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Sajer, book cover

A French-German Soldier's Experience on the Eastern Front

Book Essay on:
Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier

(New York: Potomac Books, 1971), 465 pages.
UCSB: D764 .S234513

by Syna Saberi
March 20, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links

About Syna Saberi

I am a fourth year History major studying the Cold War and the Middle East. I have traveled to Germany as a child and reading about World War II inspired me to study History as an undergraduate. I chose this memoir because it was recommended to me by a coworker and friend of mine who was a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. He told me that it was the best War memoir he had ever read.

Abstract (back to top)

History is almost always written by the victors, but this memoir chronicles the pain and difficulty of losing the greatest war in all of human history. Guy Sajer recounts his experiences fighting on the Eastern Front, taking him from the end of the failure at Stalingrad, to the huge battle of attrition at Kursk, and his rush to surrender to the Western Allies in hopes of escaping the vengeful wrath of the Red Army. Throughout all this the readers are given Sajer's semi-outsiders account of the German state and the German army, explaining how a generation of people, in this case the Germans, could be so caught up in the fire and passion of militaristic nationalism. Sajer writes this book from memory and presents it as a memoir, not a historical account, yet many have praised it for its dramatic accuracies, while others have questioned its authenticity. Regardless of the naysayers, The Forgotten Soldier remains a true if not heart wrenching story of innocence lost and the horrors of total war.

Essay (back to top)

Many people at the age of seventeen are just beginning to grasp the realities of growing up and maturity. Guy Sajer joined the Wehrmacht at the age of 17 in 1942 and when he returned home after the war not even his own mother could recognize him. In those three terrible years Sajer went from being in a simple resupply division, the Rollbahn, to being in the elite Großdeutschland Division. In that time Sajer saw the German 6th army fail at Stalingrad, the mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war, life in Berlin during the war, how Germany trained their elite soldiers, to fighting wave after wave of Russian soldiers and tanks on more than one terrifying occasion, and many other important experiences. His memoir is held in high regard by many military historians, but it is not simply the depictions of war that set The Forgotten Soldier apart, it is its function as a looking glass into how Germany controlled Europe during the Second World War. As the son of a French man and a German woman, Sajer has a slightly more objective view of what is happening around him, as opposed to one of his comrades who is of Prussian descent. Sajer dismisses the Nazi fervor and blind nationalism that engulfed Germany, and writes about his experiences as he remembers them. The audience is shown how uncomfortable Sajer is with the idea of Germany as a whole, a man proud of his service but still a human being who feels like he would be left out of something grand if he did not constantly fall into step, which speaks for an entire generation of Germans.

Initially Sajer’s experiences in the Rollbahn seem as unglamorous as any war memoir could be; he is simply one man in a division of errand boys whose task intrinsically lacks any true pride compared to the other soldiers initially encountered. He was heckled for his French accent when he spoke German and was disrespected by his superiors for his Alsatian heritage, but he was still enamored with the idea of being a part of something bigger than himself. (Sajer p. 1-12). Following more abusive incidents as he and his friends were taken to the front by train Sajer witnessed the treatment of Russian POWs. “What I saw next froze me with horror…[it] seemed to be carrying a confused heap of objects, which only gradually became recognizable as human bodies…behind this heap other people were clinging together, crouching or standing…what we were looking at: “Russian prisoners.”” (Sajer p. 20). Having never seen death or the mistreatment of humans before must have been quite a shock to a seventeen year old, and the horrors did not stop there. By the time Sajer reached the front things became violent. “This part of the country [Kharkov, Ukraine] suffered from frequent partisan attacks, often by large groups of men.” (Sajer p. 58). The partisan attacks created a high number of casualties in this area showing how dangerous it was to simply be guarding a supply depot. The partisan attacks also serve as an excellent example of how the Ukrainians’ initial feelings about the Germans had changed. When Kiev was first taken by the Germans in 1941, many Ukrainians who had detested their Soviet overseers felt liberated by the German advance, but shortly afterwards they were subjected to the horrors of the holocaust as the city became the host to several massacres that totaled over 90,000 people.

Possibly the biggest event described in Sajer’s memoir that he was not directly a witness to was the fall of the German 6th army at Stalingrad. Sajer mentions an uncle who was in the 6th Army and goes on to note how blame for the failure of the campaigns in the Caucuses was placed on the failure of the supply divisions to properly support the German troops. (Sajer p. 76). With the German forces falling back from the Don River back to Kharkov, Sajer was driving a truck full of wounded soldiers when he was harassed by Russian artillery and attacking aircraft. This truck which began with about thirty wounded men, Sajer driving, and his comrade Ernst Neubach, ended up with only two walking wounded and Sajer being able to leave as friend had his face blown apart. (Sajer 94-98).

Following the failures of the German Army in Russia, the horrors of moving wounded men, and overall being treated like scum by other German soldiers, Sajer and his friends volunteered for a combat division. “This decision almost cost us our lives many times, but even now looking back on everything that happened, I cannot regret having belonged to a combat unit.” (Sajer p. 113). What also motivated Sajer and many of his comrades to volunteer for a combat unit was the opportunity to go on leave. For a time, Sajer had planned to go back to France to visit his family, but German Army regulations prevented him from getting there, forcing him to spend his leave in Berlin. While in Berlin Sajer had hoped to track down Neubach’s family and tell them of his death. In Berlin Sajer gives the reader an idea of how life in the German capital was during the war. “The city seemed beautiful, but serious and well organized. The bombing had only recently begun, and in Berlin affected only the districts immediately around the railway stations…my legs seemed to fall instinctively into the accepted tempo of the city.” (Sajer p. 128). Sajer continues to complain about how soldiers were required to salute the police as if they were army officers an act he performed with great disgust as he felt that the burden that soldiers faced was far greater than that of “bastard” police officers. The Nazi Regime was prevalent and many times Sajer found himself saying Heil Hitler as more of a reflex than anything else. Sentries from Hitler’s guard are mentioned guarding a monument to the First World War and Sajer befriended an old woman and spoke with her briefly about the front before his attempt to get home was foiled by Allied bombing at the train station. Sajer, as a soldier on leave, was forced to go around bombed, burning, and collapsing buildings to help evacuate the wounded and the survivors (Sajer p. 135-136). Back at the Neubach’s house, Sajer met a young girl named Paula who notices the stress on his face from just a few minutes of conversation, assuming correctly that he had arrived from the eastern front. Paula was part of the German first aid teams meant to react to the Allied bombings. (Sajer p. 144).

While on leave Sajer received some consolidation from his failed attempt to make it home, as his complaints to the Army staff office managed to bring his father to visit him in Berlin. Sajer shows readers the uncomfortable atmosphere between his French father and the German people in Berlin, still some resentment held over from his father’s days in the First World War. His father mentioned the suffering of the French people under German rule and how hearing all this was extremely disconcerting for a young man who was just indoctrinated into the elite Großdeutschland Division.

The mood in Berlin is further illuminated by Paula’s actions as Sajer met with her after his father left Paula and Sajer head to the country to spend an afternoon together and spotting German fighter’s flying into action. “Good luck to our pilots! Three cheers for them!” Paula says. ““Go on boys!” I shouted, to fall in with her mood” (Sajer p. 148). Here readers can see Sajer’s discomfort with the entire idea of Germany. While he had great pride for his involvement in the Wehrmacht, he was still a human who felt like he would be left out of something grand if he did not constantly fall into step. Shortly after they cheered bombers decimated a nearby airfield and forced Paula and Guy to dive into a hole. After this brief tryst with love and disaster Sajer was forced to leave Berlin and Paula on his way to train for the Großdeutschland division.

The training under Herr Hauptmann (Captain) Fink is described in detail with live ammunition being fired at them as they crawled and ran carrying each other. They were also trained on how to attach magnetic mines to tanks, they grew to respect and admire Fink who completed their training by giving each a glass of fine wine as a parting toast before they were sent to the front (Sajer p. 154-168). At the front near Belgorod Sajer provides a great example of personality contrast within the German Army. In the spring of 1943 Sajer and his comrades were with a mixed group of combat veterans and newly deployed Hitler Youth. When one of them asks about how the Russians fight, Corporal Lensen, a friend of Sajer’s, replied, “Fire on anything Russian without the least hesitation. The Russians are the worst sons of bitches the world has ever seen” (Sajer p. 171-172). Then a “real” veteran told the Hitler youth boy to shut up and one of the boys demanded an explanation for the veteran’s defeatist attitude. The Hitlerjugend then asked and received a punch in the face from another youth to prove his toughness. This is by far the best example of the disillusionment of true veterans in contrast to the blind loyalty of those brought up in the Hitler Youth. The older veteran who has resigned himself to a depressing tone does not care much of what happens except that he knows many will die, while the Youth believe everything they were told about the purity and power of the German people and the German Nation. Following this Sajer entered his first major battle and many of the impressionable Hitlerjugend ended up losing their lives. From this point on the war for Sajer became an ever increasing nightmare.

The Russian offensive tactics seemed simple and terrifying; thousands of Russian soldiers would chant “OOOUUURRAHH PROBIEDA!” before charging into a hail of machine gun, artillery, and tank fire, but would simply persist seemingly without end. Russian tanks began doing much the same in later parts of the book and as their ammunition ran low the Russian tanks would simply bury and crush the Germans in their own foxholes. The only victories for the Großdeutschland would not be retaking a city, but successfully holding against an attack or retreating without losing too many men. From the winter of 1943 and the summer of 1944 as the order for a general retreat was given and Sajer was behind German front lines, Partisan attacks became more frequent. After surrounding and killing a large group of partisans Sajer and everyone with him was horrified to see what the partisans were comprised of. “A few minutes later we counted the bodies of the partisans: six young people about our age. Among them were two pretty girls, bathed in blood and covered with a swarm of blue flies” (Sajer p. 371). The feelings of hate towards the Germans were visible even as they raided villages of partisan fighters. “An old bearded man was leaning…His right hand rested on the head of a dead comrade who lay on the ground beside him…no one thought of shooting him…until the collapse of the building buried him.” (Sajer 372). The retreat continued and Sajer’s beloved commander, Herr Hauptmann Wesreidau, at was killed by a partisan-placed roadside bomb.

More artillery, more partisan attacks, and more harassment from Russian airplanes followed Sajer nearly to the end of his life and at every river crossing resulted in huge amounts of loses for the Germans as transport across bodies of water became impossible to find. The Großdeutschland Division was finally annihilated at Pillau (now Baltiysk) in May 1945. Sajer and a German comrade managed to fight their way to the western front in order to spare themselves from the terrors of a Russian prison camp as the atrocities between the Russians and the Germans could be on par with the terrors of the Holocaust. Sajer was separated from his last friend as he was French and was allowed to return home briefly before he served his prison term and then a stint in the French army before he was rehabilitated. When he returned to his home town he saw his mother walk right past him as if he were a stranger. Sajer called for her and when she saw him she fainted because he had come a very long way from the young idealistic seventeen year old French boy.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews

Maddocks, Melvin. "Up the Down Steppes." TIME 25 Jan. 1971. 10 Mar. 2009 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,904688-1,00.html
Maddocks Starts out condemning the idea of sympathizing with the German Army during WWII but eventually praises the book for its ability to effectively make readers imagine that what is happening in the book is happening to them. “Don’t judge me, be me.” Maddocks goes on to claim “The Forgotten Soldier obliterates time and space into a pure throbbing pain whose only limit is death or madness.

Hill, Adam. “The Forgotten Soldier, Book Review.” Historical Warfare. 17 Jan. 2008. 22 Jan. 2009 <www.historicalwarfare.com>
Hill praises Sajer for quickly dismissing the German nationalism and Nazi pride that was prevalent amongst most people’s views of the Werhmacht and also how Sajer describes the horrors of war on the eastern front.

UCSB Hist 133b review essay by Jonathan Kraetsch.

Web Sites

Wikipedia “The Forgotten Soldier” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forgotten_Soldier
The Wikipedia article mentions the basic outline of the memoir before delving into the controversy surrounding it. Most of the opponents of the memoir cite the fact that the Großdeutschland division was one of if not the best equipped and supplied units in WWII. But the article also mentions that one of the author’s companions in the book was located and verified Sajer’s account, along with the fact that villages and towns that no longer exist were mentioned with accuracy as to their location, as well as the location of certain ships during certain times.

The Forgotten Soldier: Fact or Fiction? http://members.shaw.ca/grossdeutschland/sajer.htm
On this web page several articles are presented as both refuting the book and defending the author. Louis Brown, Douglas E. Nash and Edward L. Kennedy Jr. discuss the memoir Nash mentions his personal encounter with the author when he received Sajer’s initial remark regarding his memoir as not a historical book but his own personal account. While Kennedy, Nash, and even Sajer admit that while some factual inaccuracies do exist, the story as a whole is true and sincere.

Books and Articles

Fritz, Stephen G. Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II University Press of Kentucky, 1997. (312 pages) (Google Books)
Fritz uses primary documents in the form of letters and military reports to paint a picture of what everyday life was like for frontline soldiers in the Wehrmacht during WWII. He takes many examples from all of the German campaigns, the majority of which were in Russia and along the eastern front, but also from the western front and North Africa. Fritz also mentions how the training and camaraderie in the German army were so similar to that of the American Army yet the ideology that was instilled was drastically different.

Kurowski, Franz. Translated by David Johnston. Infantry Aces: The German Soldier in Combat in World War II. Stackpole Books, 2005. (504 pages) (Google books)
Kurowski takes firsthand accounts of eight different German Infantrymen who fought in huge battles against deadly odds. Yet Kurowski glamorizes the accomplishments of such men in a fashion that doesn’t take into account the vast context of the subject being covered. Not a tale of survival so much as a tale of violence and war glorified for mass consumption.

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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:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/09; last updated: 3/x/09
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