Friday, July 25, 2014
Review of Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956)
Cross of Iron is considered one of the classic combat novels about the Eastern Front in World War Two. First published in 1955 (German) and translated in 1956, it is written by Willi Heinrich, who served with the 101st Jäger Division from 1941-45 and was wounded five times. The 101st Jäger Division took part in the Battle for Kharkov and Caucasus campaign, then after the defeat at Stalingrad retreated along the Kuban peninsula toward Crimea, up into Ukraine, through Slovakia, Hungary and ending the war in Austria, suffering seven hundred per cent casualties. Heinrich’s intimate knowledge of warfare and the terrain of battle, the personal dynamics between comrades, and the politics and ambitions of military leaders are clearly evident in narrative. The story follows Corporal Rolf Steiner, a classic anti-hero, and members of his platoon and their immediate superiors. The setup is very nicely done, tracing Steiner’s personal and collective battles, especially his relationship with his platoon members and Captain Stransky, his aristocratic battalion commander who desires the coveted cross of iron but does not want to earn it. Rather than glorifying the war action, Heinrich instead delivers gritty social realism -- the daily grind of staying alive, everyday encounters with wounds and death, petty and class politics and personal rivalries, the formation of bonds between men who would never otherwise associate with one another, and the brutality of close quarter fighting. The result is a compelling, sometimes harrowing, read, with a strong storyline and characterisation.