The Forgotten Soldier
By Guy Sajer
Hardcover, 508pp., Potomac Books Inc., 2000
Reviewed by Roberta Gates
Jan 15, 2012
I have a special interest in World War II and am always looking for diaries, letters or autobiographies that, I hope, will tell me the way it really was. Unfortunately, war stories are often boastful (we got those Japs) or just plain boring (pincer movements, etc.). But Guy Sajer's autobiography, entitled Forgotten Soldier, is neither. In fact, I would say it comes close to being a masterpiece in its closely observed moments, acute psychological insights and masterful writing.
First published in 1967 in France under the title Le Soldat Oublie, it was translated into English in 2000 and published by Potomac Books. Guy Sajer (a synonym for the author) was the son of a German woman and a French peasant from Alsace. Unfortunately for Guy, Alsace was annexed by the Nazis after the fall of France, which meant that he (still two-and-a half months shy of his seventeenth birthday) was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Damned by his French relatives as a traitor and held in contempt by his German comrades who regarded him as "one of those damned Alsatians pretending to be German," he had a lot to prove, both to himself and his fellow-soldiers.
Sajer is particularly skillful at describing the majesty and ruthlessness of Soviet Russia where he was eventually deployed. "The vastness of this countryside, untouched by any human life… seems so overwhelming," he writes, "it is almost necessary to believe in God."
Sajer is also very adept at describing the people who crowd this narrative:
- Hals, a big, boisterous Bavarian who is "the only real friend Guy ever made";
- his enemy Lensen who leaves Guy feeling "angry and sad and incredibly alone" when he refers to Guy as a "worthless, feckless Frog," even after they've been through heavy combat together;
- Herr Hauptmann Wesreidau , who is "a terror to the enemy and a father to his men";
- a war-hardened machine gunner in his thirties, known only as "the veteran," who carries Guy back and forth to the latrine during his bout with dysentery;
- the Hitlerjugend who are only too eager to sacrifice themselves for their Führer; and
- Paula, the young girl in Berlin who is his first love.
Sajer has a rare gift for channeling the innocence of his youth, recalling, for instance, how incomprehensibly and "profoundly moved" he is by a care package of sausages, jam, and cigarettes--"repayment for all [his] endless nights in the stone-cracking cold." Later, he holds back tears with difficulty when an M.P. threatens him with a penal battalion after nine unused cartridges are found in his possession following a desperate retreat. Guy is so overwhelmed by the charge of cowardice that when his pay book is finally handed back to him he "sob[s] convulsively, unable to stop."
But Sajer offers more than fascinating descriptions of military life or terrifying depictions of battle, providing above all intimate insights that live in the reader's memory. "We fought from simple fear," he confesses, "[but] the idea of death, even when we accepted it, made us howl with powerless rage." And, moving ahead to the post-war period when he tries again to fit into quotidian life, he makes this observation:
The laughter of men who lived through the war has something forced and desperate about it. It does them no good to say that they now make use of the experience; their mechanisms have been run too hard, and something has gone out of balance. Laughter no longer has any more value for them than tears.
When Forgotten Soldier was first published in the U.S. in 2000, The New York Times said anyone who read the book would never forget it, and I agree completely.