The Forgotten Soldier (1965), originally published in French as Le soldat oublié, is an account by Guy Sajer (pseudonym of Guy Mouminoux) of his experiences as a German soldier on the Eastern Front during World War II. With reference to the author's ambiguous relationship to war, the book has been called "the account of a disastrous love affair with war and with the army that, of all modern armies, most loved war", being written with the "admiration of a semi-outsider". The English edition was translated by Lily Emmet.
The book was reviewed in The New York Times by J. Glenn Gray in 1971. He reports the "book is painful to get through. But it is also difficult to put down and is worth the cost in horror that reading it entails." Other reviews from 1971 include The New Yorker, Time magazine, and The New Republic by James Walt. Walt says the book is not anti-war but an accounting of those soldiers caught up in events bigger than themselves.
Full SynopsisWhen Guy Sajer joins the infantry full of ideals in the summer of 1942, the German army is enjoying unparalleled success in Russia. However, he quickly finds that for the foot soldier the glory of military success hides a much harsher reality of hunger, fatigue, and constant deprivation. Posted to the elite Grosse Deutschland division, with its sadistic instructors who shoot down those who fail to make the grade, he enters a violent and remorseless world where all youthful hope is gradually ground down, and all that matters is the brute will to survive. As the biting cold of the Russian winter sets in, and the tide begins to turn against the Germans, life becomes an endless round of pounding artillery attacks and vicious combat against a relentless and merciless Red Army. Sajer's perspective as a German foot soldier makes The Forgotten Soldier a unique war memoir, the book that the Christian Science Monitor said "may well be the book about World War II which has been so long awaited." A work of stunning force, this is an unforgettable reminder of the horrors of war.
The legitimacy of The Forgotten Soldier has been brought into question based on various aspects of the book which are believed to not coincide with how the German Army worked or how certain battles had taken place. Sajer in his defense claims he never wanted to create a historical reference but to write about the experiences he and other German soldiers faced on the Eastern Front.
I read Sajer's book in the early '70s...[it] depicted deeds and events ...corresponding even with the minute tactical and great strategic events of the period described in the book. The language is of overpowering simplicity yet extremely smooth and impressive. The train of thought and reflections correspond to those of a young soldier who is tossed into the maelstrom of the hard suffering and hopeless retreat battles of the Eastern Front. I can verify that the Landsers thought this way acted this way and suffered and died in the pitiless retreat actions on the gigantic expanses of Russia which in itself gave you a feeling of loneliness and loss if faced ... as an individual human being. Even small inconsistencies cannot change my belief because the overall impact of the manuscript the inherent balance and truthfulness are for me the determining criteria [as to its authenticity]. I am quite sure that Guy Sajer did not tell a fictitious story. I look at this book as a tremendous monument for the great and singular achievements of the German soldier during a hopeless situation."
Sajer's perspective as a German foot soldier makes The Forgotten Soldier a unique war memoir, the book that the Christian Science Monitor said "may well be the book about World War II which has been so long awaited". A work of stunning force, this is an unforgettable reminder of the horrors of war.
For those of you who are using this as a "Bible" for Grossdeutschland, I recommend extreme caution. There is a substantial body of criticism surrounding this work which generally has caused historians to discount it as what it is purported to be. Simply stated, most historians tend to regard the book as a novel, probably not even written by a soldier. There are two sorts of "criticism" which historians use to evaluate the authenticity of anything from actual documents to artifacts; because they may be of some help, I shall expand a bit:
- The work contains a lot of factual or detail errors. From being assigned to the XVII Battalion of light Infantry GD to the referral to the Brandenburg penal battalions and the good old 19th Rollbahn (19 ROAD?), the details not only don't ring true, they are suspiciously similar to a lot of the mis-information that floated around in the 50's/60's before any serious research had been done. One gets the impression of someone looking up details in a book to include them in a story. Additionally, some of the procedures described don't seem to accurately reflect the German Army's "way of doing business:" Sajer finds himself in a Luftwaffe squadron then is marched down the road to become a soldier? He's in the "drivers' corps" and drive a "tank" but does not know how to drive a truck? Sajer's unit also never seems to have owned unit equipment -- they drive their trucks to the front, then are put on a train and, next thing we know, they are delivering supplies under fire using horse carts? These and so many other things tend to simply make the story fantastic.
This issue is worthy of discussion because The Forgotten Soldier has long been included in many professional development reading lists compiled by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. Frequently cited by military leaders and historians as an excellent example of a twentieth-century footsoldier's perspective of combat in its most elemental state The Forgotten Soldier has educated two generations of military readers in the reality of combat especially its human dimension--how combat affects the individual physically psychologically and mentally.3 Is The Forgotten Soldier fact or fiction? And if it is fiction why would Sajer offer it up as fact? This article argues that Guy Sajer's account of his personal experiences is true. The Forgotten Soldier is an excellent first-person account which allows the reader to experience vicariously the reality of combat and to draw lessons still applicable today. Not only do the contents of the book itself testify to its authenticity but as we shall see they should convince anyone that the book is not fiction. Unfortunately this claim cannot be made unequivocally as Kennedy's arguments demonstrate. Another careful examination of The Forgotten Soldier itself is required as well as inquiries about its author. At this point it is clear that the pronounced weight of the evidence indicates that the book is factual.
As readers of his book know Guy Sajer was a 16-year-old French youth living in Wissembourg Alsace who volunteered in July 1942 to serve in the German Army. Motivated by a sense of adventure as well as admiration for the German soldiers who had conquered France in 1940 he initially sought to become a Stuka dive bomber crew member but failed and was sent to the army instead. After his initial training he was sent to the Russian front where because of his youth he first served in a transportation unit. In April 1943 he volunteered for service in the infantry as a member of the prestigious Grossdeutschland Division at the time one of Germany's most powerful mechanized infantry divisions. Sajer's life over the next two years can only be described as an especially intense experience. His account of these years gives his book its most enduring value. His description of the horror elation fear hope and sense of sacrifice he felt and encountered during the Eastern Front campaigns mark the book as a land-mark in autobiographical military history. To sense what the average German soldier experienced on the Russian battlefield Sajer's is one of the best works extant. His book concludes in 1945 as his unit surrendered and he was treated as a "doubtful case" by his Allied captors who were unsure whether to classify him as a German or as a French collaborator. Given the option of rehabilitating himself by joining the French Army after the war Sajer chose to bury his memories. No one was sympathetic to a former German "collaborator" in postwar France. He was and remains a "forgotten soldier" in the country of his birth.
Let's examine the discrepancies one by one: The Luftwaffe training unit. Kennedy doubts Sajer's claim that he was briefly assigned to Colonel Hans Rudel's Stuka training unit because during the summer of 1942 Rudel's unit (according to Rudel himself) was located near Graz in southern Austria quite a distance from Chemnitz where Sajer claimed to be. Simply because Sajer was not in Graz does not rule out the fact that he could have been with Rudel's training unit. To an impressionable 16-year-old anything having to do with Stukas probably would have made Sajer associate it with Rudel a well-known hero at the time. Rudel was to Stuka dive bombers what Michael Jordan is to basketball. According to Rudel in his book Stuka Pilot "crews are sent to me for further training from the Stuka schools after which they proceed to the front."7 Sajer states that he was assigned to the 26th section of the squadron commanded by Rudel failed to pass the Luftwaffe tests for Stuka crewman and was sent to the infantry. The fact that Sajer was in Chemnitz does not rule out his claim. Rudel's unit may well have had a training and evaluation element at or near Chemnitz. Georg Tessin's Verbaende und Truppen der deutsche Wehrmacht und Waffen SS the standard reference work on German Army and Air Force field and training organizations locates the 103rd Stuka training squadron near the town of Bilina (Biblis) in the modern-day Czech Republic about forty miles (sixty-five kilometers) from Chemnitz.8 Incidentally Tessin's study makes no mention of a unit based in Graz Austria at the time. Could it be that the once-famous and never-forgotten Rudel also let small details escape him? Was Sajer ever assigned to the Grossdeutschland Division? Kennedy suggests he was not because Sajer writes that he was assigned to the "Siebzehntes Bataillon" (17th Battalion) which Kennedy says never existed in that division's structure. He is right. There was no such "battalion " but there was a 17th Abteilung (Detachment) in each of that division's two infantry regiments.9 The term Abteilung describes a unit which may range in size from company to regimental strength but it was usually used for a unit of approximately battalion size or smaller. There were however even Armee Abteilungen (army detachments) which were corps-size units. In writing his book Sajer may have used the term roughly equivalent to Abteilung that being the term "Bataillon" (battalion) which would be most easily understood by his French readership. He might instead have used the term "Kompanie" (company) but did not. As in many other instances that Kennedy and I noted Sajer is distressingly vague about such finer points. Another possibility is that since Sajer had been a truck driver in a transportation unit before volunteering for infantry training and combat duty he initially could have been assigned to the 17th Kolonne (Column) of the division's Nachschubdienste (the German equivalent of a U.S. division support command). A Kolonne was another German battalion-size unit that has no direct English translation. Regardless the 17th was a rather high number indeed for an organic element of a regiment in the Wehrmacht be it an Abteilung Kompanie or Kolonne and only a few divisions the Grossdeutschland being one of them had regimental elements with numbers that went up this high. Most three-battalion German regiments only went up to the fourteenth Kompanie or Abteilung. The Grossdeutschland as befitting its elite status had until its reorganization in July 1944 four battalions per regiment with a total of eighteen Kompanien or Abteilungen. So at the very least Sajer could have belonged at one time or another to the 17th Abteilung or Kolonne. 2b1af7f3a8