The Nash Article


The First Article  |  The Nash Article  |  Kennedy's Rebuttal  |  The Fritz Letter


The Forgotten Soldier: Unmasked!
Douglas Nash.


Several years ago, Edwin L. Kennedy, in an article titled "The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?" advanced the thesis that The Forgotten Soldier, billed as an autobiographical work by Guy Sajer, was in fact fictional.(1) The book describes Sajer's experiences as a volunteer in the German Army during World War II from the time of his enlistment in 1942 until the end of the war.(2) Despite the book's popularity (to date it has been published in at least five languages), the article cautions readers to exercise care and not to place much stock in the book due to its "suspect" nature. Kennedy believes that Sajer's book is a "carefully written novel that cleverly disguises [itself] as a factual account." The implication is, of course, that as a fictional work, The Forgotten Soldier's chief significance lies in its entertainment value rather than as a serious work which military professionals may use to enhance their knowledge of the art of war.

This issue is worthy of discussion because The Forgotten Soldier has long been included in many professional development reading lists compiled by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. Frequently cited by military leaders and historians as an excellent example of a twentieth-century footsoldier's perspective of combat in its most elemental state, The Forgotten Soldier has educated two generations of military readers in the reality of combat, especially its human dimension, that is, how combat affects the individual physically, psychologically, and mentally.(3) Is The Forgotten Soldier fact or fiction? And if it is fiction, why would Sajer offer it up as fact? This article argues that Guy Sajer's account of his personal experiences is true. The Forgotten Soldier is an excellent first-person account which allows the reader to experience vicariously the reality of combat and to draw lessons still applicable today. Not only do the contents of the book itself testify to its authenticity, but, as we shall see, they should convince anyone that the book is not fiction. Unfortunately, this claim cannot be made unequivocally, as Kennedy's arguments demonstrate. Another careful examination of The Forgotten Soldier itself is required, as well as inquiries about its author. At this point, it is clear that the pronounced weight of the evidence indicates that the book is factual.

As readers of his book know, Guy Sajer was a 16-year-old French youth living in Wissembourg, Alsace, who volunteered in July 1942 to serve in the German Army. Motivated by a sense of adventure, as well as admiration for the German soldiers who had conquered France in 1940, he initially sought to become a Stuka dive bomber crew member, but failed and was sent to the army instead. After his initial training, he was sent to the Russian front, where, because of his youth, he first served in a transportation unit. In April 1943, he volunteered for service in the infantry as a member of the prestigious Grossdeutschland Division, at the time one of Germany's most powerful mechanized infantry divisions. Sajer's life over the next two years can only be described as an especially intense experience. His account of these years gives his book its most enduring value. His description of the horror, elation, fear, hope, and sense of sacrifice he felt and encountered during the Eastern Front campaigns mark the book as a lad-mark in autobiographical military history. To sense what the average German soldier experienced on the Russian battlefield, Sajer's is one of the best works extant. His book concludes in 1945 as his unit surrendered and he was treated as a "doubtful case" by his Allied captors, who were unsure whether to classify him as a German or as a French collaborator. Given the option of rehabilitating himself by joining the French Army after the war, Sajer chose to bury his memories. No one was sympathetic to a former German "collaborator" in postwar France. He was, and remains, a "forgotten soldier" in the country of his birth.

Few until recently have questioned the essential truthfulness of Sajer's account, certainly not previous reviewers. The English language version of his book received an overwhelmingly positive response when it appeared twenty-five years ago. J. Glenn Gray wrote in the New York Times in 1971 that Sajer "succeeded uncommonly well in describing the details of action and feeling, of suffering and terror, that fell to his lot as a private .... Those who have never known war at first hand will be unable to grasp more than a fraction of the reality he describes. Even veterans of combat will conclude that what they experienced was child's play in comparison."(4) Another reviewer, Waiter Clemons, wrote the same year that the particulars of Sajer's narrative, "like nails, drive it home and hurt us in unexpected places." The story, told with "youthful intensity," is "now and again set down with a clarity for which 'Tolstoyan' is not too strong a word." Clemons concludes that "We are reading the memoir of a man whose frshest, deepest feelings were aroused by the ordeal of war, who came out physically whole but never cared so much about anything again."(5)

The success of the book in the United States, Canada, and England has led to numerous reprintings since it first appeared. The most recent American edition, issued by Brasseys in cooperation with the Association of the U.S. Army and the Air ForceAssociation, became available in 1990. Not until Kennedy's article in 1992 did anyone question the book's standing as a genuine autobiography. Indeed, Kennedy's article remains to date the only serious attempt to argue otherwise.

His article attempts a step-by-step demolition of the book's veracity by focusing on a variety of details which, according to Kennedy, prove overwhelmingly that "the book is a carefully written novel that cleverly disguises [sic] as a factual account." Additionally, he asserts, the book"provides a useful example of how analysis of historical works can prove or disprove, lend credibility, or discredit supposed 'history."'(g) This is stating the obvious, indeed, but it remains to be seen how well the"analysis" stands up to scrutiny.

In broad strokes, the essence of Kennedy's argument is this: Sajer used historical fact to flesh out the background of his "novel." But he wasn't careful enough. Several small details escaped his notice. Taken together, these details expose the work as fiction. In other words,"the book is accurate, but not to a 'tee."' Kennedy builds his argument around five key discrepancies which appear in the book. These discrepancies involve which Luftwaffe training unit Sajer was briefly assigned to, the location of his uniform's cuff title, which unit he was assigned to in the famous Grossdeutschland Division, the names of key individuals in the book, and other unaccountable errors which, by Kennedy's lights, should have been common knowledge. In each instance, the writer makes some interesting points, but none of his objections is totally resilient to challenge, and taken together they amount to little more than a straw man.

Let's examine the discrepancies one by one:

1. The Luftwaffe training unit

Kennedy doubts Sajer's claim that he was briefly assigned to Colonel Hans Rudel's Stuka training unit because during the summer of 1942, Rudel's unit (according to Rudel himself) was located near Graz in southern Austria, quite a distance from Chemnitz, where Sajer claimed to be. Simply because Sajer was not in Graz does not rule out the fact that he could have been with Rudel's training unit. To an impressionable 16-year-old, anything having to do with Stukas probably would have made Sajer associate it with Rudel, a well-known hero at the time. Rudel was to Stuka dive bombers what Michael Jordan is to basketball. According to Rudel in his book Stuka Pilot, "crews are sent to me for further training from the Stuka schools after which they proceed to the front."(7) Sajer states that he was assigned to the 26th section of the squadron commanded by Rudel, failed to pass the Luftwaffe tests for Stuka crewman, and was sent to the infantry. The fact that Sajer was in Chemnitz does not rule out his claim. Rudel's unit may well have had a training and evaluation element at or near Chemnitz. Georg Tessin's Verbaende und Truppen der deutsche Wehrmacht und Waffen SS, the standard reference work on German Army and Air Force field and training organizations, locates the 103rd Stuka training squadron near the town of Bilina (Biblis) in the modem-day Czech Republic, about forty miles (sixty-five kilometers) from Chemnitz.(8) Incidentally, Tessin's study makes no mention of a unit based in Graz, Austria, at the time. Could it be that the once-famous and never-forgotten Rudel also let small details escape him?

2. Was Sajer ever assigned to the Grossdeutschland Division?

Kennedy suggests he was not because Sajer writes that he was assigned to the "Siebzehntes Bataillon" (17th Battalion), which, Kennedy says, never existed in that division's structure. He is right. There was no such "battalion," but there was a 17th Abteilung (Detachment) in each of that division's two infantry regiments.(9) The term Abteilung describes a unit which may range in size from company to regimental strength, but it was usually used for a unit of approximately battalion size or smaller. There were, however, even Armee Abteilungen (army detachments), which were corps-size units. In writing his book, Sajer may have used the term roughly equivalent to Abteilung, that being the term "Bataillon" (battalion), which would be most easily understood by his French readership. He might instead have used the term "Kompanie" (company),but did not. As in many other instances that Kennedy and I noted, Sajer is distressingly vague about such finer points.

Another possibility is that since Sajer had been a truck driver in a transportation unit before volunteering for infantry training and combat duty, he initially could have been assigned to the 17th Kolonne (Column) of the division's Nachschubdienste (the German equivalent of a U.S. division support command). A Kolonne was another German battalion-size unit that has no direct English translation. Regardless, the 17th was a rather high number indeed for an organic element of a regiment in the Wehrmacht, be it an Abteilung, Kompanie, or Kolonne, and only a few divisions, the Grossdeutschland being one of them, had regimental elements with numbers that went up this high. Most three-battalion German regiments only went up to the fourteenth Kompanie or Abteilung. The Grossdeutschland, as befitting its elite status, had, until its reorganization in July 1944, four battalions per regiment with a total of eighteen Kompanien or Abteilungen. So, at the very least, Sajer could have belonged at one time or another to the17th Abteilung or Kolonne.

Sajer claims, more convincingly, that on the eve of the Kursk offensive he was assigned as a replacement to the 5th Company of one of the division's infantry regiments, which certainly did exist.(l0) Kennedy fails to mention this in his analysis. Sajer's statement dovetails with the testimony of a former member of the Grossdeutschland, Hans Joachim Schafmeister-Berckholtz. Schafmeister-BerckhoItz, who served as a Leutnant (lieutenant)with 5th Company, 1st Battalion, Panzergrenadier-Regiment Grossdeutschland from 1940-44, stated in a letter to the author that he had only recently heard of Sajer's book and had been given a copy to read. However, he wrote that "At the mention of the name Sajer, my ears pricked up, because we did have a Sajer in the 5th Company, 1st Grenadier Battalion". Although Schafmeister-BerckhoItz added that he did not know this particular Sajer, his statement of which company the man was assigned to does coincide with Sajer's account. At the very least, there seems to have been one Grenader named Sajer in the Grossdeutschland.(11)

Although at this time there is no conclusive proof one way or the other that Guy Sajer was assigned to the Grossdeutschland, the available evidence seems to show that Sajer knew what he was talking about. He relates to the reader in a very convincing manner his experiences in the battles of Kursk, Kharkov, Kiev, Romania, East Prussia, and Memel. All of these battles and campaigns figured prominently in the battle history of the Grossdeutschland.

Nothing short of his service record or a unit muster roll could prove the point beyond the shadow of a doubt. His permanent service record, or Wehrstammbuch, would have been located at the Grossdeutschland' s recruiting office and main personnel records office in a Berlin suburb.(l2) If this office and the records contained therein survived both thebombing of Berlin and the street fighting which led to the fall of the city, the files would have been seized by the Soviets. If they exist at all, they may be in the Russian Army's archives outside of Moscow. To date, the Russians have been reluctant to allow Western historians access to this site. Sajer relates that he was assigned to a variety of ad hoc Kampfgruppen (battle groups) during two years of service with the Grossdeutschland. That the 17th "Battalion" was not one of them may arise more from the vicissitudes of memory and translation than to the faulty research of a cunning novelist. Moreover, it's a much more plausible explanation.

3. Sajer's Commander

For Kennedy, one of Sajer's most convincing errors is that the name of his commander in the book, a certain Hauptmann (Captain) Wesreidau, cannot be found on the personnel rolls of the division. In fact, this is hardly convincing at all. That none of the existing muster rolls or records show a "Wesreidau" simply underscores the well-known fact that many wartime divisional records are incomplete. How else could one explain the numerous blank "faces and spaces" in the various unit organizational charts which are scattered throughout the text of the three-volume divisional history issued byits veterans' association?(l 3) Officer casualties in the German Army of World War II were so high, especially during the second half of the war, that the names of many company commanders and staff officers may never be identified.(l4) This is even more likely in an elite unit such as the Grossdeutschland, which suffered far greater officer casualties than other comparable units since it spent a greater proportion of time in ombat.(l5) Kennedy also seems to have overlooked the possibility that Sajer might have changed his commander's name to spare "Wesreidau's" family further suffering, since "Wesreidau" was killed by a land mine near the Romanian border in 1944.

4. Other minor errors

There are many other minor errors in the work, as Kennedy points out. These relate to weapons' calibers, vehicle designations, units, and nomenclatures. Many of these, no doubt, are due to the English edition's poor translation of military terminology. This is even more likely since Sajer was initially writing for a French and Belgian readership and would have felt compelled from time to time to substitute a French equivalent for a Germ an military term. Further, translating these terms into English could have compounded any slight errors. Sajer wrote his rough draft in pencil, which may have led to further errors in the initial publication due to illegibility. Moreover, Sajer spent a brief period in the French Army after the war, and some French military terms would necessarily have crept into his soldier's lexicon.

One must also consider that Sajer was sixteen years old when he enlisted; he was discharged as a prisoner of war three years later at the ripe, old age of nineteen. Besides being little more than a child, Sajer spoke German poorly and did not display a good eye for military details. Thrust into a different culture (German versus French) and sent far away from home, it is a wonder that he was able to remember clearly anything about his experiences at all. The very fact that Sajer sometimes gets the small details wrong, but is correct in the larger ones, actually argues for the credibility of the writer. What could be more human, more believable, than forgetting such things or misremembering them twenty-two years beyond the events? What American draftee in the Vietnam conflict who experienced months of combat would get every single detail right almost a quarter of a century later? Very few, I would submit, and this would be true even for people with an eye for such things. Details of great significance to collge-educated military historians, professionalsoldiers, and World War II buffs and collectors, such as uniforms, weapons, accoutrements, and vehicles, seem to have been of little importance to Sajer, hence his haphazard, even lackadaisical, description of military trivia.

5. Uniform insignia

Kennedy's most serious assertion is that Sajer misplaced the location of his uniform's insignia. Sajer did mis-state where the unit cuff title was placed on his uniform. This point was also made to me in correspondence with the present head of the Grossdeutschland Division's veterans' association, Major (Retired) Helmuth Spaeter.(l6) This accusation alone, as far as Kennedy is concerned, would seem to be enough to label the entire book as fiction. (In Kennedy's words, "To cite the location [of the cuff title] on the wrong place is unimaginable...") It is true that, as an elite unit of the German Army, the Grossdeutschland Division was entitled to display a cuff title on the right sleeve of its members. This cuff title, embroidered with the word "Grossdeutschland" in German Suetterlin script, was as much an honored insignia at the time as a Ranger tab or Special Forces flash is today. The Waffen-SS divisions were also entitled to wear cuff titles, which they wore on the left sleeve. Sajer recalls in his book hat, upon receipt of their cuff titles, he and his comrades in arms were ordered to sew it onto their left sleeve, a patent error, since they should have been told to sew it onto their right sleeve.

So Sajer gets this wrong, but what does that prove? His forte was not military details, but feelings, moods, and experiences. The placement of the cuff title was simply another detail that paled beside the horror and heroism he remembered all too well. Sajer may simply have forgotten on which side he wore his cuff title. This is not nearly as inconceivable as it may seem, even though this sort of information is generally known among historians of the wartime German Army. How-ever, as we have already seen, Sajer was often careless such details is not all that uncommon among veterans. I have spoken with U.S. veterans of World War II who could not remember on which side their overseas service stripes were worn. My grandfather, whojumped with the 82d Airborne Division at Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 6, 1944, could not remember whether he wore an 82d Airborne shoulder insignia or an unauthorized 508th Infantry shoulder patch. He was by no means senile; some people simply do not regard these details as important. Toclaim that such a mistake on Sajer's part invalidates his story is straining at a gnat and ignoring the elephant.

On its face, the assertion that The Forgotten Soldier is fiction will not stand, although if so inclined, one could niggle about the historical trivialities engendered by the discussion forever. Much more conclusive to the outcome of this discussion would be the voice of Guy Sajer himself. The discovery of the truth about the forgotten soldier depended upon whether he could be located and convinced to come forward and lay the fiction/nonfiction question to rest. This proved to be a daunting task. The first question was whether Sajer was still alive thirty years after his book first appeared in print. If so, where was he? Answering these questions proved easy compared to getting him to reply. Forwarding a letterto Sajer through the current publisher, Brasseys, met with no response. Nor did an attempt to contact him through his original publisher, Editions Robert Laffont.(l7) Finally, after eighteen months and numerous dead ends, Guy Sajer was located in France through the efforts of three European military hitorians I had dragooned into the Sajer search service. Through the good offices of one of these historians, I have received background information on Guy Sajer and The Forgotten Soldier not previously available in English--and, finally, a response from Sajer himself.

The information on Sajer which has recently emerged sheds further light on his identity and postwar occupation. A letter from a close friend of Guy Sajer, Jacques Le Breton, located the elusive "forgotten soldier" living in a rural village in France east of Paris under his nom de plume. The surname Sajer is the maiden name of his mother, who had been born in Gotha, Germany.(l8) In an interview in 1969 with his German publisher, Sajer disclosed that his father, a Frenchman from Auvergne in south-central France, had moved his family from Wissembourg in Alsace to Lorient prior to the outbreak of the war. It was there in June 1940, when his family was stranded on the road as refugees, that young Sajer first encountered the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, who had only a few days before completed their conquest of France. In the interview Sajer related how, in line with World War I propaganda, he had feared that the Germans would cut off his hands. To his surprise, instead of cutting off his hands, the German Landsers anded him food and something to drink.(l9)

After his family had moved back to Alsace (once again incorporated into the German Reich) in 1941, Sajer was called up for labor service duty (Reichsarbeitsdienst), since as a half-German he was required to perform six to eight months of manual labor, just as German youth were. While serving in labor service camps in Strasbourg and at Kehl, right across the Rhine, Sajer admitted envying his youthful German counterparts, who seemed so self-confident and eager to serve their country. He remembers his own feelings of inadequacy watching them volunteering for combat. At the time combat seemed a great adventure, but it was a privilege extended only topure Germans. Finally in 1942, when German manpower shortages began to worsen and he turned sixteen, Sajer was allowed to volunteer for military service. From July 1942 to May 1945, he served in a variety of German Army units on the Russian Front, most notably the elite Grossdeutschland Division, and took part in many of the critical defensive battles that eventuallydecided the fate of Germany in the East.

Following a short period of captivity at the end of the war, he served briefly in the French Army. Shortly thereafter, he found employment as a graphic illustrator in Paris, an indicator of the artistic temperament which manifests itself throughout his book. He married a French woman, who bore them a son in 1954. In 1952, between bouts of asthma, he began recording his memoirs as a means of overcoming the horrible memories which had haunted him since the war's end. By 1957, the single school notebook in which he had begun recording his experiences in pencil had grown to seventeen volumes. Although many times he wanted to destroy his work, friends intervened and persuaded to allow a Belgian periodical to publish excerpts of his story in the early 1960s.

The success of these excerpts attracted the notice of the French publishers Editions Robert Laffont. Laffont acquired the complete set of memoirs and published them in 1967 as Le Soldat Oublie' (The Forgotten Soldier). The book, an overnight success in Gaullist France, gained Sajer both accolades and approbation, since his was the first published postwar memoir by a wartime German sympathizer which presented an unabashedly favorable account of the hated former enemy. The German-language version was published in 1969 as Denn dieser Tage Qual war gross: Bericht eines vergessenen Soldaten (These Days Were Full of Great Suffering: Report of a Forgotten Soldier). Its roaring success in Germany and Austria led to its being published in a number of other languages, including the 1971 English-language version, The Forgotten Soldier.

Through German historians, I finally got in contact with the reclusive M. Sajer. What led the search to the "forgotten soldier's" door was a letter from Jacques Le Breton, a close friend of Sajer whom he has known for over a decade. M. Le Breton advanced a strong case for Sajer's veracity:

Nothing [in Sajer's book] proves that he didn't go through the events he describes ... on the contrary, he describes, without bragging, the usual daily experiences of the life of a Landser on the front lines. A fraud would have claimed to have destroyed more tanks by his own hand and would have been more boastful about it ... Sajer does nothing of the kind. On the contrary, Sajer remains modest, sensible, and plausible. He doesn't claim any Iron Crosses or great deeds of heroism (as many other French volunteers did).(20)

According to this close associate, Sajer writes military history not with a big "H", but as a testimony from a humble soldier who served on the Russian Front. Sajer's friend claims to trust his veracity implicitly, though he admits that Sajer possesses a dark, pessimistic personality. Le Breton says Sajer prefers to live with the memories of his wartime service while holding the current world in contempt.

Finally able to question Sajer through German historian Klaus Schulz, I posed to him all the questions Kennedy had raised: the matter of his cuff title, unit designations, company commander, and so on.(21) Sajer replied almost immediately, squelching any further speculation about his book's authenticity. In his response to Herr Schulz, Sajer explained why he wrote the book in the first place, in words both illuminating and moving:

"I succeeded in having this horror story from the Second World War published in a country hostile to me [France] against my own best interests, and with all of the problems in describing the well-merited compassion I still feel for my German soldier comrades ... all of them. I conveyed the difficulty of these moments ... the anguish and the horror. I [publicly] acknowledged the courage and good will of German Landsers in a climate where one was not permitted to talk about them. I depicted their faithfulness and self-sacrifice ... I moved the hearts of millions. I have proudly glorified the honor of all German soldiers at a time in history when they were slandered andreviled. In my opinion, this was my duty and I asked for nothing in return."(22)

His book, then, is a memorial to his comrades in arms, both living and, in their hundreds, dead. In regards to questions about cuff titles, commanders and so forth, Sajer answered with ill-disguised contempt:

"You ask me questions of chronology, situations, dates and unimportant details. Historians and archivists (Americans as well as Canadians) have harassed me for a long time with their rude questions. All of this is unimportant. Other authors and high-ranking officers could respond to your questions better than I. I never had the intention to write a historical reference book; rather, I wrote about my innermost emotional experiences as they relate to the events that happened to me in the context of the Second World War."(23)

Thus, what could be fairly adduced from a close reading of the book itself, as I have shown, is now confirmed by the author himself. Details did not cloud the author's vision as it did some readers'. What is more important, Sajer writes, is the favorable impact that his book has had, and the enormously favorable public acceptance it has received. To date, according to Sajer, it has been published in sixteen languages and has been read by millions. Sajer cites the thousands of letters from readers who have been moved by his book in the thirty years since it was first published. Concluding on a sad, poignant, and yet majestic note, the seventy-year-old Sajer writes that "I am now an old man, tired, sick, and disgusted with human incoherence; I would like nothing more than to be left in peace .... I give you my book as an homage to the German people, whatever their generation."(24)

To my surprise, I finally received a response from Guy Sajer directly. In his letter, Sajer echoed the same sentiments that he had expressed in his letter to Klaus Schulz several months prior. Asked to explain inconsistencies in his book, Sajer replied,

"Apart from the emotions I brought out, I confess my numerous mistakes. That is why I would like that this book may not be used, under no circumstances, as a strategic or chronological reference. Except for some clear landmarks, we didn't know exactly where we were (I am speaking about Russia). We had only code numbers for mail which meant nothing to us .... In the black Russia of winter, I would not have been surprised if someone had told me that we were in China." (25)

At this point, is there still room to argue that this man is a fraud? That his book is a clever concoction? That it does not, as thousands of readers attest, bare the soul of a single human tossed into the pitiless cauldron of war? In the words of M. LeBreton, "A serious criticism of Sajer's feats of arms coming from a genuine veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division could, in a pinch, be taken seriously, but coming from an American, and especially a young one (who did not take part in that war),.., does not seem to merit being taken into account."(26)

What do German veterans think of Sajer's book? One German veteran of the war, Hen Hans Wegener, who fought in Russia from 1941 to 1943 as a noncommissioned officer in the 39th Infantry Division, had this to say:

"I read Sajer's book in the early '70s...[it] depicted deeds and events ... correspond even with the minute tactical and great strategic events of the period described in the book. The language is of overpowering simplicity yet extremely smooth and impressive. The train of thought and reflections correspond to those of a young soldier who is tossed into the maelstrom of the hard suffering and hopeless retreat battles of the Eastern Front. I can verify that the Landsers thought this way, acted this way, and suffered and died in the pitiless retreat actions on the gigantic expanses ofRussia, which in itself gave you a feeling of loneliness and loss if faced ... as an individual human being. Even small inconsistencies cannot change my belief, because the overall impact of the manuscript, the inherentbalance and truthfulness, are for me the determining criteria [as to its authenticity]. I am quite sure that Guy Sajer did not tell a fictitious story. I look at this book as a tremendous monument for the great and ingularachievements of the German soldier during a hopeless situation. "(27)

This is a powerful endorsement, indeed. By the way, Wagener has never met Sajer, yet still feels strongly about the book more than twenty years later. Perhaps even more persuasive testimony comes from a member of the vaunted Grossdeutschland Division itself, Herr Helmuth Spaeter, a former major who commanded the division's reconnaissance Abteilung during the war and served for a period as the head of the division's veterans' association. Quoted by Kennedy as one of Sajer's most vociferous critics, Spaeter was absolutely convinced, until recently, that The Forgotten Soldier was fiction. However, when I provided him a copy of Sajer's letter to examine, he was evidently moved enough to completely reexamine his earlier position. "I was deeply impressed by his statements in his letter," he told me. "I have underestimated Herr Sajer and my respect for him has greatly increased. I am myself more of a writer who deals with facts and specifics-much less like one who writes in a literaryway. For this reason, I was ver skeptical towards the content of his book. I now have greater regard for Herr Sajer and I will read his book once again. Thank God I still have a copy of it here."(28) Apparently here is one skeptic who is willing to abandon his preconceptions and look at Sajer's book from a new perspective, and a well-known member of the Grossdeutschland Division who fought in the same battles as Sajer did, no less. Spaeter's reversal suggests a course of action that might wisely be taken by other skeptics far less personally engaged in these matters.

To date, no existing service record for Guy Sajer that substantiates his service in the Grossdeutschland Division has been found, but that is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers' personnel files, perhaps millions, were destroyed either during or after the war. Only incomplete personnel rosters exist from the Grossdeutschland Division. Trying to track down the identity of one man in anorganization that, with its offshoots, had over 100,000 men pass through its ranks from 1939 to 1945 is a nearly impossible task.(29) But one doesn't need this kind of proof to reach a conclusion about Sajer's identity. Both his personal testimony and the overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence point to the inescapable conclusion that his book is genuine.Until solid evidence that shows otherwise emerges, an unlikely event in any case, the words of Guy Sajer himself, as well as numerous other witnesses, all point to the conclusion that Guy Sajer is genuine and The Forgotten Soldier is autobiography: fat, not fiction.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the substantial assistance I have received on the research and writing of this article from my friend Dr. Thomas E. Schott of Brandon, Florida. The help extended to me by Dr. Schott, a professional historian, went way beyond the call of duty or even the demands of friendship.


1. Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., "The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?" Army History, no. 22 (Spring 1992): 23-25.

2. Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

3. See, for example, Col. Harold W. Nelson, "From My Bookshelf," Military Review 70, no. 3 (March 1990): 90, and Maj. Gen. Michael F. Spigelmire, "From My Bookshelf, " Military Review 70, no. 5 (May 1990): 89-90.

4. J. Glenn Gray, "The Forgotten Soldier," The New York Times Book Review, 7 Feb 71, p. 4. (Gray, then a philosophy professor at Colorado College, was the author of The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle [New York: Harcourt. Brace. 1959]. Sajer's book has more recently been used for historical documentation by the academic historian Stephen G. Fritz in Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, I995].-- Ed.)

5. Waiter Clemons, "A Young Man's Marriage to War," The New York Times, 18 Jan 71. See also Maj. Robert C. Clarke, "The Forgotten Soldier," Military Review 51, no. 6 (June 1971): 106.

6. Kennedy, "Fiction or Fact?" p. 23.

7. Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.: The Noontide Press, 1987), p. 53.

8. Georg Tessin, Verbaende und Truppen der deutsche Wehrmacht und Waffen SS in Zweiten Weltkrieg, 17 vols. (Osnabriick, Germany: Biblio Verlag, 1979), I: 353.

9. Helmuth Spaeter, ed, Die Geschichte des Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland, 3 vols. (Duisburg, Germany: Selbstverlag Hilfswerk, 1958), 1: 404.

10. Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier, p. 207.

11. Ltr, Hans-Joachim Schafmeister-BerckhoItz to Douglas E. Nash, 11 Mar 97, in author's possession.

12. Ibid.

13. For an example of this, refer to Spaeter, Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland, 1: 541-4.

14. For further examples of this, refer to Rudolf Lehmann, Die Leibstandarte: Die I. SS Panzer Division, 4 vols. (Osnabrueck, Germany: Munin Verlag, 1982), or Martin Jenner, Die 21 6.\2 72. Niedersaechsischelnfanterie-Division, 1939-I945(Bad Nauheim, Germany: Podzun Verlag, 1964), which both frequently depict organizational charts with names missing. After the war, many survivors forgot thenames of men with whom they had served with only briefly.

15. Omer Bartov, Hitler 's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 5-57, states that officer casualties for the Grossdeutschland Division over the course of the war totaled approximately 1,500 men, more than five times the number of officers authorized.

16. Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 10 Sep 96, in the author's possession. Incidentally, Spaeter claims to have never met nor heard of Edwin L. Kennedy.

17. Ltr, Editor, Editions Robert Laffont to Nash, 15 Feb 96, in author's possession.

18. Lts; Jacques Le Breton to Studiendirektor Friedrich Pohl, 8 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.

19. "Zur Person des Autors," in Sajer. Denn dieser Tage Qual war gross: Bericht eines vergessenen Soldaten (Munich: Verlag Fritz Molden, 1969), pp. 6-7.

20. Ltr, Le Breton to Pohl, 8 Oct 96.

21. Ltr, Klaus Schulz to Sajer, 4 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.

22. Ltr, Sajer to Schulz, 13 Oct 96, in author's possession.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ltr, Sajer to Nash, 16 Jan 97, in author's possession.

26. Ltr, Le Breton to Pohl, 8 Oct 96.

27. Ltr, Hans Wegener to Schulz, 2 Oct 96, copy in author's possession.

28. Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 24 Nov 96, in author's possession.

29. Ltr, Spaeter to Nash, 6 Nov 96, in author's possession. Spaeter's three-volume history shows that the Grossdeutschland suffered approximately 56,678 casualties from June 1940, when it first saw battle as a regiment, to May 1945, when it ended the war as a Panzergrenadier division. Comparing these losses against its authorized strength in 1943 of approximately 18,000 men shows that the division suffered some 300 percent casualties in five years of its existence.

The First Article  |  The Nash Article  |  Kennedy's Rebuttal  |  The Fritz Letter