Military memoirs come in several varieties. Some are apologies, where a figure defends his decisions when he is perceived to have failed. Others are better suited as political rather then combat memoirs, such as the disappointing Panzer Commander
by Colonel Hans von Luck. But the best memoirs take you there with the author, into combat when the bullets are flying and artillery
shells turn forests into splinters. The best of these might very well be Charles B. MacDonald's Company Commander
, a memoir of his time commanding two infantry
companies in the latter stages of World War II
. MacDonald became a professional historian and his memoirs are backed by the solid and determined research of a professional while remaining an intimate account of the tremendous pressure and responsibilities of a combat leader operating directly at the front, responsible directly for the lives of the men he worked with. But MacDonald wrote as a victor, a man who fought in a good war against a transcendent evil
. German officers from that times must both remember those times and come to terms with the nature of the regime they fought for.
Five Years, Four Fronts: A German Officer's Combat Memoir by Georg Grossjohan is another. MacDonald and Grossjohan were very different soldiers. Grossjohan began as a zwolfender, a man who enlisted for twelve years in 1928 mostly because so little work was available in Germany at that time. He was not a man destined to high-command. He spent most of his career as an enlisted man and only promoted to Leutnant until just before Germany invaded Poland. He, as his memoir makes clear, was something of a character, too abrasive and independent to play the political games necessary to rise to high command. Yet he ended the war a Major commanding a regiment, decorated with the Wounds Badge (three times), the Iron Cross (First and Second Class), the German Cross in Gold and the Knight's Cross. He fought in Poland, then France, then Russia and then in Southern France. He fought on the offensive, racing into France and Russia, and on the defensive. The battles he fought are known only to military historians, for he wasn't at D-Day or Kursk. But he knew victory and what it meant to lead men into a freezing, rushing river at night because that was the only way to escape capture at the hands of the Red Army.
The story was not intended as a public memoir, but rather Grossjohan's attempt to explain to his children where he was and what he was doing during the Third Reich. The books strengths and weaknesses come from Grossjohan's purpose. His is the story of a simple soldier, and it is more about the people he fought alongside or dealt with then any particular. Grossjohan speaks of deep friendships and his open contempt for martinets and vain REMFs, which the German Army also possessed and were sometimes pruned by the demands of total war. Friends he names, simple soldiers he never criticizes, but the martinets are never named, but given nicknames that a comrade in arms might recognize but no other. The strength of the book come from this point of view. The weakness comes from the fact that Grossjohan is not out to create a scholarly work, and thus does no research which might have rounded out his memoir by inspiring more details. The editors partially make up for this be beginning each chapter with a short historical summary of the tactical situation at the time. The background is essential as it provides the context Grossjohan never sought to provide. The editors also provide copious notes, but Five Years, Four Fronts is not a tactical study. Rather it is a story of men at war in both victory and defeat, told by a man who is impertinent, loyal to his friends, in love with life and deeply respectful of the men he served.