Fact or Fiction? The Truth Behind The Forgotten Soldier
My views on the book
I'm not really sure what to think. The book is a great read, but there are just so many things that feel "wrong" about it. The biggest problem is that it's a translation of a book written by someone in one language about experiences in another. Are the "wrong" things caused by translation, or by the fact that it is a novel? I don't know. I've read my copy four times to date, and can't shake my feelings about the truth behind the book. Below are arguments for each case- you decide for yourself...
This article originally appeared on the Grossdeutschland Information page.
Guy Sajer's book The Forgotten Soldier is rather notorious in the historical community; the book purports to be the memoirs of an Alsatian who served with the Division for the last years of the Second World War. Much has been written on the subject of whether or not the book is a true story or not. Two articles are presented here, plus an exchange of letters to the editor to an American military journal. Those curious may wish to obtain a copy of their own, and to investigate further for themselves whether or not they believe the story to be true.
Le Soldat Oublie, first published in France by Editions Robert Laffont. Copyright 1967 by Editions Robert Laffont.
First published in Great Britain as The Forgotten Soldier by Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, 1971. Translation © 1971 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
The Forgotten Soldier
by Louis Brown
(This article originally appeared in the January 1992 issue of Die Feuerwehr, a newsletter produced by a Grossdeutschland re-enactment group in the US. Lieutenant Colonel Brown was a West Point educated scholar and armored officer whose service included duty in Germany.)
For those of you who are using this as a "Bible" for Grossdeutschland, I recommend extreme caution. There is a substantial body of criticism surrounding this work which generally has caused historians to discount it as what it is purported to be. Simply stated, most historians tend to regard the book as a novel, probably not even written by a soldier.
There are two sorts of "criticism" which historians use to evaluate the authenticity of anything from actual documents to artifacts; because they may be of some help, I shall expand a bit:
- Internal criticism looks at the actual "item." In the case of paper, the type of paper, inks, stamps, as well as wording, grammar and print are compared to what was possible in the given historical period. Artifact examinations would look at both materials and methods of construction. In short, George Washington didn't write with a felt-tip, use "OK" in correspondence, nor did he wear polyester put together on a sewing machine.
- External criticism seeks to deal with the fact that, even if an item passes the internal examination, it might not be "authentic." Particularly hard to detect are "forgeries" in which original materials are "assembled" in an authentic manner -- many of these are caught by this examination. Certainly less conclusive, it can still trip-up a good fake. External criticism seeks to place the item in its historical context and examine its "reason for being." "Why was this document written?" or "What was the purpose of this uniform?" can lead historians to the conclusion that, even though appearing to be authentic, the item is a forgery (sometimes documents in particular turn out to be "authentic forgeries" -- an actual document written during the period in question (thereby "authentic" in style, material, etc.) but not that which it actually purports to be. The uniform equivalent might be a (dress uniform) manufactured for a Berlin costumer; made in the period and of authentic materials, it is not what it seems.) The great Hitler Diaries were eventually unravelled as a fake due mainly to external criticism -- once historians had sufficient doubt, they went back into the documents and found the internal mistakes that had been overlooked originally. (The "great" British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper bit the BIG BULLET on the Hitler Diaries -- he's the one who took a first look at them from an internal perspective and, because of his extreme haste (and apparent predisposition) to be the one to certify them authentic, failed to catch what he should have. Formerly regarded as one of the foremost WWII historians, many historians are now convinced that his shoddy methodology and apparent willingness to believe that which suited his predispositions were not confined merely to this case. The result has been a marked decline in reliance on his work -- a veritable death for the professional historian.)
I took the "long route" because it occurs to me that the above might be useful in both collecting and re-enacting -- remember that we are dealing with an historical subject which is properly studied via the proven methods of the discipline, not popular myth or opinion. To return to Sajer's book and conclude, many historians doubt the work; some of the (reasons) are as follows:
- The work contains a lot of factual or detail errors. From being assigned to the XVII Battalion of light Infantry GD to the referral to the Brandenburg penal battalions and the good old 19th Rollbahn (19 ROAD?), the details not only don't ring true, they are suspiciously similar to a lot of the mis-information that floated around in the 50's/60's before any serious research had been done. One gets the impression of someone looking up details in a book to include them in a story. Additionally, some of the procedures described don't seem to accurately reflect the German Army's "way of doing business:" Sajer finds himself in a Luftwaffe squadron then is marched down the road to become a soldier? He's in the "drivers' corps" and drives a "tank" but does not know how to drive a truck? Sajer's unit also never seems to have owned unit equipment- they drive their trucks to the front, then are put on a train and, next thing we know, they are delivering supplies under fire using horse carts? These and so many other things tend to simply make the story fantastic.
- Perhaps most telling is the general "feel" of the book- it simply does not flow the way European wartime narratives flow. Particularly, there is a lot of dialogue or quoted material which is not usual; in addition, there are errors in the German and a lot of "curse words" which, interestingly, the Europeans do not use as we do. Sajer's continued bemoaning of his poor German ability is also ludicrous -- immersion into the German Army would have solved that problem in short order.
Of course, none of this is conclusive, but the obvious caution is to treat The Forgotten Soldier with some healthy skepticism; there is a good chance that it is not what it is supposed to be. And even if it really is the true account of Sajer's experiences, either the author's memory is so poor and unreliable, or the translation so riddled with errors that, again, the information cannot be counted on. Either way, it amounts to much the same thing: The Forgotten Soldier is not a good source of information about the German Army.
In a later issue of the newslettter (March 1992), Brown added the following:
"The Forgotten Soldier goes to great lengths to talk about not being fed- without exception, every German to whom I have spoken about the subject has affirmed that the logistics system, so long as the unit was not cut off or so far away as to be out of supply, continued to work very well right up until 8 May 1945. While they admit to shortages of specific items, they claim to have continued to receive supplies and were not reduced to foraging. (Another reason I don't trust that book.)"
The Forgotten Soldier: Unmasked
by Douglas E. Nash
(This article was first published in the Summer 1997 issue of Army History the official publication of the US Army's Center of Military History)
Several years ago Edwin L. Kennedy in an article on these pages entitled "The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?" advanced the thesis that The Forgotten Soldier, billed as an autobiographical work by Guy Sajer, was in fact fictional.
The book describes Sajer's experiences as a volunteer in the German Army during World War II from the time of his enlistment in 1942 until the end of the war.
Despite the book's popularity (to date it has been published in at least five languages) the article cautions readers to exercise care and not to place much stock in the book due to its "suspect" nature. Kennedy believes that Sajer's book is a "carefully written novel that cleverly disguises [itself] as a factual account." The implication is of course that as a fictional work, The Forgotten Soldier's chief significance lies in its entertainment value rather than as a serious work which military professionals may use to enhance their knowledge of the art of war.
This issue is worthy of discussion because The Forgotten Soldier has long been included in many professional development reading lists compiled by the US Army and the US Marine Corps. Frequently cited by military leaders and historians as an excellent example of a twentieth-century footsoldier's perspective of combat in its most elemental state, The Forgotten Soldier has
educated two generations of military readers in the reality of combat especially its human dimension- how combat affects the individual physically psychologically and mentally.
Is The Forgotten Soldier fact or fiction? And if it is fiction why would Sajer offer it up as fact? This article argues that Guy Sajer's account of his personal experiences is true. The Forgotten Soldier is an excellent first-person account which allows the reader to experience vicariously the reality of combat and to draw lessons still applicable today. Not only do the contents of the book itself testify to its authenticity but as we shall see they should convince anyone that the book is not fiction. Unfortunately this claim cannot be made unequivocally, as Kennedy's arguments demonstrate. Another careful examination of The Forgotten Soldier itself is required as well as inquiries about its author. At this point it is clear that the pronounced weight of the evidence indicates that the book is factual.
As readers of his book know Guy Sajer was a 16-year-old French youth living in Wissembourg, Alsace, who volunteered in July 1942 to serve in the German Army. Motivated by a sense of adventure as well as admiration for the German soldiers who had conquered France in 1940, he initially sought to become a Stuka dive-bomber crew member but failed and was sent to the army instead. After his initial training he was sent to the Russian front where, because of his youth, he first served in a transportation unit. In April 1943 he volunteered for service in the infantry as a member of the prestigious Grossdeutschland Division, at the time one of Germany's most powerful mechanized infantry divisions. Sajer's life over the next two years can only be described as an especially intense experience. His account of these years gives his book its most enduring value. His description of the horror, elation, fear, hope and sense of sacrifice he felt and encountered during the Eastern Front campaigns mark the book as a land-mark in autobiographical military history. Sajer's is one of the best works extant to sense what the average German soldier experienced on the Russian battlefield. His book concludes in 1945 as his unit surrendered and he was treated as a "doubtful case" by his Allied captors, who were unsure whether to classify him as a German or as a French collaborator. Given the option of rehabilitating himself by joining the French Army after the war, Sajer chose to bury his memories. No-one was sympathetic to a former German "collaborator" in postwar France. He was, and remains, a "forgotten soldier" in the country of his birth.
Few, until recently, have questioned the essential truthfulness of Sajer's account; certainly not previous reviewers. The English language version of his book received an overwhelmingly positive response when it appeared twenty-five years ago. J Glenn Gray wrote in the New York Times in 1971 that Sajer "succeeded uncommonly well in describing the details of action and feeling of suffering and terror that fell to his lot as a private.
.... Those who have never known war at first hand will be unable to grasp more than a fraction of the reality he describes. Even veterans of combat will conclude that what they experienced was child's play in comparison." Another reviewer, Walter Clemons, wrote the same year that the particulars of Sajer's narrative "like nails drive it home and hurt us in unexpected places." The story told with "youthful intensity " is "now and again set down with a clarity for which 'Tolstoyan' is not too strong a word." Clemons concludes that "We are reading the memoir of a man whose freshest deepest feelings were aroused by the ordeal of war, who came out physically whole but never cared so much about anything again."
The success of the book in the United States Canada and England has led to numerous reprintings since it first appeared. The most recent American edition, issued by Brasseys in cooperation with the Association of the US Army and the Air Force Association, became available in 1990. Not until Kennedy's article in 1992 did anyone question the book's standing as a genuine autobiography. Indeed, Kennedy's article remains to date the only serious attempt to argue otherwise.
His article attempts a step-by-step demolition of the book's veracity by focusing on a variety of details which according to Kennedy prove overwhelmingly that "the book is a carefully written novel that cleverly disguises [sic] as a factual account." Additionally, he asserts the book "provides a useful example of how analysis of historical works can prove or disprove, lend credibility or discredit supposed 'history.'"
This is stating the obvious indeed but it remains to be seen how well the "analysis" stands up to scrutiny.
In broad strokes, the essence of Kennedy's argument is this: Sajer used historical fact to flesh out the background of his "novel". But he wasn't careful enough. Several small details escaped his notice. Taken together, these details expose the work as fiction. In other words, "the book is accurate but not to a 'tee'". Kennedy builds his argument around five key discrepancies which appear in the book. These discrepancies involve which Luftwaffe training unit Sajer was briefly assigned to, the location of his uniform's cuff title, which unit he was assigned to in the famous Grossdeutschland Division, the names of key individuals in the book and other unaccountable errors which by Kennedy's lights should have been common knowledge. In each instance the writer makes some interesting points but none of his objections is totally resilient to challenge, and taken together they amount to little more than a straw man.
Let's examine the discrepancies one by one:
- The Luftwaffe training unit. Kennedy doubts Sajer's claim that he was briefly assigned to Colonel Hans Rudel's Stuka training unit because during the summer of 1942 Rudel's unit (according to Rudel himself) was located near Graz in southern Austria quite a distance from Chemnitz where Sajer claimed to be. Simply because Sajer was not in Graz does not rule out the fact that he could have been with Rudel's training unit. To an impressionable 16-year-old anything having to do with Stukas probably would have made Sajer associate it with Rudel, a well-known hero at the time. Rudel was to Stuka dive bombers what Michael Jordan is to basketball. According to Rudel in his book Stuka Pilot, "crews are sent to me for further training from the Stuka schools after which they proceed to the front." Sajer states that he was assigned to the 26th section of the squadron commanded by Rudel, failed to pass the Luftwaffe tests for Stuka crewmen and was sent to the infantry. The fact that Sajer was in Chemnitz does not rule out his claim. Rudel's unit may well have had a training and evaluation element at or near Chemnitz. Georg Tessin's Verbaende und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen SS, the standard reference work on German Army and Air Force field and training organizations, locates the 103rd Stuka training squadron near the town of Bilina (Biblis) in the modern-day Czech Republic about forty miles (sixty-five kilometers) from Chemnitz. Incidentally, Tessin's study makes no mention of a unit based in Graz, Austria at the time. Could it be that the once-famous and never-forgotten Rudel also let small details escape him?
- Was Sajer ever assigned to the Grossdeutschland Division? Kennedy suggests he was not because Sajer writes that he was assigned to the "Siebzehntes Bataillon" (17th Battalion) which Kennedy says never existed in that division's structure. He is right. There was no such "battalion", but there was a 17th Abteilung (Detachment) in each of that division's two infantry regiments. The term Abteilung describes a unit which may range in size from company to regimental strength, but it was usually used for a unit of approximately battalion size or smaller. There were, however, even Armee Abteilungen (army detachments) which were corps-size units. In writing his book, Sajer may have used the term roughly equivalent to Abteilung, that being the term "Bataillon" (battalion) which would be most easily understood by his French readership. He might instead have used the term "Kompanie" (company) but did not. As in many other instances that Kennedy and I noted, Sajer is distressingly vague about such finer points.
Another possibility is that, since Sajer had been a truck driver in a transportation unit before volunteering for infantry training and combat duty, he initially could have been assigned to the 17th Kolonne (Column) of the division's Nachschubdienste (the German equivalent of a US division support command). A Kolonne was another German battalion-size unit that has no direct English translation. Regardless, the 17th was a rather high number indeed for an organic element of a regiment in the Wehrmacht, be it an Abteilung, Kompanie or Kolonne; and only a few divisions, the Grossdeutschland being one of them, had regimental elements with numbers that went up this high. Most three-battalion German regiments only went up to the fourteenth Kompanie or Abteilung. The Grossdeutschland, as befitting its elite status, had, until its reorganization in July 1944, four battalions per regiment with a total of eighteen Kompanien or Abteilungen. So at the very least Sajer could have belonged at one time or another to the 17th Abteilung or Kolonne.
Sajer claims, more convincingly, that on the eve of the Kursk offensive he was assigned as a replacement to the 5th Company of one of the division's infantry regiments, which certainly did exist. Kennedy fails to mention this in his analysis. Sajer's statement dovetails with the testimony of a former member of the Grossdeutschland, Hans Joachim Schafmeister-Berckholtz. Schafmeister-Berckholtz, who served as a Leutnant (lieutenant) with 5th Company, 1st Battalion, Panzergrenadier-Regiment Grossdeutschland from 1940~44 stated in a letter to the author that he had only recently heard of Sajer's book and had been given a copy to read. However, he wrote that "At the mention of the name Sajer my ears pricked up, because we did have a Sajer in the 5th Company, 1st Grenadier Battalion". Although Schafmeister-Berckholtz added that he did not know this particular Sajer, his statement of which company the man was assigned to does coincide with Sajer's account. At the very least, there seems to have been one Grenadier named Sajer in the Grossdeutschland.
Although at this time there is no conclusive proof one way or the other that Guy Sajer was assigned to the Grossdeutschland, the available evidence seems to show that Sajer knew what he was talking about. He relates to the reader in a very convincing manner his experiences in the battles of Kursk, Kharkov, Kiev, Romania, East Prussia and Memel. All of these battles and campaigns figured prominently in the battle history of the Grossdeutschland. Nothing short of his service record or a unit muster roll could prove the point beyond the shadow of a doubt. His permanent service record or Wehrstammbuch would have been located at the Grossdeutschland's recruiting office and main personnel records office in a Berlin suburb. If this office and the records contained therein survived both the bombing of Berlin and the street fighting which led to the fall of the city, the files would have been seized by the Soviets. If they exist at all, they may be in the Russian Army's archives outside of Moscow. To date, the Russians have been reluctant to allow Western historians access to this site. Sajer relates that he was assigned to a variety of ad-hoc Kampfgruppen (battle groups) during two years of service with the Grossdeutschland. That the 17th "Battalion" was not one of them may arise more from the vicissitudes of memory and translation than to the faulty research of a cunning novelist. Moreover, it's a much more plausible explanation.
Sajer's Commander. For Kennedy one of Sajer's most convincing errors is that the name of his commander in the book, a certain Hauptmann (Captain) Wesreidau, cannot be found on the personnel rolls of the division. In fact, this is hardly convincing at all. That none of the existing muster rolls or records show a "Wesreidau" simply underscores the well-known fact that many wartime divisional records are incomplete. How else could one explain the numerous blank "faces and spaces" in the various unit organizational charts which are scattered throughout the text of the three-volume divisional history issued by its veterans' association? Officer casualties in the German Army of World War II were so high, especially during the second half of the war, that the names of many company commanders and staff officers may never be identified. This is even more likely in an elite unit such as the Grossdeutschland, which suffered far greater officer casualties than other comparable units, since it spent a greater proportion of time in combat. Kennedy also seems to have overlooked the possibility that Sajer might have changed his commander's name to spare "Wesreidau's" family further suffering, since "Wesreidau" was killed by a land mine near the Romanian border in 1944.
Other minor errors. There are many other minor errors in the work, as Kennedy points out. These relate to weapons' calibres, vehicle designations, units and nomenclatures. Many of these, no doubt, are due to the English edition's poor translation of military terminology. This is even more likely, since Sajer was initially writing for a French and Belgian readership and would have felt compelled from time to time to substitute a French equivalent for a German military term. Further translating these terms into English could have compounded any slight errors. Sajer wrote his rough draft in pencil which may have led to further errors in the initial publication due to illegibility. Moreover, Sajer spent a brief period in the French Army after the war and some French military terms would necessarily have crept into his soldier's lexicon.
One must also consider that Sajer was sixteen years old when he enlisted; he was discharged as a prisoner of war three years later at the ripe old age of nineteen. Besides being little more than a child, Sajer spoke German poorly and did not display a good eye for military details. Thrust into a different culture (German versus French) and sent far away from home, it is a wonder that he was able to remember clearly anything about his experiences at all. The very fact that Sajer sometimes gets the small details wrong but is correct in the larger ones actually argues for the credibility of the writer. What could be more human more believable than forgetting such things or misremembering them twenty-two years beyond the events? What American draftee in the Vietnam conflict who experienced months of combat would get every single detail right almost a quarter of a century later? Very few, I would submit, and this would be true even for people with an eye for such things. Details of great significance to college-educated military historians professional soldiers and World War II buffs and collectors such as uniforms weapons accoutrements and vehicles seem to have been of little importance to Sajer, hence his haphazard even lackadaisical description of military trivia.
Uniform insignia. Kennedy's most serious assertion is that Sajer misplaced the location of his uniform's insignia. Sajer did misstate where the unit cuff title was placed on his uniform. This point was also made to me in correspondence with the present head of the Grossdeutschland Division's veterans' association Major (Retired) Helmuth Spaeter. This accusation alone as far as Kennedy is concerned would seem to be enough to label the entire book as fiction. (In Kennedy's words, "to cite the location [of the cuff title] on the wrong place is unimaginable...") It is true that, as an elite unit of the German Army, the Grossdeutschland Division was entitled to display a cuff title on the right sleeve of its members. This cuff title embroidered with the word "Grossdeutschland" in German Suetterlin script was as much an honored insignia at the time as a Ranger tab or Special Forces flash is today. The Waffen-SS divisions were also entitled to wear cuff titles which they wore on the left sleeve. Sajer recalls in his book that upon receipt of their cuff titles, he and his comrades in arms were ordered to sew it onto their left sleeve, a patent error, since they should have been told to sew it onto their right sleeve.
So Sajer gets this wrong but what does that prove? His forte was not military details but feelings moods and experiences. The placement of the cuff title was simply another detail that paled beside the horror and heroism he remembered all too well. Sajer may simply have forgotten on which side he wore his cuff title. This is not nearly as inconceivable as it may seem, even though this sort of information is generally known among historians of the wartime German Army. However, as we have already seen, the fact Sajer was often careless of such details is not all that uncommon among veterans. I have spoken with US veterans of World War II who could not remember on which side their overseas service stripes were worn. My grandfather, who jumped with the 82d Airborne Division at Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 6 1944, could not remember whether he wore an 82d Airborne shoulder insignia or an unauthorized 508th Infantry shoulder patch. He was by no means senile; some people simply do not regard these details as important. To claim that such a mistake on Sajer's part invalidates his story is straining at a gnat and ignoring the elephant.
On its face the assertion that The Forgotten Soldier is fiction will not stand although if so inclined one could niggle about the historical trivialities engendered by the discussion forever. Much more conclusive to the outcome of this discussion would be the voice of Guy Sajer himself. The discovery of the truth about the "forgotten soldier" depended upon whether he could be located and convinced to come forward and lay the fiction/nonfiction question to rest. This proved to be a daunting task. The first question was whether Sajer was still alive thirty years after his book first appeared in print. If so where was he? Answering these questions proved easy compared to getting him to reply. Forwarding a letter to Sajer through the current publisher Brasseys met with no response. Nor did an attempt to contact him through his original publisher, Editions Robert Laffont. Finally, after eighteen months and numerous dead ends, Guy Sajer was located in France through the efforts of three European military historians I had dragooned into the Sajer search service. Through the good offices of one of these historians I have received background information on Guy Sajer and The Forgotten Soldier not previously available in English- and finally a response from Sajer himself.
The information on Sajer which has recently emerged sheds further light on his identity and postwar occupation. A letter from a close friend of Guy Sajer, Jacques Le Breton, located the elusive "forgotten soldier" living in a rural village in France east of Paris under his nom de plume. The surname Sajer is the maiden name of his mother who had been born in Gotha, Germany. In an interview in 1969 with his German publisher, Sajer disclosed that his father, a Frenchman from Auvergne in south-central France, had moved his family from Wissembourg in Alsace to Lorient prior to the outbreak of the war. It was there, in June 1940, when his family was stranded on the road as refugees, that young Sajer first encountered the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, who had only a few days before completed their conquest of France. In the interview Sajer related how, in line with World War I propaganda, he had feared that the Germans would cut off his hands. To his surprise instead of cutting off his hands the German Landsers handed him food and something to drink.
After his family had moved back to Alsace (once again incorporated into the German Reich) in 1941, Sajer was called up for labor service duty (Reichsarbeitsdienst), since as a half-German he was required to perform six to eight months of manual labour, just as German youth were. While serving in labor service camps in Strasbourg and at Kehl, right across the Rhine, Sajer admitted envying his youthful German counterparts who seemed so self-confident and eager to serve their country. He remembers his own feelings of inadequacy watching them volunteering for combat. At the time, combat seemed a great adventure but it was a privilege extended only to pure Germans. Finally, in 1942, when German manpower shortages began to worsen and he turned sixteen, Sajer was allowed to volunteer for military service. From July 1942 to May 1945 he served in a variety of German Army units on the Russian Front, most notably the elite Grossdeutschland Division, and took part in many of the critical defensive battles that eventually decided the fate of Germany in the East.
Following a short period of captivity at the end of the war, he served briefly in the French Army. Shortly thereafter, he found employment as a graphic illustrator in Paris, an indicator of the artistic temperament which manifests itself throughout his book. He married a French woman who bore them a son in 1954. In 1952, between bouts of asthma, he began recording his memoirs as a means of overcoming the horrible memories which had haunted him since the war's end. By 1957, the single school notebook in which he had begun recording his experiences in pencil had grown to seventeen volumes. Although many times he wanted to destroy his work, friends intervened and persuaded to allow a Belgian periodical to publish excerpts of his story in the early 1960s.
The success of these excerpts attracted the notice of the French publishers Editions Robert Laffont. Laffont acquired the complete set of memoirs and published them in 1967 as Le Soldat Oublie', (The Forgotten Soldier). The book became an overnight success in Gaullist France and gained Sajer both accolades and approbation, since his was the first published postwar memoir by a wartime German sympathizer, which presented an unabashedly favorable account of the hated former enemy. The German-language version was published in 1969 as Denn dieser Tage Qual war gross: Bericht eines vergessenen Soldaten (These Days Were Full of Great Suffering: Report of a Forgotten Soldier). Its roaring success in Germany and Austria led to its being published in a number of other languages including the 1971 English-language version The Forgotten Soldier.
Through German historians, I finally got in contact with the reclusive M Sajer. What led the search to the "forgotten soldier's" door was a letter from Jacques Le Breton, a close friend of Sajer, whom he has known for over a decade. M Le Breton advanced a strong case for Sajer's veracity:
"Nothing [in Sajer's book] proves that he didn't go through the events he describes ... on the contrary, he describes without bragging, the usual daily experiences of the life of a Landser on the front lines. A fraud would have claimed to have destroyed more tanks by his own hand and would have been more boastful about it ... Sajer does nothing of the kind. On the contrary, Sajer remains modest, sensible and plausible. He doesn't claim any Iron Crosses or great deeds of heroism." (as many other French volunteers did).
According to this close associate, Sajer writes military history not with a big "H" but as a testimony from a humble soldier who served on the Russian Front. Sajer's friend claims to trust his veracity implicitly though he admits that Sajer possesses a dark pessimistic personality. Le Breton says Sajer prefers to live with the memories of his wartime service while holding the current world in contempt.
Finally able to question Sajer through German historian Klaus Schulz, I posed to him all the questions Kennedy had raised: the matter of his cuff title, unit designations, company commander and so on. Sajer replied almost immediately, squelching any further speculation about his book's authenticity. In his response to Herr Schulz, Sajer explained why he wrote the book in the first place, in words both illuminating and moving:
"I succeeded in having this horror story from the Second World War published in a country hostile to me [France] against my own best interests and with all of the problems in describing the well-merited compassion I still feel for my German soldier comrades ... all of them. I conveyed the difficulty of these moments ... the anguish and the horror. I [publicly] acknowledged the courage and good will of German Landsers in a climate where one was not permitted to talk about them. I depicted their faithfulness and self-sacrifice ... I moved the hearts of millions. I have proudly glorified the honor of all German soldiers at a time in history when they were slandered and reviled. In my opinion this was my duty and I asked for nothing in return."
His book, then, is a memorial to his comrades in arms, both living and in their hundreds dead. In regards to questions about cuff titles, commanders and so forth, Sajer answered with ill-disguised contempt:
"You ask me questions of chronology, situations, dates and unimportant details. Historians and archivists (Americans as well as Canadians) have harassed me for a long time with their rude questions. All of this is unimportant. Other authors and high-ranking officers could respond to your questions better than I. I never had the intention to write a historical reference book; rather, I wrote about my innermost emotional experiences as they relate to the events that happened to me in the context of the Second World War."
Thus, what could be fairly adduced from a close reading of the book itself as I have shown, is now confirmed by the author himself. Details did not cloud the author's vision as it did some readers'. What is more important, Sajer writes, is the favorable impact that his book has had, and the enormously favorable public acceptance it has received. To date, according to Sajer, it has been published in sixteen languages and has been read by millions. Sajer cites the thousands of letters from readers who have been moved by his book in the thirty years since it was first published. Concluding on a sad, poignant and yet majestic note, the seventy-year-old Sajer writes that "I am now an old man- tired, sick and disgusted with human incoherence; I would like nothing more than to be left in peace .... I give you my book as an homage to the German people whatever their generation."
To my surprise, I finally received a response from Guy Sajer directly. In his letter Sajer echoed the same sentiments that he had expressed in his letter to Klaus Schulz several months prior. Asked to explain inconsistencies in his book Sajer replied:
"Apart from the emotions I brought out I confess my numerous mistakes.That is why I would like that this book may not be used under no circumstances as a strategic or chronological reference. Except for some clear landmarks, we didn't know exactly where we were (I am speaking about Russia). We had only code numbers for mail which meant nothing to us .... In the black Russia of winter I would not have been surprised if someone had told me that we were in China."
At this point, is there still room to argue that this man is a fraud? That his book is a clever concoction? That it does not, as thousands of readers attest, bare the soul of a single human tossed into the pitiless cauldron of war? In the words of M Le Breton, "A serious criticism of Sajer's feats of arms coming from a genuine veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division could, in a pinch, be taken seriously, but coming from an American and especially a young one (who did not take part in that war). does not seem to merit being taken into account."
What do German veterans think of Sajer's book? One German veteran of the war, Herr Hans Wegener, who fought in Russia from 1941 to 1943 as a noncommissioned officer in the 39th Infantry Division, had this to say:
This is a powerful endorsement indeed. By the way, Wegener has never met Sajer, yet still feels strongly about the book more than twenty years later. Perhaps even more persuasive testimony comes from a member of the vaunted Grossdeutschland Division itself, Herr Helmuth Spaeter, a former major who commanded the division's reconnaissance Abteilung during the war and served for a period as the head of the division's veterans' association. Quoted by Kennedy as one of Sajer's most vociferous critics, Spaeter was absolutely convinced until recently that The Forgotten Soldier was fiction. However, when I provided him a copy of Sajer's letter to examine he was evidently moved enough to completely reexamine his earlier position.
"I read Sajer's book in the early '70s...[it] depicted deeds and events ...corresponding even with the minute tactical and great strategic events of the period described in the book. The language is of overpowering simplicity, yet extremely smooth and impressive. The train of thought and reflections correspond to those of a young soldier who is tossed into the maelstrom of the hard suffering and hopeless retreat battles of the Eastern Front. I can verify that the Landsers thought this way, acted this way and suffered and died in the pitiless retreat actions on the gigantic expanses of Russia, which in itself gave you a feeling of loneliness and loss if faced ... as an individual human being. Even small inconsistencies cannot change my belief, because the overall impact of the manuscript, the inherent balance and truthfulness are for me the determining criteria [as to its authenticity]. I am quite sure that Guy Sajer did not tell a fictitious story. I look at this book as a tremendous monument for the great and singular achievements of the German soldier during a hopeless situation."
"I was deeply impressed by his statements in his letter " he told me. "I have underestimated Herr Sajer and my respect for him has greatly increased. I am myself more of a writer who deals with facts and specifics- much less like one who writes in a literary way. For this reason I was very skeptical towards the content of his book. I now have greater regard for Herr Sajer and I will read his book once again. Thank God I still have a copy of it here."
Apparently here is one skeptic who is willing to abandon his preconceptions and look at Sajer's book from a new perspective, and a well-known member of the Grossdeutschland Division who fought in the same battles as Sajer did, no less. Spaeter's reversal suggests a course of action that might wisely be taken by other skeptics far less personally engaged in these matters.
To date, no existing service record for Guy Sajer that substantiates his service in the Grossdeutschland Division has been found, but that is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers' personnel files, perhaps millions, were destroyed either during or after the war. Only incomplete personnel rosters exist from the Grossdeutschland Division. Trying to track down the identity of one man in an organization that with its offshoots had over 100 000 men pass through its ranks from 1939 to 1945 is a nearly impossible task. But one doesn't need this kind of proof to reach a conclusion about Sajer's identity. Both his personal testimony and the overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence point to the inescapable conclusion that his book is genuine. Until solid evidence that shows otherwise emerges, an unlikely event in any case, the words of Guy Sajer himself as well as numerous other witnesses all point to the conclusion that Guy Sajer is genuine and The Forgotten Soldier is autobiography: fact not fiction.
I would like to gratefully acknowledge the substantial assistance I have received on the research and writing of this article from my friend Dr. Thomas E. Schott of Brandon Florida. The help extended to me by Dr. Schott, a professional historian, went way beyond the call of duty or even the demands of friendship.
NOTES. (The Forgotten Soldier: Unmasked by Douglas E.Nash "ARMY HISTORY" Summer 1997)
- Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., "The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?" Army History, no. 22 (Spring 1992): 23-25.
- Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).
- See, for example, Col. Harold W. Nelson, "From My Bookshelf," Military Review 70, no. 3 (March 1990): 90, and Maj. Gen. Michael F. Spigelmire, "From My Bookshelf, " Military Review 70, no. 5 (May 1990): 89-90.
- J. Glenn Gray, "The Forgotten Soldier," The New York Times Book Review, 7 Feb 71, p. 4. (Gray, then a philosophy professor at Colorado College, was the author of The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle [New York: Harcourt. Brace. 1959]. Sajer's book has more recently been used for historical documentation by the academic historian Stephen G. Fritz in Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, I995].-- Ed.)
- Walter Clemons, A Young Man's Marriage to War, The New York Times, 18 Jan 71. See also Maj. Robert C. Clarke, The Forgotten Soldier, Military Review 51, no. 6 (June 1971): 106.
- Kennedy, "Fiction or Fact?" p. 23.
- Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.: The Noontide Press, 1987), p. 53.
- Georg Tessin, Verbaende und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen SS im Zweiten Weltkrieg, 17 vols. (Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio Verlag, 1979), I: 353.
- Helmuth Spaeter, ed, Die Geschichte des Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland, 3 vols. (Duisburg, Germany: Selbstverlag Hilfswerk, 1958), 1: 404.
- Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier, p. 207.
- Ltr, Hans-Joachim Schafmeister-BerckhoItz to Douglas E. Nash, 11 Mar 7, in author's possession.
- For an example of this, refer to Spaeter, Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland, 1: 541~4.
- For further examples of this, refer to Rudolf Lehmann, Die Leibstandarte: Die I. SS Panzer Division, 4 vols. (Osnabrueck, Germany: Munin Verlag, 1982), or Martin Jenner, Die 21 6./2 72. Niedersaechsische lnfanterie-Division, 1939-1945(Bad Nauheim, Germany: Podzun Verlag, 1964), which both frequently depict organizational charts with names missing. After the war, many survivors forgot the names of men with whom they had served with only briefly.
- Omer Bartov, Hitler 's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 5~-57, states that officer casualties for the Grossdeutschland Division over the course of the war totaled approximately 1,500 men, more than five times the number of officers authorized.
- Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 10 Sep 96, in the author's possession. Incidentally, Spaeter claims to have never met nor heard of Edwin L. Kennedy.
- Ltr, Editor, Editions Robert Laffont to Nash, 15 Feb 96, in author's possession.
- Ltr, Jacques Le Breton to Studiendirektor Friedrich Pohl, 8 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.
- "Zur Person des Autors," in Sajer, Denn dieser Tage Qual war gross: Bericht eines vergessenen Soldaten (Munich: Verlag Fritz Molden, 1969), pp. 6-7.
- Ltr, Le Breton to Pohl, 8 Oct 96.
- Ltr, Klaus Schulz to Sajer, 4 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.
- Ltr, Sajer to Schulz, 13 Oct 96, in author's possession.
- Ltr, Sajer to Nash, 16 Jan 97, in author's possession.
- Ltr, Le Breton to Pohl, 8 Oct 96.
- Ltr, Hans Wegener to Schulz, 2 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.
- Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 24 Nov 96, in author's possession.
- Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 6 Nov 96, in author's possession. Spaeter's three-volume history shows that the Grossdeutschland suffered approximately 56,678 casualties from June 1940, when it first saw battle as a regiment, to May 1945, when it ended the war as a Panzergrenadier division. Comparing these losses against its authorized strength in 1943 of approximately 18,000 men shows that the division suffered some 300 percent casualties in five years of its existence.
The Forgotten Soldier Revisited
by Douglas E. Nash
In a letter to the Editor of "Military Review", printed in the March-April 1997 edition, Nash added the following:
I recently established contact with Guy Sajer, the author of the well-known autobiography The Forgotten Soldier, a military literature classic that describes the author's experiences fighting for Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II. With regard to a previous letter to the editor by Lieutenant Colonel Edwin L. Kennedy, published in your March-April 1996 issue--"Military Professionals do not Use Fiction as Fact"--I would like to set the record straight.
After 18 months of research, I was able to locate Sajer. He lives in a rural village approximately 50 miles east of Paris under his nom de plume. Although not his real last name (Guy is his real first name), Sajer is his mother's maiden name. She was born in Gotha, Germany. He enlisted in the German Wehrmacht in 1942 under a German name to avoid the ridicule he would have received had he used his real French last name. To verify his book's authenticity, I asked Sajer a series of questions that had been raised by Kennedy in a Spring 1992 Army History article titled "The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?"
Sajer quickly responded to my query. Although he admitted that minor details such as uniform insignia, weapons nomenclatures and other such things were not important to him, he stands by what he wrote 30 years ago. He insists that he did not set out to write the definitive history of World War II, only what he had personally experienced while fighting in the elite Grossdeutschland Division on the Russian Front. He admitted that he could have erred in describing locations and chronology, but that he wrote things as he remembered them. In his letter to me, he stated that "In the darkness of a night in Russia, you could have told me that we were in China, and I would have believed you." Further details on Sajer's wartime and postwar experiences are described in an upcoming article I wrote for Army History, scheduled for publication in their Fall 1997 issue.
Kennedy's own key witness, former Grossdeutschland Division historian and reconnaissance squadron commander Major (Ret.) Helmuth Spaeter, who claimed that The Forgotten Soldier was fictional, has now changed his thinking. After reading several letters from Sajer, Spaeter admitted in a letter to me that he now believes that Sajer could have been a member of that famous division after all. Spaeter wrote about his new-found admiration for Guy Sajer and planned to reread his own German copy of the book, titled Denn dieser Tage Quall war gross: Erinnerung eines vergessenen Soldaten (These Days Were Full of Great Suffering--Memories of a Forgotten Soldier, (Munich: Verlag Fritz Molden, 1969) in order to examine it from a more unbiased point of view.
Hopefully, Sajer's efforts to clear his name will reestablish the prominence his book has earned on many a soldier's bookshelf. Readers can rest assured that when they pick up a copy of The Forgotten Soldier, they will be reading one of the best and most realistic books ever written from an infantryman's perspective, regardless of which side he fought for in World War II.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas E. Nash, USA, US Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Florida
The Forgotten Soldier - Authentic Fiction by a Real `Guy'
by Edward L. Kennedy, Jr.
In a letter to the Editor of "Military Review", printed in the July-August 1997 edition, the author to which Nash refers above, had the following to say:
In response to Lieutenant Colonel Doug Nash's letter in the March-April 1997 Military Review, I wish to offer a few short observations, then let the matter rest. By seeking primary-source information, this time, instead of relying solely on secondary-source library materials, I believe Nash has presented a more effective defense of "Guy Sajer," but not for the authenticity of The Forgotten Soldier. I am still skeptical. Dr. Richard Swain, author of Lucky War: Third Army in Desert Storm, states, "It is authentic bad history? But it's O.K. because Sajer . . . was a real guy?" (No pun intended.)
The real issue Nash obscures by his continual fixation on whether or not The Forgotten Soldier is a factual account of a German soldier's experiences on the Eastern Front is the one that motivated my earlier critique-the publisher's dust-jacket claims that The Forgotten Soldier is an authentic autobiography. My main point continues to be that it is not.
Regardless of how autobiographical the experiences the author relates, he did not create a true autobiography. World War II historians cannot (or should not) cite passages from the book as an official record of the author's unit as they might from General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe or Field Marshal William J. Slim's Defeat Into Victory to document the combat actions of each of these commander's respective units while researching and writing histories of the European Theater or Burma.
Sajer wrote, as many soldiers have done, what in literary terms is known as a roman a clef - a novel based on real persons and events. The roman a clef is a powerful literary form that permits the author the literary license to create characters for dramatic effect, move events forward or backward in time, assign the experiences of several individuals to one central character, or disguise the identify of the novel's principal character by using an assumed name. All of these devices are used in The Forgotten Soldier.
Thus, the book is similar to Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer or Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Although these deal with World War I, both novels are powerful evocations of their respective authors' experiences in the cauldron of combat. Both novels contain incidents and events, written in prose narrative, that trace their central characters' experiences, many of which are based on fact. For example, Sassoon actually participated in the Battle of the Somme as a British subaltern. Therefore, these novels are authentic. However, what they are not are autobiographies, regardless of how authentic they may seem and despite their authors' participation in historical events that provided them with inspiration.
Nash's correspondence with Grossdeutschland veteran Hans-Joachim Schafmeister-Berckholtz is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Interestingly, Schafmeister-Berckholtz has a phenomenal memory. Nash writes that Schafmeister-Berckholtz now recalls the famous "Sajer"- the same "Sajer" who uses the nom de plume "Guy Sajer" to protect his anonymity. Schafmeister-Berckholtz says to Nash, "At the mention of the name Sajer, my ears pricked up, because we did have a Sajer in the 5th Company, 1st Grenadier Battalion." Wait a minute. Doesn't "Sajer" himself say that the name "Guy Sajer" was not his name but only a cover? I think attorneys consider this "coaching" the witness. In other words, Schafmeister-Berckholtz now remembers the famous "Sajer" as a member of his unit when he is prompted with the name.
Nash's current research is more scholarly than his original work, but some of the most important pieces, the analyses, are still flawed. It's the quantity of errors in toto and the lack of corroborating specific information that make the book suspicious. Any good writer with access to open-source archival material on the Grossdeutschland could do what "Sajer" has done-match many real dates, places and units to known historical events. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is my favorite example of this.
Nash's interpretation of my articles seems to indicate that I think everything in The Forgotten Soldier is wrong. Not so. The use of John Le Breton's weak argumentum ad hominem adds nothing of substance to Nash's thesis. There are some things that are right. But enough blatant misrepresentations and incorrect information occur to cause me serious concern for its use as a legitimate historical reference. I have never denied that it is interesting and good reading.
"Sajer's" refusal to answer my correspondence only makes my suspicions more acute. Somehow Nash has broken the code in corresponding with "Sajer." However, I did not approach "Sajer" in the same corroborative manner as Nash. I simply wanted honest answers to questions that might prove the veracity of The Forgotten Soldier, none of which would have violated "Sajer's" privacy or revealed his true identity. "Sajer's" and the various publishers' lack of response to my inquiries sends a fairly negative and unequivocal message.
Nash's efforts in researching "Sajer" are commendable. However, I would caution him to not let his significant emotional involvement cloud his reason as a professional soldier. I sincerely hope that "Sajer" is a real German Army veteran because I like the story he tells. I wish there weren't so many errors in the book that make it implausible as a historical autobiography. However, I will not throw out my first edition, hardback version of the book because of its faults. My challenge of The Forgotten Soldier is for professional soldiers. They should question supposed autobiographies or histories with honest skepticism and curiosity until such are proven authentic. The problem with The Forgotten Soldier is that we cannot be certain it is not fiction. The Forgotten Soldier is great literature and has been recognized as such, but it is neither an official history of the Grossdeutschland Division nor an autobiography of "Guy Sajer."
Nash's arguments are getting better, but they are still flawed. My friend, the author and former Grossdeutschland officer, Helmuth Spaeter, has not abandoned his position despite what Nash implies. Therefore, long live Grossdeutschland veteran "Guy Sajer" and his outstanding novel.
Lieutenant Colonel Edward L. Kennedy Jr., USA,
Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
(The debate continued in the Jan-Feb 1998 issue)
Sajer - A Real "Guy"
by Douglas E. Nash
Regarding Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ed Kennedy's response (in the July-August 1997 issue) to my letter in the March-April 1997 issue of Military Review, I would like to offer one more perspective, then let the debate rest concerning the authenticity of Guy Sajer's book The Forgotten Soldier. Kennedy holds to his opinion that the book is a roman a clef, that Sajer is an assumed name and that the book is beneath the military professional's dignity - not worthy of time and effort unless as an interesting diversion from normal military studies.
Webster's New New World Dictionary defines roman a clef as "a novel in which real persons appear under fictitious names." One could argue little details forever, but Sajer's own testimony is more convincing. In a letter to an associate, Sajer said his book records his actual World War II experiences while fighting on the Russian Front in the ranks of the Grossdeutschland Division. While admitting to many errors in the chronology of events, weapon calibers and geography, he says he wrote about "my innermost emotional experiences as they related to me in the context of the Second World War." What is of importance to him is his description of an infantryman's life on the Russian Front - not strategy and tactics. To some, the distinction between a roman clef and an autobiography may be a fine line. My point is this: Sajer wrote about his experiences -not those of a fictitious person. Sajer never claimed to have written a definitive history of the war - only what he experienced.
Guy Sajer is not a nom de plume- never has been. His last name was originally Monminoux, but because he wanted to pass as a German, he enlisted under his mother's maiden name- Sajer. He has been using the name of Guy Sajer at least since 1952, probably earlier. He signs his artwork Guy Sajer and receives his mail (and probably his royalty checks) as Guy Sajer.
Why should soldiers read books such as Sajer's? Simply, to read about what battle is like, what to expect and to find out just how bad it can get. Sure, there are many other more comprehensive books about the Russian Front than Sajer's in terms of troop movements, strategy and such. But, if a reader wants to know what it was like to be a Russian Front soldier, to be afraid, to fight alongside a band of brothers, then Sajer's is still one of the finest accounts and deserves to remain on professional military reading lists.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas E. Nash, USA, US Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Florida