Thursday, 6 October 2011

Book Review - Adventures in my youth : a German soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941- 45

Book Review - Adventures in my youth : a German soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941- 45 by Armin Scheiderbauer, translated by C.F. Colton

Solihull UK; Helion & Company, 2010      ISBN 9781906033774

This book originated as a memoir written by a father for his daughter, to describe for her his experiences in the Wehrmacht during World War II. I'm unsure how it came to be published, but it is a useful addition to the literature of the Eastern Front.

Armin was called up in August 1941 to begin his officer training. He was released by the Russians in September 1947, aged 23. In between times, he was promoted to the rank of Oberleutnant, received the Iron Cross 1st class, the Close Combat Clasp, and was wounded several times - he was recuperating from a serious wound in a Danzig Military Hospital when he was taken prisoner by the Russians in March 1945.

As this memoir was obviously written many years after the events themselves, the author occasionally has to rely on official histories to fill in some of the gaps in his memory. Armin writes on more than one occasion that he felt that God was watching over him, and when one considers the events he fought through, it may well be true.

The first section of the book deals with his training, which occupied the first 10 months of his enlistment - he also spent some of this time ill. This section is quite interesting, and reinforces that military training doesn't change much from service to service, and from country to country. Armin doesn't mention any ideological training that he might have received, and in fact this side of German service is barely touched on - either the Division in which he served was free of the Nazi cancer, or Armin perhaps is being discreet. The Russians are never referred to as inferior beings, politics is hardly mentioned throughout the work (the assassination attempt on Hitler barely gets one line), although he does remark that both he and his father asked his mother to move West in the last part of the war.

After a brief period in the front line during July-September 1942, when he joined his Regiment 150km from Moscow (which was the nearest Armin got to the Russian capital). In fact his first time in action was during one of the Russian attacks that heralded the turn of the tide in the War in the East. Armin was then sent to War College, and by the time he got back to his unit, the Germans were beginning their long retreat.

Armin's unit was in the firing line at the beginning of Operation Bagration, the Russian's major offensive in July 1944 that destroyed the German Army Group Centre. The memoir becomes a constant tale of retreat, holding actions, retreat and more retreat. Although mostly written in a matter-of-fact style, the description of this period does give a good insight into the horrifying nature of this warfare without a break, which was Armin's lot pretty much until the end of the war. The greater part of Armin's story during these months is to do with food and rest, with the intervening periods of combat stark in their violence. Most of the time during this period he was a company commander, but he rarely had more than twenty men serving under him, such was the terrifying frequency of death and injury during these battles.

Near the end of the War Armin was quite seriously wounded by a mortar shell, and in some ways the most interesting part of the book is his description of his time as a prisoner of the Russians, in Poland, for two years. Many prisoners died in the first short period after the war, but in general Armin doesn't have very bad things to say about his Russian captors, even though he had to work hard. Earlier on in his captivity, owing to his injury, he was employed in the prison camp library, where he was exposed to communist agitation from some Germans who were working for the Russians. We do get a sense of a young man in turmoil, with everything he thought of as solid having been destroyed, and being susceptible to a new ideology. Another interesting vignette is the reaction of the inmates to the Nuremberg verdicts, with the acquittals giving the troops hope that the post-war world may be one that has some hope based in rule-of-law and democracy.

While not the best combat memoir of the Eastern Front, (The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer is more gripping, and Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is a masterpiece written from the Russian side), Adventures in my youth is worth reading for its insights into a dark period of our history.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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