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R. Fahan

Books in Review

The German Soldier

(September 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 5, September–October 1950, pp. 319–320..
Transcribed & marked up up by
Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Beyond Defeat
By Hans Werner Richter
G. P. Putnam. 312 pp. $3.

This novel by a young German who served in Hitler’s army has already been reviewed in the general press in a routine and uncomprehending manner; no one has so much as remarked on its significance as a document from the undersides of Germany.

As a novel, the book is not very impressive: like a great many young European writers, Richter affects the manner of Hemingway, terse, clipped, journalistic, which is quite inadequate to the intensely dramatic material about which he writes. The law of combined development works here with a neatly ironic twist: the writers of harrowed Europe copy the style of the crude and sensational Americans in whom they see – falsely, I think – a “virility” no longer indigenous to European culture. Too often the result of this style is a brutal treatment of brutality, a false assumption that to depict a disgusting situation the writer must adopt as his own the emotional qualities of that situation. Richter’s book, like the recent novels of many of the Italian and French writers, suffers from this fallacy.

But its importance, however, is not as a novel; its importance is as a document. Richter was at one time a minor functionary of the German Communist Party, then became some sort of independent socialist. The leading character of Beyond Defeat, obviously a facsimile of Richter himself, is a German socialist caught in the Nazi army. After the war Richter published a paper in Western Germany which the occupation authorities suppressed. Though the precise nature of his political views is unknown to me, I would venture to suggest that the fact of its suppression for criticizing the authorities indicates that, at the least, his paper was – shall we say? – interesting.

The novel itself begins with several routine battle scenes at Cassino. Pfc Guehler, the central character, persuades his buddies to surrender, for the U.S. barrage is intolerable and only death can result from continued resistance. Once the group reaches U.S. hands, the novel becomes an extremely interesting report of a German socialist’s experience.

When Guehler-Richter is questioned by U.S. intelligence officers, he is willing to discuss the politics of the war, to estimate the morale of the German soldiers – but refuses to give away positions of the Germany army. To do that, he says, would be to bring about the murder of his army comrades; and though he desires the defeat of the Nazi army he does not intend to make himself an agent of its military opponent. This kind of reasoning quite escapes the U.S. intelligence officer and Guehler goes off to a prison camp in America.

From here on there are a number of quite dramatic descriptions of the internal struggle between German Nazi and anti-Nazi soldiers. In the U.S. camp the Nazis rule through terror; the older prisoners of the Africa Korps are still firm in their Nazi ideology. But the newer captives are beginning to doubt. Guehler and his friends suffer from terror; they get no help at all from the U.S. authorities who think of Germans either as Nazis or, if anti-Nazis, as traitors to their country; and they finally decide to form an anti-Nazi underground to convince their fellow soldiers of their views. It is particularly interesting that when Guehler and his few friends have a chance to go off to a segregated camp for anti-Nazi prisoners they refuse: they believe it necessary to remain with the other soldiers and quietly, patiently talk to them.

Were it not tinged with an occasional streak of German nationalism, the outlook of Pfc Guehler would be completely what one would hope for from a German socialist. As it is, the book is still valuable: it makes some fine political discriminations in tactical approaches to the war, it does not divide German soldiers into simplistic categories but treats them in terms of a gradual political reorientation, and it is written from what is obviously first-hand knowledge. Socialists will want to read this book; and it is something of a pity, as well as a stroke of historical irony, that one’s main complaint is that Richter’s novel lacks tenderness and expressiveness, is too behavioristic and “tough” – that is, too “American.”

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