on August 18, 2002
A few years ago while touring our WWII battlefields in the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France with members of my 70th Infantry Division Association, my wife and I met the author. Since that first meeting we have had the opportunity to exchange both our recollections of and our thoughts during those dark days. At the US Military Cemetery in St. Avold I have stood next to the author as he placed flowers by our Association's memorial wreath. I have listened to his words as he shared his feelings with our group of veterans on tour in Saarbrucken, the large German city we captured in March 1945. I have felt the anguish in his mind as he described becoming aware of the horrors that the Nazis and some of his fellow Waffen SS comrades had committed in the concentration camps.
And the author has listened to my story of being ambushed and captured, then wounded by artillery shrapnel, and surviving a severed artery because a German soldier risked his life while carrying me unconscious to medical aid.
As I read the fascinating Black Edelweiss I found myself frequently comparing my situation as a 17 year old youth in rural Kansas with the author's thoughts and activities halfway around the world. Black Edelweiss has given me a new perspective on both the German military and the citizens of Germany during the early `40s.
I found once I started reading it was difficult to put the book aside.
on October 20, 2002
As noted in the other reviews, this is one of the best war memoirs around, perhaps the best German memoir of WWII. Unlike so many other accounts written only years after the fact, Black Edelweiss was penned within the first years after the war and not originally meant for publication. I suspect the author, with a strong sense of family, wanted to have something to present to his decedents, something that he had completed as a young man still with the full emotion and confusion of the initial bewildering and catastrophic events that were the fate of his generation.
This memoir is interesting on a variety of levels. One is the account of mountain infantry training the author received as a young volunteer for the Waffen SS. Far from politically indoctrinated fanatics, we see an elite military organization preparing men for combat in modern war. I suspect that the emphasis on political and racial indoctrination was more a product of the pre-war years, when the Waffen SS was seen as a force against potential enemies within the Reich, not after say 1941 when large numbers of new replacements were needed to man an expanding number of divisions fighting in foreign theaters of operations. That and the fact that many foreign volunteers, some from ethnic groups lower on the SS pecking order, where filling the ranks of these formations as well. The emphasis went from "elite order of racial Uebermenschen" to "cadre of the common European struggle against Bolshevism". This latter attitude is mentioned by the author numerous times and obviously was one of his main reasons for joining the organization.
On another level is the sociological perspective of various views common among Germans during 1941-3. He sees his own class in school as divided between the idealists and the pragmatists. Some, like the author, saw the war as a personal challenge and were eager to commit themselves, while others saw it as the business of others and hoped to survive the chaos as best as possible, which is hardly the usual view we have of German youth of that time. Interesting in that the author shows us how universal this conflict of views is. One need only think of the attitudes of the generation of young Americans confronted with the Vietnam War and how they reacted, although in some cases in later life only to adopt the opposite view when it no longer required a personal commitment.
So some of us can respect the author's decision to serve his country as a soldier in wartime. But the branch he chose to serve with was the Waffen SS, part of the larger SS, which was to be branded a criminal organization by the Allied courts due to their administration of the Holocaust among other crimes. The author admits the crimes and the guilt of the SS (he found out about the death camps and other atrocities as a POW after the war), but can't condemn all his comrades, most of whom are dead, as criminals in serving a cause which they believed in, which the author never thinks included common knowledge of the criminal character of the SS. It is a quandary for which the author never finds an answer, perhaps because no answer is possible. That the author saw the Nazis as having perverted all the values that his generation had believed in, of destroying his country in a senseless war while pursuing the most inhuman crimes imaginable is tempered by the fact that he doesn't see the defeat of Germany as a liberation. . . See page 133.
The mistake was in not overthrowing the criminal regime themselves, which was a "disgrace", but in having to have their enemies do it for them. Furthermore, the final outcome of the National Socialist swindle was not inevitable, "All the same one lesson is clear: never again must there be any public authority without active popular control". Page 71.
There are others points the author mentions as well such as the belief common in Germany after the First World War that a new movement which would do away with the old distinctions of class and status, create a Volksgemeinschaft, was necessary for national rebirth. Also of special note are his interesting and gratifying comments concerning US troops in action and his description of Operation Birke, the German evacuation of their Lapland Army from Finland to Norway in the fall of 1944, an arduous trek of over 1600 kilometers conducted in good order under pressure from both the Red Army and later the German's former allies, the Finns. I doubt that this unique military achievement of the Lapland Army will ever be repeated.
This book should be of interest to all readers interested in the Eastern Front in World War II, particularly since it is one of the few accounts available of fighting on the Karelian sector, those interested in the history of the Waffen SS or those interested in a sociological perspective of Germany during World War II.
on August 24, 2002
It was with great anticipation that I awaited the publication of "Black Edelweiss." I was with Task Force Herren (the three infantry regiments of the 70th Infantry Division newly arrived in theater without artillery and logistical support) and moved into Northeastern France to face a growing threat there. We were attached to the 45th Infantry Division during the German operation "Nordwind," in which the author, Johann Voss, was a machine gun section leader in Regiment 11, 6th SS Mountain Division (Nord). That operation was Hitler's last campaign after the German failure in the Battle of the Bulge. The author's division was hurriedly brought to northeastern France t o participate in "Nordwind" without its heavy supporting weapons from its area of operations in Finland where it had been engaged for several years against the Soviet Army. Voss's descriptions of the combat actions against us in the Vosges provide an excellent complement to those of Wolf Zoepf, author of "7 Days in January," and a member of Voss' sister Regiment 12. Voss was captured by American forces and and held for two years. During his captivity, he was assigned for a time to work for a U.S Army Judge Advocate Generals Corps officer where he had access to extensive factual documentation of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes, and had finally to face and accept reality of the destruction of his boyhood dreams and the goals for his country as an infantry soldier.
His story opens in 1938 when the author was a young boy of 13. He is caught up in the hopes and fears of his parents and other elders; the nation's need for economic recovery, and a great fear of Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. He joins the Hitler Jugend and is greatly impressed by his older friends and relatives who have gone into uniform, and the actions taken by the National Socialist government of Germany. He becomes very anxious to help his country, and when old enough, decides to join the Waffen SS. He is assigned to the 6th SS Division, Regiment 11 in Finland. He vividly describes life and military operations above the Arctic Circle against the Soviet foe. The winter of `44-'45 in the Vosges Mountains in NE France was the coldest in 50 years, and while it may not have measured up to the cold of the Arctic Circle region, I found myself comparing the actions taken by the German soldiers to deal with the extreme cold with those we used to survive the cold of the Vosges Mountains that December and January.
As an infantry battalion commander many years later in Vietnam, I also found myself comparing the rigors of combat leadership I experienced with the leadership actions taken by the author's battalion commander and was duly surprised and impressed. Surprised because I had been under the mistaken impression that in WW II, the German Army officers did not show the concern for their soldiers' personal welfare and safety that we did, but in actuality I found that he seemed to follow the high standards of the U.S. Army Infantry School's leadership guidelines taught all U.S. Army infantry officers; impressed because all his men clearly loved him. "Black Edelweiss" will remain as a permanent addition to my library.
on March 11, 2004
Black Edelweiss is a rare example of a personal WWII memoir written soon after the events (most of the draft was written while the author was a POW during 1945-46) with the emotional and historical breadth of a book written from a much greater distance of time and utilizing a variety of non-personal references. Johann Voss (a pseudonym) has put his life in the SS-Mountain Infantry Regiment 11 (given the name �Reinhard Heydrich� in 1942) to paper in a way that the reader can truly assess the actions of a single soldier, his immediate platoon members and larger Regimental force rationally without the baggage of bias. This is not to say that the author has created a typical post-war apologetic piece that draws empathy/sympathy from the reader. Rather, Voss draws the reader along in an honest forthright story of his experiences as a loyal soldier within a larger group of comrades who, although fighting for the Hitler regime, did so with heart and passion for comrades, unit and country, but with clear chivalry (or at least as much as can fairly be expected in war) and battle fairness. It is the very nature of when this book was drafted (and little changed by the author later although published 60 odd years after being drafted) � while the author was still feeling connection to and pride of unit � that makes this NOT a typical Nazi apologia book. The book was however written at a time when the author was learning (second hand) about the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the SS structure more particularly, and as such the author is able to place his military experiences in perspective of the regime he served. This creates both an honest look at combat and the emotions invoked upon finding for what and whom he and friends served and died for. Emotion is raw and real in this book.
Voss starts and ends the book in third person from the POW pen, but in between weaves an engrossing story of how a young impressionable German is compelled to join an elite SS-Mountain Regiment; how this decision positively affects his life; how he survives the cold and combat of service above the Artic circle, in the Vosges Mountains, and the last days of the western Reich frontier; and how his earlier decision to join this elite group of men affected his life upon realization that his combat unit has been wholesale lumped with the SS of the Endlösung. The stories of regiment combat are visceral in content and quite rewarding. One can feel the cold, stress, fear and adrenalin of the situations.
I highly recommend this book if you want a clear and apparently unembellished, time-unbiased picture of a German combat unit in action. If you want to double your pleasure read Black Edelweiss back-to-back with another Aberjona Press production, Seven Days in January by Wolf Zoepf. This latter book deals exclusively with the SS Nord Division and it�s combat both above the Artic Circle and the Lower Vosges and is pitched more from the pure combat history perspective.
on March 12, 2003
This book is the WW2 memoir of a Waffen-SS soldier written while in American captivity immediately following the war. Johann Voss, a pseudonym, is a thoughtful, intelligent young man from a prominent family that joins the Waffen-SS in 1943 out of patriotism and the idealistic desire to protect Europe from Communism. One of his main purposes in writing the book is to counter the evil reputation of the Waffen-SS (deservedly earned by such divisions as Tötenkopf) and show that not all Waffen-SS soldiers were cruel murderers but that some were motivated by quite selfless and altruistic goals.
The book is well written, fast-paced, and quite an interesting read. It is fascinating to see how the soldiers described do not see themselves as evil world-conquering monsters, but rather as noble heroes. It did strike me as a bit too sugarcoated � the suffering of the soldiers in the cruel winter environment of Finland is not really covered, and the focus tends to be on his positive experiences, rather than the negative. This was obviously written by an idealistic 20-year-old who had not yet been exposed to the horrible crimes of the Nazis and the SS. Still, it is worthwhile to read an account from the other side of the war and learn about their motivations for fighting � not really that much different from the American boys over there.
on November 24, 2003
All of the other reviews are spot on. I have read several books on World War II and this one is at the top of my list. I found it fascinating the details the author encounters vs. the overall big picture of battles and outcomes of large campaigns. I also gained more respect for the planning and professionalism that went into the smaller operations that author witnessed and took part in.
As others have mentioned it makes you realize that not all SS were fanaticals and racists. And in this author's case it was matter of joining to do something about the war and attempt to help his country.
I particularly enjoyed the author's experiences before the war, how he described his middle to upper middle class life and how nice it was. I also found the relationships, expierences, and his vivid memories he recalls about other soldiers (including his father) very interesting. I can easily imagine what it must have been like.
Its a quick read, possibly too fast. I really wish it was longer and that it was not edited down to its size (as mentioned in preface). This is definitely a highly recommended book.
on January 15, 2003
A first rate memoir, in which the author crystalizes his wartime experiences and reflections in a direct and thoughtful manner. As the publisher and editorial reviews have stated so well, there is fresh and added-value to this memoir, since it was largely written at the conclusion of WWII. It is free of the 'rationalization' and detachment typical of many memoirs written years later, and largely by the German Officer Corps.
The author addresses a number of the painful questions facing German WWII veterans in general, and Waffen-SS veterans in particular. Although, a number of the reasons cited by the author for his volunteer enlistment in the Waffen-SS, and support for the Nazi regime's war effort, may sound stereotypical, the context and timely record of his judgements transcend these well-worn cliches. The author was able to clearly and concisely translate his personal value system against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, and honestly open his life to the reader's inspection, free of rationalization and ready answers. He draws the conclusion that sometimes there are no answers of 'why' to pressing questions of personal value judgements, but that some values remain constant and must be used to face the future.
In sum, this memoir presents more of a common man's 'thinking' perspective - a middle-class and average German viewpoint. Again, not to be understated, is the value of this memoir as written at the end of WWII, and the honest insight captured within. Read and enjoy!
on August 27, 2005
Some very good reviews have been written about this book, is there anything else to add? Well yes, there is.
Perhaps i should explain a little about myself first. I live in North Norway and research the war in this part of the world,
for me some of the places Voss talks about are not strange names from a far off distant land, they are home. In fact i own
a weekend cabin right next to the very road Voss trudged down in late 1944 and i can tell readers that the signs and detritus
of that retreating army are still to be seen in the surrounding forests and hills. So for this reader Voss's book has a sense of familiarity about it.
So what can i add to the existing reviews? Well, this memoir is invaluable, even unique in that it is, to my knowledge, the first
to deal in depth with the experiences of a German soldier fighting in Scandinavia to be published in English. For that i am deeply grateful to both Voss and his publishers. The
war up here is virtually ignored and forgotten amongst the English speaking nations and yet tens of thousands died in over 3 years
of fighting. Voss has done a great service to the memory of the fallen of both sides in reminding us that whilst the decisive battles
of the war were fought elsewhere men and women also fought and died up here, in the Northernmost parts of Europe.
It's also worth commenting on what this book is and what it isn't. This is not a history of the 6 SS Mountain Division, nor is it a history of the war in the Arctic. It is, however one private soldiers experiences as he saw them. It's an important point as Voss does make several mistakes and confuses slightly some units and personalities. This isn't a critisism though, you can't expect a machinegunner to know much about what was going on outside the confines of his company or battalion.
on February 26, 2004
An amazing book which is very well and thoughtfully written. The author carefully examines his own motives and actions, and then sets them against the background of his emerging knowledge of the holocaust after the war.
He and his unit were not involved in atrocities, and I have found no record of accusations against the Nord division. Part of this (or much of it) may be owed to the fact that they operated mostly in the Arctic and then on the Western Front during the final days of the war. They luckily never served in Russia or Poland, so were not in a position to be confronted with the war against the Jews. Despite this the author recognizes that he was involved in the organization that carried out the killings, and feels complicit to an extent.
Very interesting look at German homefront life, and the much ignored fighting in Finland on the Arctic front.
Not a trace of the self-pity and "look what the Allies did" that you find in some accounts of this nature, but also shows that not everyone in an SS uniform was a bloodthirsty monster. A view some will not approve of.
on April 14, 2005
This book will probably be a disappointment if you are looking for shoot-em-up fear-validating accounts of German warfare. It is a book that is more introspective than any other war book I have read. Those that are in to the deeper aspects of war will find this a very interesting read. Voss does a good job of documenting his perspective and gives a great account of the political mindset of the Germans before, during and after the war. From that perspective it is different from most others. Voss has a refreshing abundance of character and honesty and helps the reader see why the German fought so hard even after the end was no longer in doubt. Like I said, if you are looking for the boom-boom of tanks, this will leave you a little unsatisfied. But if you want to look inside the mind of a impressionable young man in caught in the complex dichotomies of Nazi Germany, then this book is a good get.