Sunday, November 23, 2008

Read: "In Deadly Combat" by Gottlob Herbert Bidermann

Read: In Deadly Combat: a German soldier's memoir of the Eastern Front by Gottlob Herbert Bidermann, 2000, 0700611223 (paper).

What to say? This was an interesting perspective on World War II for sure. I have read one or two German memoirs of the Eastern Front. When reading those I often enjoyed hearing about their failures and deaths. I felt more concern and compassion for Bidermann and his fellows. Bidermann wrote this for his surviving unit's memoirs. It was not meant as a general history.

Bidermann "captained" an anti-tank gun crew. After a brief time in Yugoslavia they joined the invasion of Russia in June, 1941 and went to the Black Sea to capture the Crimean Peninsula. There were plenty of heavy fights there and after a blistering summer and freezing winter the Germans prevailed over the Russians. Bidermann's division was sent further north into Russia and continued fighting there until German surrender in 1945.

Bidermann is obviously biased towards his fellow kraut soldiers. But, the Germans really did have some tremendous military success against superior numbers. The Crimean terrain could be very rough. The human wave counterattacks supported by armor by the Russians would last for hours. One particular nasty battle had multiple tanks assaulting Bidermann's position. His efficient crew was able to knock many out but the infantry and artillery attacks went on and on and on and on. The machine gunners would be ripping through belt after belt of ammunition and the gunners' hands would cramp closed. One machine gunner screamed out, "I just can't keep killing!"

Half of the book covers the Crimean campaign alone. Maybe all the fighting on the plains and swamps of Russia just blended together into one big, muggy, bloody mess. The swamp fighting sounded awful: constant moisture, no roads, mud defeating their equipment, close quarters fighting.

The final battle at the Courland pocket reminded me of the battle for Danzig (Gdansk) related in Sajer's Forgotten Soldier. Bidermann's men must have suffered under the same hunger and vicious attacks but Bidermann must have suffered it much better. Unfortunately for Bidermann he did not get captured by the English like Sajer did. Bidermann and his Battalion head east into Russian captivity and a 1/3 of them die over the next two years.

One thing about German memoirs that I expect or wonder about is the writer's views on all the horrid things the krauts did. How does the writer address (or not address) the Holocaust, German slaughter of civilians, burning whole towns and leaving civilians to starve? Bidermann's transit into POW status heavily resembled the transit of Jews, gypsies and the rest to concentration camps. Crammed into cattle cars for days with no food or water. Hoping that things will improve but not knowing. Brutality by the guards and no medical aid.

Bidermann must have been aware of these parallels. Was he using those for sympathy? During leave his policeman father shows him the reports by government officials of deaths by prisoners that are marked as heart failure or other natural causes. His father deeply questions those reports but Bidermann moves the story on and does not dwell on the tale.

Bidermann's anger over Hitler and his cronies is clear. He maintains pride in his former General who took place in the attempted coup in '44. The Army leadership's refusal to see the eventual defeat of Germany and surrender early grates him. Bidermann takes pride in the compassionate care he and his men gave to POWs and civilians.

The end of the war was most interesting to me. Germans attempt to escape the Courland Pocket to Germany by sea with mixed results. The Russian treatment was interesting. I half expected most Germans to be lined up and shot by the vengeful Reds. The Germans were true POWs but never treated as such. Soviets would interrogate soldiers and find reasons to sentence them to long prison terms. One soldier admits to slaughtering a hog during the war and gets a multi-decade sentence.

All in all a real sad tale. Bidermann returns to a destroyed Germany and feels no anger or sadness for his lost friends, family, and homeland; he just feels a big emptiness.

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