Saturday, April 19, 2008

BOOK: G. R. Elford, "Devil's Guard"

George Robert Elford: Devil's Guard. London: New English Library, 1973. (First ed.: New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.) SBN 450013367. 349 pp.

I first heard of this book a few weeks ago, mentioned among the endnotes in Perry Biddiscombe's Werwolf. The author, G. R. Elford, says in a preface that the book is based on a manuscript given to him by one Hans Wagemueller, who had been an officer in a Waffen-SS anti-partisan unit in Russia during the WW2 and later joined the French Foreign Legion, for whom he fought in Vietnam. Elford supposedly met him in some unnamed small Asian country, which might be Nepal from the description given in Elford's introduction (pp. 12–13). The rest of the book is Wagemueller's first-person account of his five years of very brutal warfare in the jungles of Vietnam. Supposedly, Elford didn't change anything substantial except for the names of the people involved (including Wagemueller). However, see the Wikipedia page about this book, as well as and this article; there seem to be good reasons to consider this book to be a work of fiction rather than as possessing much of a factual basis.

The plot

There isn't very much of a plot here, really — the book is rather picaresque from that point of view. In the first chapter he describes how, at the end of the WW2, his unit was stranded in Czechoslovakia and decided to fight their way to the U.S.-occupied zone in Germany rather than surrendering to the Czechs and Russians. Once they get into Germany, the unit disperses and Wagemueller eventually reaches his native town near the Swiss border. Apparently there exists a well-established organization for smuggling fugitive Nazis into Switzerland, although he is deliberately vague on the details. Soon afterwards he ends up joining the French Foreign Legion and, after a bried period of training in North Africa, is sent to Vietnam.

There the commanding officers, impressed by the performance of Wagemueller and other Nazi veterans, eventually agree to form a separate battallion consisting only of these Germans. The rest of the book then describes various episodes from their fighting, and the individual chapters could be rearranged almost arbitrarily without really making any difference. In the end, the notorious reputation of his unit leads to protests in the international press and the French decide to disband it some time in 1952.

The leading character

The main thing that makes this book interesting, I guess, is Wagemueller's attitude and character. He retains many of the Nazi opinions that presumably influenced him in the years before and during the WW2: above all, there's his extreme, blunt, brutal hatred of communism; additionally, there's his appreciation of brutality and aggression in warware, and the contempt for the sort of things that the Nazis used to call ‘false humanitarianism’. He also agreed “that Germany needed Lebensraum” (p. 15). He doesn't, however, seem to be terribly keen on the nationalist and racist ideas that had formed such a major part of the Nazi ideology. For example, in the few passages where he refers to his WW2 activities as a ‘partisan hunter’ in Russia, he justifies them on the basis of the fact that these were guerrilla insurgents and communists, but not on the fact that they were Russians. And he's getting along just fine with the French, whose Foreign Legion he entered just a few years after the end of the WW2.

Well, of course it's also possible to see these things as a kind of adaptation and self-justification in the face of the new circumstances after the war (cf. pp. 42–5). And he does have a tendency to dehumanize the Viet Minh (i.e. the Vietnamese communist guerrillas): “ ‘the mechanized hordes of a space-age Genghis Khan.’ If there was a spark of truth in the Hitlerian credo about the existence of superior and inferior races, we met the real subhumans in Indochina.” (P. 11.) “They aren't human”, p. 293. “They are not human. . . You are killing sharks, rats, bacteria. . . [. . .] I regarded the Viet Minh as the real prototypes of the Hitlerian subhumans.” (P. 299.) “Deprived as they are my troops would sooner rape a female gibbon than some of those tribal wenches with their betel-stained gums and withered skin infected with tropical ulcers and festering insect bites.” (P. 261.) “ ‘Those guerrilla bitches [. . .] they aren't human’ ” (p. 295). He often points out their short stature and slight build (p. 257), presumably because this makes them seem more subhuman in comparison to his stalwart German comrades, and it makes it easier to regard them as vermin (“those ratlike little Red gnomes in Indochina”, p. 299).

But he always hastens to rationalize his contempt by referring to the atrocities committed by the Viet Minh (“The Viet Minh kills only to spread terror and to intimidate its victims”, p. 299), both against the French and against the Vietnamese civillians when the latter weren't sufficiently cooperative with the communists (pp. 134–5).

And, admittedly, he doesn't show contempt towards those Vietnamese civillians who really stayed out of the war, nor against the really primitive tribal peoples that apparently still lived in the remoter parts of the Vietnamese jungles at the time (“With some effort and by using at least as many signs as words, Noy succeeded in making contact with a female human being from the Stone Age”, p. 343); when a Vietnamese collaborator joins his unit and makes himself useful as a guide and interpreter, Wagemueller speaks of him in the highest terms (pp. 187–8); he goes out of his way to help a young biracial (Anglo-Chinese) refugee (pp. 112–26); he is supportive of the relationships between some of his comrades and three Vietnamese nurses from their battallion, and even goes so far as to perform an unofficial wedding ceremony for one of these couples (much as a captain on a ship would) when it turns out that no priest can be found in their corner of the jungle (pp. 221–5); and he absolutely refuses to tolerate the idea of men under his control raping native women (pp. 221, 294–6). He has a pretty good opinion of himself as a German officer and a man of honour, and makes a point of keeping his word in circumstances such as e.g. when they promise to release a captured Viet Minh guerrilla fighter (whom they otherwise tended to kill) if he provides them with information (pp. 133, 286).

At the same time, these few good characteristics of his are more than outweighed by his all-round brutality and inhumanity in warfare. His only concern seems to be whether a method works. He observes that while the Viet Minh ignore the principles of civilized warfare, the French regular army doesn't and, as a result, it isn't doing well in the war at all (p. 183). His own unit, however (consisting mostly of ex-Nazi soldiers like himself), is quite successful in its military objectives because it doesn't hesitate to commit against the Viet Minh the same sort of atrocities which the latter performs against the French or against recalcitrant Vietnamese civillians. Wagemueller often rationalizes his unit's atrocities by saying that it was just ‘a tooth for a tooth’, as the Viet Minh had started it (pp. 78, 84, 99, 126–7).

There are a couple of quite graphic scenes in which Wagemueller and his men torture captured Vietnamese guerrillas to obtain information (pp. 127–33, 286–7). On p. 133 Wagemueller's men freely admit they couldn't take the sort of treatment that they were dealing out to the captured guerrillas: “ ‘[. . .] How long do you think you would have stood up to what he was getting?’ ‘Me? I would have pissed you between the eyes in the first five minutes [. . .]’ ‘You would have given us away all right.’ ‘Given you away? [. . .] I not only would have told them everything but would have helped them to put the rope round your neck, Karl.’ ” (P. 133.)

They have a standard practice of killing captured guerrillas rather than taking them as prisoners (pp. 86, 150, 273; sometimes they go out of their way to make the executions extra brutal and painful, pp. 110–111, 262). Sometimes they kill civillians too, if they seem to be guerrilla supporters or if they are found to possess weapons (pp. 259, 263). He cites with approval an instance of a former Gestapo torturer who ends up working for the French secret police in Indochina, not despite but because of his Gestapo experience: “ ‘[. . .] Boys,’ he chuckled, ‘they have everything that belongs to the trade at Hué. Only the Fuehrer's picture is missing from the walls.’ ” (P. 79.)

Wagemueller's anti-communism

I guess what annoyed me most about Wagemueller was his annoying tendency to rant against communism all the time, and his unwillingness to consider the deeper underlying causes of the war. He is firmly convinced that communism doesn't work and that it invariably degenerates into tyranny of the sort that could have been observed in the Soviet Union under Stalin or in China under Mao. He is also convinced that communists are aggressive and are trying to conquer the whole world, and that his fighting in Vietnam is just a continuation of the same big war against communism that he had already fought in Russia during the WW2 (“the same enemy wearing a different uniform”, p. 12).

But he apparently never takes the trouble to ask himself what are the sources of communism — where does its strength come from, what makes it appealing in the eyes of its supporters? The answer, of course, is poverty, inequality, and exploitation. The way to prevent the spread of communism is not by fighting it but by abolishing its causes. Of course, he's probably one of those people who think that inequality, poverty and exploitation are unavoidable and natural parts of society and the economy.

He observes, probably quite accurately, that most of the Vietnamese guerrillas against whom he fought didn't really know or care much about communism. The party leadership did, but they were just in it to seize the power for themselves. What they used to attract support among the people, however, was to advocate the distribution of land and the property of the rich (this was the way to win support among the poor peasantry), and to call for the independence from the French (this won them supporters among the urban middle classes); pp. 274–5. Wagemueller even admits that the French regime in Indochina was corrupt and that Ho Chi Minh had been supported by the allies during the war in order to fight against the Japanese, then he was betrayed by them after the war when they allowed the French to return and ignore the Vietnamese demands for independence (p. 76).

Now it's obvious from this that the French could trivially prevent the spread of communism in Vietnam by carrying out land reform, introducing a welfare state, and then getting the hell out of there, rather than being goddamned colonialist bastards and occupying a country where they had no right to be in the first place. And that, I guess, is the main reason why I felt like such a Viet Minh sympathizer while reading this book: they were fighting against a foreign power that was occupying their country. Basically, whatever atrocities the Viet Minh had committed during the war, I cannot really consider any of that to have been their fault. The French should never have been in Vietnam in the first place, and in that case this war would probably never have occurred at all.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Blogger Kalevipoeg said...

Good book! wery good!

Monday, June 30, 2008 11:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why don't people just accept this as what it is!A very good story.If its not factual why does it matter?many stories & films have been written/made that have very few historical facts,yet we do not deride those works to the extent that this story seems to get.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 7:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historically accurate. In my conversations with former SS soldiers - this books is where the metal meets the meat. Often, too many people today, have no idea of what took place in WW2. It was brutal and graphic, very much as I would expect to see a transcribed manuscript. Perhaps this book is dismissed as pure fiction because to see it as truthful shows " can't handle the truth"!

Monday, March 02, 2009 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger TeZ said...

Definately one of the best books I have ever read, I couldn't put it down. What a rollercoaster ride..whoosh!

Friday, March 20, 2009 2:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firenze June 26 2009

Hello everybody
My name is George Robert Elford.
I'm very pleased and impressed about
the good critycs and opinions regarding the book "Devil's Guard" written by my father when I was one year old.My personal opinion is that
it is indeed a great war book and as far I'm concerned it's a true story,which I've been often told when I was 15,though I must say that most of Wagemueller's ideas about politycs were my fathers own opinions.

Friday, June 26, 2009 12:48:00 AM  
Anonymous matt said...

I've been told that the book is actually a collection of stories, but based on a real person named Hans A. Schwartz, who died in the U.S. (that part I can verify).
He used to frequent gun shows in the southern U.S. in his later years & told stories from the book.
The stories are based on his experiences, but some are collected from other tails (see The Jungle is Nuetral, French commando Roger Vandenberghe)

Thursday, July 02, 2009 7:23:00 PM  
Blogger gray man said...

your review seems to be quite a bit of nonsense, and your own rant against the books view of communism show extreme naivety.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017 2:52:00 PM  

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