I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
Rote Leuchtkugeln: In their Shallow Graves aka The Road to Stalingrad - Benno Zieser, tr. Alec Brown, 1956
This memoir relates the rear echelon, combat, and wounds and recuperation experiences of a 20-year-old German infantry man on the Eastern Front during World War II. The book covers from just before the invasion of the USSR in June, 1941 to just before the surrender at Stalingrad in February, 1943. The author was evacuated due to wounds slightly after the Red Army tightened the noose around the German Sixth Army.
Some passages have undeniable power. This, upon seeing Russian POWs herded into captivity:
We suddenly saw a broad, earth-brown crocodile slowly shuffling down the road towards us. From it came a subdued hum, like that from a beehive.
Prisoners of war. Russians, six deep. We couldn’t see the end of the column. As they drew near the terrible stench which met us made us quite sick; it was like the biting stench of the lion house and the filthy odor of the monkey house at the same time.
But these were not animals, they were men. We made haste out of the way of the foul cloud which surrounded them, then what we saw transfixed us where we stood, and we forgot our nausea.
Were these really human beings, these grey-brown figures, these shadows lurching towards us, stumbling and staggering, moving shapes at their last gasp, creatures which only some last flicker of the will to live enabled to obey the order to march ?
All the misery in the world seemed to be concentrated here. There was also that gruesome barrage of shouts and wails, groans, lamentations and curses which combined with the cutting orders of the guards into a hideous accompaniment.
We saw a lone man shuffle aside from the ranks, then a rifle butt crash between his shoulder-blades and drive him gasping back into place.
Another with a head wound lost in bloodstained bandages ran a few paces out with gestures almost ludicrous in their persuasiveness to beg one of the nearby local inhabitants for a scrap of bread. Then a leather thong fetched him a savage lash round his shoulders and yanked him, too, back into place.
However, there are problems of credibility related to this book. Often war memoirs tell in detail where the writer is from and what kind of people his family are. Zieser tells nothing about his personal background. Memoirists are usually careful to disclose the division in which they served. Zieser tells nothing about the service formation to which he was assigned. After WWII, war memoirs enjoyed popularity with the reading public and publishers often printed black and white pictures in a slick insert in the middle of the book. Zieser produces no pictures. Usually translators wrote introductions, but there is no such preface in this book.
I’m uneasy don’t like to criticize a book just because passages don’t “feel right” but I often had the feeling I was being fed a line. I don’t claim any science here, just vague misgivings.
Another thing that smelled off, like a doggie bag forgotten in the fridge for months, the writer goes out of his way to point out that some German soldiers felt bad about the effects of the German invasion of the USSR, which cost 20 to 30 million, military and civilian, their lives. It stinks of a desperate defense and feels detestable.
Oh, well, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, also about his purported experiences on the Eastern Front, received much criticism about its authenticity and accuracy, too. At least Sajer’s existence is well documented on the web, whereas Benno Zieser is just a name, ghost on the web. I would recommend this book be approached as fictionalized memoir.