Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“Soldier X” by Don Wulffson: A Book Impression and My Own Take on the 1940s History

Speak (Penguin) 2001

I usually try to stick to new books when reviewing, but I couldn’t keep silent about this one. My 12-year-old son recommended this book to me, and the concept totally intrigued me. A teenage German soldier gets sent to the front in 1944, at a time when German supplies ae dwindling and the losses are heavy. While engaged in a battle, the protagonist, who has some knowledge of the Russian language, faces a difficult choice: be killed or pass himself for a Russian. He chooses the latter and finds himself on the other side of the war, looking after the wounded in a Russian hospital, where he befriends, then falls for a Russian girl.

This is a “war is hell” kind of a book, and it portrays the horrors of the front in awful, vivid detail. I always appreciate this sort of honesty. However, there were things that bothered me about this book — things I feel a  strong need to share.

The way this book portrays the war is essentially as a squabble between two governments, with little people with no particular feeling for their respective countries’ cause, caught in the middle of it.

I have a a problem with this portrayal. Sometimes, in wars, there really is a bad guy. There is an aggressor.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know that I am one of the first people to bash the former Soviet Union. For Stalin and the repressions he started, for the leaders who followed him, who continued his repressions, who kept telling his lies. I support books such as Rita Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” that talk about the horrors the USSR unleashed on the people of Lithuania and others. However, one thing you must give the Soviet Union is that war.

In one hospital scene in “Soldier X,”  a whole bunch of wounded solders are so disenchanted that they refuse their medals. My grandmother lived through that war, and I’ve seen many others who have. I have heard many political jokes, and I have learned to tell when history textbooks fed us lies that everyone scoffed at. But no one ever questioned why the Soviet people fought the war known to the world as World War II and to the Soviet Union as The Great Patriotic War. For that’s exactly what it was. Hitler started the war with an air raid on June 22, 1941. In the same way that Japan declared war on the US with an attack on Pearl Harbor. People today still remember what they did that day long ago, where they were when the first raid started. The way we Americans remember that awful morning of September 11th ten years ago.

Once the Great Patriotic War began, people united like never before, bonded by grief and disaster, against an attack that left the earth scorched, homes destroyed, food supplies depleted and families broken. Sure, Stalin’s political repressions continued, but much slower than before or after the war. In fact, many political prisoners got a reprieve — hey, fighters were needed. Sure, the Red Army had strict rules — terrible ones, you could say — rules that would not allow soldiers to retreat, and some other barbaric practices that Wulffson talks about in his book did take place. Some Russians did desert, and used the war as their chance to emigrate to the West, even to Germany. But there were hundreds, thousands of other stories. Stories of people proudly leaving their families to volunteer to defend them against the German aggression.

Of course, Germany suffered too. And Eastern Germany in particular went on to suffer for many more years following the war. But that’s a different story. Just like the story of what the United States’ terrible nuclear revenge on Japan at the end of World War II. A different story. But remember that sense of injustice, that rage that filled America after the Pearl Harbor attack? The Russians felt that very same rage and carried it through the war. So to me, putting the Soviets on the same footing as the dejected Germans at the end of the war is, if nothing else, simply inaccurate. The losses were heavy, and fatigue was terrible, but by 1944 the people felt it — victory was drawing close. Sure, the Soviet radio and papers exaggerated the good news, still the news were good and getting better.

Sure, the German troops felt dejected and disgusted with the war as it was drawing to a close, but in the beginning it must not be forgotten that they marched in enthusiastic parades and saluted, eager to wipe out Russia as a country and enslave the Slavs and others that populated it, while on the other side, the Soviets were singing solemn songs and taking war preparation classes in schools as part of getting ready for the attack that was imminent.

At that point in time, those two sides cannot be morally equal. And, contrary to Wulffson’s portrayal, the Russian troops did not perceive it that way. While by the end of the war many Germans might have started to feel doubts about what they were doing in Russia, the Russians knew exactly what they were fighting for — simply — their home.

My feeling is, with the shortage of books dealing with the Soviet role in bringing World War II to successful conclusion, it is important to present an accurate perspective. I thought after my current work-in-progress I’d be done with Russia as far as my books go. I thought I’d be pretty much finished with historical fiction, too. I’ve never been much of a war book person, either. But now, having read this book, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Perhaps one day — a whole bunch of years from now — you’ll see my book set in the 1940s Russia, in the middle of the war.

 

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September 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 4 Comments