Part Two (Spring, 1943–Summer, 1943).
The retreat culminated in a reorganization of German units and lines beyond the Don River. Parenthetically, much of the book is organized around the various retreats to rivers and then eventually to the sea. They formed natural front lines to be held only to see the Germans pushed back until they reached the terminus of their retreat in East Prussia on the Baltic Sea (at which the body of water was behind them). At the point that they reached relative and momentary safety beyond the Don, Sajer and his compatriots were still affiliated with fragmented support units. Several hundred men are organized into a parade ground and asked to volunteer for the Gross Deutschland Division (or Großdeutschland, an elite infantry regiment). First, a few men volunteer but the recruiting officer vacillates between shaming those who do not volunteer to offering sweeteners. Finally, when a two-week leave home is offered for volunteers, Sajer and his companions agree.
After initial training in June 1943, the men received their leave and Sajer traveled back to Germany with Hals by train. The slow journey was delayed several times by bombardment and the soldiers were enlisted to clear wreckage. Finally, Hals and Sajer reached Berlin and parted ways. Sajer decided to visit Neubach’s parents before continuing to Alsace, which Hals sought to dissuade him from doing. Hals was proven right — Sajer’s detour into Berlin ended up eating up his entire leave. The bombardments were bad enough that Sajer never was allowed to leave Berlin as the Allied bombing campaigns created civilian havoc and the soldiers still in Berlin were keelhauled into assisting the recovery crews. Sajer walked through Berlin, his first time there, and was surprised to see both the precise order of the city coupled with the devastation of the Allied air raids. It is a reminder that not only was Sajer young, but he was also a wide-eyed country boy from a village. That he was impressed with the efficiency and order of Berlin is a theme that runs throughout the book — he was generally impressed with German order and contrasts it with the relative lack of it that he had seen in France. It is something that endears Germany to him.
Upon calling on the Neubach family, who have now lost two sons in the war, Sajer meets the family’s neighbors including a teenage girl named Paula. Sajer and Paula enjoy an intense two-week romantic relationship in which they are effectively betrothed. Paula is every bit the stereotype of a young German woman — modest, pretty, steadfast, patriotic, intelligent, virtuous, and noble. Out of all of the characters in the book, she is the easiest for me to picture in my mind’s eye as if “Paula” was drawn from central casting. It is hard to assess the reliability of a soldier in his description of a woman, especially when that soldier is both very young and has been separated from women for a long time. After what he had been through, any reasonably friendly teenage girl would have seemed like heaven to him. That said, Sajer’s description of Paula appeared to justify his affection. She was a remarkable young woman. The relationship which takes place in the middle of the book, more or less, is like an interlude of relative normality. It is the stuff of young beating hearts and the ineffable swoon of love for the first time — in fair weather no less. Here is a young man who fell head over heels for a pretty young girl, and his obsession with her was probably accentuated by the privations he had suffered over the previous year. Unlike other young lovers in any other context, they spent much of their time digging out men, women, and children out of the ruins created by Allied bombing and tending to the wounded, and burying the dead. The specter of little children being pulled from the debris only to be left as crying orphans is a reminder of the toll.
One vignette still sticks with me regarding Sajer’s time in Berlin: Sajer and Paula escaped for a picnic on the outskirts of Berlin. It is a perfect June day, and the love of spring is intoxicating among these young people. Their park-like location was not far from a German air force base, which is visible in the distance. Their picnic was interrupted by a bombing raid that took place very nearly over their heads — enough for Sajer, who was experienced enough to know what to do during a bombing raid — to make Paula run for cover. The ruin of the picnic is a metaphor for the relationship between Sajer and Paula — the war and the times refused to allow them an opportunity to be with one another and no matter the fire of their affection, it was doomed.
His father’s surprise visit to him in Berlin was seen by Sajer as depriving him of precious time to see Paula. In addition to the reversals in the east and the bombing raids in the west, it was through his father that Sajer comes to grips that the war was going badly for the Germans. The looming defeat for the German foot soldier was something that was doled out in chunks — even after the German defeat at Stalingrad and the retreat to the Don, Sajer still had not grasped the perilousness of the German position. His father’s remarks struck him like a thunderbolt and the prospect of defeat hit him for the first time. His father’s visit was an interlude within an interlude within an interlude — Sajer is confronted by someone who palpably disapproves of the Germans and who exhibits something between disappointment and disillusion that his son was serving in the Wehrmacht. His father’s silent censure was yet one more psychological pressure applied to this teenager’s psyche in what was a crucible of enormous proportions.
If his father’s news of the declining fortunes of Germany came as a surprise to Sajer, these pressures are magnified when the war becomes more and more lost on the ground in front of him. This collective disillusionment of the foot soldiers compared with the propaganda that they are fed is also a theme that works itself throughout the book. Disillusionment here is something different from defeatism; if the latter is a moral defect in a soldier, the former is a psychological condition of constantly fighting a losing war. Disillusionment cuts against a necessary and universal sentiment needed for the morale of any army — hope — and all soldiers are told that they are righteous warriors, and every soldier is told that his cause is not lost until it is lost. The twilight between the knowing that vanquishment is coming, and actual vanquishment is something that is explored in the psychology of Sajer and his companions. The mental toll of defeat — especially in total war — is staggering. It is clear that Sajer himself never quite recovered and The Forgotten Soldier is an exhibition of the toll that defeat took upon him etched in five hundred pages. For Sajer, the anxiety was magnified because of his compromised “Germanness.” Much of the book is about Sajer’s vacillations between attempting to prove his “Germanness” to discouragement that he could not.
After Sajer’s two week leave, he painfully separated himself from Paula and boarded a train east for Großdeutschland training. Notwithstanding that they corresponded regularly during the war — or at least while the German military postal service continued to function — he never saw her again. Left unstated is her fate, which given what the Soviets did to German women and girls (from the ages of eight to eighty), it is stomach-churning to think of her fate if she had survived the Allied bombing raids. It is horrifying enough to say abstractly that so many German women in the east were subjected to repeated and systematic mass rapes — it is quite another to say that someone we know — i.e., Paula — was subjected to them by Soviet animals.
After his leave, Sajer and his friends rejoined the Großdeutschland and underwent “brutal” training with Hauptmann (Captain) Fink for about three weeks as a full initiation into the Großdeutschland. Sajer credited this training as transitioning him from a Rollbahn man into a fighting soldier. He noted that a few of his fellow initiates were killed during the training, which involved physical punishment and sometimes the use of live ammunition that put the lives of the trainees at serious risk. It is hard to know how true to life his description was — at least part of it strikes me as potentially spurious. On one hand, the most valuable commodity an army has is its men, and training — even for elite divisions — may be exceedingly difficult and physically demanding but it is not something that subjects men to unnecessary dangers (like firing live ammunition over their head to make a point). On the other hand, by this point — the summer of 1943 — Sajer and his fellow trainees were far from the best men to be considered for elite training units like the Großdeutschland — men like these would have never been considered in the earlier stages of the war. But after suffering enormous casualties, the bar for admission was presumably lowered based upon necessity. Men who were on the bubble of being Großdeutschland soldiers might have required training that was harsher than more conventional training. The other point to consider is that intense military training is designed to replicate, as much as possible, the conditions of war without wanton dangers. In that, the best training would make trainees feel as if their lives were in danger so it is possible that Sajer, as a then seventeen-year-old recruit, might have surmised incorrectly that his life was in fact in danger. He might have been told that Fink was firing live ammunition when he in fact was not, in order to heighten the training experience. From what I understand, there are no records of Sajer’s Großdeutschland unit number, which indicates that it was created later in the war to make up for the division’s crippling losses. It is a section like this, among other things, that has seen many critics criticize Mouminoux as attempting to pass off a Roman à clef, or a realistic novel passed off as a memoir. There are many ulterior motives why critics have attacked Mouminoux for writing this book, which are touched upon later in this review, but suffice it to say that his description of his Großdeutschland training is part of the critique of the authenticity of this account. Ironically enough, Sajer viewed the brutal training administered by Hauptmann Fink for his later survival through the hellhole that was the constant German combat under nonstop Soviet attacks.
* * * *
Part Three (Autumn 1943). Following his training and initiation in the Großdeutschland, Sajer and his compatriots were assigned to a unit under Hauptmann Wesreidau to defend a new front against the Russian effort to recapture Kharkiv. In addition to Wesreidau, Sajer introduced another pivotal character, August Wiener, who is almost exclusively referred to as “the Veteran” throughout the book. The Veteran was older and fought in Russia since the beginning of the German invasion. He was a skilled machine gunner who was seldom without his Maschinengewehr 42, or “machine gun 42”. Unlike all of the other German soldiers, the veteran had picked up the Russian language. The Veteran and Sajer met on the Belgorod front, where they were assigned to the same assault unit. Sajer initially found the Veteran’s cynicism unbecoming. Within a few hours of heavy fighting, however, Sajer comes to trust the Veteran’s instincts for battle and sense of self-preservation during combat. In particular, Sajer and his compatriots were saved by the Veteran who disobeys an officer’s order to hold a position because it is about to be overrun — in the retreat that the Veteran ordered over the ferocious objections of the officer, the men barely escaped from certain destruction and the officer was killed. From that point on, the Veteran’s credibility was accepted without question. The Veteran was wounded at Belgorod but rapidly recovers. He was later seriously wounded during the Soviet success on the second Dnieper front. Eventually, at the later point of the Veteran’s self-sacrificing death, an impressed Sajer will muse that the Veteran should have directed the entire German army or have been the “Fuhrer”.
Sajer’s unit is led by Hauptmann Wesreidau. Wesreidau is the consummate German officer. The battle-scarred soldiers approved of him fully, especially the Veteran. Sajer was in awe of him. Wesreidau’s men developed an almost fanatical devotion to him — and he was the first and last officer where such a sense is apparent. If the war had previously been presented as chaotic and gratuitous, Wesreidau put forth their cause and privations in a heroic context. Wesreidau’s words were the stuff of real motivation compared with the canned messages of patriotism and duty provided by the German high command that Sajer heard parroted by other commanding officers throughout the book.
In the telling of Sajer, we catch a glimpse in Wesreidau’s unit of the elan of Großdeutschland that reminded me not necessarily of Nazi indoctrination but rather of a much older German tradition of the “comitatus”. That term has been used to describe the ancient Germanic warrior culture for a warband tied to a leader by an oath of fealty and the almost familial relations between a lord and his retainers, or thanes. It was not the pursuit of glory in battle that marked the comitatus that necessarily reminded me of Wesreidau’s men but rather the code of the comitatus that demonstrated the incredible bond between the warrior and his lord. The lord was supposed to surpass his men in courage and bravery. Wesreidau and his men embodied this type of relationship.
Between the Veteran and Wesreidau, we see an unflinching loyalty that Sajer never loses throughout the book. One of the implicit themes of the various critical assessments of The Forgotten Soldier is incredulity at Mouminoux’s refusal to condemn the Wehrmacht or the German cause. Indeed, it is precisely in this obtuseness that so many critics have been so harsh towards Mouminoux and this book. The critics, of course, assign moral leprosy to Germany during the war, and Mouminoux, while no apologist for Hitler or the Nazis, seems to defend his participation on the grounds of patriotism and in the remembrance and valor of the men involved. This cuts too close to an unforgivable equivocation of alleged German villainy for modern ears. Whatever the cause, it seems to me that his devotion to his fellow German soldiers is animated by the Veteran and Wesreidau more than anyone else — to put it bluntly, these two men justify everything. Mouminoux wants the memory of the sacrifice and privations of his compatriots remembered with the honor to which he believed that they were entitled — even if they were vanquished.
The moral gloss that Wesreidau offered his men for Germany’s cause that Sajer reconstructs in The Forgotten Soldier is, as much as anything, a justification for what Mouminoux continued to believe long after the war was lost. Wesreidau’s words still haunt me; they are compelling enough to quote at length:
Germany is a great country. Today, our difficulties are immense. The system in which we more or less believe is every bit as good as the slogans on the other side. Even if we don’t always approve of what we have to do, we must carry out orders for the sake of our country, our comrades, and our families, against whom the other half of the world is fighting in the name of truth and justice. All of you are old enough to understand that. I have done a good deal of traveling —to South America, and even to New Zealand. Since Spain, I have fought in Poland and France, and now Russia — and I can tell you that everywhere there are the same dominating hypocrisies. Life, my father, the example of former times — all of these taught me to sustain my existence with rectitude and loyalty. And I have clung to these principles in spite of all the hardships and follies which have been my lot. Many times, when I could have responded with a thrust of the sword, I only smiled, and blamed myself, assuming that I myself was the cause of all my troubles.
When I had my first taste of war, in Spain, I thought of suicide — it all seemed so vile. But then I saw the ferocity of others, who also believed in the justice of their cause, and offered themselves up to acts of murder, as to a purification. I watched the soft, effete[ness] of [the] French shift from terror to toughness, and take up the arms they couldn’t use when they needed them, once we had restored their confidence, and offered them the hand of friendship. In general, human beings don’t accept the unaccustomed. Change frightens and upsets them, and they will fight even to preserve situations they have always detested. But a slick armchair philosopher can easily arouse a rabble to support an abstract proposition — for instance, “all men are equal” — even when the differences between men are obviously as great as the differences between cows and roosters. Then those exhausted societies, drained by their ‘liberty,’ begin to bellow about their ‘convictions’ and become a threat to us and to peace. It’s basic wisdom to keep people like that well fed and content, if one wishes to extract even a tenth of the possible return.
Something of this kind is happening on the other side. As a people, we are fortunate in being somewhat less indolent than they. If someone tells us to examine ourselves, we at least have the courage to do it. Our condition is not absolutely perfect, but at least we agree to look at other things, and take chances. We are now embarked on a risky enterprise, with no assurance of safety. We are advancing an idea of unity which is neither rich nor easily digestible, but the vast majority of the German people accept it and adhere to it, forging and forming it in an admirable collective effort. This is where we are now risking everything. We are trying, taking due account of the attitudes of society, to change the face of the world, hoping to revive the ancient virtues buried under the layers of filth bequeathed to us by our forebears. We can expect no reward for this effort. We are loathed everywhere: if we should lose tomorrow those of us still alive after so much suffering will be judged without justice. We shall be accused of an infinity of murder, as if everywhere, and at all times, men at war did not behave in the same way. Those who have an interest in putting an end to our ideals will ridicule everything we believe in. We shall be spared nothing. Even the tombs of our heroes will be destroyed, only preserving — as a gesture of respect toward the dead — a few which contain figures of doubtful heroism, who were never fully committed to our cause. With our deaths, all the prodigies of heroism which our daily circumstances require of us, and the memory of our comrades, dead and alive, and our communion of spirits, our fears and our hopes, will vanish, and our history will never be told. Future generations will speak only of an idiotic, unqualified sacrifice. Whether you wanted it or not, you are now part of this undertaking, and nothing which follows can equal the efforts you have made, if you must sleep tomorrow under the quieter skies of the opposite camp. In that case, you will never be forgiven for having survived. You will either be rejected or preserved like a rare animal which has escaped a cataclysm. With other men, you will be as cats are to dogs and you will never have any real friends. Do you wish such an end for yourselves?
Anyone who wishes to go but is hesitating from fear of our authority should speak to me; I will take as many nights as it needs to reassure you. I repeat: those who wish to leave should do so. We cannot count on men who feel that way, and our efforts cannot gain from their presence. Please believe that I understand your sufferings. I feel the cold and fear as you do, and I fire at the enemy as you do, because I feel that my duty as an officer requires at least as much from me as your duty does of you. I wish to stay alive, even if it’s only to continue the struggle somewhere else. I wish my company to be united in thought and in deed. Once the fighting begins, I will not tolerate doubt and defeatism. We shall be suffering not only in the interests of ultimate victory, but in the interests of daily victory against those who hurl themselves at us without respite, and whose only thought is to exterminate us, without any understanding of what is at stake. You can feel certain of me, in return, and certain that I will not expose you to any unnecessary dangers.
I would burn and destroy entire villages if by doing so I could prevent even one of us from dying of hunger. Here, deep in the wilds of the steppe, we shall be all the more aware of our unity. We are surrounded by hatred and death, and in these circumstances we shall daily oppose our perfect cohesion to the indiscipline and disorder of our enemies. Our group must be as one, and our thoughts must be identical. Your duty lies in your efforts to achieve that goal, and if we do achieve it, and maintain it, we shall be victors even in death.
Such a man was Wesreidau.
Notwithstanding valor in defense, the German defeats at Kursk and Belgorod hastened a sustained and disorderly retreat toward the Dnieper River. The Soviet troops almost overwhelmed Sajer’s unit — and encircled them at one point — but the Germans fought desperately to escape annihilation. During this retreat — and of all the many that are recounted — the conditions of the flight, the breakdown of logistics and support, the hunger and weather, and the sheer carnage of wounded men limping towards survival were harrowing and horrifying. Sajer described the evacuation to the west bank of the Dnieper, south of Kiev; it was dramatic, blood-soaked, and chaotic. Minutes of being stranded on the east bank of the Dnieper felt like hours — strafed by Soviet planes and menaced by Soviet tanks — the Germans experienced an excruciating waiting game in which the last ones to be moved were sure to die. Men by the hundreds perished in the vain hope that they would be ferried next to what they thought would be a serviceable front line. Some jumped into the wide and freezing river to swim for it — and none of them made it. Eventually, Sajer made it across as one of the “lucky” ones only to be met with relative chaos on the western side.