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Provides a Glimpse into the "Soul" of the Eastern Front
on December 8, 2011
Russ Schneider's Demyansk: More Tales from the Russian Wilderness 1941-45 is a vivid and eclectic pastiche of four "accounts" from the Eastern Front in the Second World War. The accounts are based upon actual-first-person narratives but fleshed-out with both psychological/inner discussion and literary embellishments. Like Russ Schneider's other works, there is action presented in these "tales" but the intent is not to tell a standard war story but to cause the reader to feel the emotive and psychological dimensions of the Russo-German conflict. He wants readers to see the "soul" of the War in the East, in all its horror. The book consists of four parts, with the first three told from the German point of view and the last from the Soviet point of view. Overall, the first two-thirds of the book is quite compelling, but it feels less coherent in the final third. The author also includes a section at the end on sources which was surprisingly quite pedestrian for a book with this depth; it seemed that he had a hidden treasure trove of first-person accounts, but actually not. If you've read Russ Schneider before or other East Front memoirs, you will probably enjoy Demyansk, but readers unfamiliar with this territory are not likely to find this a palatable cup of tea.
The first section, "Christ Asunder," is 60 pages in length and tells the story of the breakout from the Korsun Pocket in February 1944 from the point of view of an enlisted German soldier. In this tale, the reader is brought along in a desperate attempt to escape fate by a nasty trudge through snow and mud, followed by a near-suicidal effort to get across the Gniloy Tikich stream (in which hundreds if not thousands of German soldiers drowned). As usual, Schneider's protagonist is not particularly likeable but he "tells it like it is" and speaks with the veracity of a German landser (soldier) of that period. One thing that is very refreshing about Schneider accounts is their lack of historical anachronisms - the characters do not try to think or act like post-war people. Thus, this character admits that he and his comrades have "treated the Russians pretty shabbily" in the past, but then shrugs his shoulders.
The second section, "Demyansk," is 160 pages in length and covers several minor sub-stories and historical characters. I found this easily the best part of the book, both for its detail and the meanings behind actions. The "tale" begins with the German effort to relieve the encircled II Armeekorps at Demyansk in February 1942. One protagonist is a German Leutnant who is at the spearhead of the relief force and another is General Walter von Seydlitz-Kurbach, commander of the relief force. Seydlitz is a heroic figure who would be captured at Stalingrad a year later and who would rally other Germans to oppose Hitler, which is foreshadowed here. Once the pocket is relieved in May 1942, the storyline shifts to the struggle between General Graf von Brockdorff-Ahledfeldt and SS General Theodor Eicke within the pocket. Von Brockdorff commanded the encircled II Armeekorps, which included Eicke's SS division, but Eicke is brutal and political in a way that frustrates the old-school German military ethic. For readers interested in how SS units worked with the regular German army, this is a very interesting section.
The third section, "The Abyss of Earthly Delights," is 58 pages in length and covers the SS action at Babi Yar outside Kiev in September 1941, which resulted in the death of over 30,000 civilians. This tale is told both from the perspective of the SS commander and one of the victims, who managed to survive. Of all the tales in this book, this is the one that most readers are likely to remember, mixing perspectives between victim and executioner, Schneider takes us along on the path to execution, providing the reader with an intense sense of dread and doom. These are not statistics about the Holocaust - this is what it felt like to be lined up along a ditch and machinegunned. The only odd thing about this section is a weird epilog that takes place in an American VA hospital in 1982 - it seems to have absolutely no relation to the Second World War or any previous characters or incidents.
The final section, "Summertime," is 40 pages long and covers the Destruction of Army Group Center in June 1944 from the perspective of an all-female Soviet tank crew (though rare, there were Soviet female tankers). Most of the action revolves around the liberation of Bobruisk and then Minsk, interspersed with the execution of German prisoners. Of all the tales in the book, this one is quite unsatisfying and seems drifting, the main protagonist unable to speak/think coherently. Overall, Demyansk is an interesting, worthwhile read throughout most of its length, but the final fifty pages or so were a wash.