This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Forgotten Soldier: Review

Genre:Biographies & Memoirs
Author:Guy Sajer
I'm playing safe by categorising this book as a memoir, because I have no proof that it is fiction - even though I'm convinced it is.
Briefly, it purports to be the memoirs of a French boy with a German mother, Guy Monminoux, who joined the Wehrmacht (the conquerors of his native country, let's not forget) in July 1942 under his mother's maiden name, Sajer (incidentally I only found out the man's real name on the net. Nowhere in the book does he state that he joined under his mother's maiden name, or for what reason). Or did he join the Luftwaffe? He seems not to be sure of this, any more than he is of the reason he joined up, which is never explained. He claims to have tried for aircrew training (on Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers, but unexplained as to whether he wanted to be a gunner or pilot) but to have been rejected (again for reasons unexplained). After this he was assigned to the Wehrmacht (oh really? Not to Luftwaffe ground crew?) as a driver in the Rollbahn (transport division). Here he gives some highly coloured accounts of his experiences delivering supplies to the front in Russia. After the death of a comrade in Russian strafing he volunteers for the Gross Deutschland infantry division, gets leave, and falls in love with a German girl in Berlin while apparently spending most of his free time digging out bodies from bombed buildings.After the leave he rejoins the Gross Deutschland, undergoes "brutal" training with a Hauptmann Fink and serves with the division for the rest of the war on the Eastern front, coming out alive through incredible scrapes. He fights through Kursk, Kharkov, Kiev, Romania, East Prussia, and Memel, finally surrendering to the British at some unspecified time which was apparently early April 1945 or thereabouts. He was almost immediately released because of his French father (ha! fat chance!) and sent home, doing a brief stint in the French army as expiation for his sins.
Even at first reading, there are many reasons why I doubted the veracity of the book. Sajer's account is so obviously pitched to a Cold War audience where the Germans, but for their leadership, are good guys and the Soviets (usually called "Bolsheviks") are cruel, uncivilised, stupid, and fit only to be mowed down, winning only because of superior numbers, that it can't be taken seriously by any knowledgeable person.
Even at the outset, in winter 1942, Sajer claims, (nearly a year after the Red Army had smashed the Wehrmacht outside Moscow and at the very moment when it was destroying the Nazis in Stalingrad) "The Red Army had as yet done nothing but retreat". Oh yes? Weapons are described very inaccurately, with descriptions of Soviet T34s destroyed with consummate ease by German 37mm anti-tank guns (these 37mm guns were so useless the Germans called them "door knockers") or Panzerfaust rockets which hit them on the glacis plate (where the armour is thickest and least penetrable). Apparently Sajer did not read Guderian or Halder before writing of his imagined battles. Nor did he bother to find out that a German Tiger tank had three men in its turret, not two.
Then, his accounts of the incredible sufferings of his group can strain anyone's credibility. It seems more of a recounting of the most dramatic accounts he could find of the Eastern Front, stitched up end to end and personalised. I challenge anyone to read his account and imagine them living through all of it.
There is a highly contemptible introduction by Doris Lessing, who talks of the fact that Jews don't seem to find any mention in Sajer's book, but goes on and on of Sajer's description of Russian "cruelty" toward the retreating Germans in 1944-45. Sajer says not a word about the treatment meted out by the Nazis to the Soviet populace, Jews or otherwise. Excellent accounts of the Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union, which dwarfed anything seen in East Prussia, can be found in "Barbarossa" by Alan Clark or "The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich" by William J Shirer. Sajer also - wioth Lessing's enthusiastic approval - vents his spite on Partisans, who were merely resisting the invasion of their land.
Now, as I said, all this was on first reading. I had at the time no idea that others - including in particular a serious military historian, Lieutenant Colonel Edward L. Kennedy, Jr. (in the pages of "Army History" the official publication of the U.S. Army's "Center of Military History") - have pointed out even graver discrepancies, including these:
1. Sajer says "We each received the famous insignia of the Gross Deutschland division, with its divisional title in silver Gothic letters on a black background. The band remained on my sleeve until 1945 when the rumor ran though our scattered ranks that the Americans where shooting any man with a divisional name instead of a number. At that moment of hasty judgment they might very well have shot a nobody from the Gross Deutschland or the Brandenburg as easily as a hero from the Lebenstandarte or Totenkopf. "
As Kennedy points out, Sajer claims these patches were worn on the LEFT sleeve, but Gross Deutschland patches were worn on the RIGHT sleeve. Sajer seems to have a superb memory for which direction the wind was coming, the exact time of day, and so on, but he can't remember the slightly important detail of which sleeve he wore the patch he wore with pride? Or is there something else here, a Freudian slip? It was SS divisions which wore patches on the left sleeve, and SS divisions often took Frenchmen and Belgians into their ranks...
2. No record of either Sajer or his respected commander, Hauptmann Wesreidau, killed by a land mine in 1944 in Rumania, can be found in the Gross Deutschland records that exist today. OK, I agree that the records might be incomplete. But Sajer gives not a single complete identity except for the man killed in strafing, Ernst Neubach - and he was a member of the Rollbahn, not the Gross Deutschland; and a man called "the veteran", also identified as August Wiener. Neither can be located on the rolls as far as I know. All his other characters have just one name: "Hals", "Lensen", "Olensheim", "Pferham", "Frosch", and so on.
3. Sajer goes on and on about food shortages, and being abandoned by the Wehrmacht to forage. But as long as the units were in contact at all, genuine Wehrmacht veterans agree, food was always supplied, however bad it was in quality.
4. Sajer claims to have served with the Siebzehnte Bataillon (17th Batallion) of the infantry division Gross Deutschland, but the Gross Deutschland simply had no such batallion. Most German divisions did not have unit numbers that went that high. The Gross Deutschland certainly didn't.
Of course it is possible that parts of this book might have some truth in them...
Sajer may have fought in Russia as part of the German army, but he may not have been a member of the Gross Deutschland. He may have instead have been with the Waffen SS, or been a part of something that he does not want to be called to account for today.
Either way, his account is suspect. Racy reading, but not convincing to anyone who knows a bit of the reality.

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