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Posted on Sep 19, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Book Recommendation: The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

By Brian King

I picked up this book after strong recommendations from a number of sources as THE book to read to get a feeling for the life of a German soldier on the Eastern Front during World War II.  After tearing through it I can only add to the accolades.  It is truly an engrossing and powerful read.

The subject of the story is a French-German soldier (Guy Sajer) who enters the German military in 1942.  What follows is three years of pain, degradation, suffering, exhaustion, injuries, false hope, and death.  It is hard to use this description to sell a book or convince you that it is worth reading, but I think you will find a new appreciation for the life of a soldier (of any nation) after reading his story. 

I have two short segments which left an impression;

First is an encounter Guy has on his very first train ride to the Russian front as a freshly minted soldier during a snowy night.  Their train had to pull over to let a westbound train pass on the same track – a train loaded with Russian prisoners.  They were placed on flat cars like cattle and because of the high wind and freezing temperatures many had died.  The survivors had stacked up the dead and placed them on the front of each car to act as wind breaks for those still alive… His amazement is conveyed crisply by his writing style.

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The other incident was his first experience on leave in finding a young woman with whom he shared a week of semi-peace.  This chapter is so incongruous relative to all the other experiences he has that becomes utterly engrossing.  Unlike contrived Hollywood romances placed in movies for the sake of gratuity, this entirely juvenile and innocent affair is perfectly written, with an ending which makes you feel surprisingly connected to the post-war Guy who is penning this book.

I can’t say enough good things about this book.  It contains practically no politics, no Nazi-fanaticism, and almost no hatred for the Bolsheviks he is fighting almost every day.  It also contains very little in the way of heroics.  It is simply the story of one soldier doing his duty and trying to stay alive in the worst possible conditions.

5 Comments

  1. The March 2009 issue of Armchair General magazine will include an article by Doug Nash, “Who was The Forgotten Solider.” It asks the long-debated question of whether or not Sajer was in the Grossdeutschland unit. You can join the debate on ACG’s Book forums.

  2. Highly recommended! A very vivid account of the life of a (supply troops) soldier at the east front. I’ve read a lot east-front accounts but this book is by far the best I’ve been reading so far. The hunger, cold (and that’s an understatement..), and shear horror when the Soviets break the disorganized German lines yet another time jump to live in this book. The impressions stayed with me for a long time.

  3. I too have read this book years ago. It was one of those books which one cannot put down until it is completely read. When I finished, I read it again and learned new things about it. It is one of my all time favorites.

  4. it does a lot to de-demonise the german soldier. i agree with sajer when he says that they conducted themselves with exemplary discipline vis a vis the russian civilians but were later accused of rape and pillage anyways ! so they may have as well indulged in personal gratifications when they could ! somehow there is a public fallacy that the einsatzgruppen horrors exemplified general german conduct in russia !

  5. I am an American (history major), my German mother met my father in post war Germany in the ’50s. My Grandfather was an artillary commander (“colonel” on the Eastern Front. He barely survived the prison of war camp in Minsk Poland for half a dozen years. He was severely wounded and died shortly after his repatriation home to Frankfurt.This book begins to capture the frigid cold, fear, dsyntary, starvation and suffering that the young men of the Vehrmact endured. War is such an unspeakable horror for all involved. I have read this book many times and it rings true. The description by Guy Sajer of his bout of bloody diarreah while on a transport vehicle is horrifying as are so many other events. The book is a condemnation of war. Those that pick at the dates and such are missing the suffering, endured by all in this war.

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