Book Review(s): A Tale of Two Snipers

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Comrade Zabek and Oberhauptsturmfeldwebel Zabek face off over dueling accounts of sniper action on the Eastern Front of WWII.

Double Book Review of Red Sniper on the Eastern Front by Joseph Pilyushin and Sniper on the Eastern Front by Sepp Allerberger

This summer my reading list seems to have drifted to first-hand accounts of memoirs from the Second World War. Amazon, ever helpful in suggesting all kinds of temptations, served up two gems, both accounts written by men who were snipers on the Eastern Front, one Soviet, one Austrian. Both accounts are compelling for several reasons.

Perhaps most notably, both snipers served for years on the Eastern Front and returned home alive to share their experience (Allerberger began in 1943, Pilyushin in 1941). Also interesting is their experience on opposite sides of the war. Additionally their personal accounts are a study in contrast, with Allerberger’s discussing many details and techniques that helped him survive and even thrive, while Pilyushin’s account is written from a perspective that concentrates on the people he served with, almost completely devoid of a discussion of techniques and methods used in his craft.

Of the two books, Allerberger’s is the easier to follow. His narrative is clear in describing places, terrain,and other events. It comes across as a much more authentic memoir because of all these details. Caution should be exercised in reading – the account is at times disturbingly graphic in its discussion of war crimes witnessed by Allerberger.

These accounts remind the reader that the fighting on the Eastern Front was a savage as any war might possibly be. Allerberger, having fought for the Axis, naturally views these accounts as those perpetrated by the Soviets on the Axis. On one account Allerberger is particularly clear – the use of exploding bullets by snipers. He freely admits to using them, but his use of them is permitted because of a captured Soviet sniper rifle and ammo stock, not because he had been provided exploding bullets by Axis quartermasters.

Pilyushin’s account is a contrast to Allerberger’s, and reads less factually and more like a tragic play. The translator’s introduction explains that the account is devoid of most of the Soviet Communist propaganda that usually accompanies similar memoirs. He goes on to explain how popular the book was in the Soviet Union with readers.

Most of the book centers on Pilyushin’s time spent in and around Leningrad, and perhaps it is because the siege of Leningrad was assumed to be well understood by the reader that we read so little of the technical details of being a sniper. Much more prevalent is the discussion of Pilyushin’s friends and family, and there are hints of a romance with another (female) sniper. Pilyushin’s account is ultimately tragic; his family dies during the siege of Leningrad and his subsequent relationship with a fellow sniper ends tragically. The translator also shares insight that ultimately Pilyushin’s head wounds cost him his eyesight.

Both books are recommended for readers seeking insight on a personal level to the Second World War. Of the two, Allerberger’s is more technical, while Pilyushin’s is quite personal. Together the reader will gain perspective of the war from two sides, with completely different approaches and perspectives from people who performed nearly identical roles. Both belong in the collection of military history buffs and they are highly recommended.

Editors note: Both books were read on a Kindle Fire, so both are available as e-books for readers who want them in a digital format.

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