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The Forgotten Soldier (1965), originally published in French as Le soldat oublié, is an autobiographical account of Guy Sajer's observations as a German soldier on the Eastern Front during World War II.

The bookEdit

Guy Sajer is the pseudonym of Guy Mouminoux[1] who was a well known French comics writer also known under the pseudonym of Dimitri. Sajer was a French citizen living in Alsace, who served as a foreign conscript in the German Army during World War II, fighting the Soviets on the Eastern front in the Großdeutschland Division. Due to a spate of historical inaccuracies, the accuracy and authenticity of Sajer's autobiographical work has been questioned, with proponents on both sides. Division historian for the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Großdeutschland, Major Helmuth Spaeter, after originally claiming Sajer to be a fraud in a 1988 interview, later on recanted his claims and afforded him the benefit of doubt in 1997. The book, in reference to the autobiographical soldier's ambiguous relationship to war and its passions, has been called "the account of a disastrous love affair with war and with the army that, of all modern armies, most loved war", being written with the "admiration of a semi-outsider".[2]

A movie adaptation of The Forgotten Soldier, written by Michael Frost Beckner and Joel Kassay was in development, but cancelled in July 2009.[3] Paul Verhoeven was previously attached to direct the film.[4]

Authenticity controversyEdit

The accuracy or authenticity of the book has been disputed by some historians, due to some incorrect cited details, while other details are simply impossible to verify due to a lack of surviving witnesses and documents. The most frequently cited inaccuracy was Sajer's statement that, after being awarded the coveted Großdeutschland division cuff title, he and his friend were ordered to sew it on their left sleeves (when it was actually sewn on the right), an obvious error that critic Edwin Kennedy called "unimaginable" for a former member of such an elite German unit. The author also discusses campaign locations in vague terms and never with specific dates, some which contradict historical fact: for example, Sajer's assertion that during the summer of 1942 he was briefly assigned to a Luftwaffe training unit in Chemnitz commanded by famed Stuka ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel, when, (by Rudel's own testimony) his training unit was actually in Graz, Austria during all of 1942. Likewise, the names of most of Sajer's companions and leaders don't appear on official rolls in the Bundesarchiv, nor are they known to the Großdeutschland Veterans Association, whose leader, Helmuth Spaeter, was one of the first to question whether Sajer actually served in the Division as he claimed.

However, some authors and other Großdeutschland veterans have testified to the book's historical plausibility, even if they cannot speak to the specific events in the book. Lieutenant Hans Joachim Schafmeister-Berckholtz, who served in the Großdeutschland during the same period as Sajer, confirmed in a letter that he had read the book and considered it an accurate overall account of the Division's battles in the East, while also noting that he remembered a Landser named Sajer in his Panzergrenadier company (5th co), the same company number Sajer mentioned being assigned to (though there was more than one "5th Company" in the Division). Sajer himself struck back against implications of fraud or fiction by claiming that The Forgotten Soldier was intended as a personal narrative, based on his best personal recollections of an intensely chaotic period in German military history, not an attempt at a serious historical study of World War II: "You ask me questions of chronology situations dates and unimportant details. Historians and archivists have harassed me for a long time with their rude questions. All of this is unimportant. Other authors and high-ranking officers could respond to your questions better than I. I never had the intention to write a historical reference book; rather I wrote about my innermost emotional experiences as they relate to the events that happened to me in the context of the Second World War."[5] Sajer further stressed the non-technical and anecdotal nature of his book in a 1997 letter to US Army historian Douglas Nash, stating "Apart from the emotions I brought out, I confess my numerous mistakes. That is why I would like that this book may not be used under [any] circumstances as a strategic or chronological reference." [5] After reading Sajer's latest letter, one of his staunchest critics—Großdeutschland Veteran's Association leader Helmuth Spaeter—recanted his original suspicions of Sajer, noting "I was deeply impressed by his statements in his letter... I have underestimated Herr Sajer and my respect for him has greatly increased. I am myself more of a writer who deals with facts and specifics—much less like one who writes in a literary way. For this reason, I was very skeptical towards the content of his book. I now have greater regard for Herr Sajer and I will read his book once again."[5]

In additional defense of the book, there are many very accurate references in the book that have been gleaned from official histories. Bunkers on beaches which exist to this day and descriptions of towns and terrain which are verifiable through unit histories provide excellent support to Sajer's story. One of the more compelling arguments is a reference to and accurate description of a ship called the "Pretoria" (later named the "Gunung Djati"), which the author places in Hel on March 28 or 29th of 1945 and is verifiable through open sources. This ship was in fact purchased by the Kriegsmarine at the start of the war and used to evacuate areas around the Baltic at this precise time. The ships logs record leaving Hel at 9:00 AM on the morning of the 30th. And finally, the comrade of the author ("Halls") who is referred throughout the book has been identified, contacted, and has verified Großdeutschland unit accounts. Like many of the author's comrades his name was changed in the book. "Halls" has since been identified as "Stefan Walls", who emigrated to Connecticut, United States after the war.[6]

The British historian Alan Clark, author of 'Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45', refers to Sajer in his well-known 'Diaries'. A footnote states "Sajer, author of The Forgotten Soldier, a book to which AC often turned, served on the Russian front for three years without relief".[7]

Despite the recent critique from mostly U.S. military historians, it is still considered by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College to be (at the very least) an accurate roman à clef and has remained on their recommended reading list for World War II, along with other historical novels. It is also on the recommended reading list of the Commandant of the United States Marines Corps.[8] Apart from being recommended in the United States, it is a recommended read for insights in the personal experience of war in many armies around the world.

Publisher's synopsisEdit

"This devastating first-hand story of a young German soldier trapped in the lethal machinery of total war on the Eastern Front in World War II captures the real experience of modern war in all its shattering terror.

This is one man's story of the bitter, killing cold of the Russian winter, of vicious combat against Russian partisans, and of the carnage of battles against a desperate but merciless Red Army with its mind-numbing artillery attacks and endless waves of infantry and tanks.

Posted to the crack Großdeutschland division, with its tough training, the soldier enters a violent and remorseless world that relentlessly destroys any hope and ideals and where all that matters is brute survival fighting a relentless enemy.

Sajer, like so many soldiers, at first presents the story of his training and embarkation to the Russian Front as a romantic adventure. Yet, page by page, it turns into the Anabasis as experienced by German Landser (Infantry) in the war as the tide turned against them. His initiation into the war takes place as a soldier in a transportation unit in the winter of 1942-43. Following this, he and several of his closest comrades volunteer for the elite Wehrmacht Panzer-Grenadier-Division Großdeutschland. Thereafter, they find themselves in battle after battle, each time with less equipment, fewer resources and a stronger enemy.

In the end the fighting becomes hopeless, and the ordeal and desperate courage of the Landsers becomes pointless. For Sajer, all their courage and heroism counts for nothing. At the end, when he returns home to live among the victors of the war, he cannot share his experiences or hope to describe them."


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