Eyewitness To Hell (War Years) Paperback – 1 Feb 2011
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A useful ground-level view of the campaign, but also a very moving account; the quality of the writing is so good that you feel you are present at the events. --Miniature Wargames
About the Author
Erich Stahl served as a journalist during World War II.
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EYEWITNESS opens after the German conquest of Greece in mid-1941. Stahl is then a committed National Socialist and SS man, but by civilian trade a journalist and therefore prone to taking a long view of things and speaking his mind somewhat more plainly than was good for him. Entering Russia in '41, he sees the war, which up that point he seems to have enjoyed, taking on an entirely different character. Witnessing the primitive conditions in Russia, as well as the cruelty and diabolism of the Soviet regime, and experiencing firsthand the savage resistance of the Red Army, which far exceeds anything in his experience, he begins to see the conflict soley in terms of destroying Bolshevism. Everything else, including the war with Britain and later, America, is small potatoes; this is nothing less, in his eyes, than a fight to save Europe from what he calls "the synthesis of madness and crime" that is communism.
The first half of the book is fairly typical for this type of story - plenty of combat and plenty of hardship, carried out first in east Poland and later in the Ukraine, with the 1st SS Panzer Division. Soon, however, Stahl begins to switch his focus from his own experiences, which include reconnaissance on a motorcycle and driving a Marder III self-propelled gun, to the errors of German political policy in Russia. Tortured by the foolish policies of Rosenberg's Ministry of the East, which squandered opportunities to harness the hatred of Communism that was prevalent everywhere in the USSR by treating the Soviet citizens like slaves, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by Nazism while at the same time holding a bitter hatred for all things communist. And indeed, the second half of the book is much less about what happened to him personally than a somewhat rambling history lesson mingled with repeated, and somewhat redundant, attacks on Bolshevism.
EYEWITNESS's strengths and weaknesses are closely bound up. The translation is good, but the editing job is shoddy indeed, and Stahl's point of view shifts so often from micro to macro and back, and repeats its anticommunist screeds so often, that some readers may lose interest or become frustrated at the lack of specifics. The book lacks continuity and structure, the footnotes are largely taken from Wikipedia, and all in all is a bit of a mess. But Stahl also writes very beautifully when he wants to, and his accounts both of battle and of atrocity are vivid and heartrending. He also gives a terrific, if brief, account of the Siege of Budapest, one of the most horrible events of the 20th Century and one which has been sadly forgotten.
In regards to questions about the book's authenticity brought up by one reviewer, this is the result of a misunderstanding in regards to how combat journalism worked under the Nazi system. In Germany, journalists who were of fighting age did not cover the war as civilians; after being drafted they were trained, sent to the front, and served in whatever capacity they were ordered to serve. Their articles were filed, as it were, "between battles." [Lothar-Gunther Bücheim, who wrote DAS BOOT, was actually a Naval correspondent during the war - but unlike his Allied counterparts he actually held Navy rank and stood a watch like any ordinary Kriegsmarine officer, merely filing his stories when he had the chance to do so.] So it was with "Stahl", who originally cobbled together this mix of journalism, editorial, and memior under the name TOTENTANZE ("The Dance of Death") in 1948. All in all this is a book worth reading, if only to understand the difference between a Hollywood Nazi and the real - often very conflicted - thing.
The author claims to have been in many hotspots, and always managed to exit from same. He allegedly had a dual role - newspaperman and soldier - , which in itself should raise questions. While it is possible that he survived the first two years fighting in Russia with SS units, it seems unlikely he was then posted to one SS unit after another, each of which was destroyed, while he managed to return home.
The best one can say about this book is that it is historical fiction, at a reasonable price for such reading.