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Black Tulip

Black Tulip

Erik Schmidt
ARRSE Rating
2.5 Mushroom Heads
Black Tulip by Erik Schmidt (sub-titled The Life and Myth of Erich Hartmann, The World’s Top Fighter Ace) is a biography of Erich Hartmann, who flew fighters for the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front in World War Two, was then held by the Soviets after the war and joined the West German Luftwaffe n his release.

Hartmann was, according to my very limited knowledge prior to reading this book, a tough guy. He flew for two-and-a-half years on the Eastern Front, claimed 352 kills in that time and was then held prisoner by the Soviets after the war for ten years. On his release, he joined the new Luftwaffe as part of the new West German Bundeswehr within NATO. On reading this book, it turns out that my baseline knowledge was about right (a rarity if I’m honest): what saddens me is that the book added a good lot of general detail and a lot of social context but, ultimately, became a chore to read.

Schmidt (an American, by the way), in his first book, deliberately engages with the histories and biographies that are about Hartmann to try and understand both him and the stories about him. He addresses the difficulties in nailing down details about Hartmann and tries to examine the context of Hartmann’s life (his upbringing, the Nazis, World War Two, a prisoner of the Soviets and life and service in West Germany). This leads to many tangents being included in the main body of the text, disrupts the flow of the story and reduces the space available for telling it. By way of example, his flying career in World War Two is condensed into thirty-five pages and includes how his kills were credited, a comparison with a Soviet ace (Ivan Kozhedub), his meetings with Hitler and brief descriptions of German jet and rocket aircraft. All this is interesting but annexes may have been a better idea so I could read more about the flying and fighting of the (current) greatest air ace ever.

The author tries to be even-handed in his use of sources but this frequently leads to him to prevarication. This is most obvious when trying to determine how much influence the Nazis had on Hartmann and thus how much of a Nazi he was; the impact of his school education (controlled by the Nazis) against that of time in the (mandatory) Hitler Youth (where he learnt to fly) results in some paradoxical writing. Later in the book, an interview with him (in his later years) is apparently used to accuse Hartmann of Holocaust denial; the problem with Schmidt’s writing is that you don’t know when he’s telling you a definitive opinion as he doesn’t commit himself in areas like this.

It’s hard to recommend this book to the casual reader. It is more than just a biography as it does attempt to explore the context and influences of the time on an individual but in doing so it comes away from its subject matter too often and too far. The occasionally ambiguous tone is frustrating as well and the author seems reluctant to commit himself. That said, it’s well researched and definitely adds value to anyone wanting to understand Hartmann.

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