The Forgotten Soldier has been read as closely as a holy book by many a person. Arguments of theological ferocity have played out in forums of every type from magazines to veterans reunions to page after page of commentary on the internet. The question at hand: is The Forgotten Soldier a non-fiction memoir – by far the greatest memoir written by a common soldier from World War Two – or is it a fake? Is it just the figment of one man’s brilliant imagination; perhaps a case of an undistinguished soldier taking a few minor experiences which he then balloons into an incredible, albeit, fantastical and completely untruthful memoir? Or is it the real thing?
First published in France in the late 60s (Sajer wrote the memoir long hand in French), its depiction of war is so horrifying it was taken up by the American anti-war movement in the early 1970s as the ultimate argument against war in Vietnam and thus the question of its authenticity became something of a political litmus test. I have read many of the arguments pro and con. I think an article by Colonel Douglas E. Nash, (US Army, ret.) in the Summer 1997 issue of Army History: the official publication of the US Army Center of Military History, comes as close as possible to proving the authenticity of Sajer’s account.
The keystone which makes this article convincing is this: the historian of the Großdeutschland Division, who had served with the unit during the war, stated in the early 1970s that the memoir was a fake. But he later changed his mind, a process the author of the article describes. The unit historian, after meeting with Sajer and reading several letters from him, decided Sajer had been a member of the division and said the memoir was authentic.
Col. Nash, author of the article, retired some years back and wrote several impeccably researched books about the German Army in Russia which I will review later. So he has a lot of credibility in this area. Do I think The Forgotten Soldier is a true memoir or a fake? I am reasonably sure it is true. But I have a bit of doubt. And that doubt comes from my own experience as a novelist. I have received many emails from men and women, German and American, who lived through World War Two. They emailed me because they read my novel and found the characters, the scenes, even the interior monologue of the main character, to be absolutely authentic. People have asked me how long I was in the navy, what ships I served on, how long I lived in Germany, etc. I was never in the navy or the armed forces and have never lived in Germany nor are any of my relatives German. Readers have expressed amazement on hearing those answers.
Those emails make me feel wonderful because they are proof I have done my job as a historical novelist. And that job is to carry a reader away to a time and place in history by creating an utterly convincing narrative anchored by the illusion of reality. In fact, because of my talent as a novelist, I can do that in a more convincing way than many people who were actually there. This is why historical novelists like me get paid to write fiction. If you read The Forgotten Soldier, and I urge you to do so, you may want to keep this thought in your mind: never underestimate the skill of an an author to write a searing memoir of life on the Eastern Front – even if he wasn’t there.