on 5 December 2002
Berlin Dance of Death - Helmut Altner
Wow! What a read!
On 29th March 1945, Zuchov was at the Oder, Bradley was on the Elbe, Hitler was in his bunker and Helmut Altner was just 17. Conscripted into the last intake for the Wermacht before surrender, Altner started his basic training behind the front line at the Oder. Within three weeks, the Red army had broken out and Altner's epic but brief struggle to survive began. After a week of fighting in the suburbs of Berlin and prior to the surrender of the Berlin Garrison, the German High Command gave permission for the defenders to break out of the surrounded city and try to reach the 12th Army and safety. The Dance of Death was about to commence. A ragbag collection of around 800,000 individuals: servicemen, women, children and old people attempted to get through the Russian lines in anything that moved: tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks, ambulances, bicycles or even on foot.
Altner's harrowing account was written immediately after the war and originally published in German in 1948. It was based on diaries kept at the time. This volume was re-discovered by Tony LeTissier who is himself an acknowledged authority on the wartime history of Berlin. LeTissier has translated the book into English, added maps, photographs and supportive footnotes. The result is a breath-taking roller-coaster ride of death and destruction. This is how it was: no heroes and no cavalry. Just page after page of Altner's struggle to live. He recounts how a monocled general calls them Germany's last hope: "to stem the Bolshevik onslaught with our bodies". Soldiers too traumatised to fight were hung from street lamps by SS execution squads. An old couple dressed as though for church who commit suicide by jumping in the River Spree, unable to face the "Russian Monsters". Of thousands of human beings caught by enfilading fire: the Dance of Death.
The book is written in a modern narrative style and the reader is propelled along at a cracking pace. It is easy to relate to Altner as an ordinary young man caught up in the horrors of the Nazi war machine. In spite of the horrors he witnesses and is forced to take part in, I found it hard to put the book down. The images conjured up in the final scenes makes you want to skip the pages to check that he makes it in the end. "Private Ryan"-like descriptions of blood and death are juxta-positioned with sexual encounters of '40s modesty, a sign of the times that this story was originally written in. The book has a "happy ending" when the Red Army saves Altner from both his own fear of an uncertain future, and the Nazis.
Overall, the book is 248 pages. There are 12 excellent maps with which to follow the flight, and 16 pages of photographs which all relate to the narrative. LeTissier has crammed the book with excellent annotations giving detail of the greater picture the only niggle is that I prefer to see them as footnotes not endnotes because thumbing through the pages interrupts the flow of the story!
This book is not for the squeamish but this unique record of a young soldier has certainly earned its place of honour on my humble bookshelf. Wow! What a read!