Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

This phenomenal book is the most powerful war story I have ever read. Sajer (real name Mouminoux) born in Alsace of mixed French / German parentage was drafted into the Wermacht at the age of 16 and sent off to fight in the gruelling battles of the Russian front as a member of the elite Gross Deutchsland division. Sajer had the misfortune to be on the wrong side at the wrong time (he joins up shortly before the catastrophic German loss at of Stalingrad). Most of the book recounts the dreadful ordeal of a German army in retreat. There may be difficulty for the modern reader because it is clear that Sajer and his comrades were proud of the efficiency and bravery of the German forces. The book does not dally with politics but it is clear that they looked up to Hitler, believed in the Third Reich and believed in what they were doing. They saw themselves as defending civilisation against the savagery of the Russian hordes and even hoped that the Americans and British would come to support their cause.

At its heart though this is a book about an ordinary foot soldier caught up in the bloodiest battles of the largest conflict in history. It is a story of courage and pride as well as brutality and despair.

Although I had never heard of it before discovering my copy in a second hand bookshop I have since discovered that Sajer's book has proven both highly influential and highly controversial since it's publication in French in 1965. On the one hand armies recommend the book to recruits as an accurate portrayal of a soldiers life in battle. On the other hand some historian's have pointed to historical errors in the text. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that it is entirely a work of fiction. Sajer himself admitted the errors and staunchly defended the book as an description of his wartime experiences as best he could remember them. You can read a brief summary of the controversy on wikipedia and a more detailed list of arguments for and against here: http://members.shaw.ca/grossdeutschland/sajer.htm. Certainly the book is well enough written, even in translation,  that it could stand as a novel. On balance, however particularly given the support of fellow veteran's of the Gross Deutchsland division I think we can accept the book as a true reflection of Sajer's experiences even allowing for some mistakes in the details.