A man–a human being–is wounded. In the split second in which he is hit he is hurled out of the fighting machine and has become, in an instant, utterly helpless. Up to that moment all his energy was directed forward, against an enemy army stretching across the landscape like an imaginary line, its exact position unknown. So engrossed was he in what went on round him that he was left with no conscious thought about himself. but now he is thrown back on himself: the sight of his own blood restores him to full self-awareness. At one moment he was helping to change the course of history: at the next he cannot do anything for himself.
Hours afterwards night falls. Gray fear envelopes him. Will he bleed to death? Will he be found? Is he going to be hit again? Are the Germans retreating? Will he be captured by the Russians?
An eternity passes before a couple of soldiers drag him a short way back. There, in a shell crater or some primitive dugout, the first outpost of medicine, sits the regimental medical officer. The wounded man is given a bandage, a splint, a tourniquet, an injection to ease his pain. Then he is left to lie around somewhere, wondering again if he will ever be moved. At last he is carried further and eventually put into an ambulance. He finishes up among a multitude of other wounded men, lying in semi-darkness and a fearful silence broken only by the groans of those around him. At long last his stretcher is lifted again. From the moment he comes into the bright circle of light under the theater lamp he ceases to be a mere lump of animate matter and becomes a patient, a man who is suffering. When he leaves the operating theater, the pitiful, dirty, bloodstained creature is once again a human being, cared and provided for.
This small miracle is accomplished with a piece of thin steel which weighs less than a couple of ounces–a scalpel. At its tip converge years of skill and training; a technique developed through centuries of experiment; the immense and complicated organization of a modern army’s medical service. And above it, as it cuts deep to heal, above that little tent in the wood by the Dniester, there flutters beneath the wide Ukrainian sky a small dauntless flag: an invisible flag: the flag of humanity.
Peter Bamm’s The Invisible Flag is an extraordinarily well-written semi-fictional memoir of his experiences as a field surgeon with the German Army on the Eastern Front in World War Two. When it was first published in 1956, the
In the course of the book, Bamm’s duties take him rolling forward across the steppes in the blazing summer of 1941; enduring bitter winters that threaten lives even more immediately than combat; into the hills of the Crimea and the mountains of northern Georgia; and then, with the long retreat beginning with Stalingrad, back through the Ukraine and into Poland and Eastern Prussia. In each place, Bamm notes how nature carries on oblivious of man’s activities around her. He makes us feel the sweat blinding him as he operates under a blazing sun and the bitter winds biting his skin as he trudges through deep snow to reach a rear command post.
He also brings a gallery of characters alive: rugged and ingenious NCOs who regularly manage to locate food, supplies, horses, or wagons for Bamm’s unit, a Wermacht equivalent to the U.S. Army portable surgical hospital; a Russian POW who staggers into the unit’s camp one morning and remains as a helper for the next four years; civilians who display exceptional compassion and generosity even when they’ve lost everything and others who begrudge the slightest favor to their own; and veteran officers who struggle on despite the hopeless of inevitable defeat and the insanity of the Nazi regime.
In real life, Bamm was one Curt Emmrich, a surgeon who had served with the German Army in World War One–a highly educated and cultured man who had traveled the world, spoke French, and quoted Homer and Virgil. His deep pride in his own professionalism as a doctor and soldier is evident throughout the book. He allies himself with other experienced officers and medical men and contrasts his views and actions with those of the S.S. and other Nazi party members. In fact, he refers to Nazis in general as “the others” throughout the book. Bamm and his fellow officers and men appear to hold themselves to a higher moral standard: “The orgy of revenge in which the Dictator was indulging was complemented by an orgy of servility among his creatures. To the soldiers all this was repugnant.”
He does not deny in anyway the atrocities that were going on around him throughout the campaign on the Eastern Front. He recalls Jews being led away to the outskirts of a village, forced to dig a trench, then shot and bulldozed into it. He cites the case of one officer who was imprisoned for taking photos of such an event. He knows that Jews were taken into vans and gassed. He knows that Communists were hunted down and executed. His justification for remaining silent in the face of these actions is merely that it would have been futile to protest. Instead, his focus is on doing his duty as a surgeon, trying to save the lives that pass through his tent–regardless of whether they are German or Russian, Christian or atheist. One presumes no Jew ever made it to his operating table.
Bamm made a conscious moral compromise that weighed his ability to save lives and spare suffering over his ability to interfere with the gross outrages going on around his. One must accept this fact to read The Invisible Flag. Some may not be able to. Within the boundaries of Bamm’s choice, the book is rich in superb descriptive writing:
The whole crawling mass has meandered twenty yards onto the open field to by-pass a dud bomb that lies unexploded in the middle of the road. To left and right the fields are strewn with a weird assortment of stoves, milking stools, bedsteads, radio sets, munition boxes, lamps. It is like the aftermath of a flood. Every few hundred yards is a broken-down vehicle; or a dead horse with a swollen belly; or a corpse. Crows rise with a heavy flapping of wings. Tattered gray clouds chase without pause high above the living and the dead; high above beast and man.
The Invisible Flag received enthusiastic reviews and sold well, both in Germany and in numerous translations, but has been out of print in English since the late 1950s. If another powerful semi-fictional memoir of war on the Eastern Front, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, deserves reprinting and notice despite continuing controversies over its veracity, then there is no excuse for Peter Bamm’s remarkable book being left in the shadows.
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The Invisible Flag, by Peter Bamm (pseudonym of Curt Emmrich)
London: Faber, 1956
New York: John Day, 1956; Signet (paperback), 1958