An officer's autobiographical novel of combat, disillusion, and shell shock in the German lines
An autobiographical novel of World War I experiences in the German ranks, Georg Grabenhorst's Zero Hour equates duty with camaraderie and thereby finds a greater balance between bitterness and hawkishness than much of war fiction. The war is experienced here through the keen eyes of Hans Volkenborn, a well-bred officer-candidate whose youthful enthusiasm turns to angst and disillusion. The sole comfort of his experience is the fellowship he enjoys with comrades, but even that abates over time.
Grabenhorst recalls specifics of battlefield actions on the western front with a visceral language that still resonates today. Of particular historical importance are accounts of combat in the Ypres campaign in 1917 and the futile clashes in the woods of Aveluy in northern France the following summer as German hopes for victory faded. But the novel's greatest success lies with Grabenhorst's vivid description of shell shock, in this case the result of being briefly buried alive by a mortar round. The condition ultimately engulfs Volkenborn's ailing psyche and leaves him tormented, isolated, and blinded at the war's end.
Zero Hour was first published as Fahnenjunker Volkenborn in Germany in 1928 and was translated into English under the current title in the following year. This reissued edition features a new introduction by Robert Cowley and a new afterword by Casey Clabough to place the novel in its proper literary and historical contexts.
Georg Grabenhorst (1899–1997) served as a probationary officer during World War I. After the war he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Kiel and served as an executive officer of the Regional History Society for Lower Saxony and, later, with the West German Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Of the numerous volumes of fiction and nonfiction he wrote, only Zero Hour was subsequently published in English.
Robert Cowley is the founding editor and former editor in chief of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. His books include The Great War: Perspectives on the First World War, No End Save Victory: Perspectives on World War II, and The Cold War. He lives in Connecticut.
Casey Clabough is an assistant professor of English at Virginia's Lynchburg College.
"Zero Hour tells us… how sensitive young Germans went to fight, how they suffered and bore up and how, acquiring quick, unforgettable experience on top of their boyish naïveté, they came against their will to disillusionment."—New York Times
"The battle scenes are powerfully drawn, based as they were on the author's own frontline experiences. So too are the sketches of life behind the lines and on leave in a Germany quickly falling victim to food shortages and social revolution."—St. Mihiel Trip-Wire