In the preface to this memoir, retired Navy SEAL Derek S. Zumbro describes how while serving in 1985 as liaison officer and translator to the commodore of a U.S. Navy Task Force during a port visit at Kiel, West Germany, he was allowed at one point to invite friends to tour the warships. As a friend of the Bidermann family, he extended the invitation to Gottlob Bidermann. Vaguely he knew that Bidermann has fought on the Eastern front during World War II. After thanking Zumbro, Bidermann said that for him, the invitation came 40 years too late.
As a much younger man, Bidermann must have heard rumors that circulated in what was known as the Courland Pocket in Latvia the closing days of the Second World War, that is, while the German government was evacuating some married soldiers who had families, it was said the Americans or British would be sending warships to evacuate the stranded Germans. Furthermore, the Allies might even join the fight against the Communists. It’s certainly seems a reflection on how bad things had turned.
Bidermann showed Zumbro his memoir. Originally intended only for fellow survivors of his unit, it was written in 1964 and privately published: Krim-Kurland mit der 132. Infanterie-Division 1941-1945. Zumbro, in turn, used it as a basis for the present book supplementing it with written material and interviews with Bidermann.
After Zumbro’s preface comes an introduction written by Dennis Showalter, author of Tanneberg: Clash of Empires and professor of history at Colorado College who specializes in German military history.
The main narrative is written in the first person from Bidermann’s point of view and is divided into chapters based on areas of battles. The reader follows Bidermann from Poland beginning in 1941 across the Dnieper, into the Crimean Peninsula, etc. Bidermann served in the infantry in Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia. The narrative ends with an epilogue describing Bidermann’s nearly three years as a POW under the Soviets. (The Soviets held POWs for up to 10 years after the conclusion of WW II.) A handful of appendices list such things as the engagements of Bidermann’s unit, cemeteries, and a table of military ranks. The glossary is useful in explaining military and slang terms, such as the “Hindenburg candle.” This was a used small ration tin, for example, partially filled with sand and either kerosene or diesel fuel which could then be used as a stove or lamp. Additionally, there are two sections of a remarkable number of black and white photos of military and battle scenes. Some of these are unpleasant, as one might expect, but none are overly gruesome.
Most of the prose is utilitarian but a few passages, particularly those describing landscapes, are lyrical. These also raised questions for me: how much of these come from Bidermann’s voice and how much from the translator’s? An especially moving scene describes the terrain outside Leningrad, comparing its sylvan tranquility before the German and the Soviet armies tore into each other and to the impassible swamp they left behind (or so the book says). How much of pre-battle Leningrad could Bidermann or any of his fellows have seen?
Silly humor, in addition black humor, plays an indispensable role in the narrative. Late in the war, the soldiers are able to rig something of a still and distill their own schnapps. When a superior officer comes calling, he finds a lot of drunken “Landsers” (Slang term for infantrymen). By this time, Bidermann has been commissioned as a lieutenant in charge of a team of men. So when the superior officer tells him, “You are drunk,” he merely responds, “Yes, sir, I am drunk.”
Soviet propaganda fills the pages with its calls for German soldiers to lay down their arms. I have to ask: How was this kept through a prisoner-of-war camp? Its use is to provoke only contemptuous head shaking.
It was never the author’s purpose to comment on the broader political aspects of the war, only the soldier’s experiences of it. He himself was wounded several times and expresses not only frustration but bewilderment at the privations and neglect the soldiers experienced. Supply shortages met with such pearl of wisdom as: “Your socks can be used as mittens. Don’t forget to cut holes your trigger fingers!” At that time, Bidermann states, their socks were already full of holes.
How much did Bidermann know of the extermination of Jews and other "undesirables?” It’s impossible to know at this point, though there’s no reason to believe he took part in any of it. He maintains throughout that he and his fellow soldiers were simply that, charged with the mission of fighting Bolshevism, a philosophy which threatened their way of life. It is his contention that they did so honorably, despite immense suffering and loss.
He never stops to ponder whether they had any right to be in Russia to begin with, or that the men they were killing were defending their homeland, but then, in a totalitarian regime, such questions are costly.
I will recommend it, particularly for the history buffs, but with some reservations. It is worth noting that of the 12-man anti-tank crew that Bidermann entered Russia with in 1941, three (including Bidermann) survived the war. The other two survivors were sent home with disabling wounds.
“I felt no elation with the slow realization of survival, only overwhelming emptiness when reflecting on the victims lost to the apocalypse.” (p.318)
*An earlier version of this review appeared on Epinions, a site that is no longer active. It has been rewritten*