When Germans Ran For Their Lives: Memoirs of the Ost Krieg (Part 3 of 3)

Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier on the Eastern Front. Three stars. One can drown in memoirs written by soldiers on the Eastern Front. Many are simply stories of how brave the author’s comrades were and how terrible war is and how the author knows nothing of atrocities and shared his food with Russian peasants. OK. You read a half dozen of those and they start to sound the same. Others, such as Blood Red Snow, are different.

The author, Günter K. Koschorrek, was a private in the infantry, a machine gunner, an important position in the Germany Army because their small infantry units were organized around their machine guns. They had far more machine guns than Allied or Soviet units and it’s one of the reasons the Germans were so effective at defense. In German infantry squads, the first duty of the riflemen wasn’t to randomly lay down down fire against the enemy but to protect the machine gunner. He did the serious killing. And there is much of that. The Soviets constantly attack in brown waves of screaming humanity.

At one point, the author works to clear a jam in his machine gun. The lives of everyone around him hang on his ability to clear the jam. “I am choking with emotion…my entire body is shaking like a leaf – the first Soviet soldiers are already running toward us. But then my machine gun starts to chatter! An indescribable feeling of relief comes over me as the belt flows through as if oiled.”

German machine guns had a high rate of fire – the MG 42 introduced in 1943 could theoretically fire a thousand rounds a minute. Instead of using water to cool the barrel, the Germans designed the machine gun to have a removable barrel so when the barrel became red hot, you switched barrels. This could be a tense moment if you were in the middle of mowing down a bunch of Soviets. The riflemen around you carried the spare barrels and the machine gun ammunition.

There is little artifice in this memoir. The author describes many occasions when he and his comrades threw off their equipment so they could run faster to get away from the Russians. His description of running for days after the collapse of Army Group Center in mid-summer of 1944 is haunting. He runs even after his ill-fitting boots have rubbed off the top layers of the skin on his feet and his boots fill up with blood. He runs so hard and so long only a teenager like him could have done it. Anyone older would have dropped dead.

Not much is left out. At one point in this same retreat, he, and a large group of desperate stragglers, come upon a German Army food depot. Even though the Russians are less than thirty minutes away, the officer in charge won’t issue them rations. If the Russians are about to arrive, his orders are to blow the food depot up. Not open it up. Blow it up. “…the debate was settled with a sudden burst of fire from a sub-machine gun,” writes the author, “the corpse was unceremoniously shoved aside….”

This isn’t a memoir about a young man who went to the Eastern Front and proves Aryan superiority. It’s a memoir about a youngster who goes to the Eastern Front and is scared almost all the time, miserably cold, and so hungry he will eat almost anything. In between all of that, he fights against wave after wave of Soviet troops, thinking each attack will be the last he will survive. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for the Germans. What were they doing in Russia in the first place? But a seventeen year old drafted into the army and sent to Russia doesn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

2 thoughts on “When Germans Ran For Their Lives: Memoirs of the Ost Krieg (Part 3 of 3)”

  1. With the Old Breed certainly belongs on the same shelf with The Forgotten Soldier although there has never been any question as to its authenticity. The author doesn’t have Sajer’s writing ability but his prose is sparse and blunt and brutal—a metaphor for his time in the US Marines in WW Two. There may have been a worse job than being a US Marine rifleman in WW II but not many. Their sacrifice is still chilling and most were so young. I went to the US Marine Tattoo last summer by the Marine memorial and it was very moving. I’m glad we have the US Marines.

  2. I’m just finishing up rereading “The Forgotten Soldier,” and it’s just as powerful the seond time around. I was disappointed the first time I heard the suggestion that it was more novel then memoir, but I can see why. Sajer recounts his experiences with far more detail than the ordinary person can possibly remember — most of us can’t remember what we had for supper the night before last, never mind the detail of a conversation with a friend 20 years before. But Sajer clearly isn’t ordinary. The honesty underpinning the detail comes through, and isn’t that what really matters? My all time favorite WWII memoir is Sledge’s “With the Old Breed”, which taught me that memoirs aren’t supposed to be mere transcription of events, but expressions of the truth as the author experienced it.

    Now I’m adding “Blood Red Snow” to my need-to-read list. A good memoir doesn’t necessarily provoke admiration or sympathy, but it does lead to empathy. The author’s anxiety, fear and even at times joy are no less real because of the side he was on. If he can make us empathize with his situation, he’s succeeded at what he set out to do.

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