America loves to think that it won World War Two. We’ve got the narrative down pat after seventy years of movies and storytelling. It’s so familiar that we can tell it in our sleep. Appeasement and the invasion of Poland, the fall of France in a matter of days, the miracle at Dunkirk, and then the British holding out to the last man, staring across the channel as the Nazis consolidated. The Germans were stopped in the east by the Russian winter and then Pearl Harbor shocked us out of our complacency, culminating in D-Day and the freeing of Europe, meeting the Russians in the middle. It’s easy to think that we won it, or at the very least we adopt the false equivalency of there being two fronts.
But the Western front was little more than a battle in comparison to the East, perhaps the most horrific and purest war of annihilation in the history of the world. The two most powerful tyrannies to ever exist tried to murder each other, man by man, woman by woman, child by child. If I put a bar chart here, with the number of casualties on the Eastern front at the width of the text, the number of American casualties in Europe would only make a bar three pixels wide.
The numbers can’t tell a story though, because they’re too big. Ten thousand, a hundred, a million, a billion, they’re all the same in our minds because they’re just infinite, and we have no perspective on the infinite. We can’t see their faces, which is the flaw that both keeps us from understanding crimes of this scale, and allows us to keep committing them. With our broken eyes, we can only see the forest by looking at the trees.
One of those trees that you should read is A Stranger to Myself, the set of diaries written by a twenty year old German soldier named Willy Peter Reese on that Eastern Front. He wanted to be a writer, had no ambitions of war, and was drafted in the first year of the war and sent to invade Russia. He died there too, but his journals survived in his family’s hands, though no one cared to look at them for sixty years. They were translated into English and published in 2005, and they are gorgeous and harrowing all at once.
They tell the story of a war that is simple cruelty and chaos. There is no reason, no strategy visible to those on the bottom. He tells of his own descent into barbarism and indifference, of starving soldiers who murder old men for bread, fire blindly into the darkness, toss grenades into crowds of POWs, and laugh at the rotting corpses of hung civilians. They starve, the sleep in the ice, they advance or retreat not even knowing the names of the towns they burn, feet rotting beneath them, not even knowing the names of their comrades. And through it all, Reese tries to understand through his words what the meaning of this hell was, and how it turned him into a monster.
The prose rambles at times, the words struggling with metaphors and going on in that way that inexperienced writers do, trying to convolute the poetry they feel into something on the page, and leaving a mess instead. But that, when combined with the stark horrors he describes, adds another layer to the tragedy, that the only words that remain from this voice were sung before he learned how to sing.
And it also touches me personally, because the way this kid writes, at a distance of seventy years and through the agony of a wasted life and the barrier of translation from another language, his words are familiar to me. The rhythm of the sentences, the choice of words, the flow of thought, they all sound to me the way that my words sound to me when I write. It’s not total, and I’m not trying to flatter myself with the comparison, but it’s jarring, eerie like turning on the radio and hearing someone speaking of atrocity in your own voice.
(A Stranger to Myself is available here on Amazon)