I just finished reading Infantry Aces, a compilation of stories about the second world war – from the perspective of the enemy: German soldiers.
It’s an engrossing and revolting book, for a number of different reasons, not least of which is that the author is a WWII veteran … and a German soldier.
The book, translated from German by David Johnston, follows the stories of eight servicemen ranging from battle medics to officers. Most of the stories are the various eastern campaigns against ‘Ivan.’
Reading it today is somehow surreal as you wonder how people managed to continue living, working, existing while seeing comrades drop like flies, hundreds and thousands of Soviet soldiers die, and, frankly, while killing people as fast as your machine gun spits out metal. Did that become their new normal?
How did they do it? How did they advance through enemy fire? Stand up to artillery barrages? Fight off attack after attack? It’s almost inconceivable in this day and age for a reasonably sheltered Canadian. And, frankly, as nasty, vicious, and ugly as the Iraq situation can get, it’s a kindergarten field trip compared to the absolute hell of WW II – particularly the Eastern front.
The thing that makes the book very conflicting is the completely unapolegetic way in which the stories are told. There are some token statements regarding soldiers being mislead by superiors and politicians, and the like, but the overall tone is devoid of sympathy for the millions of poorly training and equipped ‘Ivans’ who died horrible deaths, or the Canadian or American troops that the Germans faced in western Europe.
The afterword too, with its matter-of-fact description of tactics’ and weapons’ effects on “the enemy” seems rather cold-blooded, even stereotypically German. Example, in a discourse on why the German army chose 9mm pistols over a lower calibre weapon: “The enemy must be rendered incapable of action at the moment the bullet strikes, no matter where he is hit.”
On the other hand, the fact is that millions of German combatants died in suffering and torment. Their stories deserve to be told – and we have not heard them.
All in all, a compelling if disturbing account of actual experiences of fighting men.