A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War, Russia 1941-44 is the haunting memoir of a young German soldier on the Russian front during World War II. Willy Peter Reese was only twenty years old when he found himself marching through Russia with orders to take no prisoners. Three years later he was dead. Bearing witness to--and participating in--the atrocities of war, Reese recorded his reflections in his diary, leaving behind an intelligent, touching, and illuminating perspective on life on the eastern front. He documented the carnage perpetrated by both sides, the destruction which was exacerbated by the young soldiers' hunger, frostbite, exhaustion, and their daily struggle to survive. And he wrestled with his own sins, with the realization that what he and his fellow soldiers had done to civilians and enemies alike was unforgivable, with his growing awareness of the Nazi policies toward Jews, and with his deep disillusionment with himself and his fellow men.
An international sensation, A Stranger to Myself is an unforgettable account of men at war.
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Willy Peter Reese was a young German soldier on the Russian Front during World War II. He died at the age of twenty-three.
A Stranger to Myself
The Soldier The time of adventure began, but at first war was nothing but play. The summer sun seared the rocks and forests of the Eifel. Fields and pastures withered; the heathland crackled with dust and fire. Villages and hills5 flickered in the noonday heat, and dust from the troop exercise ground at Elsenborn was scattered over gardens and roads. Morning mists blew over alders and birch saplings by the roadside, there was a sultry steaminess in evergreen and broad-leaved trees, and at eventide the shadows fell far across the land. Often not a leaf or stalk stirred; only the crickets fiddled a little somnolent music. Then cool and silence blew soothingly abroad into the night. I had been a soldier for some months and now wore the warrior's mask with assurance, irony, and patience. Never had substance and appearance been so far apart with me. Like a dream, obedience, commands, and the toughness of service hushed past me, leaving not a trace. I withstood the training like a sleepwalker. I walked in step and carried my rifle. Like a machine, I learned how to use a machine gun and a light antitank gun. An hour's worth of reflection was enough to bring out the sadnessand despair, emptiness and fear, rage and pain of my days. I did not complain about being alone. I loved it, but sometimes I was overcome by feelings of helplessness and abandon. Something inside me wanted me to remain as I had been before my draft. Even that became difficult. All thoughts of the future fled as from a huge horror, and I was barely able to overcome the shocks of the soldier's life. But I got used to it, to never being alone, but always a stranger among strangers, separated from the others by spirit and soul, manner of life and beliefs. I went through the inevitable acclimatization, but I never allowed the noise and the monotony of the day-to-day into my private kingdom. Before long I had recovered the confidence and irony to get through it without taking damage. I lived in the dark. Ghosts lurked everywhere. Fear, disappointment, and a continual grief marked my sorry path. It was better then to believe in the most fleeting dreams than to be helplessly at the mercy of doubt and uncertainty. I couldn't live without the tiniest shimmer of hope. Everything on earth was growth and transformation, and as the surface changed, so the essence of a man ripened within. My dreams showed me pictures of my hidden evolution, even if I, dazzled by the days, was unable to understand them when, for a few seconds at a time, they showed themselves. I was asleep, but it was precisely at such moments that the reality and nobility of life struck me most forcibly. In this way, for all my errings, I was able to find my way back to the man I had been before the outbreak of war. Everything was a sort of homecoming to me, even if I often failed to grasp the path and the destiny, and at times I was able to shape my own life as I pleased. I was made happy by the small joys of a soldier's life, a book, a glass of wine, some music, and a contemplative evening in the Eifel Mountains. Fate was often kinder to me than I expected and taught me to trust myself again. Barracks life and drills seemed worse to me than war, just as the school of life took life more seriously than God and the world did themselves. Because now the metal that had been won from youth's ore was hammered to steel, and I had to serve as anvil. The platoon was made into a fighting unit, the individual to a cog in a machine, able to fight, to overcome hardship, to suffer privation, and to attack; willing to suffer and to die, prepared to obey and to do without for the sake of the war. And so the cannon fodder was brought up to snuff. The raw material was given its form, and I took the soldier's mask more seriously. I played my part in the great drama of assimilation, without any spectators on the stage of my destiny. The phoenix burned, and I gathered up its lost feathers. I had too much time to be able to think of myself. My existence took place within me, mostly unreflected in external events. But the change was in progress. I was becoming a soldier. Mists like white smoke climbed out of the fields and meadows. I stood on sentry duty, feeling I was at the end of the world, in some foreign land, among foreign people. Evening came down out of a silver gate of clouds. The land subsided at my feet. Grass and shrub, near and far, slipped into shadow, haze, and scent, and silence covered the earth once more. I set down my rifle and went looking for grasses and mosses. My boots grew wet with dew. I sniffed the fog and the chill of dusk, took off my steel helmet, and let my hair blow in the wind. It stroked my forehead, like tender hands. I was in love with every flower, every stone, and gave myself over to my looking and listening. The past few months had sharpened my eye for the beauty of small, simple, familiar things. I saw the world more alertly. The dust and gray of the city dropped from me, and I experienced the improbable beauty and delight of the world more than I everhad in the fullness and exuberance of the summers in Darss. A flower by the roadside was a kindness to me, a forest under the scorching sun, a spider's web pearly with dew, a butterfly, and the dance of midges at eventide, the plashing of a brook, and a lizard sunning itself on a hot stone. All these were experiences to me. The growth of wheat, bindweed, and poppy taught me to stand there with as much patience as theirs, and their innocence moved the masked man and soldier just as a repentant sinner might be moved by the comforting hand of an angel. But I was also painfully and burningly aware of the gulf that separated the dove, the shrub, and the tree from the war; and the soldier from all the love and blessings of the earth. I was no longer jaded and indifferent but found myself, like an insect with superfine antennae, shaken by the goodness and peaceableness of the earth. That was the only reason I was so grateful for the frost of early blue mornings, for daybreak and dawn chorus. It was as though, in my sorrow and cruelty, I had to be reminded of the divine. No evening seemed so mild to me as the dusk after a hot, exhausting day of misery and soldierly torment. I felt the star-bright nights, the rapture of moonlight, violent storms, and tireless pattering rain more intensely than anything I had done by the sea. Also, the simplest facts of human life--sleep, a piece of bread, a sup of well water, a kindly word--all these, after long disregard, became precious to me once more, and anything beyond the minimum I took as an unmerited kindness. But that night I was taken by a violent yearning for my past. My sheltered youth pursued me with gorgeous scenes. There were many things I had not done, and the future sat in front of me like a raw block of marble. I could suddenly hear Moorish dances; I saw the stage, the dancers, I heard the Gypsy song and the keening voices of the girls, the magic and drunkenness of Dionysiac music, and I wept for my homeland and my personalfate. I left nothing out, and as I drank the bitter cup, I saw the purpose and the significance of time. Scenes, music, and stars wandered into my dreams ... On the Hohes Venn, the heathland was ablaze. The fire chewed the turf under the tindery ground and threatened woods and fields, as it kept flickering up in new places. Foresters and soldiers were set to fight and quell it, and in the evening we were sent out to serve as firemen. Smoke obscured the slope. The smell of burning flowed down into the valley; dust and ashes came down on our faces and shoulders. As the evening cooled, we climbed up. Dusk fell early. Smoldering fires played like will-o'-the-wisps on the forest edge. On a height, little flames flickered up like rows of lanterns, lit by dwarfs and heath spirits in the wind. We ate our bread, looked out a camping site for ourselves on the soft needles between the pines, put up a screen of branches to protect us from the wind, and rolled ourselves into our thin blankets. One man kept watch. Very slowly the humus gave back the warmth of the bygone day. I lay there a long time with eyes open. Stars glimmered in the branches, spun incredibly slowly over the trees. Wind whispered in the boughs, dew fell, and the earth exhaled mist and moisture. So I found my home in the cosmos. I had grass and needles for a bed, the sky for a ceiling. No walls separated me from God and the weft of life. I lay as sheltered as in the heart of the world. Some Walloon foresters came and sat by me. They talked about their work, their wives, about the work and the happiness of a conquered people that never understood the war and was happy simply to endure, now that it was over. At midnight they took their leave of me, as of an old friend, and left to protect their huts from the creeping subterranean fire. I was glad. I never saw other peoples as enemies; there was always a bridgefrom man to man in quick time. They sensed the peaceable man under my uniform. The only enemies I ever found were around me, and within me, in the self that was fighting against my destiny and imperiling me. So I thought, and fell asleep. I woke shivering at dawn. The fire had gone out overnight. Fog and smoke mixed to a thick haze. We went back down to camp ... We traveled to Monschau, and I breathed in the air of my old city. Life wasn't so bad; it was just me making it unbearable for myself. As if, in my obstinate hatred for war and military, I insisted on suffering from them. At noon we marched past the lake at Robertsville, over hills and narrow forest paths, into the valley. A stream flowed under beeches and alders, trout flashed over the stones, algae shimmied in the current, and feldspar and quartz glistered on the bottom. We climbed steep slopes to a ruin, and there in the ruined castle we set up camp among wild fruit trees and blossoming shrubbery. As evening fell, we scaled the wide tower, lit a campfire, and sat on the crumbling masonry, amid ivy, brushwood, thorns, and wild vines. We emptied a small barrel of beer, smoked, and sang songs of soldiers' lives, love, going to war, and death, full of the melancholy-beautiful bliss of death that I once felt when listening to Haydn's Military Symphony. Flames flickered, stars danced, shadows covered us, the scent of wood, juniper, and mountain ash climbed up to us, the night wind burst on rock and bush, and the moon sailed through the dreamy night. The call of a screech owl resounded in our silence. We sat together as though resting from a long journey. In that hour I felt at ease in my company, one of many who shared the same destiny, the same garb. Though not necessarily of one mind, we were just adventurers abroad. So I was a soldier for a few hours at least, even in my heart, and felt an early intimation of gratitude to life and fate, which taught me that many things could happen only in war and in the mask of a soldier. I felt the soldierly spirit that identifies beauty in the midst of sweat and pain and welcomes the hour of relief at the end of obedience and punishment. Secretly, though, what I loved was the feeling of returning to my self, which opened its gates. What I was responding to were romance, youth, and a whiff of a different freedom--never weapons, never war. My yearning always remained awake, and my homesickness unrolled its carpets over all things and experiences. I was still only at the beginning, and what was ahead lay in front of me as in a locked chest. Untrodden, the wide, wide world stretched in front of me. I was still living in my own kingdom, thinking of the cosmos, the search for God, wild imaginings, dream and grotesquerie, which, even in self-division, spiritual anxiety, despair, and questioning, I preferred to the soldierly world of masks. Night rain whooshed down on our tents, drumming on canvas and leaves. The following evening we marched back to Elsenborn ... The war games went on. We practiced with flags, blanks, and dummies, and our victory was never in doubt. We tossed our enemy aside. And the Wehrmacht reports6 carried nothing but victorious encirclements, advances, and extraordinary numbers of captives and booty from the Russian campaign, where our destiny was pushing us. We served the imperative of history as specks of dust in the whirlwind and were privileged to participate in the end of our world. So the introduction to my adventures ended with intimations, dreams, and signals whose interpretation I left to some future date and later forgot. We returned to barracks in Cologne lean and strong and sunburned. Our posting might arrive any day. I took what the city could offer me: amours, books, concerts, plays, variété, and thoughtful hours in the cathedral. I went home, saw my friend once more, and drank the night away with my comrades. Uncertainty and expectation were features of my days. I didn't worry and felt strangely impatient for what was to come. One day I found my name on the list. I was kitted out and equipped, said my goodbyes at home, and set off on my great Russian adventure. And so the war began for me as well. Copyright © 2003 by Hannelore Kern and Stefan Schmitz
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