Klaus G. Förg, I Somehow Survived (Greenhill Books, 2019)
As the generation that fought World War II fades away, the importance of grabbing their memories becomes ever more paramount. This is particularly true for Germans many of whose stories have never been told, mainly because they were part of a toxic culture that they would rather forget, and they were on the losing side. Klaus G. Förg is collecting those memories and presents five of them in I Somehow Survived.
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Georg Weiss joined the army as a conscript in 1942 and sent east to fight partisans before facing the Soviet onslaught through to the end of the war. Weiss’s horrific experiences in almost constant retreat make up the bulk of his story and the book. He was indeed fortunate to survive but also resourceful. Sepp Heinrichsberger was also conscripted but went to France to fight partisans in the Vercors region. He took part in a massacre of civilians in two villages, an action that burdened him into his old age and one that had little effect on the partisans. In 1944, the Americans captured Heinrichsberger and his unit and they became POWs. That was a new hell for him, but he made it home barely alive in 1948. Franz Blattenberger joined the Luftwaffe in 1943 but fought in the artillery in Italy where he kept a diary. He ended up on the eastern front in East Prussia. At war’s end, he evaded the Soviets and surrendered to the Americans. He soon escaped from them and walked 500km home. Dr Siegfried Schugmann volunteered for pilot training in the Luftwaffe but ended up in a flak battery in Italy. That was an error, so he was shipped back to Germany where he became a paratrooper, which at this time, 1945, was an infantry designation only. He was captured by advancing US forces and released to go home. Morild Nirschl tells a very different story. She was a Norwegian girl who fell in love with a German sailor, married and moved to Germany. Nirschl had to wait three years after the war for her husband to come home from his POW status.
I Somehow Survived is a glass half-full, half-empty book. We should be grateful for Förg’s diligent research and presentation of stories that might otherwise have been lost. Weiss’ story in particular is a compelling read. There are also some photographs included of the storytellers during the war and at their interviews in 2019, which humanize people who sometimes did inhuman things. The book lacks a theme, however, caused by the inclusion of Nirschl’s story; the other four stories hang well together. Moreover, the stories are tasters, raising many questions with no apparent answers, and I wanted to know more. As editor, Förg could have done that, though he does fill in some gaps. Overall, I will go with glass half-full. I enjoyed these memories and have a greater awareness of what these people went through. I suspect that is what Förg is trying to achieve.