The Cross of Iron: Book Review
Book: The Cross of Iron
Author: Willi Heinrich
Publisher : The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1956
The Cross of Iron is arguably one of the most emotionally and psychologically powerful books based on World War 2. It differs from many, in that it focuses on the mind and thought-process of the soldier, and explores the insanity of war through all senses.
The book focuses on the exploits of Corporal Rolf Steiner, the platoon commander of a German infantry unit, fighting on the dying days of the Russian Eastern Front. Steiner is a battle-hardened veteran of countless battles under the Nazi war machine, and portrays that with the calm, unflinching demeanor of a man staring into a dark void of insanity. His hatred for officers and the Nazi party is obvious to everyone, yet he is known by his comrades and superiors as the fiercest and hardest fighter of the entire battalion - he fights purely for the lives of himself, and that of his comrades.
The Cross of Iron takes the reader through a small area of the Southern Russian Front, yet the journey it takes you on is more psychological than physical. Steiner and his platoon are constantly faced with overwhelming odds, as they constantly fight to simply survive, and where most other books take you down the generic "behind enemy lines" plot, the Cross of Iron presents us with a story of the corruption of the higher command, and the minds of those who would sacrifice their own men, purely to climb the prestige ladder.
Many years before I read The Cross of Iron, I saw the 1977 movie. The movie in itself is an excellent piece of work, especially for such a low-budget film (that was cancelled multiple times, yet still beats a lot of other war movies out there in terms of realism and historical accuracy), but as usual, the book is much better.
Having served in the military myself, it wasn't hard for me to relate to the soldiers. Though I haven't spent months in a trench, or faced many of the conditions of WW2, I still know the smell of wet, cold dirt, and the taste of gunpowder hanging in the air. To understand how the minds of these men work, you have to really think about every aspect of their situation.
They are trapped on the front-lines, with literally nowhere to go. There is seemingly endless forest in all directions, and running anywhere is a death sentence in more ways than one. They have been fighting in a war they never really believed in for years, constantly marching, constantly fighting, and otherwise being forced into a long-term lifestyle of violence, fear, and hatred that humans simply weren't meant to endure. There's a reason why they say "war is hell."
As I was introduced into the characters throughout the book, I found that even though they all greatly differed, and some of them were fairly detestable people, I still had a strong connection to them all. The in-depth descriptions of their actions, thoughts, and feelings pull you into the story, and make it even more tragic when some are inevitably killed - this book does not pretty up war, you get the full grittiness of it all.
The overall feeling of The Cross of Iron was that of helplessness, and the longing for peace and serenity. I constantly had the feeling that this war was raging in an entirely different world of perpetual violence and despair, and that the characters memories were all merely delusions and fantasies. The characters, too, forget that they are still in the same world they grew up in, one of smiling mothers and beautiful, serene landscapes. It's disheartening to think of how these few stories of melancholy can make one feel so sad - the feeling is amplified when you fully realize how many people this actually happened to, in the hundreds of thousands. All the potential for great lives tossed aside for the needs of a greedy few. The shadow this book drapes over you is eerie, and chilling, yet absolutely perfect for those who like touching the void.
The Cross of Iron steals away the reader from their comfort bubble, and projects them into their own slice of hell. For those that let themselves get lost in reading, this book is a must-read, for sure. For those that don't, but are interested in WW2 beyond the action, again I highly recommend this book. For those who purely want action, yes, there is a lot of that, too.
This book is a prime example of what students should read. It's gritty, real, and an excellent way to never forget those dark days that most of us can't even comprehend. Where most books glorify heroics and sacrifice, The Cross of Iron shows us that "heroism begins where the meaninglessness of the sacrifice remains the last, the only message the dead can leave behind." (Captain Kiesel - The Cross of Iron)