A ‘survival strategy’ on the Eastern front

A German position somewhere on the Eastern Front in 1942.

A German position somewhere on the Eastern Front in 1942.

Of all the memoirs from the whole war, that of Willy Peter Reese must rank as one of the most reflective of any front line soldier. He was a highly literate, cultured individual yet he was swept up into the Wehrmacht and now was stuck in a trench in the frozen wastes of Russia.

After surviving a series of attacks before Christmas his section of the front now fell quiet. Now the enemy was the climate and their own thoughts:

An iron frost set in, as though a polar wind were blowing down from the stars. The white moon glowed more harshly down from the whirl of the clouds. Our hands and feet couldn’t get warm.

We suffered from persecution mania. Surrounded by death, we passed through these days, taking our leave. In the midst of death, we lived; we turned the commonplace on its head. We learned to hate our time and to curse the war. But within we still resisted the idea that all sacrifice was futile, so as not to fall into the despair of the soldier in an exposed, hopeless position.

The fighting was over. But it was only now that everything became real. Only now did we see how inhuman all our experience had been and try to give it some meaning and value. But reality compelled us to put away our cherished illusions. A spiritual struggle against reality began. But we found no magic word, no new illusion. Pitilessly, the war fitted into the microcosm of our world picture.

We were soldiers, dulled beings, vegetating in trenches and bunkers, wasting our time without hope, bragging, swearing, worrying, enduring, obeying: dehumanized caricatures. It was very rare for any humanity to show itself in war. And if an isolated individual wanted to write, and read and study, then there was a fight for a candle. Light was needed only for eating and for keeping watch but not for the mind.

Just as our winter gear ended up leaving only our eyes uncovered, so soldierliness left minimal room for the expression of human traits. We were in uniform. Not just unwashed, unshaved, lousy, and sick but also spiritually ravaged – nothing but a sum of blood, guts, and bones.

Our comradeship was made from mutual dependence, from living together in next to no space. Our humor was born out of sadism, gallows humor, satire, obscenity, spite, rage, and pranks with corpses, squirted brains, lice, pus, and shit, the spiritual zero. Our stir-craziness in our bunker set little blooms of wit sprouting from the manure of need.

Philosophy, ethics, and thought were replaced by self-preservation. We had no faith to sustain us, and philosophy served only to make our lot appear a little more bearable. The fact that we were soldiers was sufficient basis for criminality and degradation, for an existence in hell. Our totems were self, tobacco, food, sleep, and the whores of France.

Soon after this Reese writes that ‘I made up my mind’ . He crawled outside the trenches and stood up in the ‘harsh sunlight’. Two shots rang out. It was mere chance that he was not killed. He had observed:

Because we were living in close proximity to death, there was nothing difficult about dying. It was the hesitancy and ubiquitousness of death that made him so great and terrible.

One bullet smashed into his leg. He had got the ‘Heimatschuss’ that so many soldiers dreamed of. It was his ‘salvation’, at least for a time. It was this outcome that gave Reese the time and respite to write his memoirs.

See Willy Peter Reese: A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-44

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