Alexander Starritt’s name can be added to the list of great Scottish writers. (He’s written another book I’ve not yet read, The Beast.) I, initially, thought We Germans was a translation like Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Home. The format is simple. A grandfather writing to his Scottish grandson, Callum. And his grandson replying. Oberkanonier Meissner was in the Wehrmacht. Six-foot-two and broad shouldered, he was conscripted at nineteen. He was posted to the East. He weighed seven-and-a-half stone (48 kilos) when he was repatriated from the USSR, aged twenty-six.
Early in his written monologue, he promises his grandson,
‘I wasn’t a Nazi. No court would find me guilty of anything, even an omniscient one. What I want to tell you about isn’t about atrocities on genocide.’
What he wants to talk about is courage. War he describes as ‘a battle between hammers and anvils’.
The war in the East was the real war. ‘Out of every eight German soldiers killed. Seven were killed in the East.’
He describes the decision to invade the East like a decision to invade the sea. In the first year in the East, the Germans starved two-and-a-half million prisoners to death. In barbed-wire camps Russian’s ate their friends. Western loses in comparison were a blip, easily brushed off.
Meissner’s letter tells Callum he’s familiar with the idea of ‘collective guilt’—as a concept—but not as a feeling.
Shame, however, he claims holds ‘a more pitless truth’.
‘Shame is not like guilt. It’s not a matter of reparation. Shame cannot be atoned for, it is a debt that cannot be paid.’
In the introduction to Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, a Bulgarian historian on the Balkan’s Conflict observed, when we ask the question ‘WHY? Guilt becomes the focal point’. Twenty million soldiers killed in the First World War, roughly the number killed in USSR alone. Little wonder even Vladimir Putin calls it ‘The Great Patriotic War’.
Meissner admits to no guilt, but does admit to shame. He assures us we have become overfamiliar with the ‘pantomimes of valour’. Survival was enough.
When he and four other soldiers are sent foraging for food, the war was already lost. They were retreating home.
‘In that first, victorious summer, our invading tanks covered half the distance to St Petersburg in five days…The limiting factor wasn’t the Red Army, but the road surface: mud rather than tarmac.’
‘I became a pedestrian one day in spring 1943, in the Eastern part of Ukraine, more than a thousand miles from the German border.’
‘By 1944, those of us still alive were fleeing on foot, broken, bedraggled, our tanks blown up, our artillery abandoned, our good name blackened for generations, our friends and brothers-in-arms buried in hostile soil.’
Hunger eats away at a man, but when a man loses hope, he’s already dead. That autumn a rumour had spread that there was a food depot nearby. Stashed with French wine and Italian sardines and other loot from occupied countries the general staff were in such a hurry to retreat they’d left it to the Russians.
Meissner didn’t believe the rumour. He didn’t disbelieve it either. He’d been ordered, with four others in their rag-tag army, to find it. None of whom he knew particularly well. Luttke, he didn’t like because he parroted party propaganda and tried to take charge. But he was quickly put in his place. The only one he could bully was Jensen. It wasn’t worth trying to remember newly conscripted soldier’s names. But they’d a little horse, Ferdinand, which hadn’t yet been eaten, when they set off.
He finds the nostalgia for when Germany was for Germans a throwback to when villages were looted and their occupants crucified and hanged—and all to protect a civilian population that readily took part in pogroms.
Primo Levi asks an open question: If This Is a Man?
We Germans offers no ready answers. Alexander Starritt, now there’s a writer worth knowing.