The scale of death and destruction associated with the Second World War’s Eastern Front quite simply boggles the mind. With close to 15 million soldiers dead or missing in action and an almost equal number of civilians killed, not only was the Eastern Front the bloodiest theater of World War Two, it was the deadliest conflict in Human history. For every one German soldier fighting on the Western Front, there were ten more engaged in combat operations in the East. So massive and brutal was the scale of this conflict that 80 per cent of all German military deaths in World War Two occurred on this front. The Soviet death toll was horrific was well: 20 million civilian deaths (Belarus alone lost close to 40 per cent of its population), over 9 million soldiers dead (with 3.5 million of those dying in German POW camps) and over 250,000 Red Army soldiers executed by their superiors for desertion, cowardice and other offenses.
But regardless of the unprecedented scale of this mind-boggling carnage, we in the West know little about it. While we’re assaulted by the Front’s astounding statistics courtesy of reference books or Wikipedia, to my knowledge anyway there’s a dearth of published firsthand accounts, especially in English. But recently, during one of weekend visits to the public library I discovered one. Published in 2005, Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944 is rare, eye-witness account of humankind’s largest and more horrific conflict.
Based on the journal he kept as a young soldier while fighting on the Eastern Front, Reese, employing a slightly lyrical and often long-winded style, recalls his day-to-day life as a soldier in the German army. Drafted at the tender age of 20 and surviving four deployments before dying in battle during his fifth, the life he depicts is one of constant warfare, brutality, frostbite and hopelessness. As the tide turned against the Germans in favor of Soviets, he and his brothers-in-arms would spent countless days playing cat-and-mouse with the resurgent Red Army, until his death in 1944 while trying to hold the German line.
I generally liked A Stranger to Myself, even though I thought Reese could be a bit long-winded at times as well as repetitive. But considering I had a hard time just putting complete sentences together when I was his age I must commend the young Reese not just for his writing abilities, but with his references to Tolstoy and Baudelaire, his erudition as well. I must also commend Sir Max Hastings for writing the book’s excellent forward.
After reading A Stranger to Myself I’m inspired to read other books on the Eastern Front. To me an obvious choice would be Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin since I’ve been wanting to read Snyder’s 2010 book ever since saw him on Book TV. Latvian-born Agate Nesaule’s 1995 memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile has been sitting unread in my personal library for way too long and I’m thinking it too would make a worthy follow-up to Reese’s book. Lastly, after being impressed with Hastings’ forward I should finally get off my duff and read his much-acclaimed tome Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. (Feel free to check out his extensive interview with Toby Harnden, thanks to the good people at Book TV.) A decent book usually inspires me to read more. Looks like Reese’s memoir is no exception.