Book Review of Five Years, Four Fronts: the War Years of Georg Grossjohann by Georg Grossjohann.
Despite the lack of introspection in this memoir such as “what am I fighting for,” it is a very solid three star memoir by a German soldier. Of particular note, this is the only memoir I have read in which the author had been an enlisted man in the Reichswehr, the 100,000 man army allowed to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. With the economic uncertainty present in Germany in the 1920s, the army had far more applicants than vacancies and recruiting officers could take their pick of the best men. These men had to sign on for a twelve year hitch. They were intensively trained and highly experienced. Unfortunately, it was these very men who formed the backbone of the Wehrmacht during World War Two. While almost all officers in the German Army began their careers as non-officers, that was just temporary since they were officer-cadets. Few came from the ranks and rose to Major.
Georg Grossjohann didn’t particularly like being a soldier. He didn’t particularly even want to be a soldier. But he was from Prussia, times were hard, and the natural place for a strong and intelligent lad was the army and so he went. Just before his twelve year hitch was up, and he was itching to get away from the military, Hitler came along and no one could leave the army so he got stuck.
Experienced NCOs like Grossjohann are worth their weight in gold in any army and because of both his natural intelligence and rational bravery under fire, Grossjohann rose to the rank of Major during the war, winning the Knights Cross. This is very unusual. He didn’t even want to be an officer. Even though he kept his head down and never tooted his own horn, his abilities were clearly recognized and up he went. This is the equivalent of starting in the mail room and becoming a senior vice president of a major corporation.
The memoir has a disarming honesty in many places since the author sees the absurdity of so many things in military life.
In a frank admission about himself he says:
Yet every time one sort of likes the guy, one comes across a passage such as this which is his response to witnessing tens of thousands of Russian POWs standing up to their knees in mud in one of the outdoor enclosures into which they had been herded like cattle to die. They had no shelter from rain or snow or cold. No sanitation. No potable water. No food.
He says that although these soldiers were enemies he felt their situation was shocking and unspeakably depressing. Here’s the kicker:
Well, Major Grossjohann, since almost 3 and 1/2 million Russian POWs died in German captivity, I think we can agree that “the treatment of Russian POWs proceeded incompetently!” Actually, they were intentionally starved to death. The German Army knew all about it since they were the ones who had custody of the POWs before they were shipped off to slave labor camps to die – that is if they lived long enough to be sent to a slave labor camp to die.
And if Army Group South can’t be blamed for their murder by neglect, who can? If there had been the will, Army Group South and the two other Army Groups (Center and North) which controlled German Army formations in the Soviet Union, could have done something. This is why there were honorable German soldiers but there was no such thing as an honorable German Army.