I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea to do the Sunday blog on war books. The only problem is, there are so many great ones it’s hard to decide which one to start with.
I’ve noticed one thing about war books, kind of a rule: the more messed-up the war, the better the books. That’s why there are so many great books about Vietnam but no really good ones about the US forces in WW II. In Nam we had no strategy, so we sent small units out into the bush to trigger ambushes. Terrible way to fight a war but a great way to start a million stories. Whereas in WW II we were doing intelligent large-unit combat with a coherent strategic plan, which made for a great victory but no good books I know of. Maybe I’m wrong there; anybody know any great war memoir by an American soldier in WW II? If you do, I’ll bet you in advance it’s by an American who was involved in one of the less successful, more messed-up theaters of the war.
The best WW II memoir I know about The Sergeant in the Snow, by Mario Rigoni Stern.
Mario Rigoni Stern
Just proves my bad-war-equals-good-memoir theory, that the best WW II memoir would be by an Italian, because you can’t get much more messed up than Italy’s adventures in WW II, and this guy went through the worst of them, the encirclement of the Italian forces in Ukraine in the winter of 1942-43. Mussolini had sent a small Italian contingent along on Operation Barbarossa. So did almost every European country east of Germany; when the Wehrmacht has just conquered all of Western Europe while losing only 30,000 kia in the process, they sure look like a winner, and everybody wanted shares in the company. Nobody in Europe discovered that “Fascism is a bad thing” until Stalingrad fell, when they all sorta had the big born-again moment while pissing their pants in terror.
So in the Summer of 1942, the Italians doubled down on their Eastern Front contribution, sending almost a quarter of a million soldiers to man a section of the Wehrmacht’s line along the Don River in Ukraine. Some of those units were good, especially the Alpini.
Alpini on the Eastern Front
The Italian Army had developed very good mountain troops and tactics fighting the Austrians in the Alps in WW I, and the three divisions of Alpini Mussolini sent east could have made a real contribution if they’d been assigned to the Caucasus, where they were supposed to go. But the Germans were always too arrogant to use their allies effectively, and they did it again this time, sending these mountain troops to hold the line in flat farmland along the Don where all their training was wasted, and their small, portable weaponry was guaranteed to be outgunned by massed Soviet armor.
Mario Rigoni Stern, the man who wrote The Sergeant in the Snow, was a sergeant in the Tridentina Division of the Alpini, the best of all. His book describes the quiet time, almost happy, when he and his division held the line by the river, and then the collapse of the whole line in mid-winter. Only a few of the Italians on the Eastern Front made it out of “the Bag” the Soviets caught most of the Wehrmacht’s allied armies in that winter. Rigoni Stern was one of the few to escape, and to his dying day (he lived until 2008), the thing that made him proudest is that he led a group of 70 Italian soldiers out of that bag without losing a single one.
You might notice that his name isn’t classic Italian: “Rigoni Stern.” He was a mountain kid, from the quasi-German mountains in Northern Italy, where the people are tough and don’t have the tradition of bowing and scraping to the aristocracy the way they did further south. You have to remember that until 1945, most of Central and Eastern Europe either was German or was pretending to be German or had an ambition to become German some day. Rigoni Stern was from one of those parts, and it can’t have been much of a stretch for him to find himself in the battle-line with the Wehrmacht. But like I said, the Third-Reich vintage Germans were totally arrogant and stupid about their allies; they could have had all Ukraine on their side, the way Stalin tried to wipe the Ukrainian peasantry out, but they treated the locals like garbage…which is why after 1945, instead of everyone from Zagreb to Alsace claiming to be German, you had people from Dusseldorf trying to convince everybody they were “Swiss.”
The Sergeant in the Snow is one tiny story in that huge long disaster, but it doesn’t waste any time on the big picture. It’s told from the view of Rigoni Stern himself, and like most of my favorite war books it’s mostly about food. Seriously, this is one thing I’ve noticed: one thing you can count on in a good war book is some great descriptions of food. I guess because food is so iffy, and so precious, when you’re on the front. Food and warmth, those are the big things in this book, which is natural when the author’s describing an army retreating through a Russian winter.
The first part of the book is almost happy: Stern and his fellow Alpini are dug in along the Don, making the best of it, trying to find better food, telling stories, keeping watch, doing all the things guys in a small unit do to keep busy on a static front. Nobody is that eager for combat, not the Italians, or the Rumanians and Hungarians beside them, or even the Russians emplaced across the river. Everybody’s hoping things can stay static.
They don’t, of course. But once you’ve read this part, you’ll never forget the weird dreamy happiness of just having a good meal in the bunker, laughing at the weird way guys from different parts of Italy say things, passing the time. Maybe war makes people appreciate the little stuff more; I don’t know. All I know is that in English class you have to read novels about people like that Gatsby who have everything, they’re young, rich, cool, etc.—and they’re totally miserable. In most war novels the guys are filthy and scared and can’t even shave, but they can talk for a page about how wonderful a piece of cheese from home tastes and make you feel it too. I’ve noticed prison stories are the same, nobody really wants to talk tough, they want to talk about the time somebody brought a package from home.
Then the book shifts gears fast. The line collapses for a hundred miles on either side and the Alpini have to get out. On foot, mostly. Stern is great describing walking through the snow. In fact the book starts with a line like, “My head is still full of the sound of snow crunching under my boots.” The Alpini are tough guys, and they stay out of “The Bag” long enough to get back inside the Wehrmacht’s new defensive line. But the real fun reading this is the little stuff Stern goes through along the way. You realize what a multi-ethnic quilt of an army the Wehrmacht was on the Eastern Front. You don’t see many Germans in this book. You meet everybody else east of the Rhine: Hungarians, Croats, Rumanians, Czechs, all the little pilot fish that were happy to swim along with the German shark until it got netted.
The fighting in the book is like the rest of it, almost drugged out, slowed down in the cold. Nobody really wants to go outside and fight. They want to go inside somewhere and stop marching, have something to eat, to keep the furnace going, keep the core temperature up. Once Stern ducks into a hut and finds a coed Soviet army squad slurping up the borsch. They can see he’s one of the enemy, but this is a serious war book, meaning it’s about comfort and food. So they shove him a bowl and keep slurping.
Stern made it out and kept his men with him. About 140,000 of the quarter-million men the Italians sent east weren’t so lucky.
But then “luck” was kinda relative if you were in Eastern Europe in 1943. There wasn’t a lot of luck to go around. Stern made it out of the Soviet trap all right, but then the Italians decided to hang Mussolini upside-down on a meathook and the Germans got peeved. The Wehrmacht that had “rescued” Stern sent him to an internment camp. Well, even so, that probably was good luck by the local standards.
In some ways The Sergeant in the Snow reads like a fantasy story. That’s how gone that world is. It doesn’t seem like there ever could have been this cold European world where little countries actually did things, sent their wacky soldiers to the big army like the more outlandish tribes in the Persian Empire. When you’ve finished this book, you don’t really think about battle maps or military history; you remember that crunch of the snow and the long, long convoys in retreat, and all the weird little tribes jabbering at each other in a dozen languages in the snow, and how great food is.
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