The Russian Front: A review of The Invisible Flag by Peter Bamm
Penguin, 1962, 272 pages.
There is a more detailed review of this very fine book at http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=197 which may be of interest.
Peter Bamm was a surgeon at a German Main Aid Post on the Russian front in World War II as the Germans first advanced through Ukraine and then withdrew. Through it all, until virtually the end of the war when defending Germany itself, Bamm operated in hospitals and commandeered houses and even bunkers and tents while the shells whistled overhead.
The book details the technical difficulties of operating close to the front, the camaraderie that made it all bearable, and the spectre of Nazism that hung over the Wehrmacht and which they did not speak against yet which they knew was a sickness at the core of the war effort and which made victory impossible. One thread in the book is that the Soviet Union contained many minorities — some very large — who were oppressed by their own government and who could have massively augmented the German effort, had the Nazis not instituted their various evils once the army had rolled through. In this, and in its inherent lack of trust and reliance on informers and violence, Bamm sees the Nazis ultimately defeat themselves. How much of this insight was really present in 1942 and how much was seen in hindsight cannot be known.
The book is endlessly quotable:
This small miracle is accomplished with a piece of thin steel which weighs less than a couple of ounces – a scalpel. At its tip converge years of skill and training; a technique developed through centuries of experiment; the immense and complicated organization of a modern army’s medical services. And above it, as it cuts deep to heal, above the little tent in the wood by the Dniester, there flutters beneath the wide Ukranian sky a small dauntless flag: an invisible flag: the flag of humanity.
We see Bamm and his colleagues tend to Russian soldiers and peasants as well as the German soldiers. We see them break the rules to obtain the machines and the supplies they need to do their job. We see them fail to believe that anything other than losing this enormous war can be done to stop the suicidal Nazism of the Germany they love, and they try to mitigate at the lowest level, that of a single human being hurt by “the Dictator’s” (he is never named) folly and arrogance, the damage that is being done.
Geographers draw and imaginary line … and they call it the border between Europe and Asia. But the true dividing line is between men’s souls.
The dictator who stood to benefit by it [the spirit and hard work of the foot soldiers] knew as much of Prussian discipline as a Congo witch doctor knew about science.
The System was built on force. And it was only by methods of force that it could exert itself. That is not to say that all the mistakes made during the war could have been avoided. It was just that they were part and parcel of the system itself.
The rats were also the reason why one had to learn to sleep with one’s head under the blanket.
Like a tortoise with its shell, the conqueror drags his own world around with him. It is hard to get to know a foreign country if you are only there to conquer it.
Or (on speaking out against the Nazis):
I do not of course imply that such self-sacrifice would have been useless in a moral sense. I am only saying that as a practical measure it would have been pointless.
When the autumn storms came and the steppe witches darted once more across the empty countryside in ghostly zig-zags, the god of war removed his last mask.
Set against the sublime splendour of creation, man’s petty strivings seem as senseless as the migrations of the lemmings.
And so on. While I cannot help but wonder what was left out, what was retrospective and what was invented entirely, much of the book is moving, evocative, and strangely beautiful. One cannot help but feel for good, honest men, fighting a war they cannot win for a country they love ruled by a party they do not believe in.