Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"A Stranger to Myself"

The last couple of nights I have torn through a remarkable military memoir by a German infantryman turned acting bombardier, Willy Peter Reese. The memoir tells of Reese’s experiences in the war against Soviet Russia in World War Two.

I am not a big fan of soldier memoirs. All war is crazy, chaotic bloodshed punctuating extended periods of boredom. This is the way most every soldier experiences war. I’ve always been more interested in the operational and strategic basis for the fighting, rather than the personal narratives.

But, Reese is compelling because he was a young man who wanted to be a writer, who had talent with the pen, who wrote poetically in an intimate, distinctive style. The beginning of the book does not read like a war memoir at all, displaying Reese’s literary aptitude.

“I walked the beach in storm and sunshine. I lay on the dunes and dreamed to the crash of the waves, listening to crickets strumming of hot noons while Pan slept. I sang and whiled away the hours. A stray love flitted along like a butterfly. I strolled through woods, collected mosses, pine needles, and leaves. Grasses and flowers were experiences for me. I looked for bison, listened to the singsong of the wind, and watched the sun go down over the sea.” (page 6)

This could be me. I have felt these things.

Reese worked as a bank clerk having just graduated high school at the start of Hitler’s war. “I went to the theater, and I went to concert halls to listen to the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The defeat of Poland meant less to me than a sonata or a poem. Most my nights were given over to the fantastic tales and introspective legends I was writing at the time.” (page 4-5)

The contents of the narrative are not unique really. It is mostly about missing home, being thirsty, hungry, tired, sleepless, anxious, bored, playing pranks, getting drunk, singing, sleeping, horrible fighting, being too hot, being too cold, and seeing destruction everywhere. These predictable experiences are why I usually find military memoirs of ordinary soldiers of little interest.

You should understand that there has never been a war like the Eastern Front of World War Two. On the Soviet side 27 million died, on the German 4 million. (By comparison, the total dead for the US, Britain, and France combined was 1 million.) It was destruction such as this planet has never seen - far out pacing the destructive force of the two atomic bombs that proved so significant at the end of the war with Japan. I call it the first primitive war fought with modern weapons.

We grieve over 4,200 dead US solders in Iraq. 58,000 dead tore this country apart in Vietnam. But these were daily figures in Russia. There is no comparison.


Reese was there recording events and impressions with his wonderful style of writing. This youth of 20 was drafted into the Wehrmacht. His platoon was a replacement in the 95th Infantry Division several months after the seemingly successful Operation Barbarossa had started. The Germans had advanced so far into Russia that it took Reese by combination of train, truck, and marching almost three months just to get to the frontlines from his training base.

But the speed of the German advance was causing some logistical problems. Reese was on low rations during much of his march to the front. “But a little midday soup wasn’t enough to get us through our exertions. So we started taking the last piece of bread from women and children, had chickens and geese prepared for us, pocketed their small supplies of butter and lard, weighed down our vehicles with flitches of bacon and flour from the larders, drank the overrich milk, and cooked and roasted on their stoves, stole honey from collective farms, came upon stashes of eggs, and weren’t bothered by tears, hand wringings, and curses. We were the victors. War excused our thefts, encouraged cruelty, and the need to survive didn’t go around getting permission from conscience.” (page 35)

Reese called his soldier mind “heroic nihilism”. His commanders told the platoon they “were lords of the universe” and propelled them forward to the front. Reese arrived in winter without proper clothing and nearly froze to death. He witnessed how Russian prisoners were handled in November 1941. “The following morning a soldier doled out hand grenades among a hundred captured Russian prisoners and shot the survivors with his submachine gun.” (page 46)

The platoon was placed right in front of the Soviet counterattack after Operation Typhoon failed. Mainly, Reese’s division retreated and eventually dug-in for the winter. 1941-42 was a harsh winter even by Russian standards. “One soldier had been unable to find any felt boots, which were an excellent protection against the cold. The next day he found a Red Army corpse frozen stiff. He tugged at his legs, but in vain. He grabbed an ax and took the man off at the thighs. Fragments of flesh flew everywhere. He bundled the two stumps under his arm and set them down in the oven, next to our lunch. By the time the potatoes were done, the legs thawed out and he pulled on the bloody felt boots. Having the dead meat next to our food bothered us as little as if someone had wrapped his frostbite between meals or cracked lice. The dead lay where they lay. After weeks they were collected on sleighs, piled up in ruined houses along with horse cadavers, doused with gasoline, and lit.” (page 56)

He suffered complications from frostbite, a bout of dysentery, and was wounded once during the course of his service on the Eastern Front. Each time he was sent home after his hospital stays. Just short visits. During the visit in early 1944, Reese waded through his notebooks and literally thousands of letters home and typed up the memoir. He was called back into service just before the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, the largest single operational assault of World War Two.

As the war wore on, Reese dealt with the numbness that set in due to the endless violence and suffering everywhere. “Our own greatness was nothing but a dementia. Less than a scrap of steel, a man stood between unfettered forces, a cipher, a weapon, and an obedient body, servant to a machine. We didn’t want to be like that. But we preferred to give ourselves to the chance of battle, the mockery to a soldier’s hazard, than to the certain law of death. Whether we were courageous or trembling, bold or cowardly, grimly prepared or frantic, as we went into battle, nothing weighed as anything compared with the fact that none of us went voluntarily. Only occasionally, on the brink of madness, was there the heroic sacrifice of an individual who had lost his belief in his own life.” (page 97)

Eventually, Reese’s unit shrank to so few men from causalities that he was needed to help staff one of the unit’s anti-tank guns. In 1943, his position was overrun and the gun was lost. The Germans burned everything in their retreat. “Slowly we headed toward Gomel, seeing always the same thing: harvested fields in a storm, smoke clouds on the horizon. Russia was turning into a depopulated, smoking, burning, wreckage-strewn desert, and the war behind the front bothered me still more, because those it affected were noncombatants. I was partly responsible for this devastation and the grief it brought the people, responsible like all the nameless victims, like all the soldiers. I had almost forgotten that there was anything besides war and fight. I no longer dreamed of going home.” (page 148)

Before being wounded Reese wrote: “The last of my values collapsed; goodness, nobility, beauty perished; my high spirits left me. The armor of apathy with which I had covered myself against terror, horror, fear, and madness, which had saved me from suffering and screaming, crushed any tender stirrings within me, snapped off the green shoots of hope, faith, and love of my fellow men, and turned my heart to stone. I was in decline, and I mocked myself for it.” (page 137)

Reese was killed in the summer of 1944 while fighting against the overwhelming tide of the Soviet Bagration Offensive. He was 23. The last words he wrote in his memoir before returning to action were: “Pause. A furlough, a leave. Home! Home! But it was just an interval. The war went on. Once more I went out there. I loved life.” (page 165)

The 95th Infantry Division was completely wiped out by the Soviets in July 1944. Reese had a distinctive literary voice, a would-be poet and dreamer of the fantastic. It mattered not.

I can see myself in the pages of this book. I have never known these things but surely that’s no evidence of immunity. Could this have been me?

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