A Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944

A Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944 by Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz, ed. & Michael Hofmann, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 paper.

A Stranger to Myself is a powerful book. Willy Peter Reese was a young German who served on the Russian front from the autumn of 1942 until he was reported missing in action in June of 1944.

Reese’s memoir of his experience was kept by his parents as a shrine to his memory. A cousin realized its extraordinary literary quality and spent years deciphering his handwriting. The book was published in Germany in 2003, almost sixty years after Reese’s death, and became a bestseller. The English translation by UF’s Michael Hofmann followed by several years.

There have been few memoirs of Germany soldiers who served on the Russian front. This is explained in the preface as an unwillingness on the part of post-war Germans to confront its horrors. It took the distance of sixty years to produce an audience ready for Willy’s account.

The title chosen for the manuscript should not imply that Reese was wholly alienated by his experience. His response was more complicated. He had, he confesses, been transformed into a warrior. Rather than experiencing elation in quiet, thoughtful moments between battles, Reese found the experience of battle itself, however horrible, also exhilarating. His euphoria was more the product of understanding how it molded his soul, refined his notions of god, made him more knowing. His repeated affirmation, even in the months before his death, was “I love life.” “I love life.”

There has never been a more deadly warfare than that which engulfed the Russian front. The initial German advance into the Soviet Union was not like the Blitzkrieg waged in the Low Countries and France. From the beginning it was clear that there would be no easy victory.

The German military command was aware of the superiority of the Russian forces arrayed against them and the vast industrial establishment that would continue to supply those armies. But Adolf Hitler refused to listen. He assumed that Ukrainians, the Belarus, the Russian peasantry would welcome his armies as
liberators. He underestimated the determination of the Russian people to resist theGerman advance.

Because the Germans believed that their campaign would only last through the summer, no provision was made for winter warfare. The German soldiers were not equipped to fight through the fierce Russian winter.

The Wehrmacht has been indicted by world opinion for its brutality. They were brutal. They were also starving. Willy had no food for days, no water, no winter uniforms. He suffered with lice, diarrhea, jaundice. He was exhausted from the continuous nA Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944 by Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz, ed. & Michael Hofmann, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 paper.

A Stranger to Myself is a powerful book. Willy Peter Reese was a young German who served on the Russian front from the autumn of 1942 until he was reported missing in action in June of 1944.

Reese’s memoir of his experience was kept by his parents as a shrine to his memory. A cousin realized its extraordinary literary quality and spent years deciphering his handwriting. The book was published in Germany in 2003, almost sixty years after Reese’s death, and became a bestseller. The English translation by UF’s Michael Hofmann followed by several years.

There have been few memoirs of Germany soldiers who served on the Russian front. This is explained in the preface as an unwillingness on the part of post-war Germans to confront its horrors. It took the distance of sixty years to produce an audience ready for Willy’s account.

The title chosen for the manuscript should not imply that Reese was wholly alienated by his experience. His response was more complicated. He had, he confesses, been transformed into a warrior. Rather than experiencing elation in quiet, thoughtful moments between battles, Reese found the experience of battle itself, however horrible, also exhilarating. His euphoria was more the product of understanding how it molded his soul, refined his notions of god, made him more knowing. His repeated affirmation, even in the months before his death, was “I love life.” “I love life.”

There has never been a more deadly warfare than that which engulfed the Russian front. The initial German advance into the Soviet Union was not like the Blitzkrieg waged in the Low Countries and France. From the beginning it was clear that there would be no easy victory.

The German military command was aware of the superiority of the Russian forces arrayed against them and the vast industrial establishment that would continue to supply those armies. But Adolf Hitler refused to listen. He assumed that Ukrainians, the Belarus, the Russian peasantry would welcome his armies as
liberators. He underestimated the determination of the Russian people to resist theGerman advance.

Because the Germans believed that their campaign would only last through the summer, no provision was made for winter warfare. The German soldiers were not equipped to fight through the fierce Russian winter.

The Wehrmacht has been indicted by world opinion for its brutality. They were brutal. They were also starving. Willy had no food for days, no water, no winter uniforms. He suffered with lice, diarrhea, jaundice. He was exhausted from the continuous night warfare in which the Russians excelled. He acknowledges his reliance on inebriation.

After Stalingrad in the early months of 1942, the Germans were in continuous and often disorderly retreat. Occasionally that “wandering,” as Reese calls it, was by train, mostly on foot through the Russian countryside.

Unlike the Russian soldiers who fought for the duration of the war, German soldiers did return home for brief periods. Reese was wounded three times and spent time in military hospitals. He was granted home leave. On those occasions he worked on his manuscript.

Away from the front he complained of feeling empty, homesick for Russia. Russia was home to that strange friend he seemed to himself.

ight warfare in which the Russians excelled. He acknowledges his reliance on inebriation.

After Stalingrad in the early months of 1942, the Germans were in continuous and often disorderly retreat. Occasionally that “wandering,” as Reese calls it, was by train, mostly on foot through the Russian countryside.

Unlike the Russian soldiers who fought for the duration of the war, German soldiers did return home for brief periods. Reese was wounded three times and spent time in military hospitals. He was granted home leave. On those occasions he worked on his manuscript.

Away from the front he complained of feeling empty, homesick for Russia. Russia was home to that strange friend he seemed to himself.

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