The 20th of July

Glancing at my watch while travelling this morning, today’s date leapt out at me stirring memories from the days when I could still out sprint a British soldier, well apart from the one that caught me in an alleyway between Cooke Street and Lavinia Street in the Lower Ormeau Road. While a teenager in Magilligan Prison in 1975 I picked up a book by the German writer HH Kirst. Its title was simple: The 20th of July. It was a novelised account of the plot against the life of Adolf Hitler and its eventual unsuccessful execution, carried out by Colonel Count Claus Von Stauffenberg when he placed a bomb concealed in a suitcase close to where the Nazi leader held court in his Wolf’s Lair HQ.

At the time it seemed one of the most profound books I had read to date. Slow but captivating, it never slipped far beneath the memory’s surface. It stands out as one of the literary moments of a then young life. I suppose remembering the author’s name 35 years later is testimony to that. Today the event at the heart of the Kirst novel is recreated through the film Valkyrie which I at some point intend to watch. If it comes close to capturing the suspense and anticipation of the book, the viewing will be well worthwhile.

The book was a slow read, one to take your time over. Other books I had been reading at the time were faster moving and more action packed such as the accounts of his involvement in World War 2 by the penal battalion soldier Sven Hassel. In a sense they were little more than good militarised Westerns but for a 17 year old they marked a further advance into the world of literature which once entered opened up an infinite expanse which could never be colonised in a multitude of lifetimes. Perhaps more importantly the characters in them were given to considerable reflection on the savagery of war.

The very first Hassel book I picked up was Wheels of Terror. No one recommended it. It was lying about the cage and what gave it instant appeal were the words on the front cover, something to the effect that it was a book no German publisher dared print. Curiosity may have killed the odd cat but for the felines that survived the experience, being curious proved an indispensable fortifier to the intellect. Besides, something that required a sense of daring in order for it to be printed dared the reader to unlock its mysteries. I immediately grabbed it and dared my way through it in the small Cage F cubicle I shared with a North Belfast republican. On finishing the last page, while satisfied at a good read, my estimation of German publishers was not that high.

After an exchange of letters with a lifelong friend who was then doing some summer work in Guernsey, he sent me a parcel containing all the books by Sven Hassel published up until that point. There were about 8 in all. It was like a Xmas present in the sun although by the time I had got to about the fourth I had developed a sense that the author was spoofing a bit. From that point on I read them as if they were novels. Good but always with an escape hatch when the gore of battle proved too much. Conversely, Kirst’s book, while a novel, had a greater sense of the real to it.

65 years ago today a dictator’s life was almost brought to an end by courageous people. They failed in their attempt and millions more died as Hitler drove the German nation on to self destruction. In a windswept prison camp at the other end of Europe 31 years after the event that almost toppled the tyrant, HH Kirst brought it to life for me.


  1. Solzhenitsyn's "A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was the book that did it for me in my youth, often revisiting it many times over the years. I'd hoped a worthy film adaptation would appear; It's a compelling read.

  2. I read that too many years ago. It was certainly a great read. I read quite a bit of Solzhenitsyn