Book Review – Willy Peter Reese, A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War, 1941-1944 (New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)


A Stranger to Myself is the manuscript that German soldier Willy Peter Reese compiled on his service on the Eastern Front. It is a memoir that he wrote on his last home leave to Germany in early 1944 before he returned to the front where he subsequently disappeared and was  presumed killed.[1]

He subtitled this his ‘Confession’ and it was a single coherent account based on his diary, letters and notes noting his service in the  279th Infantry Regiment from the opening of Barbarossa to late 1943. His Regiment was part of the 95th Infantry Division in Army Group Centre. During his service, Reese was evacuated injured or sick four times.[2]

His narrative is a remarkable source. In it, Reese describes in visceral detail the horror, brutality and war crimes committed by his unit. He said he and his comrades participated in the ‘ongoing crucifixion of Russia and its people’ and they ‘saw the hunger and the misery, and under the compulsion of war, we added to it’.[3]

He described how his unit looted and stole items from Russian peasants and Russians POWs, shot POWs and villagers and destroyed villages.[4]

Reese and his comrades acted in this way for several reasons. Reese’s leaders ‘kept telling us that we were the lords of the universe, in a conquered country.’[5] Soldiers also enjoyed the power had over unarmed civilians. For example, on Christmas Eve in 1942, Reese said ‘we torched all of the villages we passed through and blew up all of the stoves. We had been ordered to spread devastation so that our pursuers could find no shelter’. They had a ‘joy at being released. Women wailed, children froze in the snow, and curses followed us…When we were issued a supply of cigarettes, we lit them at the burning houses.’[6]

Probably the greatest motivator to act in the cruel way they did was survival. Reese said ‘it wasn’t the battle that caused the suffering, but the viscous cold.’[7] 

In the winter of 1941/2 it was freezing; Reese said ‘we had no winter clothing and never really got warm. Our perpetually cold feet hurt. Every footfall hurt…[but] frostbite could be interpreted as self-mutilation. Our chilled guts couldn’t deal with food. Everyone had diarrhoea, and some had diphtheria. One was so enfeebled that he broke down on the way to the doctor and froze to death.’[8]

In these conditions, taking excess food, commandeering shelter and taking Russian winter clothing from POWs meant survival. He said that ‘war excused our thefts, encouraged cruelty, and the need to survive didn’t go around getting permission from conscience’.[9]

For Reese, the war brought a considerable psychological burden. He said he ‘fell into homesickness and pining. The extent of my life and thoughts never got beyond tiredness, fantasies of desertion, need for sleep, hunger and cold. My star went on its predestined way. Beyond all love, I drifted in my Russian Passion. That I had once walked by the sea in a storm, that I have lived and dreamed: That seemed itself like a dream. I would give up God and my own humanity for a piece of bread. I had no comrades. Everyone fended for himself, hated anyone who found better booty that himself, wouldn’t share, would only trade, and tried to get the better the other. There was no conversation beyond the day-to-day. The weaker was exploited, the helpless in his misery. I was deeply disappointed, but then I too had become hard’.’[10]

He coped in a number of ways. He saw the war as an occupational necessity and ‘was a soldier in the same way I had worked once in a bank. I accepted my lot like a job I disliked so save myself from mental strife.’[11] He also took everything a day a time and ‘lived as well as…[h]e could and didn’t think about the deprivation that would come after’.[12] He also accepted the need for ‘a stern, cruel necessity [that] made us into the people the time required’.[13]

95th Infantry Division (Wehrmacht)

Finally, he sought solace from his colleagues; ‘our comradeship was made from mutual dependence, from living together in next to no space. Our humour was born out of sadism, gallows humour, satire, obscenity…pranks with corpses…Our stir-craziness in our bunker set little blooms of wit sprouting from the manure of need. Philosophy, ethics and thought were replaced by self-preservation…Our totems were self, tobacco, food, sleep and the whores of France.’[14]

However, by late 1943, he had had enough and with ‘no end in sight’ he deliberately exposed himself outside his bunker and was hit by a bullet. He declared that this ‘was salvation’.[15]

Once home, he found that his ‘memories tracked me like Furies’.[16] He volunteered to return as he ‘wanted to fight fire with fire and war with war. I cried out for wanderings, sufferings, hardships and the wide world, so as to slough off my introspection. To compel life by living it. I challenged my destiny to single combat…in Russia I had to gather the stray pieces of myself; there my trajectory must reach an end, either the making or the destroying of me…’[17]

He returned to the front and ‘was happy. In the middle of Russia, I, at last, felt at home. This was where I belonged; nowhere other than in this world with its horrors and sparse joys was it good to be. Only there did my soul find its strange element.’[18] He declared his ‘only goal remained the hope for a better life in peacetime’.[19]

However, on Reese’s fifth deployment to the Front was his last. He vanished sometime in the summer of 1944, probably during the Russian Bagration offensive in which the 95th Division was destroyed.[20]

This is an exceptional account. It is highly unusual amongst German ego documents from the Eastern Front in that it is highly introspective and very metaphysical; Reese inquires into the nature and meaning of war. It is also very graphic and honest setting out in detail the horror and terror of combat and the many war crimes in which Reese and his comrades participated.



[1] Willy Peter Reese, A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War, 1941-1944 (New York, USA: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), p.xvi

[2] Ibid., p.32.

[3] Ibid., pp.31-32.

[4] Ibid., pp.35, 175, 38, 149, 48, 46, 125.

[5] Ibid., p.37.

[6] Ibid., p.52.

[7] Ibid., p.43.

[8] Ibid., p.54.

[9] Ibid., p.35.

[10] Ibid., p.36.

[11] Ibid., p.25.

[12] Ibid., p.36.

[13] Ibid., p.39.

[14] Ibid., p.98.

[15] Ibid., p.101.

[16] Ibid., p.105.

[17] Ibid., p.107.

[18] Ibid., p.110.

[19] Ibid., p.159.

[20] and Accessed 27 October 2020.