Friday, February 02, 2007

A Stranger to Myself * * *

A Stranger to Myself is a book made from the diaries of a young writer/poet/philosopher who died in Russia on his 5th tour on the Eastern Front. This is a memoir about what it was to experience the Eastern Front as a little human not an uber-German. If you've seen any books on the Eastern Front, you've seen the pictures of the winter of '41. The German soldiers in summer uniforms are laying in endless frozen heaps. The walking have their hands and feet wrapped due to frostbite. It is a disaster. Reese entered the war during that winter and lived through the experience in those pictures. He also was on the front near Kursk during the disasterous winter of '43 when Germans were again pushed back. 100'000s German soldiers were killed or froze to death during that winter. He returns to the front in winter '44 as the Germans are getting pushed out of Russia after the failure of Operation Citidel. So this is a memoir of the winter defeats. He misses completely the heady summer of '41 when the Germans pushed to Moscow and the summer of '42 when they pushed to Stalingrad.

A Stranger to Myself is unlike any war diary that you would have read before. This is Wagner meets WWII. It is an at times lyrical and, in the first half, overwrought exploration of his experience of the war. We are transplanted to the Russian steppe. The writer paints a vivid and poetic pictures of the the landscape and how it changes from winter to summer. As I read it, I could almost smell the crisp morning air and see the red sunrises, and then later the endless brown and mud that covers everything. In the beginning of the book, Reese struggles with yet embraces the role of the soldier. He repeatedly talks of the mask of the soldier and playing a role. He tries to understand his existence. Life is suffering. It is what must be. Suffering defines existence. In the beginning he sees himself as part of a larger thing. The master race scouring the countryside. Yet he does not see himself as superior; he is simply part of this larger thing that is happening. He feels no emnity to the people or his enemies. Yet he participates. His life is not defined by Free Will. He gives in to the larger forces and plays his role. He embraces herioc nihilism. After 2 years of war, he view will change however....

Reese is unsparing in his examination of himself. And if all soldiers were like him, the Wehrmacht surely wouldn't have gotten very far. He kvetches, he gets lost, he has heart palpations, somehow he repeatedly manages to stay behind and hold the fort while his comrades go off to fight, etc, etc. During the brutal winter of '43, he descends into pure desperation and finally stands up in his trench until he is shot. Salvation, a home-pass. In the winter of '44, however, he is a seasoned frontline veteran and participates in endless battles -- although he and the others are fighting just to save themselves nothing more. He is unsparing in his admission of his participation in abuses of civilians; he does not agonize over it nor does he feel good about it. In the winter of '41, he describes how the soldiers were constantly hungry and suffering. They looted from the civilians viciously and if the people complained, they were shot. Later in the book, during the retreat from Orel, he writes of the endless destruction behind the frontlines. The Germans instituted a scorched earth policy on their retreat. He is sad of the war is consuming noncombatants and recognizes that he is both perpetrator and pawn of the war-monster.

After 2 years of war, Reese has changed. He explores his mental scars that simply do not heal. His writing has changed. Before it was overwrought and explored endlessly this idea of heroic nihilsm. Now his writing is terse as he tries to comes to grip with who he is, what his life is, and the images in his head. He decides his life can only go forward after going through the fire. He volunteers for the frontlines. In the end, after going through the crucible, he is ready to live. The beauty of nature consumes him. But he accepts that death is his fate and is not sad. He did about 3-4 months after he finished the book during a furlough at home. He was killed in June 1944 during the retreat from Russia.

August 1941 Reese is stationed in Poland and participates in fights to push the Russians east
Sept 28, 1941 Reese arrives in Kiev the day after the greatest encirclement of the war; 650,000 Russians
October 1941 He is near Kursk. Winter arrives they begin to freeze and starve;
Dec 1941 - Jan 1942 Starving and freezing and trench warfare near Kursk; Reese is injured and returns home. This was the eastern end of the big Russian counter-offensive.
July 1942 Reese joins the summer offensive in the push towards Stalingrad. They start marching near Kharkov. But he collapses in the march and is sent back to Germany.
October-Dec 1942 Reese is sent to Rshev NW of Moscow. In Dec/Jan a big Russian counter offensive at Rshev pushes the Germans back 200km.
Feb 1943 In the midst of this counter offensive, Reese stands up in his trench to get shot. He does.
July 1943 Reese is sent to about 200mi SW of Moscow near Smolensk on the Vopez River. Fighting.
End of July 1943 Moved to Mileyevo NE of Bryansk (100km W of Orel). Fighting.
August or so 1943 Collapse of the Citidel offensive. Enormous retreat by the German Army back to the Dneiper River in the west. All villages destroyed on retreat. Reese describes this.
To Dec 1943 North of Gomel (200km W of Byransk). Reese is part of the fighting to hold the line of the Dneiper River against a huge Russian counter-offensive.
Spring 1943 Home leave
June 1943 Reese is killed in the Vitebsk region 400km W of Moscow during the start of the Russian counter-offensive that drove the Germans out of Russian

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