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A letter from a German soldier to his grandson recounts the terrors of war on the Eastern Front, and a postwar ordinary life in search of atonement, in this “raw, visceral, and propulsive” novel (New York Times Book Review).
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
My dear Callum,
It’s now been seventeen months since we last saw each other; I hope very much that we’ll see each other at least once more. I know you’re busy, but come and visit. Whenever suits you–just try to remember to let me know a couple of weeks in advance so I can arrange myself.
I also hope very much that you’re not put off by the conversation we had when you were here. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I’ve since started to think that maybe you would be feeling guilty. But then we’ve never telephoned that much anyway, so who knows. In any case, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to make you feel worse, but I did understand what you were trying to do: hear my stories about Russia before I get too addled to tell them. It’s not a happy thing to realise, and I admit that it irritated me. But on reflection I can see that your thinking was right: I am at an age when people tilt very quickly towards–shall we just say, towards a place where people tell no stories.
Your questions were ridiculous, though–awkward, faux naïve. You should have seen yourself edging up backwards to what you really wanted to ask: did you see terrible things? Let me answer that for you now: yes, I did. And: did you do terrible things? It’s hard to say, but certainly not in the way you presume.
What surprises me is this: do you imagine that your mother didn’t ask the same questions when she was your age? Or that they haven’t kept resurfacing, like chunks in soup, ever since I came back? Your mother’s generation were less polite about it. And rightly so, I should emphasise. Those aren’t polite questions.
But even if I’d wanted to give you a proper answer when you were here, I wouldn’t have been able to. You have to understand that even experiences that extreme don’t stay sharp in the mind for ever.
What you end up doing, what I ended up doing, is finding some phrases that simplify eventful years down to something that can be said over coffee, and then you remember that phrase instead of the silent figures who stand behind it. I’ve tended to say that it was a cruel time to be alive, but that some people, as we all know, had it much, much worse. And that we should be grateful our times are so peaceful now.
The reason for developing these platitudes is as feeble and mundane as not wanting to think about the 1940s every day. Like anyone else, you want some coffee and conversation about something pleasant–maybe even more than other people would. If we who lived through it do talk about it, and we do more and more now that we’re old, we talk about Hitler and world history instead of about ourselves. I sometimes think my wine circle sounds like a group of petitioners each trying to get a two-line amendment into history’s verdict.
So when you gave me your clumsy interview, nothing from those years occurred to me as quickly as it would have needed to. By the time I was thinking about it, rather than about how angry you’d made me, you’d already left again and were back in London, living your life and perhaps forgetting all about this conversation with your grandfather.
I, on the other hand, have more time than I know what to do with. That is, if you measure in days and not years. It recently struck me again how young your oma was when she died. Seventy-two! I hardly even know anyone that young any more, apart from my family and the people who work here. I really thought we’d have longer together.
But anyway: lots of time, lots of quiet and nothing to do. And my memory, once you’d kicked it, began, slowly, wheezily at first, to turn over.
With very old memories, it seems that the more you roll them around, the more they pick up. Faces I hadn’t seen in decades now appear among the other diners in the restaurant, and I catch the whisper of forgotten names in the chatter at the bakery. Of everything, it’s the people who come back first. Sometimes it’s not unlike a reunion. Many I’m happy to see again.
Then come sounds and sensations, more and more of them. The motorised snorting from the gun carriage I drove into Russia on. The hunger–my goodness I remember the hunger, when it’s in your arms and legs, as if you can actually feel the muscle cells breaking down. Just the memory of it was enough to send me to the Greek’s for a plate of souvlaki and chips, more than I could ordinarily hope to finish. I knew what I was doing, of course, but it was reassuring to be able to do it.
These mundanities are probably not what you wanted to hear about, but this is what there is. Since our conversation, I’ve felt again the constant mild sunburn, the tight aching skin on my forearms and the back of my neck, in that first Ukrainian summer. The thick, standing heat that I loved and that lay on us like gravy–we’d string poncho canopies across the back of the gun carriage and doze in the shade, stripped to our underclothes, while we jolted through the countryside. The coppery dust churned up from the dirt roads would stick to us while we daydreamed, and if you didn’t find a river to jump in, you’d have to scrape it off as red paste in the evenings.
As these sense-memories have come back from the brink of oblivion, they’ve started stretching out towards each other, joining up and thickening into incidents, conversations, things that happened. The more I write down, the more there is. An old burn on the back of my left hand has begun to itch again. It wasn’t all sunbathing. I heard shellfire the other day while I was walking in the park, the dull thump of my howitzer. And just this morning, in the lift, I suddenly found myself running a sweat, my face purple, my heart in the grip of a fear that had long been dormant.
It’s all made me think that perhaps I can do something with this time I still have. The plan was that your oma and I would be travelling and enjoying our retirement. Well, life isn’t fair, we know that. There you go: another platitude. But can you imagine what she’d say if she knew I’d been watching television in the afternoons?
I know she’d be pleased to think of me using the energy and lucidity I have left. Working again, after all those years of working towards being able to stop. It feels good. She’d be pleased whatever I was doing, but you were always her favourite; she’d be happy I’m doing something for you, even if it’s only writing you this long letter.
I read somewhere that in medieval Japan old samurai used to write down what they’d learned about how to live, to help educate their sons and grandsons. Each generation added their own experiences, so that as a young man you could be handed the advice of centuries. I’ve always liked that idea. Especially because I wish you and my father could have met. He was a reader, the bookish kind of minister, who decorated his house with shelves. I think you would have liked each other.
And there’s something about my time in the East that I want to explain to you. I can’t quite articulate it myself. And I don’t want you to jump to the pantomime conclusion: it’s not that I have some confessions to get off my chest before the end. I’m not trying to clear my conscience. What’s on it is on it.
I wasn’t a Nazi. No court would find me guilty of anything, even an omniscient one. What I want to tell you isn’t about atrocities or genocide. I didn’t see the camps and I’m not qualified to say anything about them. I read Primo Levi’s book about it, the same as everyone else. Except of course that when we Germans read it, we have to think: We did this.
But this isn’t about that. What I want to tell you about is something quite different. It’s to do with courage. I don’t think anyone who sees real courage ever forgets it, I suppose because it’s so unlike anything else in our characters. It’s as bright in my mind now as if I were again lying in that scrubby Polish field long ago, with an appalling man named Lüttke lying on top of me.
I saw it in war, in captivity and once, years later, in peacetime: after your uncle Jochen came back from the hospital, his friends, who didn’t know his leg had been amputated, knocked on the door downstairs and asked whether he wanted to play football. He was a child, a terminally ill child, and he could have just turned over in his bed. I think your oma wanted him to.
But he went outside and played football with them on his crutches in the yard behind the house. And didn’t just play–and fall over–but laughed and shouted and was happy. That’s courage. And I have not forgotten it.
CALLUM EMSLIE: I’m not sure exactly what kind of disease my uncle Jochen had, just that it was in the bone marrow in his leg and that he died the day he turned twelve, in 1968. He’d clung on to see his birthday. That story of him playing football on his crutches I’ve heard from at least four people: my grandparents, my mum and one of the other boys, who’s since become a mildly creepy evangelical Christian. He retold it to me at my opa’s funeral, about half a century after the game.
It’s true that I asked my opa some less than tactful questions on that visit. And as for that guilt trip about seeing him at least once more, yes, I saw him a bunch more times. I may not have been a gold-standard grandson, but I think I did alright. It wasn’t like he lived down the street: his flat was on this domesticated wooded hill outside Heidelberg, in the easy-going, wine-producing south-west of Germany. I went every summer when I was a kid. Even when I was a student and in my cash-strapped twenties, I forked out for the flights every couple of years, which at the time I thought was often enough. As I get older I think more about how alone he must have been.
But I liked going. I admired him, basically for being so unimaginably stoic. A few years before he died, he was walking in the woods by himself and had some kind of leg spasm. He must have gone down in a heap and couldn’t get back up. There was no one about, so he dragged himself arm over arm back to the road to find help, and then tried to pretend it hadn’t been a big deal. That was what he was like, and that was when he was nearly ninety.
In all the times I saw him after this conversation, he never mentioned the long letter he was writing. Presumably he finished writing it after a while and put it in a drawer: when he died, my other uncle found it among his things, addressed to me. That was only a brief year or so before my wife and I first got together–I often think how close the two of them were to overlapping.
My opa had actually started writing a memoir once before, soon after my oma died. It had nothing to say about the war or his time in captivity, but started on the day he and my oma met, when he got back to Germany. It was mainly about holidays they’d been on, their kids’ birthday parties, happy days. He gave up on it when his grief took a different turn. He had to live a long time without her.
That visit when I asked him about Russia, I’d assumed he’d be keen to talk. From my late teens to my mid-twenties, whenever I was telling him about reading French and German at university or getting my first paying jobs in TV afterwards, he’d say something like, ‘When I was your age, I was in a trench outside Donetsk’ or ‘I was just starting my second year in the Gulag.’ The lesson was simple: don’t forget how lucky you are to have been born when you were.
I thought that if for once I dared ask directly about it, laptop recorder poised, I’d get hours of powerful oral history. I imagined that I could play the recording to future generations and say, This is the voice of your great-great-grandfather. Pretty moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. But, as he says, nothing came of it. The only bit I remember is that, hoping to prompt a colourful story of hardship in the Gulag, I asked what the Russians had given him to eat. He considered for a while and then told me, ‘I suppose it will have been some kind of soup.’
So even though I’ve put in notes to clarify anything that would be obscure to non-Germans, the background I can add is meagre: he was conscripted out of school into the Wehrmacht in 1940, helped invade the Soviet Union in 1941, fought in the artillery on the Eastern Front for four years, was captured in what is now Austria in 1945 and sent to a Russian prison camp north-east of the Black Sea, where he was kept until 1948. That doesn’t tell you much.
The events I want to tell you about happened in late 1944, when the war was almost fully lost and our mental, physical and moral disintegration almost complete.
A few years earlier, we’d gone East as a mechanised modern army of tanks, lorries, gun carriages, field kitchens and mobile smithies, less like soldiers than mechanics, professional and specialised, our ears numbed by the engines, our hands and faces smeared with oil, the air around us thick and sweet with petrol. Our task was simply to keep the great steel machine rolling East–always East, going deeper and deeper, through Polish forests and Ukrainian cornfields and Russian towns and villages and cities, endlessly.
Proud and confident, wearing our laurels as the conquerors of Poland and France, we drove into the Eastern vastness and were destroyed there. 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.
Our fall was from a very great height. In that first, victorious summer, our invading tanks covered half the distance to St Petersburg in five days. Five days! The limiting factor on our speed wasn’t the Red Army, but the road surface: mud rather than tarmac. I remember my gun commander telling me, We’re going to win this war with a hopsa, heissa, tralala.
On the back of my gun carriage, I rode along and daydreamed. While the countryside trundled by or we waited in traffic between undulating cornfields, I’d shave or write self-importantly in my war diary or try to study the first-year chemistry textbooks I’d brought along in case I was back by the next semester.
Artillerymen tended to be more educated than the infantry, and someone in our company had packed an old Baedeker guide to Russia. It must have been written before the Revolution, and its cover had been wrapped in tape to protect it on the journey. But we used it to plan which pictures we’d see in the Hermitage if it hadn’t been evacuated by the time we arrived. Grander men than me, who had friends of friends in St Petersburg, were writing home to ask for letters of introduction to people in the city.
I wasn’t very worried about Russia. Only in some moments did I get a sense of the danger we were in, something none of us had really understood. When we crossed the Memel, the frontier river in the ‘Deutschlandlied’ [Callum: Now called the Neman, it divides Lithuania from Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave], someone read the description from War and Peace of Napoleon’s army invading over the same river. Even amid our noisy, mechanised hubris, we heard the echo. And sometimes we’d talk, with a fearful thrill, about the Grande Armée melting into nothing on the long walk home from Moscow.
But I didn’t foresee our own catastrophe. None of us did. My main worry was that I wouldn’t be released back to university after the Red Army had capitulated. I didn’t want to waste years in uniform while the Wehrmacht turned south through the Caucasus to the British oilfields in Iraq, or through Afghanistan and over the Khyber Pass into India.
That seems fantastical now, even deluded. In 1941, it fitted the facts. The miracle of the six-week victory over France, which in those days was still called ‘the ancestral enemy’, made us think that the German Army was too advanced, too strategically sophisticated, to be seriously opposed by what we imagined as a horde of illiterate serfs.
Our fathers and uncles had suffered here and in France for four years, and lost; this time, with the invention of the Blitzkrieg, we thought we’d graduated to a higher plane of warfare; that German industry and organisation, and German standards of training and professionalism, even among the rank and file, were matchless. But invading Russia was like declaring war on the sea; it just swallowed us.
I became a pedestrian one day in spring 1943, in the eastern part of Ukraine, more than a thousand kilometres from the German border. The same terrifying thing had happened that kept happening on the long retreat: the Russians had overrun our flanks and were trying to encircle us. We had to race them West, to get past the point where their two pincers were going to meet.
Our panicky column got jammed on the dirt track, with the road blocked by lorries, tanks and staff cars trying to get past each other. It was almost night but we had no headlamps on, and everyone kept driving into each other. On both sides of the road were the burning hulls of vehicles hit by Russian planes and rammed out of the way.
Ahead we could see the red sun declining into the West; along the dark horizon behind we could see the sky flickering as shells landed at our rear; all around us, in the ditches and the fields, whole or in pieces, were dead Germans.
The blockage was because of a steep incline in the road, part of some raised ground we were supposed to regroup on. It can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres, and on a tarmacked road in a modern car you probably wouldn’t even change gear to go over it. But it had rained earlier and the road surface had melted into a kind of red, sticky, tenacious clay. Each time a lorry’s tyres made a half-turn, the treads acted like the buckets on a waterwheel, bringing up clay to the gap between the wheel and the arch, where it started to set.
Some of us were pulling the clay out in handfuls. A lorry shifted forward in the confusion and snapped someone’s arm. No one went to help him. A team of soldiers wedged horizontal poles into a lorry’s chassis, like oars, and, while the engine turned as slowly as possible, they tried to help push it up the slope. The further up they got, the deeper the lorry sank into the wet clay, until the poles were level with their knees. Eventually, the wheels locked. Then the whole heavy contraption started to slide backwards down the hill into the queue behind.
There was a corpse who’d got stuck in the clay at the bottom of the slope, one of ours, a German. No one had the time or leisure to drag him out, and every time the lorry went back and forth over his sunken legs, it levered his stiff torso up off the ground. Back and forth, and each time the split grey face and the battered torso rising from the mud. I remember thinking, We are in hell. This is hell and we are the damned. Someone has decided that our punishment can’t wait till we’re dead, and hell has risen to spread itself across this twilit Ukrainian countryside. We must get out.
The shellfire on our rear was getting closer and the Russians were starting to land salvoes of Katyusha rockets in flurries of shrieks and whumps. The column ran out of patience with the lorry. A furious, shaking staff officer with muddy handprints on his red-striped trousers screamed for the soldiers to get out of the way. He told a tank to get up there on its caterpillar tracks, and he kept saying to everyone around him, At least we can save the tanks.
The tank jerked forward, trying to build up speed, and ground the trapped corpse into the road. The steel tracks got further up the little incline than the lorry had, but soon it, too, started to clog and slow. Finally it reached a high point and then began to slide backwards, slipping off centre as it came back down. When it hit the waiting traffic, it was going fast enough to crush part of the lorry that the staff officer was standing on. The officer looked at the wrecked lorry and his wrecked legs, fumbled his pistol out of its holster and shot himself in the temple.
At that point we abandoned everything. The heavy guns, the transport, the tanks we needed to defend ourselves–we poured the last of our petrol over them and set them on fire.
Despair, yes, bitter pain and disappointment, but also a strange angry relief in sloshing petrol across the only things that would ever get us out of Russia and home. As we flicked matches onto petrol-soaked seats and into flatbeds, the army lost some of its power over us. Eat now, sleep now, march now, follow your leader–that’s what they’d demanded of us; we’d followed, and they’d led us into disaster.
Usually everything was about we, us, the company, the army, but as we took our revenge on the machines that had carried us here, I thought: I never asked to be here, in this uniform or this godforsaken country.
I was furious that my life had been wasted, that I was going to die on some Ukrainian roadside for nothing. I had done as I was told, I had postponed my studies and my desire to become a great scientist, and this was what they’d used me for.
Amid the rising firelight and the oily billows of smoke, there was some release. After all, what could the army do to us that would be worse than the Russians, with the war unwinnable, the initiative lost, the retreat practically endless.
But after we’d burned our heavy equipment, we carried on fighting, on foot, for years. Hope, discipline, loyalty, the will to survive–I don’t know what got us up every morning, maybe just habit and a narrowness of thought. Perhaps simply fear of what the Russians would do to us if we didn’t stick together.
A lot of fighting in an army doesn’t entail the violence of two people trying to hurt each other. Most of it is communication, logistics, learned routines. Apart from some rare, specific situations, where you’re in touching range of the other side, you don’t need to be an aggressive person to be a good soldier.
So I ‘fought’, yes, but did so mainly by digging holes, firing my rifle, using my experience to improve the layout of our positions. I stayed practical. At school I’d often been top of my class; my whole upbringing predisposed me to diligence, attentiveness, not just doing the work I’d been set, but putting some thought into how to do it best.
Then sometimes the forwardmost troops in the Russians’ pincer movements would manage to meet in front of our retreat. We’d have to rush through them before they could reinforce their line. That was violence, savagery. It made you understand how the very first war must have been: bared teeth, screaming, men hacking at each other with stone tools.
By the time I want to tell you about, autumn 1944, I had fought and retreated like that, with vehicles and without, for two and a half years, across hundreds of kilometres of Russia, of Ukraine and of Poland. Those of us left were close to the German border. Why we didn’t all desert right then, strip off the uniforms and slink back to our families, like the Italians or Romanians did, and save millions of lives; why we dug trenches and counter-advanced and kept going until our home towns looked like Warsaw or Stalingrad… it’s not a question I can really answer.
The idea that we did it merely out of habit, out of misplaced diligence–that path of thought leads up to a moral abyss. But there is some truth in it. Perhaps there was also the remnant of some primitive creed that told us it was better to fight than to capitulate. Perhaps it was a meeting of fear and pride; we couldn’t stop without giving up an idea of ourselves.
If we’d rationally wanted to save as many of ourselves as possible, we’d have surrendered in summer 1942. It was often said that we had to defend our people against the Russians’ revenge for what we had done to them. But even when we’d been forced all the way back to fighting in German towns, no one did anything for the civilians we were supposedly trying to protect. They weren’t allowed to retreat either, and had to try and save themselves.
It seems incredible now, but right at the end Hitler really did give the so-called Nero order, to dynamite the remaining bridges and factories, poison the water, burn all supplies, destroy anything of value. Only then, in the last few days, when Hamburg, Dresden, Frankfurt, Berlin each looked like a brickmaker’s yard, did our ruinous pride finally break.
One day that autumn, a rumour sprang up that a food depot, stocked with French wine, Italian sardines and other loot shipped from the occupied countries for the general staff, was going to be left to the Russians.
- “Starritt’s prose is riveting. It unspools like a roll of film—raw, visceral, and propulsive, rich with sensory detail and unsparing in its depictions of cruelty . . . As I struggle to make sense of the polarized world we live in today, We Germans feels eerily timely. Meissner’s and Callum’s puzzlements are ours: How do we hold ourselves—and our ancestors—accountable for past wrongs? How do we acknowledge and atone for a nation’s violations? Starritt’s daring work challenges us to lay bare our histories, to seek answers from the past, and to be open to perspectives starkly different from our own.”—Georgia Hunter, New York Times Book Review
- "Striking... Vividly done... The book has a gritty realism... We Germans is a visceral examination of guilt, collective and individual."—Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times
- "Haunting... Daringly, in this slim, taut novel, Alexander Starritt climbs into the skin of one of the most appalling archetypes of the 20th century: a Nazi soldier... Starritt's descriptions of conflict are shocking... We Germans captures the terrible moment of realization when it dawns on the once-swaggering, all-conquering Nazis that they are going to be crushed... Although no readers are likely to admire the soldier's wartime actions, they will at least be confronted by his experiences as both killer and victim."—John Thornhill, Financial Times
- "An impressively realistic novel of German soldiers on the eastern front, raising the fundamental questions of individual and collective guilt."—Antony Beevor, Pritzker Award-winning author of Stalingrad and the #1 International Bestseller The Second World War
- “We Germans stands out among WWII novels…a quick and compelling read.” —Lorelei Brush, Historical Novel Society
- "We Germans is a remarkable and audacious novel that is harrowingly real and, at the same time, asks the most searching questions about men at war."—William Boyd, Booker Prize finalist and author of Any Human Heart and Restless
- “A thoughtful, unsettling chronicle… Starritt’s gritty depictions of the horrors of war and the moral choices faced by soldiers add intensity to the ruminations on courage. This is a fascinatingly enigmatic addition to the literature of Germany’s coming to terms with the past.”—Publishers Weekly
- “A small masterpiece... Starritt shows courage in his approach... A risky, provocative novel with exceptional writing.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “We Germans will intrigue fans of introspective, morally complex war fiction narrated from the perspective of those who served, such as works by war veterans Tim O'Brien and Phil Klay.”—Lindsay Harmon, Booklist
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown and Company