Like a lot of you reading this, I have read innumerable books about the Second World War, most of them from the German perspective. The majority of these were testaments by former army officers or, in the latter instances, Party-government bigwigs. GRENADIERS was the first work I had ever bought penned by a former SS man, in this case Kurt "Panzer" Meyer. I was very interested to see what an ex-member of two notorious Waffen-SS divisions, the "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" and the "Hitlerjugend", would have to say...not merely about his combat experiences but about Hitler, National Socialism, and the war in general.
GRENADIERS exists on several levels simultaneously: a pure combat memior by a man who saw a hell of a lot of it, a treatise on the relationship of the Waffen-SS to its putative parent body, the Gestamt or "Total" SS, a spirited defense of the Waffen-SS against the "libels" leveled against it by the victorious Allies and by the postwar German government, and a memior of Meyer's trial for war crimes, his imprisonment (originally a death sentence) and his eventual release. On all these levels it succeeds...so much so that it permenently changed my view of the Waffen-SS. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As a combat memior, the book is highly entertaining. It begins in media res, with Meyer's antitank unit rumbling into Poland in September 1939, and continues at a steady clip through the campaigns in France (1940) the Balkans (1941), Russia (1941 - 1943) and finally Normandy (1944), during which time he served with many legendary Waffen-SS frontfighters, including Fritz Witt, Max Wünsche, Michael Wittmann, Gerd Bremer, Theodor Wisch, and Sepp Dietrich. Meyer, who finished his career as the acting commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, offers almost no biographical information about himself, and seldom "flashes back" to his peacetime existence. For the most part he is simply recounting tales of battle at the head of an elite recon unit as it was transferred from one hotspot to another all over Europe. Because Meyer's troops were motorized, riding on motorcycles, amphibious wagons, armored cars or assault guns, his accounts tend to be like his style of fighting: straight-ahead, breathless and fast-paced (not for nothing was his original nickname "Schneller" Meyer). He's an exciting narrator, if not a very skilled one, and he manages to convey a lot about his personality and philosophy of war without lecturing the reader. His accounts of the Russian and '44 French campaigns are particularly interesting to students of those theaters; he often speaks of the physical and psychological burdens placed on the German soldier by Russia's brutal climate and vast spaces, and of similar strains imposed in the West by the Allies overwhelming superiority of material. He writes without bitterness, and with a strong sense of respect to his own troops and to their opponents, be they Poles, Russians, Canadians (the French don't compare too well).
Meyer makes some very interesting points about the average Waffen-SS man in his outfit. He notes that they were very young (19 years old on average for privates), that 62% of them had been in technical or skilled trades before the war, and that very few of them had actually been members of the Allgemeine (General) SS before the war began. "These young men," he insists. "Fought for Germany and certainly did not die for a political party." Their motivations for joining the Waffen-SS were made from simpler stuff: it had the most attractive uniforms, its exploits were ballyhooed in the German press and it was regarded universally as an elite unit...all powerful motivators to young men looking for glory.
Meyer, who was captured in 1944 and tried for war crimes immediately after the war, recounts his trial with some bitterness, and not merely because he was, as were most German POWs of any standing, badly mistreated in captivity. Having taken great pains to show that he fought chivalrously at all times, he regarded the trial as a humiliation and a disgrace, the moreso because most of the evidence against him was based on heresay, perjury and ex post facto jurisprudence. Having his sentence commuted from death to life imprisonment was, in fact, worse than death for him, since he was incarcerated not in a POW camp or even a place like Spandau Prison but in an ordinary Canadian hooscow - with rapists, arsonists and murderers as cellmates. The agonizing struggle to obtain his release, waged in part by the Canadian press (which righteously pointed out that Canada had violated its own laws in convicting Meyer), and his life as a spokesman for HIAG in West Germany (the Waffen-SS veterans' association, dedicated to securing military benefits for Waffen-SS veterans) close out the book on a more or less uplifting note...though the reader may find himself exhausted emotionally by the time the last page is read. Meyer's journey is truly a punishing one.
It is a defense of the Waffen-SS, however, that the book is most intriguing. Meyer points out - repeatedly - that the Waffen-SS had relatively little to do with its parent body, and was merely a military organization in a slightly different uniform. The picture painted by history - of a band of murderous racial fanatics, screaming "Sieg Heil!" as they shot prisoners in the neck, is (Meyer insists) nonsense. Doubtless there were men of this type in Waffen-SS units, but as Meyer points out, nearly all of his opponents routinely shot prisoners in cold blood, bombed defenseless towns and used civilians as human shields - including, he adds pointedly, the Western Allies, who have tended throughout history to portray themselves as knights in shining armor.
The book isn't perfect. Meyer touches on the murders committed by his men in Normandy only in terms of explaining, after the fact, how he was disgusted by them and ordered an investigation into their commission; he tells the reader nothing about his life before the war or why he ended up in the SS in the first place (he was transferred from a Police unit, the German Police becoming part of the SS in 1936) and his style of writing is amateurish, though not without talent. None of this, however, was a significant detraction from GRENADIERS, which in the final analysis is not so much a memior but a tribute to the 900,000 men who, whatever their motivations or war records, were collectively dubbed "criminals" in 1945...and have spent, along with their families, dealing with the fallout of this sweeping judgement. But as Meyer is quick to point out, the ultimate verdict on a soldier comes from his opponent, and as one Canadian soldier exclaimed: "The SS were a bad bunch of bastards, but were they ever soldiers!"