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A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944 Hardcover – October 20, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 20, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374139784
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374139780
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #379,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sometimes lyrical, this memoir by a German youth who miraculously survived four tours of duty on the Russian front during WWII—he died on his fifth deployment—is a significant historical document. It is also a laborious and overwrought cacophony of Wagnerian proportions. Reese, who was a 20-year-old bank clerk in 1939 when he was first drafted, inhabits many different worlds, all of them conflicting. Despite Schmitz's assertion that Reese was "no Nazi," he was, like the vast majority of German youths of the time, deeply imbued with Nazi ideology and experienced the war as a sort of sacrament. Duty, abdication and heroism are just some of his motifs. Reese sees himself as a poet deciphering the human condition, but mostly he is just a soldier who plays his part in the atrocities—often exuberantly. He laughs with the other members of his platoon at the spectacle of Russian partisans hanging by the neck—"yellow-brown ichor dribbled out of their eyes and crusted on their cheeks"—and makes Russian women dance naked. Despite its long-winded homilies and repetitiveness, this stark testimony provides new insights into both the ravages of Nazi indoctrination and the bloodiest military campaign in history. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The brutality of battle is vividly rendered in this harrowing memoir from Reese, a German soldier who served on the Russian front during World War II. Killed in combat at the age of 23, Reese left behind a diary documenting the atrocities of war and his growing disillusionment with the attitudes of his fellow countrymen. (Reese was no Nazi, writes editor Schmitz in the book's preface, in which he first recalls reading the blistering manuscript inherited by Reese's cousin.) The late soldier's meditations are by turns poetic and macabre; he reflects on the literature of Tolstoy and Baudelaire_and dramatic clashes drenched in blood. War both robs Reese of his soul and imbues his life with a sense of purpose, leaving him feeling like "a stranger to myself." His prose resonates with images of a bitter, corpse-strewn Russian landscape, where it's only a matter of time before a young man's heart turns to stone. One soldier, unable to find his felt boots, chops off the frozen legs of a dead Red Army soldier. "He bundled the two stumps under his arm and set them down in the oven, next to our lunch," writes Reese. "By the time the potatoes were done, the legs were thawed out, and he pulled on the bloody felt boots." Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Way too wordy , flowery.
This book is one of the greatest pieces of modern literature dealing with the Eastern Front and the German-Russian war.
Dennis Anderson
This book has a great cover and not much else.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

117 of 123 people found the following review helpful By Leonard Fleisig VINE VOICE on November 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I have burned all the cities, strangled all the women, brained all the children, plundered all the land. I have shot a million enemies, laid waste the fields, destroyed the churches, ravaged the souls of the inhabitants, spilled the blood and tears of all the mothers. I did it, all me. I did nothing. But I was a soldier."

Thus begins Willy Peter Reese's "A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944. Winston Churchill may have said that history is written by the victors, but the recent discovery and publication of these memoirs provides some evidence that history's `losers' sometimes also have a chance to contribute. A Stranger to Myself is a valuable addition to our collective memory.

Willy Peter Reese was a recent high school graduate and a trainee bank clerk when he was drafted into the German army in the spring of 1941. The German invasion of the USSR, Operation Barbarossa, began during Reese's basic training. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Reese thought he would be home by Christmas. Reese was quickly disabused of this notion once he found himself in the middle of what may be the most brutal fighting in the history of humanity (or inhumanity). Not only was the war on the eastern front fought between armies but it was a war in which brutality was inflicted on the civilian population on an unprecedented scale. In addition to the Holocaust inflicted on the Jews of Poland, the Ukraine, and Belarus, millions of other Poles, Ukrainians, and Russian civilians lost their lives through hunger or murder, along with millions of Red Army and German prisoners. As noted so aptly in the Preface, Reese found himself in the "greatest abattoir in human history".

This memoir emerged in 2002 and represents the reflection of Reese on life in the abattoir.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By S. Potter VINE VOICE on February 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A remarkable book which left a deep impression on me. At once literary in style and harrowing in its descriptions of life as cannon fodder, albeit thinking, passionate, feeling cannon fodder.

Willy Peter Reese was no hero. I am not even sure he was brave. However, as a good German boy he did his duty to the fatherland. First he trained to put on the "mask" of the soldier. Then he went of to war in Russia, mask in place.

He passed through a land where atrocities were the reality. He pillaged food from the starving. During the German Army's massive, fighting retreat Reese's unit was always among the last to get the order to fall back. His young eyes took in the full terror of the Nazi's scorched earth terror tactics. And he was part of it.

Along with his comrades, he routinely drank himself into some other world. When there was no other way to move it, he and his fellow soldiers relentlessly dragged the unit's artillery piece. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.

All the while, his young mind processed what he witnessed. Temperatures so cold he could only cry. A body infested with parasites. Legs and feet with open oozing wounds. Taking shelter in hand dug hovels. Corpses hanging from trees, lying in ditches, everywhere. In between the bouts of horror and killing, however, were sights of beauty and moments of mental and spiritual clarity. His writing only stopped when his life ended.

Yes, Reese was trying to write like a writer. His loves were Rilke and others of that ilk. His book though, must be taken as a whole. To dissect it, to say this part is too wordy or that part is too introspective, is to miss the point. No, Willy Peter Reese was not a hero. He did his duty as he saw it. He tried to stay alive.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Mathew A. Shember VINE VOICE on June 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I stumbled on this book why visiting some sites about Stalingrad. It was mentioned by a couple posters so I decided to give it a read. I was not disappointed.

This is not a book looking for hard facts about places and people. It's the writings of a man coming to terms with war and how it changed him.

There is a great deal where the author goes into vivid descriptions about feelings, memories, and impressions of his surroundings. This could annoy some people.

Do not look for detailed descriptions of tactics and strategy.

What makes this book interesting is the contrast of hope and despair. The prose that starts a chapter changes to despair over time. There are ample descriptions of soldiers abusing people, looting, and drinking. Reese tells of his own actions and in the end drinks heavily. He even decided to get himself killed or wounded by standing up from a trench.

There is no propaganda in the book. He does not preach the glory of Hitler. Yet, he also doesn't mention other things such as the holocaust. There is even a reference to a friend in Auschwitz.

Towards the end of the book I got the impression he decided to die in Russia. There isn't anything obvious to state this idea. It's just how it read to me.

There are photos in the book ranging from his early days, joining the army and even a Red Cross report telling where it is thought that Reese died.

It is a good thing this book was published. The mother held his writings till she died. One aspect that is useful is that it goes contrary to a belief that the German army was clean in it's actions in Russia. I have read more then a few comments from people that argue the Germans were noble while the Russians were savage.

Probably the most prophetic comment was the end of the book:

"The war went on. Once more I went out there. I loved life."
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