UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay
Frenchman in the Wehrmacht
on: Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier
by Jonathan Kraetsch
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Jonathan Kraetsch
I am a third year history major with an interest in studying World War II. I had several family members fight during the war, one of them for Nazi Germany and the other for the United States. I am very familiar with European history after having taken History 4A & C as well as AP European History in high school. I am interested in the war between Germany and Russia and chose to write about Sajer's memoir because it describes the experiences of a German soldier on the eastern front.
Abstract (back to top)
The Forgotten Soldier is a memoir about Guy Sajer's experiences while fighting for the German army on the eastern front. Sajer fought and survived countless battles from the Don to East Prussia throughout the war and formed strong friendships with the men he fought alongside. Because Sajer was ethnically French his motivations for fighting were somewhat different than that of his German comrades. He also lacked the indoctrination of Nazi ideology that many of his German comrades had experienced and as a result his opinions of German atrocities towards Russian prisoners, which he witnessed firsthand, were not influenced by Nazi racial beliefs. And his will to continue fighting even when Germany's fate was sealed remained somewhat different than that of the average German soldier. Sajer argues that he fought for Germany because he viewed it as the shield that was protecting France from Bolshevism, but deplored the execution of Russian soldiers simply on the grounds of revenge. His reasons for continuing to fight when Germany's defeat was inevitable remained different because he did not have any national or emotional ties to Germany and was openly loyal to France throughout the war. Therefore, by the end of the war Sajer fought because of the overwhelming fear of death and the will to avoid a heroic death for a lost cause in the fight against Bolshevism.
Essay (back to top)
Guy Sajer’s autobiography The Forgotten Soldier is an account of his experiences as a German soldier fighting on the eastern front during World War II and the hardships he and his comrades sustained throughout the war. However, Sajer was a Frenchman fighting for the German Wehrmacht and as a result provides a somewhat less biased viewpoint of his experiences, namely that of someone unfamiliar with Nazi ideology, the inferiority of Slavs, and the belief in German invincibility. Due to Sajer’s perspective of events as an outsider amongst his German comrades he provides a great deal of information as to the reasons behind enlistment into the Wehrmacht and the success of anti – communist Nazi propaganda in encouraging enlistment, the atrocities committed by Germans towards Russian prisoners and partisans, and the shifting attitudes of German soldiers later in the war when defeat was inevitable. Keeping in mind that Sajer’s memoir was published twenty – two years after the war, his autobiography sheds light on an aspect of the war that is often overlooked or ignored because Germany was the loser, the horrors of the eastern front from a German soldier’s perspective. According to Sajer “only the victors have stories to tell. We, the vanquished, were all cowards and weaklings by then, whose memories, fears, and enthusiasm should not be remembered” (Sajer, 86).
The reasoning behind Sajer’s enlistment into the German army is unclear at times but is centered on his belief that France would eventually join the Germans in their fight against the Soviets. And, in a testament to the success of Nazi propaganda, Sajer believed that Germany was protecting western Europe by attacking the Soviet Union (Walt, 29). In the beginning of Sajer’s long march back to Germany from southern Russia, and the beginning of his many hardships on the eastern front, he continually believed that the French “were already on their way…The first legionnaires had already set out” to save him and his German comrades from the mounting Russian onslaught (Sajer, 95). Therefore Sajer thought that simply because Germany had invaded France and established a collaborative government that the French would be used in the fight against the Soviets. However, these claims were perpetuated by the German press which claimed that France had joined Germany in the war against the Soviets (Sajer, 322). Although the Vichy French government did use its soldiers against the U.S. invasion of North Africa many capitulated within a few days and it is certainly plausible to assume that had France sent soldiers to Russia they would have been no more effective than those in North Africa. Nevertheless Sajer maintained his trust in his native homeland throughout the war until his capture in 1945 by British troops in Denmark. His realization that he had been “betrayed” by France was marked by a certain degree of ignorance as to the real situation Germany faced in 1945, and the thought of possibly having to kill his fellow countrymen seemed unimaginable to him (Sajer, 454). He admitted that “most of my efforts had been for France…What could have happened, which had not been explained to us,” noting his ultimate allegiance to France, not Germany, which supports his belief that by fighting for the Germans against the Soviets he was protecting his homeland (Sajer, 454).
Despite Sajer’s loyalty to France and his limited knowledge of the German language many of his closest comrades still accepted him as a genuine member of the German military, but there were a few instances in which Sajer faced discrimination for “pretending” to be a German soldier. One of the more significant encounters that took place was between Lensen, one of his German comrades, and the author. While Sajer and his comrades were drinking during a lull in the fighting, Lensen, a native of East Prussia, began criticizing France after Sajer had sung a French song. After Lensen’s drunken harangue the author noted the feeling that he “found the war almost totally paralyzing – probably because of my soft French blood…” Although the two did not come to blows over the issue Sajer concluded that his poor skills as a soldier were the result of his ethnicity and upbringing (Sajer, 323). This illustrates the hostility present in the German military remaining from their defeat by the French in World War I. The commonly held view amongst the rank and file was that ethnic Germans were far superior militarily. However, despite the occasional abuse attributed to his French origins Sajer felt particular pride at being a soldier of the Third Reich, especially after his training for the elite Gross Deutschland Division in 1943, after which he pledged to “serve Germany and the Fuhrer until victory or death” and expressed his eagerness to “convert the Bolsheviks, like so many Christian knights by the walls of Jerusalem” (Sajer, 168). Sajer’s comparison between Germany’s fight against Bolshevism and the Christian knights of the First Crusade shows the extent to which German soldiers were influenced by Nazi propaganda, especially for a soldier like Sajer who had not been introduced to Nazi propaganda from a early age. Due to its success the war on the eastern front became a war of ideologies, National Socialism versus Bolshevism, in which German soldiers committed horrible atrocities, some of which Sajer witnessed first hand.
The atrocities committed on the eastern front towards Russian prisoners of war and Soviet partisan fighters were a result of Nazi ideology, which considered all Slavic peoples to be inferior to Germans (Bergen, 120). However, Sajer was a Frenchman fighting for the Germans and gave no evidence of whether or not he believed the Russians were inferior to himself and his comrades, but this is not to say that he encountered many German soldiers who believed in the Nazis’ idea of racial inferiority. During the spring and summer of 1943 the author describes the treatment given to Russian prisoners who stole from dead German soldiers, namely a quick execution by a German officer or a specially designated group of soldiers. During one such incident a soldier tied “the hands of three prisoners to the bars of a gate…he stuck a grenade into the pocket of one of their coats…the three Russians, whose guts were blown out, screamed for mercy until the last moment” (Sajer, 119). Although it is unlikely that the designated executioners described by Sajer were members of the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units tasked with killing Jews, Communists, and partisans, it is possible because they worked closely with the German military and Sajer was a member of an elite division in the Wehrmacht, but does not offer any further details (Bergen, 149 – 150). However, according to the author, incidents such as these “revolted us so much that violent arguments broke out between us and these criminals every time.” The perpetrators argued that they were exacting revenge for what they had witnessed at the Tomvos camp near Moscow, supposedly an extermination camp for German prisoners of war (Sajer 119). Although Sajer does not signify how many opposed acts such as these the violent arguments that erupted among German soldiers over the treatment of Russian prisoners indicates that at least some Germans did not agree with the inferiority of Slavs presented by Nazi propaganda or believed, as Sajer did, that “Russian excesses did not in any way excuse us for the excesses by our own side” (Sajer, 119). According to Sajer war “always reaches the depths of horror because of idiots who perpetuate terror…under the pretext of vengeance” (Sajer, 119). Due to his differences in allegiance compared to a native German soldier and his unfamiliarity with Nazi ideology he was less likely to condone, or sympathize with, acts of revenge for Russian atrocities. In this regard, Sajer presents a less biased account of this incident than would be presented in a German account where an act of vengeance would seem justified due to the influences of nationalism.
Another incident that Sajer witnessed occurred in the winter of 1943 against a group of partisans who derailed a train going back to the front. Commanded by a group of S.S., Sajer and other soldiers successfully attacked the partisan stronghold, but while they were marching back to the train the author saw a firing squad executing the partisans who had surrendered (Sajer 301). The S.S. commander justified his actions because the “laws of war condemned them to death automatically, without trial.” Although that may be the case, to Sajer the execution of the partisans was as depressing as the losses the Germans sustained during the attack and those killed during the train derailment. Sajer’s comparison between the two as equally tragic events indicates that, unlike many of his German comrades, he did not view Slavs as racially inferior, but believed that the loss of life, regardless of race, was tragic in itself (Sajer, 301).
As the war began to turn against Germany and the slow retreat westward was ordered Sajer notes how a change occurred in the attitudes of German soldiers from staunch patriotism towards the will to survive regardless of ideologies and leaders. One of the first instances of these changes occurred after the German surrender at Stalingrad in which the author noted how the “older men were, generally speaking, defeatist, while the younger ones were determined to liberate their comrades,” probably because the younger soldiers had yet to witness the horrors of war (Sajer, 56). Even Sajer bought into this anti-defeatist attitude early on in the war, which was evident by his anger at an older soldier for feeling relieved about the surrender at Stalingrad, although his attitude quickly changed as he and his comrades became battle – hardened veterans (Sajer, 56). Later in the war while Sajer and his comrades were fighting on the Second Dnieper Front against a far superior Russian army, he explains that they “no longer fought for Hitler, or for National Socialism, or for the Third Reich…We fought from simple fear…for reasons which are perhaps shameful, but are, in the end, stronger than any doctrine” (Sajer, 316). Because Sajer was never personally fighting for Germany the attitude he describes is a more accurate depiction of the attitude of German soldiers late in the war because nationalism toward Germany did not play a role in Sajer’s observations and experiences.
However, some attitudes of German nationalism still appeared amongst the soldiers closest to Sajer, especially when the war reached East Prussia. Sajer’s comrade Lensen, the soldier from East Prussia, showed intense outrage at the lack of patriotism even when they were fighting on German soil and blamed his comrades’ defeatism for losing the war (Sajer, 399). However, Lensen’s brief moment of patriotism is a biased view towards the attitudes of many German soldiers at that point in the war because he was fighting to protect his homeland from destruction.
The change of attitudes amongst soldiers was not unique to the German army during World War II, but occurred throughout the war among all the armies of both the Allies and Axis powers whenever they were up against insurmountable odds. This can be said of the Red Army and its retreat from the German invasion in 1941, the British at Dunkirk, and the U.S. retreat from the Japanese in the Philippines. The original reasons, whether ideological or otherwise, behind why leaders send soldiers off to war is almost always forgotten when the soldiers on the ground are faced with insurmountable odds and ultimately defeat, much like Sajer and his comrades faced on the eastern front.
Guy Sajer’s autobiography The Forgotten Soldier reveals much about the experiences of a German soldier fighting on the eastern front. However, because of the author’s French nationality he relates his experiences from the viewpoint of a soldier who had not been as thoroughly indoctrinated into Nazi ideology and behavior as his German comrades, and as a result provides a less biased viewpoint of his experiences. Because of his perspective as an outsider Sajer reveals a great deal of first hand information as to why someone with almost no ties to Germany fought alongside German soldiers, as well as the atrocities committed by Germans on Russian prisoners and partisans, and the attitudes of German soldiers as the war turned against them. Throughout the war Sajer believed he was fighting to save France from bolshevism and had always believed that France would join Germany in its crusade to rid the world of communism. He witnessed German soldiers ruthlessly killing Russian prisoners and partisans as acts of revenge for the treatment of German prisoners that both revolted and depressed him and many of his comrades. And, explains how German soldiers who pledged to fight to the death for Hitler and Germany were later reduced to fighting “like rats, which do not hesitate to spring with all their teeth bared when they are cornered…” (Sajer, 316). The phrase “to the victor goes to spoils” is often used to describe the attitudes taken by conquering soldiers and armies, but, unfortunately, so do the stories and the right to be called heroes. Sajer, on the other hand, believes that the pain experienced during World War II was not just shared amongst Germans, but also between Russians, French, Japanese, British, and Americans, but it is only those who lost who are forced to “listen attentively to the tales of heroes on the other side” (Sajer, 465).
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Franklin, Dave. “Book Reviews: The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer.”
P. 2. http://www.helium.com/items/179342-book-reviews-the-forgotten-soldier-by-guy-sajer.
Walt, James. “Everything Was Permitted: The Forgotten Soldier by Guy
Sajer translated by Lily Emmet.” New Republic Feb. 20, 1971, Vol.
164, Pt. 1, Issue 8, 28 – 29.
UCSB Hist 133b review essay by Syna Saberi .
Grossdeustchland for Combat Mission (archive.org: Nov. 2002, last revised
Jan. 2008), <http://www.members.shaw.ca/grossdeutschland/sajer.htm>.
Ridler, Jason, “War in the Precious Graveyard: Death Through the Eyes
of Guy Sajer” War, Literature, and the Arts. <http://www.wlajournal.com/19_1-2/ridler.pdf>.
Wikipedia. “The Forgotten Soldier.”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forgotten_Soldier.
Books and Articles
Fritz, Stephen G. Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War
II. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. (google
Carruthers, Bob and Simon Trew. Servants of Evil: New First – Hand
Accounts of the Second World War From Survivors of Hitler’s Armed Forces.
St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2005. (google
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: