My brother passed this one to me (I could have done with a guest review, too, but I only got the book).
Okay, first off, make sure you aren’t depressed when you read it. I’d finished it right before my dad’s passing and it’s a good thing. I don’t think I’d have made it otherwise.
So the book is Guy Sajer’s memoir from World War Two. As a young French male (in living in occupied France), it made sense to him to join the German Army. Before everyone shouts “Boo! Hiss!”, we need to put ourselves in his place. If we don’t look at the German sweep as anything but a local war, a replay of the prior two engagements (World War One and the Franco-Prussian War) then it does make sense that a young French boy would join up. What else is he supposed to do? So this guy does, thinking he’s going to be working in a transport pool. And off he goes, east, to the Russian Front.
I don’t think anything I’ve ever read gave me an idea of the scale of this front, of the thousands of miles the Germans had covered (imagine crossing a distance of half of the US just to get to the lines). Stretched before us is the vast emptiness of the region, and the cold (for which the Germans were not prepared for, and how could they? How can you stand guard in 30 below weather?). The idea of trying to move a column of trucks across a snow covered plain, all the way out to the horizon, is ghastly. The shoes freezing off their feet. Shoveling snow with boards and helmets. Crawling at a snail’s pace.
He still sees combat – several times he is straffed and once he gets to the front, he gets shelled (watching other Germans being blown to pieces).
If things aren’t going bad enough, he transfers (with some prodding) into an elite infantry brigade. This is when the book really covers ground I can’t imagine; the retreats, the horrific weather, the constant bombardment, the disorganization. German is starting to be pushed back across the thousand mile front, and poor Sajer is trying to keep from being encircled, captured, or just plain-old-killed.
I’d long wondered what soldiers in history did if they got some burning fever on active campaign, a flu or something suchlike. What would a stricken Numidian do when Hannibal crossed the Alps? And here, it happens, with poor Sajer falling sick just as the city he’s sheltering in falls to Soviet pressure. And marching back to the Dnieper while sick, and the horrors of attempting to cross as the Soviets shell, bomb and snipe that last German bridgehead.
There are parts of the book I am unsure of – of points where the Germans seem overly concerned with getting civilians out, of aiding refugees while the Soviet’s shoot them down like dogs. Hey, I wasn’t there, but it seems strange that the same army that would strafe road columns in France and Russia suddenly developed a conscious. But I don’t know – I wasn’t’ there. Apologetic or Recasting? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself.
Like Russia itself, this book was a long and dreary slog, full of historical detail and moments that should be experienced.
Just make sure you are really in a good mood before you crack the cover.