Helmut Altner, Berlin Dance of Death

21 Jun
Helmut Altner, Berlin Dance of Death

So here is another one of the books I took along on holiday. Amazing how life can be, for it took me almost a month to read the last 50 pages! 😮

So what is the book about. It is a first hand account of the experiences of Helmut Altner during the last roughly two months of the Second World War. Being 17 at the time he gets drafted into service of the regular Wehrmacht. After extremely minimal training he gets send into the third line defences on the Seelower Höhen. After being subjected to mainly artillery attacks he and his mates join the general flight to Berlin, always trying to keep out of a Russian encirclement until he reaches his barracks in Spandau. Here he and his unit get send back out time and time again to defend Spandau or even counter attack until all hope is lost and he again tries to break out to the west to get to Armee Wenk and the Americans.

The book itself proves quite fascinating. On over 200 pages Altner describes his experiences during those two months. The book was originally published in in German in the late 1940’s. He was able to make notes of his experiences and hide them throughout his captivity as a Soviet POW (yes he was caught shortly before he reached the Elbe). Due to this, his account is not only very vivid, but also very detailed. This is only enhanced by the fact that the editor and translator for the English edition (none other than Tony le Tessier), puts a lot of historical context into the footnotes to this edition. His writing style is a bit undefined, typical of a person just out of his teenage years, but if anything this only adds to the realism.


His account is very interesting in many aspects. He goes on to tell his own feelings and motivations. He tells about his disillusionment with the Nazi leadership and their ideologies, but also how his sense of duty (and at times treats by NCOs) kept him going. His story also makes clear how general morale and discipline deteriorated over those weeks. How supplies became rarer during those times, only only for quartermaster stores to be opened wide during the last few hours. How weapons and ammunitions were rare and men often received none at all or only recently repaired weapons that had been looted during the Blitzkrieg.
He gives a very good account of the street fighting, how the ad-hoc Kampfgruppen were formed, or now they fought in the subway tunnels under Berlin (one they they are send to fight a relief action towards the city centre). The interesting part is that it also gives a good idea of the fighting spirit of various troop types, like those newly raised troops (like Altners unit), Volkssturm, Landwehr, regulars, SS, Hitleryouth.
I was really fascinated by his account of the final breakout to the west. This seems to have been a real up and down. Periods of mad rushes where it was everyone for himself, not caring if this meant the death of others. At times people trying to stick together or even forming new ad-hoc units to survive. How staff officers were pressed into leading men who never had to do so. What I found amazing was that there were tankers, that even during this time did their best to defend the trek to the west instead of just breaking through to save themselves.

All in all I found this to be a good read, which gives the reader a very good idea how those last days of the Thord Reich felt for those caught in it. So how good is it? The official retail is 14,99GB£ and I would definitely put its value at full price. It is a real good book on the topic and should be part of any library on the subject.


Posted by on June 21, 2014 in Books, Reviews, WWII


3 responses to “Helmut Altner, Berlin Dance of Death

  1. Monty

    June 22, 2014 at 01:46

    This sounds like a good companion read to Cornelius Ryan’s “The Last Battle,” which I finished just recently.


    • Burkhard

      June 22, 2014 at 11:49

      I cannot really say if it would complement Ryan’s book (since I have not read it yet), but it sure is a good book on its own.

      What I cannot recommend is Ambroses book on the Fall of Berlin, which did rather strike me as the “Serial rapists guide to the fall of Berlin”.


  2. vonpeterhimself

    June 29, 2014 at 00:53

    An interesting sounding book Burkhard.

    Have you read The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer? Though the authenticity of the book used to be controversial!

    von Peter himself



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