Dell, 1989, 378 pages
A stunning look at World War II from the other side.... From the turret of a German tank, Colonel Hans von Luck commanded Rommel's 7th and then 21st Panzer Division. El Alamein, Kasserine Pass, Poland, Belgium, Normandy on D-Day, the disastrous Russian front - von Luck fought there with some of the best soldiers in the world. German soldiers. Awarded the German Cross in Gold and the Knight's Cross, von Luck writes as an officer and a gentleman. Told with the vivid detail of an impassioned eyewitness, his rare and moving memoir has become a classic in the literature of World War II, a first-person chronicle of the glory - and the inevitable tragedy - of a superb soldier fighting Hitler's war.
One of my hobbies is wargaming, and I have a particular fondness for WWII-era tank games.
Ironically, I found Colonel Hans Von Luck's descriptions of campaigns and battles to be the driest and least interesting parts of this book.
(Note: "Von Luck" is pronounced like the name "Luke," not like "duck.")
From my cut-text, you may gather that as much as I liked Von Luck's memoir of his time as a Panzer commander, I thought there were some... unsatisfying elisions.
Now, Von Luck was a Wehrmacht officer, he was not in the SS. And he wasn't a Nazi party member either. And if his account is to be taken at face value (and there's no reason to believe he's lying, though like many war memoirists, he has been accused of puffing up his own role in critical battles a bit), he was never particularly fond of the Nazis or Hitler. He joined the German army before Hitler came to power, and continued to serve as a loyal officer until the end, when he was captured by the Russians during the final, desperate defense of Berlin. He speaks a great deal about the camaraderie of military officers, and tells a number of anecdotes about mutual professionalism and recognition of honorable service, even among soldiers on opposite sides. The "gentleman's agreement" the Germans and the British had in their combat zone in North Africa, for example, or the courteous treatment he received from a Russian Colonel after he was captured.
That said, it's awfully convenient that he never openly criticizes Hitler until the final days of the war when it was clear to everyone on the front lines that der Fuhrer was completely disconnected from reality. In his introduction, and at several times in the book, he denounces hatred and prejudice, and offers his account in the hopes that "never again" will such horrible things come to pass. But he insists that he and his fellow officers really didn't know what was going on with the Jews and had no inkling about the concentration camps until after the war.
I don't know. I think he probably did think the Nazis were scoundrels that officers just had to put up with, and given that he was forbidden to marry his girlfriend because she was 1/8 Jewish, he certainly didn't share their anti-Semitic views. But one cannot help wishing that "good Germans" like von Luck who were just serving their country would be a little more straightforward when it comes to acknowledging that the country they were serving was a hideous, monstrous regime.
As the Russians are advancing on Berlin, Von Luck and his men are filled with dread at the atrocities being done to their wives and daughters by Russian troops. Earlier, when Von Luck is participating in the invasions of Poland and Russia, to hear him tell it, there may have been some other German soldiers elsewhere who behaved badly, but he and his men were never anything other than noble, and were greeted with friendly appreciation for their gallantry by the people whose country they were occupying.
All right, with my moral misgivings out of the way, I thought Von Luck's memoir was full of interesting war stories and was a great glimpse at what things were like at the front for German soldiers. They were like soldiers in any war — more concerned about survival and defeating the enemy in front of them than with questions of ideology and geopolitics. Von Luck initially served on the Eastern Front, but was transferred to North Africa to serve under Rommel, about whom he gives many personal accounts. Rommel, according to Von Luck, was a great officer and tactician who cared for his men, but was not without flaws, including being a bit egotistical. He also was not very good at the political game, which led to his being shunted aside by Hitler and his staff.
By 1943, it was evident even to the front line soldiers that Germany no longer had any hope of winning the war. Much like Captain Hara in Japanese Destroyer Captain, Von Luck begins to question the wisdom of the High Command in not surrendering. Just like Japan in the early stages of its defeat, Von Luck is of the opinion that had Germany sued for peace earlier, they might have negotiated terms better than unconditional surrender following the complete devastation of their homeland. Of course this would have required, among other things, Hitler stepping down, which we know with historical hindsight was never going to happen.
Von Luck also begins to realize how badly things are deteriorating politically. The "political officers" assigned to all military units, for example, and worse, the "flying drumhead" court martials, in which Nazi-appointed judges had the authority to summarily execute any German soldier they considered to be shirking or demonstrating disloyalty, without seeking the approval or even notifying the soldier's commanding officer. This happened to one of Von Luck's platoon sergeants, who was simply taking a break while waiting for his truck to be repaired so he could return to his unit, and the furious Von Luck found that even the commander of a Panzer division who'd been awarded the German Cross and many other decorations, was unable to do a thing about it.
While Von Luck is a somewhat dry narrator of his life story, there is plenty of human interest in his recital of events. His girlfriend, Dagmar (whose Jewish great-grandfather is the reason they cannot marry) is a running thread in his story throughout the war, as he tries to arrange to move her about safely, they occasionally manage to see each other or even speak over military radio while he's on the front, and at one point she pretty much hitch-hikes through a war zone to turn up at his HQ!
When Von Luck is captured by the Russians in 1945, he spends the next five years in a labor camp, and has a number of interesting stories to tell about that, too — he endures his imprisonment with typical German industriousness and stoicism, and offers a rather different view of Stalinist Russia than either the American or the Russian one. When he's released in 1950, he is finally reunited with Dagmar. You will have to read the book to find out how things turn out for them.
Verdict: Panzer Commander was a good read, though not the best or most exciting war memoir I have read. While Von Luck is not exactly whitewashing his participation in the war on the side of the Axis, his account does seem a bit scrubbed. That said, it's always interesting to see into the mind of "the other side." This book is worth reading for anyone who is interested in WWII history, but blazing Panzer battles are actually not its strong point. 7/10.
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