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A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944

by Willy Peter Reese

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This is an autobiography of sorts. More journal than anything else. The author writes mainly in prose. So much so that it is like being inside someones head with thoughts darting all about on beauty, hope, no hope, war, danger, sunlight, moonlight, not being fitted for war, wanting to go home, not caring if death catches up with you, or the horror of seeing a comrade killed by your side. A bit chaotic.

Perhaps the most poignant part was when he was wounded and recovering in a hospital ward and had some time to talk to the night nurse for a bit alone. She told him what it was like to be a nurse. To see men at their worst and weakest. To help them, and then slowly as the men got better to watch as their care was returned with innuendo, groping, and sexual advances. The nurses wanted to fall in love and settle down one day, but they burned out one by one. Even if one man seemed different than the rest eventually they sounded just like the others.

If you want to read about this front from a ordinary soldier's perspective I recommend The Winter Soldier over this brief book. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
There are no heroes in this war story. The author wrote this book from notes and journals he kept while serving with the German Wehrmacht on the Russian Front in World War II. The book recounts a young man's journey from a life filled with family, books, poetry, and the youthful dreams of a happy future to the bleak reality of more than three years of conscription as a soldier assigned to the hell of the Russian Front. Willy Peter Reese was never a member of the Nazi party, but he did have a pride in his nation. He describes his journey with, at first, an almost poetic touch, but the realities of war soon wipe out his his youthful exuberance. He is beaten down and forever changed by the cruelty, deprivation, pain, and suffering he witnesses. He is sickened not only by what he sees, but by what he does. The war has such a profound effect upon him that it seems to become an essential part of him. When he he is home on sick leave, he feels he no longer belongs there. His experiences in the war have become so ingrained in him that he feels lost when he is removed from it. Intellectually he is repulsed by what he has seen, done, and who he has become. During a leave from the fighting in 1944, he could find relief only in alcohol and in writing about his descent into hell. Soon after, Willy Peter Reese answered the call of his demons one last time. He returned to the fighting on the Russian Front, never to return home. War changes the conquerors as well as the conquered. ( )
3 vote Ronrose1 | Aug 27, 2012 |
4383. A Stranger to Myself The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944, by Willy Peter Reese Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (read 15 Nov 2007) This book is put together from writings by the author, who died at age 23 in June 1944 on the Russian front. The writings are aimed at being a literary memoir rather than a narrative of his war experience. It caused me to think of The Wanderer, Alain-Fournier's stunning book about his encounter with World War One which I read with much appreciation on 20 June 1961. However this book soon palled for me--he is obviously trying to create a mood rather than trying to inform about the awfulness of what he sees and goes through. He says little about Hitler or the Nazis, and in fact, despite the horror of the front, volunteers to go back to it. I thought this might be a poignant moving book, but I was glad to finish reading it even though it is only 176 pages. ( )
  Schmerguls | Nov 16, 2007 |
Willy Peter Reese was drafted into the German regular army (the Wehrmacht) during WW II and served on the Eastern Front. In 2003--many years after his disappearance in Russia in 1944 at age 23 the pages and notebooks he worked on throughout those years became available and were published chronicling his experiences. The question arises throughout the text of the culpability of the regular German army vis-avis war crimes. Reese as obedient soldier is aware of the atrocities of his and other units of the regular army. He and his comrades are very capable of killing and/or abusing civilians and pillaging the towns that are unlucky enough to intersect with their movements. There is something else here though--as even early on for Reese (who is not a Nazi ideologue in any respect) the war is simply one of survival of the fittes. Something that struck me is his unit is marched all over and almost expected to live off the land--to provide for themselves--and so they take--by force if necessary--and become used to getting what they want or need through violence. Reese almost always uneasily falls back on the excuse of soldier obeying orders--merging that with the almost gothic/romantic sensibility of a doomed man--not a nazi but very much the dreamy type of German youth of his time. Very malleable. For all that Reese writes and thinks very well. His prose is sometimes in the descriptions of things a little lofty but when describing the back and forth movements of the armies and the actions they engage in very clear and very fluid. Considering that this young man was doing all this pretty much on the run with only a little time stolen here and there to work on it and that he never got a chance to clean it up later--it is quite remarkable and the world may have missed out here on a very fine writer. As for the atrocities they are alluded to often--but not very often described in detail which is probably a good thing at least for most readers. ( )
2 vote lriley | Jan 15, 2007 |
A Stranger to Myself is an interesting book. Willy Peter Reese was only 20 years old when he was drafted into the army in 1941. Until then, the war, the conquests of Poland and France, the war with Britain, even the invasion of the Soviet Union seemed to pass as background noise for Willy who was more focused on his ambition to become a writer. He was a sensitive, observant individual, and a bit of a loner when he was drafted into a life that he thought would not suit him, but which he thought he had to follow out of a sense of duty. Willy was killed in 1944. He spent his entire military career on the eastern front, in Russia, in what had to be one of the most brutal wars in history. All war, by definition, involves death and destruction, but on the eastern front of WWII it was taken to another level where both death and destruction were wild, wanton and most terribly, willed. The Germans certainly set the tone with their destruction of towns, villages, crops, livestock and people on their way in on the invasion routes, and then again on their way out in retreat to try to slow the advance of the Red Army and to leave the Russians with zero infrastructure or support. The Russians, brutalized by their own system, responded in kind to the brutality of the Germans. Willy refers to the "demented affirmation of doom: That was the greatness of the men in Russia and the suicide of the soul".

Willy's memoir chronicles the evolution of a sensitive, curious young man into a cog in a massive death machine through which the big picture is always obscure, but within which human sensitivities are ground to dust. As Willy describes it:

"...so soldierliness left minimal room for the expression of human traits. We were in uniform. Not just unwashed, unshaved, lousy, and sick but also spiritually ravaged–nothing but a sum of blood, guts, and bones. Our comradeship was made from mutual dependence, from living together, in next to no space. Our humor was born out of sadism, gallows humor, satire, obscenity, spite, rage, and pranks with corpses, squirted brains, lice, pus, and shit, the spiritual zero. Our stir-craziness in our bunker set little blooms of wit sprouting from the manure of need. Philosophy, ethics, and thought were replaced by self-preservation. We had no faith to sustain us, and philosophy served only to make our lot appear a little more bearable. The fact that we were soldiers was sufficient basis for criminality and degradation, for an existence in hell. Our totems were self, tobacco, food, sleep, and the whores of France."

Willy recognizes the crushing of human sensibilities in the cauldron of the war. He also recognizes that humanity does not disappear overnight, but it is lost piece by piece (cf Christopher Browning's book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, and also, The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders.)

Willy e realizes that he cannot simply turn things off when he returns home on leave and he worries about what sort of person he might become if he does survive the war but, paradoxically, he also recognizes that Russia holds an allure for him, that he is happier when he is on the troop trains going back to the front, and that Russia holds, "the magnetic attraction of death". Despite its horrors, the war had a certain purity to it, a certain reduction of life to its core requirements and choices. Willy tries to fathom this in trying to understand the attraction, and he notes that, "Destiny once more had to conduct me to that edge, where danger, death, and pain renewed spirit, soul, and values". This ambivalence characterized Willy's search of his own soul throughout his experiences, and the memoir ends on a more hopeful note as Willy senses that he had regained his will to live and his love of life. But one will never know how he might have managed the transition to peace even if he ad survived as certainly no soldier who fought on the eastern front, and Willy was engaged in some very tough and brutal fighting–no soldier returned unscathed psychologically if not physically.

Willy also chronicles the criminally inadequate planning of the Germans. Hitler forbade issuing winter clothing because he thought this would undermine somehow belief in a quick victory; an easy decision for someone sitting in the warmth of his bunker in Berlin or East Prussia, but deadly for those on the ground who had to fight through the winter and who often stole felt boots and coats off Russian corpses. The army units also seemed quite poorly supported in terms of food and water with the result that the Germans had to forage locally and requisitioned everything they could lay their hands on, thus leaving the Russian people to die through the winter of starvation or exposure.

It is worth recalling, again, just what an enormous contribution the eastern front made to the final defeat of Nazi Germany, as noted by Max Hastings in his forward. The British made much of their victory at El Almaein in November, 1942 where the Germans had committed 3 divisions; at the same time there were 180 Axis formations fighting in Russia. On D-Day, the Germans deployed 59 division in the west, while 156 remained in the east. As Hastings notes, "...6 million and more human beings [found] themselves locked in bloody embrace for four years, amid such extremes of climate as prevailed in Russia."

(May/06)
1 vote John | May 7, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374139784, Hardcover)

A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War, Russia 1941-44 is the haunting memoir of a young German soldier on the Russian front during World War II. Willy Peter Reese was only twenty years old when he found himself marching through Russia with orders to take no prisoners. Three years later he was dead. Bearing witness to--and participating in--the atrocities of war, Reese recorded his reflections in his diary, leaving behind an intelligent, touching, and illuminating perspective on life on the eastern front. He documented the carnage perpetrated by both sides, the destruction which was exacerbated by the young soldiers' hunger, frostbite, exhaustion, and their daily struggle to survive. And he wrestled with his own sins, with the realization that what he and his fellow soldiers had done to civilians and enemies alike was unforgivable, with his growing awareness of the Nazi policies toward Jews, and with his deep disillusionment with himself and his fellow men.

An international sensation, A Stranger to Myself is an unforgettable account of men at war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:36 -0400)

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