The Forgotten Soldier is the terrifying memoir of Guy Sajer, a Frenchman who fought for Germany in WW2. He describes the brutality of the Eastern Front — the fear, hunger, cold, and constant onslaught of the enemy that he endured during years of fighting.
The book also tells a story rarely told. WW2 From the perspective of German soldiers, who are usually portrayed as soulless Stormtroopers. Sajer humanizes them and shows that despite the lunacy of their leadership, most of them were just ordinary men serving their country.
Before invading the Soviet Union, Hitler told the German High Command that this war would be different. The norms of conventional war will not apply to Russia, since it must be annihilated and its vast territory serve as Lebestraum for the Germans.
Guy Sajer was one of the millions of men that were sent to the meat grinder to achieve Hitler’s pipe dream. He describes every step of his journey. Starting as an eager 16-year-old in boot camp, then his gradual descent into the depths of Russia as if into hell itself. And finally the torturous retreat back to Germany. With his first taste of combat, Sajer discovers that behind the shiny boots, elegant uniforms, and grand slogans; war is gore, men breaking down in tears, and unimaginable suffering.
He marched into the battlefields of Russia as a member of the elite Division Grossdeutschland; a proud and devastating force that stomped on their enemies all over Europe, but towards the end of the war was reduced to a band of vagabonds. From the beginning, the odds were against Sajer and his comrades, and they became slimmer as the story unfolded. Most of them were engulfed by the vastness of Russia and the Red Army.
The Forgotten Soldier is a book I could not put down. I, like most men from my generation, have never experienced war. While reading it, I was facing difficulties in my own life. But I realized they all pale in comparison to what soldiers experience in war. I almost felt grateful for my hardships. If you are facing difficulties, I recommend you read this book to gain perspective.
But not everything in Sajer’s account of the war is bleak. There are moments of incredible heroism, meaning, and even joy. Civilian life, especially the prosperous one, deprives us of the immense joy that big ordeals can bring us. Surviving an artillery barrage you thought will never end, climbing out of a trench alive, eating after a few days of hunger, having a drink with your comrades, and the pure glory of a few weeks of leave from the front. The greatest joys are only available to those who experience the strongest hardships.
The Forgotten Soldier does not delve into politics, making it even more powerful. It bypasses the abstractions of ideology indulged by armchair dwellers. And only leaves the essentials of the war. The blood, the tears, and the reality that despite wearing different uniforms and speaking different languages the men on both sides were just trying to survive.
War can only be romanticized by those who learn in safety. Well fed, well rested, and not trembling with cold and fear in a rotten trench just a few hundred yards away from an enemy who is waiting to butcher them. Once you experience it, you will think of war for what it is. Senseless savagery. At the end of the day, it’s men who want to come back home. But once they do, they longer recognize themselves.
Memorable passages from the Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
“It’s the easiest way to make heroes. Vodka purges the brain and expands the strength. I’ve been doing nothing but drink for two days now.”
“The snow was melting everywhere, and the cold was lessening as rapidly as it had increased- which seemed to be the way of Russian seasons. From implacable winter one was shifted into torrid summer, with no spring in between.”
“The Popovs do nothing but drink all day and sing all night.”
“By that time I belonged to the Victorious Allies, who were all heroes, like every French soldier I met after the war. Only victors have stories to tell. We, the vanquished, were all cowards and weaklings by then, whose memories, fears, and enthusiasms should not be remembered.”
“It’s astonishing how agreeable it is to meet confidence and enthusiasm when one is feeling lost.”
“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”
“An attacking army is always more enthusiastic than an army on the defensive, and more likely to accomplish prodigies. This was particularly true of the German Army, which was organized to attack, and whose defense consisted of slowing the enemy by counter-attack.”
“Absolute cleanliness is the essential foundation for a decent frame of mind.”
“The blackness of night was spreading behind us, and we fell silent, hushed by the respect which immensity imposes on simple men.”
“Those who wished medical attention were sent to the infirmary, where their feet were washed in basins of warm water to which chloroform had been added. This had an extraordinary effect, easing our pain almost at once.”
“Luckily, people cared more about ration cards than about tears in those days, so at least I was allowed to remain alone with my sorrow.”
“It is so easy to kill-especially when one no longer feels any particular link with existence. I-a poor bastard soldier in the wrong army-I had to learn how to live, because I hadn’t been able to die.”
“There was nothing else to be seen in this countryside, which must surely be inhabited by wolves-nothing except for the opaque, grayish-yellow sky. We seemed to have reached the far end of the world.”
“I watched his anxious face pull away from me, into the hot June evening. I wouldn’t see him again for two years-two years so full of experience they might as well have been a century.”
“When anyone is afraid, he thinks of his family, especially of his mother, and as the moment of attack drew closer, my terror was rising.”
“All resistance was overwhelmed, and once again everything was either German or dead, and a sea of Russian soldiers had drawn back into the limitless confines of their country.”
“I knew that I was actually incapable of such experiences-not because I was superior to other people, but because I knew that such things don’t happen to young men who have led normal lives more or less like other people’s.”
“From time to time, one of us would look over the parapet to stare across the dusty plain into the east, from which death might bear down on us at any moment. We felt like lost souls, who had forgotten that men are made for something else, that time exists, and hope, and sentiments other than anguish; that friendship can be more than ephemeral, that love can sometimes occur, that the earth can be productive, and used for something other than burying the dead.”
“We are loathed everywhere: if we should lose tomorrow those of us still alive after so much suffering will be judged without justice. We shall be accused of an infinity of murder, as if everywhere, and at all times, men at war did not behave in the same way.”
” Herr Hauptmann Wesreidau was a terror to the enemy, and a friend to his men.”
“An army fighting for its life cannot speak of victory.”
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual. One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems! Those who read about Verdun or Stalingrad, and expound theories later to friends, over a cup of coffee, haven’t understood anything. Those who can read such accounts with a silent smile, smile as they walk, and feel lucky to be alive.”
“It is strange how often the sense of having the initiative can lead men to confront an enemy far stronger than they.”
“These moments of waiting were often the hardest of all.”
“Animals, which have a stronger instinctive sense than human beings, turn and run from a fire. But we, the elect among living creatures, press forward, like moths to a candle. That is what we call courage-a quality I lack. Two years before I had seen a woman run over by a milk truck, and had nearly fainted at the sight of her mangled body. Now, after two years in Russia, visible death meant nothing at all.”
“It seemed as if the war would mark men for life. They might forget women, or money, or how to be happy, but they would never forget the war, which spoiled everything-even the joy which was bound to come, like the victory ahead.”
“When danger finally comes, after hours of harassing fear, it is almost like a liberation. At least one knows what the confrontation will be, and if the danger is terrible, one knows that at least it will soon be over. But when danger continues indefinitely, it becomes unbearable.”
“Peace has brought me many pleasures, but nothing as powerful as that passion for survival in wartime, that faith in love, and that sense of absolutes. It often strikes me with horror that peace is really extremely monotonous. During the terrible moments of war, one longs for peace with a passion that is painful to bear. But in peacetime, one should never, even for an instant, long for war!”
“One can play explorer in the forest of Fontainebleau, but not on the tundra, where one feels too small and trivial for games. The hostile indifference of nature seems so overwhelming it is almost necessary to believe in God.”
“People who need long explanations at moments when everything depends on instinct have always irritated me.”
“But most of us were resigned to death-a resignation which often created the most glorious heroes of the war.”
“Combat troops have immediate concerns. For men living the lives of hunted beasts, all leisurely conversation is a waste of time. We had to eat and drink what and when we could, and make love when we could, without taking any time for eloquence over the girl’s hair or eyes. Every moment was precious; every hour might be our last.”
“The memory of those days seemed at least ten years old-one ages quickly in wartime.”
“Was Germany heroic, or insane?”
“Nothing and no one will be spared, and German soldiers must be able to endure everything.”
“Then, in the perpetual roar of noise from the front, we settled down and tried to sleep, even though the circumstances were so heavily against it that the attempt itself was an act of heroism.”
“Memel had become the summit of my life, the ultimate peak, with only the infinite beyond it. We felt that after Memel nothing of us would remain, and that the life we would experience in the future would be like the crutches one offers to a cripple.”
“My head was swimming from the effort, but I knew that something was happening in direct response to our will. Perhaps such knowledge is what constitutes joy.”
“They seemed neither happy nor unhappy, but indifferent to their victory, like men who are performing their duties in a state of partial consent, without any real enthusiasm for them. From our filthy, mangy ranks, we watched them with curiosity. It seemed that we, in the ranks of the defeated, were happier than these children, for whom Paradise itself had no value. They seemed rich in everything but joy—a reassuring spectacle which reconciled us with humanity.”
“There is another man, whom I must forget. He was called Guy Sajer.”
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