The novel shows the mechanism of Nazi indoctrination, which turned the main character, Hans Koch, into a professional ‘Death’s Head’ Waffen-SS killer. Eventually he realises that he’s been cheated by his Führer, but he’s unable to escape from his predicament.
“How did you survive in this icy hell, Ernst?”“The honest answer was luck and plenty of it. The thought of never seeing my homeland again kept me going, and gave me the will to survive. At the beginning of December 1941 we were almost touching Moscow. Myself and my comrade Siegfried Hortmayer were part of a recce patrol (reconnaissance), and when we reached the tram terminus, about 16 kilometres from the city centre, we sat on the wooden bench in the shelter smoking, and gazed in awe at the city, which looked strangely eerie in the stillness of the night. The cloak of silence was occasionally violated by the creaking of wheels from the assault guns, and the hoarse whispers from the ghostly columns in the distance.I never believed in my wildest dreams that I’d ever get as close to this strange, alluring city, filled with magic, and surrounded by a virgin white mantle of snow, that seemed to go on forever. The experience was bizarre. My ears were tingling and I went into a trance, which engulfed me, as I lapped up this whiter than white mysterious land. I felt alienated, and the feeling of isolation in this enchanting place, arrested me and imbued me with foreboding. I knew then that I should never have invaded its privacy, and intruded on its tranquillity.”“It seems to me that you were living inside an iceberg, Ernst”“No, Hans. It was like living inside an iceberg with the top off. Your breathing crystallises and falls on the ground with a soft tinkle, which seems like the whispers from the stars twinkling in the distant Heavens.”/…/Ernst is sorry he didn’t become a tanker.“You’re right, Hans. You’re a lucky bastard. I’m a bloody foot soldier depending on a lousy rifle, hiding in a hole in the ground like a trapped animal. If the Artillery doesn’t get you the tanks will.I was buried in my foxhole and I heard this massive rumbling noise, getting louder and louder, and - as it got closer - I looked out and saw this gigantic, smelly, smoky monster approaching our forward trenches about 100 metres away. It looked like the new T 34 and it was preparing for a carpet run over our trenches.It was creaking and chattering, and the ground was shuddering, as it started to go over them. If they’re not constructed properly you’ll end up as recycled jam.As it passed close to me I noticed that it had red tracks, and I gradually realised that they were covered in blood - with bits of flesh and insides hanging between the tracks and the rollers. The snow had changed colour to red.I can’t describe it. I can’t describe my fear. I squeezed myself into the bottom of my foxhole until my neck had almost disappeared into my body, as I tried to make myself smaller and smaller. I though the earth was going to crack. The time was like an eternity and I was in a cold sweat, which was turning to ice on my body, and then the noise seemed to change and go in a different direction. My whole life flashed before me, as strange and unusual events shot through my brain in milliseconds, like my life had rolled into a tiny circle with all my episodes looking back at me.”
The game is over and SS-Corporal Hans Koch has to live as the damned, chased by memories of his victims.
The story covers a period of time from the mid 1930s to the late 1950s and presents the main part of the World War II theatre: Germany, Poland, Austria, Ukraine, the Balkan states and the unlimited space of Soviet Russia. On this huge scene two parallel plots of the book meet and join together – the main Hans Koch’s story and a secondary plot with Soviet soldiers from the 3rd Guards Tank Army.