cover image A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941–44

A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941–44

Willy Peter Reese, , edited by Stefan Schmitz,trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-374-13978-0

Sometimes lyrical, this memoir by a German youth who miraculously survived four tours of duty on the Russian front during WWII—he died on his fifth deployment—is a significant historical document. It is also a laborious and overwrought cacophony of Wagnerian proportions. Reese, who was a 20-year-old bank clerk in 1939 when he was first drafted, inhabits many different worlds, all of them conflicting. Despite Schmitz's assertion that Reese was "no Nazi," he was, like the vast majority of German youths of the time, deeply imbued with Nazi ideology and experienced the war as a sort of sacrament. Duty, abdication and heroism are just some of his motifs. Reese sees himself as a poet deciphering the human condition, but mostly he is just a soldier who plays his part in the atrocities—often exuberantly. He laughs with the other members of his platoon at the spectacle of Russian partisans hanging by the neck—"yellow-brown ichor dribbled out of their eyes and crusted on their cheeks"—and makes Russian women dance naked. Despite its long-winded homilies and repetitiveness, this stark testimony provides new insights into both the ravages of Nazi indoctrination and the bloodiest military campaign in history. (Nov.)