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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
No Hero for the Kaiser
by Rudolf Frank
Age Range: 14+
The World closes in on Jan Kubitsky on 14th September – his fourteenth birthday. The small Polish hamlet of Kopchovka where Jan lives with his Uncle Peter is surrounded by Russian and German troops. Between them they raise it to the ground and when the battle ends only him and Flox, Vladimir the Shepherd’s dog have survived.
Jan is adopted by the German artillery unit and attired in a German uniform. Although his own father is fighting for the Tsar’s army, Jan soon feels loyalty and affection for his German friends. He becomes indispensible to the unit when he repeatedly manages to save them so that they begin to see him as an almost superhuman figure. Jan witnesses all the horrors of war as he travels with the battery to both the eastern and western fronts. After being wounded in France, he recovers in a ward with soldiers from all over Europe and the French empire in Africa, and he hears the viewpoints of the war from all sides.
Mkwawa, the skull of an African sultan becomes the metaphor for the empty promises of nationalism. When the hierarchy of the German military conceive a plan to reward Jan for his loyalty, courage and bravery by making him a hero and German citizen, he rebels. Jan has no desire to become a symbol for the German army – . “No one is going to make a Mkwawa of me” – so he quietly disappears.
Originally published in 1931, Frank described No Hero for the Kaiser as ‘an anti-war novel to warn young people’. Eloquent and acerbic in his condemnation of war Frank has created some memorable characters and scenes aided by the superb translation by Patricia Crampton. Frank himself was forced to serve the German artillery in August 1914 and so was able to write from personal experience.