“Cross of Iron” by Willi Heinrich for #GermanLiteratureMonth


Cross of Iron

Cross of Iron

Willi Heinrich

I have to admit that I read this book a long time ago, so perhaps it isn’t as good as I remember. But as I remember, it is incredible, a true classic of combat writing, so I thought I’d write a review of it for German Literature Month 2017.

It follows a platoon of German soldiers trying to get out from behind enemy (Russian) lines in 1943, when the war is already starting to look not so good from the German perspective. Harrowing episode follows harrowing episode as the platoon is picked off one by one. That sounds grim, and it is–obviously you’re not going to have any uplifting, happy stories about German soldiers in the latter part of WWII–but it’s a riveting saga, and the characters are all fascinating and in their own way sympathetic, even for–

I was going to say even for a Western reader, but that would be wrong. Germany is not just *a* Western country, it is in some ways the quintessential Western country, embodying the triumphs and achievements of Western art, culture, science, and civilization, especially in late-19th/early-20th century, more than any other country in the world other than perhaps Britain.

And look where that led them. One suspects that part of the deep discomfort the rest of the West feels over Nazism is that it could have been us, any of us, and still could be. So “The Cross of Iron” (originally titled “The Willing Flesh,” but the English title has been changed to fit the movie that was made from the book in 1977) is a more disturbing read for the English-speaking reader than your average war novel: the characters are all fully alive, and that plus the way the action is handled means we can’t help but want them to make it back alive, even though they’re fighting for an unjust cause most of them don’t believe in, and have to hurt and kill Allies in order to achieve their aim and be able to hurt and kill more Allies. And yet somehow, the way good literature makes possible, the personal and concrete outweighs the political and abstract, and it’s hard not to root for the Germans here because they’re the ones you’re with, not just seeing things through their eyes but feeling things with their hearts and their skins.

That this is not just a matter of historical trivia, but a matter of current interest is highlighted by two recent kerfuffles in the news of former Allied countries, the US and Russia. Increasingly uneasy over its relationship with white supremacy and (Neo)Nazism, both overt and covert, US society, at least of of a certain stratum, has lashed out against a recent New York Times article profiling members of the US Neo-nazi movement. How, people demand, can we justify making people like this seem in any way human? Meanwhile, an even bigger backlash has been sparked in Russia by a speech given by a Russian high schooler at the Bundestag: as part of an international day of remembrance, German high schoolers read about Russian victims of the war, and Russian high schoolers read about German casualties, and then spoke to the Bundestag about what they’d learned. The “Boy from Urengoi” has become infamous for saying that after reading about a German soldier who fought at Stalingrad, was taken prisoner, and died in captivity, he understood that the Germans suffered too, and many of them didn’t even want to fight in the first place. Loud and vociferous denunciations of supposedly pro-fascist sentiments immediately followed from all over the country, and the boy has (oh irony of ironies!) had to remain in Germany for his own safety.

All this is made more toxic by the fact that the American-backed, anti-Russian government in Kiev sports a goodly number of Neo-nazis. Not all of them, of course, but it does beg the question that has been asked repeatedly about the Trump campaign and administration but somehow not about our foreign allies: how many Neo-nazis is too many? Is there some threshold below which it’s okay? Is making a deal with Neo-nazis in order to achieve shared goals ever okay? Is there such a thing as innocent Nazis?

Two of Russia’s leading war writers, Arkady Babchenko and Zakhar Prilepin, have weighed in on the topic in response to the persecution of the “Boy from Urengoi.” Both have spoken out against his persecution, but both have come to the conclusion–which his speech in no way denied–that there are no innocent Nazis, or at least, not in the way that matters in a life-or-death struggle. Babchenko, who served two tours of duty in Chechnya before becoming an outspoken critic of the Russian government and Russian military actions, has said that there is no such thing as an innocent occupying soldier–if you’re there shooting at the occupied populace, even if you’re doing it against your will, you’re still culpable for what your army is doing. Prilepin, who also served two tours of duty in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and who is currently an officer in a separatist battalion in Donetsk, while sharply disagreeing with Babchenko on most things (the former friends have become enemies and snipe at each other frequently on social media), agrees with him in that, although he comes at it from the opposite angle: if someone is invading your country and attacking you, you have to fight back, no matter how human and sympathetic your enemy might be under other circumstances.

Which brings us back to “The Cross of Iron” and the stark struggle for existence it chronicles, as well as a truth of human nature that it reveals: you can’t help but root for the person you’re with, just because you’re with them, even if you don’t like or agree with them. The bonds of standing side by side, either literally or literarily, are often the strongest bonds of all. Scholars of human behavior, take note. And while you’re at it, read the book, because it’s a corker.

Buy link: Amazon

Just a reminder that The Breathing Sea I is shortlisted in the Literary category for The 50 Best Indie Books of 2017!  Votes are much appreciated and can be cast here.

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