Book Review – Claus Sellier, Walking Away from the Reich (Central Point, OR/USA: Hellgate, 1999)

Walking Away from the Reich is Claus Sellier’s narrative of his time as a soldier in the Wehrmacht fighting partisans and the Red Army in the Balkans from 1944 to 1945.

Sellier came from a wealthy Munich family. He was educated at an elite boarding school attended by boys from ‘aristocratic households…there were sons of dukes, earls, and one was even the grandson of our former Kaiser.’[1] One of his friends was Volkmar Von Richthofen, a nephew of the Red Baron.[2]

In 1943, Sellier asked his father for permission to enlist in the 79th Mountain Artillery Regiment in which his three brothers and father served as officers.[3] He was eventually selected for officer training in France but was expelled from the programme due to skiving and ill-discipline.[4]

Demoted to private, in the summer of 1944 he was sent to the 79th Mountain Artillery Regiment, 1st Mountain Division, that was stationed in Yugoslavia fighting partisans.

His first experience of combat is when the Division is ambushed by Soviet forces in the Bosnian mountains after which he and his comrades are forced to move back to German lines through the swamps of the Drina River.

The Division is then redeployed to Hungary. Sellier is ordered to visit an advanced artillery observation post which becomes surrounded by Russian units massing for an attack. The post remains concealed and Sellier is able to direct his unit’s artillery fire onto Russian formations causing massive destruction.[5] Sellier then manages to get two wounded colleagues back to German lines and he is awarded the German Cross in Gold and the Iron Cross, both 1st and 2nd Class, for his gallantry and saving his comrades.[6]

As a consequence of his actions, in April 1945 he is sent to Artillery Officers’ School in Rokycany, Czechoslovakia.[7] The school closes while he is there because of the advancing Red Army and Sellier and his mate Fritz are dispatched with an important report to be delivered to Army Headquarters in Berchtesgaden.[8] They complete this mission and are eventually picked up by US forces and taken prisoner.

After the war, Sellier starts a career as a hotel cook and eventually emigrates to the USA.

The Edelweiss, the unit insignia of the 1st Mountain Division.

The account is self-effacing. As a young adolescent at a posh private school, Sellier comes across as an arrogant, headstrong, and deeply unpleasant individual who has a fair degree of hubris and belief that ordinary rules don’t apply to him.

For example, he gets his school sports team in trouble when attending a Hitler Youth sports event in Fulda. He, as team captain, suggested to his colleagues they wear their blue and white school uniform rather than their brown Hitler Youth one.[9] This act got them expelled from the competition and their school subject to an SS inspection that could have seen it closed down.[10]

At Officer Training school, he questions his instructors and is unable to follow orders and ‘knuckle down’. He is eventually expelled for spending a week in Lyon waiting to see an eye specialist and for having a ‘mediocre training record’.[11]

Once on the frontline, his attitude changes. His captain greets him saying he is a ‘shit replacement for the fine soldiers who already sacrificed their lives for Greater Germany’.[12] However, he makes him the first gunner on a cannon, the highest position for a crewman on an artillery piece. Sellier concludes that ‘the captain was tough, but he seemed fair. He assigned me as first gunner. That was unexpected. It was the highest position on a cannon. I promised myself I wouldn’t disappoint him. Not this time.’[13]

He forms strong relationships with his peers and officers. He found that during his trek through the swamps of the Drina river he becomes a strong member of his small group. He recalled that a ‘new strength filled my body. And my spirit awoke. I was proud to be part of this group. They were fine men. They relied on me. I felt they respected me even though I was just a private. I was now a veteran like them, even without a bravery medal. It made no difference to them. We were the same…I was proud to know that they worried about me. That feeling made me stronger.’[14]

He also built solid faith and trust in his leaders.[15] One factor that appears to form relationships between leaders and the led is an NCO’s or officer’s intuition, or ‘sixth sense’. He encounters this first when he arrives at a railhead and accompanies a mule train taking supplies back to his unit. His sergeant was Joseph whom his colleague Roland says can ‘smell partisans’ and was able to detect them before they launched a poorly planned attack.[16] Roland does not know where this ability comes from but it inspires Roland to trust Joseph.[17] Sellier also develops faith in Joseph’s powers; he recalled that when he was with him ‘my anxiety vanished. I always trusted Joseph. His sixth sense was better than anybody’s.’[18]

A major that Sellier met believed that soldiers could sense danger. The major said they could ‘feel that. I never did as a civilian. Usually, I reacted too fast and for the wrong reasons. I followed my reasoning and my imagination. As a veteran, I learned to use all my senses.’[19] Sellier told one of his mates who had arrived in his units that ‘anybody with a sixth sense is special and they follow everyone who has it. Nothing else counts around here very much…You’ll gain respect with them if you show instinct, an old-timer told me. We dependent on intuition. That’s a natural defence.’[20]

Another key theme is Sellier’s disillusionment with the Nazi Project. As an adolescent at school during the early part of the war, he was proud to be German as it was ‘in great shape’. He said that he and his ‘friends read magazines that showed war pictures and Adolf Hitler smiling while pinning bravery medals on war heroes. We were proud. I wanted a medal too.’[21] 

However, at the front, his faith in the Fuhrer began to wane. He found after his first experience of battle that his ‘oath was based on ‘Fuhrer, Reich, and Fatherland’ sunk ‘to the bottom of my list since I escaped from the swamp…My oath was to my friends, my comrades.’[23] Sellier regarded his German Gold Cross that he got for directing German artillery onto Russian soldiers with disgust; ‘the black swastika [of his Gold Cross] was the symbol of hate.’ However, he ‘was proud of the Iron Cross. I saved two friends and brought them home to safety. I deserved that medal.’[24]

The major omission in Sellier’s account is any reference to the large number of atrocities and war crimes carried out by the 1st Mountain Division during the Second World War. These have been documented by H. F. Meyer’s book Bloodstained Edelweiss: The 1st Mountain Division in the Second World War.[25] For example, during the Case Black operation in Yugoslavia in July 1943, the Division and other units captured 498 prisoners of which 411 were shot.[26] 

Compared to many memoirs of German combatants service in the Second World War, this memoir is very readable and entertaining.



[1] Claus Sellier, Walking Away from the Reich (Central Point, OR/USA: Hellgate, 1999), p.3.

[2] Ibid., p.6.

[3] Ibid., pp.19-21.

[4] Ibid., pp.31-53.

[5] Ibid., pp.171-198.

[6] Ibid., p.192.

[7] Ibid., pp.196-198.

[8] Ibid., p.205.

[9] Ibid., p.10.

[10] Ibid., pp.15-16.

[11] Ibid., pp.29-54.

[12] Ibid., p.72.

[13] Ibid., p.73.

[14] Ibid., pp.101-102.

[15] Ibid., pp.69, 114, 124

[16] Ibid., pp.63-64.

[17] Ibid., p.65.

[18] Ibid., p.185.

[19] Ibid., p.223.

[20] Ibid., p.77.

[21] Ibid., p.1.

[23] Ibid., p.125.

[24] Ibid., p.264.

[25] Accessed 29.4.21.

[26] Klaus SchmiderPartisanenkrieg in Jugoslawien 1941–1944 (Hamburg: Mittler, 2002), p.282.