfriend Tamara.
I think Konzalik wanted to make this book a Dickensian tale of War, weaving together stories from different locations and situations across the front. So we have the surgeons trying to stem the tide of blood but increasingly disillusioned by the fresh orders from High Command to send injured men back into the grinder. We have infantrymen griping about prissy officers and trying to stay alive as Russian jabos strafe their columns or Siberian assault troops raid their trenches overnight. There are scenes of Generals at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair trying to speak reason to an unravelling Fuhrer.
Think of it as The Wire, but swap out Baltimore for the marshes and steppe of Eastern Ukraine.
Konzalik gives it a good go but he’s only got 235 pages and must cater to an audience of readers raised on Hassel’s flair for the dramatic. He doesn’t pull it off. I enjoyed reading but it never felt compelling. There are so many story threads that there’s never any space to develop a main plot. If Konzalik intended to portray a world where the common German is overwhelmed by grand forces completely outside their control, then he’s succeeded. Highway To Hell is relentlessly bleak as almost every character has given up thoughts of victory and has been disabused of all ideals. They are scrambling like animals simply to stay alive under the Russian onslaught.
It makes a point, but it means the book lacks any sense of forward momentum. Even the story is, at heart, about retreat. At no point does the German army advance. The book opens with stalemate and then the Russians gradually push the Germans back into Poland. Even the minor skirmishes are failures. For all the bleakness of Hassel’s overarching narrative, his characters get multiple minor wins at the operational level. They’ll occasionally blow up a supply dump, collapse a bridge, or capture an town. Konzalik’s soldiers are punching bags for the commies.
I neither recommend nor advise against this book. If you like blood’n’guts WWII stories, read all of Hassel’s books before dropping down a tier to the Konzaliks and Kesslers of the genre. If you want it more heroic and with more conventional dramatic progression, try Alastair MacLean.
If you like reading my reviews of my year’s reading, you’ll have to wait a while for more updates. My reading has slowed to a crawl. Just go buy Daygame Overkill or something.
 Though I’ve almost finished the Daygame Mastery second edition and have only four chapters left to write on Younger Hotter Tighter. So, I’ve still made progress.