When I get depressed, I often re-read German infantry memoirs from the Eastern Front. I realize this is weird. I’ve been down a lot in the last few weeks because I keep getting sick so here are my thoughts on the memoirs I have been re-reading:
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. Five Stars. If you want to understand the German war experience in World War Two this is the absolute must read book. Why? Two reasons. First: Sajer fought in the Ost Krieg, ‘the East War’ against the USSR. Over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two were killed by the Soviets and over 80% of the military action on land in the European Theater took place in the Soviet Union. For the majority of German soldiers, fighting on the Eastern Front was the only war they experienced. One of the millions in that cauldron was Guy Sajer. (Over 3mm German soldiers from WW II are still listed as MIA by the German government and almost all of them went missing in the Soviet Union.)
Second: It is the best memoir written by a common soldier on any side of the conflict. To read The Forgotten Soldier is to be taken to a place you don’t want to be; where no one wants to be – and that place is the intersection of life and death and human suffering multiplied to a point where only the willing commission of suicide separates man from animal. It’s almost as if this memoir is a great novel, a great work of art, a gift to the ages; for it brilliantly portrays a brutal truth we all should know: this is how horrifying war can be.
That it reads like a novel is one of the reasons it ignited such controversy when first published – controversy which continues to this day. The author, Guy Mouminoux, a French artist who wrote the book under the pen name of Guy Sajer, was born in the Province of Alsace on 13 January 1927 to a German mother and French father. Therein the tragedy. In the space of 75 years, Alsace changed hands four times between the Germans and the French. After the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 it went to Prussia and there it stayed till the end of World War One in 1918.
Then it became French. Then World War Two came along and the Germans attacked France. They considered Alsace as belonging to them so they reincorporated the province back into the German Reich. It wasn’t a part of Occupied France. After the Germans lost WWII, Alsace went back to France. Depending on when one was born, and to whom, meant a lot, a whole lot – often life or death. Were you a patriot or a traitor? If so, then to which country?
Like many Alsatians Sajer joined the German Army, rather than be drafted, and after many trials ended up as a member of the elite Großdeutschland Division. (That translates roughly as “Greater Germany.”) This was not an SS unit but an elite German Army division analogous to say the US Army’s First Divison – the Big Red One. Being in the German Army during the war proves to be the wrong choice for Sajer although truth be told he didn’t really have any choices.
[Image of Alsace location courtesy of Wikipedia and The Emirr.]