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

by Willy Peter Reese, edited by Stefan Schmitz, translated by Michael Hoffman, with a foreword by Max Hastings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005, $23.

 While members of America’s Greatest Generation are dying off at an alarming rate, so too are the other fighting men of World War II. Willy Peter Reese, a soldier who vanished on the Eastern Front in 1944, is symbolic of the German experience in that conflict. His writings, a collection of journals and notes completed prior to his disappearance, portray the horrors of the Eastern Front in vivid detail.

Well-honed descriptions cut deep into the reader’s sensibilities, as Reese shows with painful clarity how debilitating and deadly the trauma and mental fatigue of continuous combat can be. His ability to convey madness, terror and rage leave the reader shaken, while descriptions of such noncombat maladies as trench foot and frostbite make one wonder what motivated Wehrmacht soldiers to fight on as doggedly as they did. The fortitude demanded of Reese and others who endured begs another question for American and British veterans: What if Germany had sent 8 million soldiers like Reese west instead of east?

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.