Fallschirmjäger! | Book Review
Greg Way, Fallschirmjäger! A Collection of Firsthand Accounts and Diaries By German Paratrooper Veterans From the Second World War.
Helion & Co., 2019. £20.00.
In Fallschirmjäger!, Greg Way has to overcome a huge challenge, a fundamental problem that faces every author who's researching the Luftwaffe today. To put it simply, the majority of archive materials were destroyed in 1945.
In Fallschirmjäger!, Way delivers a microhistory that embraces this challenge and in many respects, overcomes it.
This is a book well worth reading.
In this book, Greg Way explores the lives of nineteen German veterans – all former Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) – but this is not a typical Luftwaffe operational history, laden with battles or unit histories. This microhistory is an intimate military history of former elite soldiers, reconstructing lives, revealing memories of war. From the readers’ perspective, it’s helpful that Greg Way doesn’t introduce us to these men with preconceived ideas or with the blinkers of an ‘operational only’ viewpoint. He knew, as we all know, that German soldiers prosecuted brutal forms of modern warfare and the Luftwaffe was a creature of Nazism, steeped in Third Reich culture.
However, the majority of archive materials were destroyed in 1945. This makes it difficult to connect men to deeds, actions to operations, and battles to commanders – a fundamental challenge for all researchers or writers who want to understand how the Luftwaffe operated, what their motives were, and the impact of their operations. The history of the Luftwaffe, and the Fallschirmjäger (FSJ), has also become mired in tedious and repetitive aviation myths.
Way takes an entirely different approach, avoiding the Luftwaffe myths entirely.
This microhistory of nineteen veterans looks at men who came from different backgrounds, had military skill sets and diverse experiences of war – Way is diligent in his analysis – and as a result we get highly insightful narratives, reconstructing the experience of war.
For example, Dr. Erich Schulz was an FSJ-medical orderly born in Königsberg (today: Kaliningrad) in 1921. His wartime experience stretched from 1939, included the eastern front, and was captured by the Americans in Normandy. The mementos of his war included photographs, badges and general issue documents. These may seem like trivial bits n’ pieces, but with the added oral content from interviews, Way has reconstructed a near-complete narrative that lets us understand the role and life of battlefield medics. The extent of this reconstruction, based on personal ephemera and the veteran’s memories, is the red thread running through the book.
Then we have Sebastian Krug, born in 1920. Originally from the Allgäu in Bavaria, Krug was the complete soldier. He had a wide range of specialist training and combat experience. He received the medals, was awarded the badges for gallantry, and for being wounded, and rose through the ranks to become sergeant. He had three deployments to the eastern front and was finally captured by the Americans. He had witnessed ‘bad experiences’, in one case watching SS men hang a civilian from the balcony of a house. He also took part in an honour court (peculiar to Luftwaffe culture) and escorted the guilty man to a prison – Way builds this narrative with authenticity. There’s no myth involved.
Today, one might question the absence of ‘confessions’ – knowing about or having personally perpetrated Nazi war crimes. There’s a hard lesson involved, when trying to evaluate how far ordinary German soldiers perpetrated crimes. It’s a fruitless exercise.
Disheartened, writers and scholars all too often disregard the ‘other’ content that’s available, as being irrelevant. A lesson from researching ordinary soldiers - without this ‘other’ content - it’s next to impossible to reconstruct an account of the behaviour of German soldiers in war. Dwelling on the unaccountable cannot explain either the men or their philosophy – a reference to a personal experience in that cul-de-sac.
Greg Way was a former Royal Navy submariner and specialised in maritime security. The FSJ in many ways reflected similar security operations and actions. It is obvious from his narrative that he recognised those traits in the veterans he was researching, and consequently teased them out in the most intimate details.
The book makes us think about history’s larger canvas from the perspective of individual accounts. This is well researched and highly recommended.