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Book Review 209: In Deadly Combat

August 15, 2011 - Harry Eagar
IN DEADLY COMBAT: A German Soldier's Memoir of the Eastern Front, by Gottlob Herbert Biderman, translated and edited by Derek S. Zumbro. 330 pages, illustrated. Kansas

Authentic memoirs of long-serving combat infantrymen are rare, because they seldom survive to write them. And then if they do, they sometimes have powerful motives to misrepresent what they experienced, especially if they were German infantrymen in Russia.

In the case of Gottlob Biderman, a draftee, his position as an antitank gunner, at first, and an infantry officer, later, slightly enhanced his chances – it appears he was wounded only twice as a gunner, five times as an infantryman. German antitank gunners were more like infantrymen than most artillerists, and of the 12 men who entered Russia on Biderman's crew, nine were killed in action, two severely wounded and one – Biderman – was still standing at the end and still again after a few years in a POW camp.

One would very much like to have authentic accounts of infantry life in the world's greatest infantry campaign, and while “In Deadly Combat” makes for compelling reading, and is in part probably authentic, it cannot easily be given a clean mark.

In an introduction, the historian Denis Showalter endorses Biderman, while cautiously raising doubts about Guy Sajer's much more popular “The Forgotten Soldier,” widely regarded as mostly a hoax. The difficulties with Biderman's memoir are more subtle than Sajer's too-exciting-to-be-believed novel. These involve reading backward and ducking issues.

Biderman wrote for fellow veterans of the 132nd Infantry Division, in 1964, which in some senses guarantees the veracity of the work. The intended readers would have known which parts were real. The edited version, translated much later and using the results of numerous interviews, by Derek Zumbro, somewhat clouds this guaranty of veracity. (Some parts appear to be little more than Zumbro's notes, such as the final pages of Chapter 6.)

The first problem arises from trying to guess whether what Biderman wrote in 1964 really reflected his opinions in 1941.

As a second wave infantry unit, the 132nd entered Russia a week after the initial attack, and the landsers (grunts, doughboys) marched for a whole month before catching up to the front line – a telling comment on the tactical hollowness of blitzkrieg, which indeed sent armored columns racing forward but which, in the German version, did not provide enough infantry to secure the ground gained.

In any event, gaining ground in Russia was not the point, which Biderman says he recognized in his very first action, a hard fight of six hours that pushed the front forward six miles. “Twelve kilometers of territory were won in six hours of difficult fighting, and my thoughts dwelled on the insignificance of 12 kilometers: 12 kilometers – in an endless land, where unbroken fields stretched to the horizon before us from sunrise to sunset. I wondered how many mokre 12-kilometer battles lay ahead of us during our march away from the setting sun.”

Such thoughts did not trouble the General Staff. On Biderman's note, it was obvious that Germany was defeated the day it started, if only the Russians did not give up.

Much else in the book reads like the wisdom of hindsight.

Rather more troubling is Biderman's insistence, as a front-line combatant, that the atrocities that turned the initially gleeful Ukrainians against the Germans were mostly unknown to him and his mates. At one point, he cites his commander in Crimea, Erich Manstein, who said as much in his, much longer apologia. It is certain that Manstein was lying. Biderman probably is, too.

Nevertheless, the accounts of close action and supply ingenuities are of interest to the student of the campaign, and, like most long-service combatants, Biderman came to regard his squadmates as his real family. His furloughs home left him anxious to return to the front.

His contempt for the golden pheasants (Nazi bigwigs) is no doubt authentic enough, and matched by front-line infantrymen who fought for regimes much less repellent than Germany's. Whether he was repelled by Hitlerism, though, remains an open question.

His much-admired divisional commander, Lindeman, took part in the pretend conspiracy against Hitler and was shot by the Gestapo for his unseriousness. There are two ways to look at this.

First, Lindeman and the other plotters, who lacked nerve as the crucial moment, did not ever really understand the nature of the regime, or they would have – as so many tens of millions of non-Germans did – risked everything, since there was really no risk at all. They were going to be shot if they failed, but they were going to be shot if they didn't try, too.

Second, though, and more likely, is that the plotters failed in resolution because it was Hitler, not Hitlerism, that they objected to.

Biderman, in the pages relating his time in captivity, falls into the common German nostalgia for the lost victories, and claims to have been amazed that the Western allies did not wish to join the remnant of the German army to save “European culture” from Bolshevism.

The difficulty with this argument is that while the invasion of Russia was a genuine attempt to overthrow Bolshevism, it was also an attempt to rob eastern Europe for the benefit of Germans. Biderman mentions the antiBolshevism, but not the lebensraum.

It is easy to see why he felt aggrieved to be given starvation rations in prison camp, but the reason there wasn't much food in Russia was that Biderman had spent the last four harvest seasons trying to ruin Soviet agriculture. This did not occur to him, nor did he suggest he felt the slightest irony in demanding to be treated as a prisoner according to the rules of the Hague Convention.

While very far from the worst of the National Socialists, Biderman presents a textbook example of Churchill's description of the German: “at your feet or at your throat.”


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