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A Stranger To Myself, A Book Review

Discussion in 'ETO, MTO and the Eastern Front' started by belasar, Mar 14, 2012.

  1. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    A Stranger To Myself:The Inhumanity of War, Russia 1941-1944 By Willy Peter Reese, Farrar-Straus and Giroux- New York, 2002, 176 pages, Photos, Notes, Amazon New $4.96, Used $2.75

    This is Reese's personal account of war in Russia as a soldier of the Whermact. Drafted after the French campaign of 1940, Reese missed the opening of the Russian invasion and arrived with his unit in the autumn of 1941 at the heels of the last great vitories and just before the first setbacks. He would survive 4 tours on the eastern front, but fall on his 5th in early 1944.

    Reese was no Nazi, and by his writing apolitical and indifferent to the war prior to his call-up. He was also not your average soldier as he was very well read and highly literate, what we would call a bookworm today. But at this stage the German military was not particular in its cannonfodder so long as it could march and carry a rifle.Thin, bespeckled and with a receeding hairline at 20 years, he was no Aryan superman either.

    Reese was part of either a light Anti-tank or Infantry gun unit, the narrative does not make it clear, but it was horse drawn. He seems to have served from the southern portion of Army Group North to the northern portion of Army Group South, encountering a wide variety of landscapes and terrain. If you are beginning to sense a certain lack of detail, you are right, but more about that later.

    Reese is no Nazi thug, nor are his comrades according to his writing, yet they have it seems only the thinnest vaneer of humanity. On his first march to the front, fresh from the training grounds, unblooded and unbloodied by enemy action, his and thier actions towards the Russian civilians are borderline criminal and show an indifferent cruelty to the plight of helpless people. Despite being welcomed and offered bread and milk freely by people with little enough to give they ransack every village and farm taking every edible they can find. Worse they at times force the people out of thier homes or make them prepare feasts for the soldiers out of the spoils taken from them. After thier first battle and retreat they begin to beat and kill civilians who offer bread and milk, but hide the honey. No one stops or even questions these acts and Reese seems as nothing more than a disinterested observer, but does not deny his part.

    NCO's seem as rare as zebras and officers as rare as unicorns in his account. It would seem easy to conclude that Reese was part of nothing more than a group wandering brigandes by his writing. He often calls himself a wanderer and lost on some kind of surreal journey rather than a soldier in what was generaly reguarded as a highly disiplined armed forces. I recall only one proper name given to anyone other than himself. German soldiers, Russian soldiers, prisoners and civilians all seem to populate his narrative like ghosts, they are there but have little definition or substance.

    Time and place in the first half of the book are frustraitgly imprecise and Reese spends far too much time describing the flora and fauna of Russia in a needlessly florid and lyrical way. If I did not know better I would assume he was stoned much of the time by the way he describes the events around him. It is his book and he has the right to present his story however he feels he must, but that does not mean I have to enjoy it. The book's second half settles down into a more conventional narrative, and was in my opinion much better and more informative.

    Killed in early 1944, sadly the book does not offer any details and that was a bit of a letdown. Included at the close is a series of notes, much from his diary and to be honest I think I would have prefered reading his diary and notes over his polished prose as it seemed to have the detail and nuance that this book lacked for me.

    Regretably I cannot reccomend this book to the beginning or even casual WWII buff. If you are a big fan of Eastern front or personal accounts of German soldiers this might be for you, be advised though that you may be disapointed if you are looking for detail in the life of a frontsoldaten.

    BR-XVIII
     
  2. schwarzfeder

    schwarzfeder Member

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    Thanks for reviewing this book!

    As a translator I would love to work with the original manuscripts that were used for this book. It is a highly personal--and being as the writer is 19-20 years old it is also lyrical in a youthful, naive way. When the brutalities of his experience pop up--the treatment of civilians, the combat sequences--they do grab the reader's attention. Yes, there are parts of the work that are almost dreamlike, ethereal. I see the value of this book as a chance to see into the literary out-pourings of a very young German soldier, somebody who never got to live life in any normal way. It was his youth that was speaking when he and comrades both cursed God for their misery, and said repeatedly towards the end, "I love life." I came away from this book with a sense of the duality of not only his experiences, but of the human condition as a whole. Willi's crucible was WWII. That it claimed him, and that his manuscripts survived, is both miraculous and tragic.
     
  3. belasar

    belasar Court Jester Staff Member

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    Thanks for the feedback. The difference in style from his notes/diaries and the finished product leads me to conclude that his intent was to produce a particular point of view. An agenda if you will.As I said in my review, its his book and he can present in any form he wanted. In reading this I was reminded of Apocalypse Now. There were many 'truths' within it, but I wouldn't call it a definitive account of the Vietnam War.

    To be honest had I read this 10 years ago I would likely have put it down after the first chapter. Currently I am reading Frontsoldaten
    and it seems that Reese was something of an odd duck compared to the average soldier. Clearly of an artistic bent who was out to write a modern All Quiet on the Western Front.


    Any personal account is of value, one from a German soldier on the Eastern Front even more so. That being said Reese was offering a highly filtered story and should be understood as such. There is truth in his prose, but not the absolute truth of the Eastern Front.
     

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