Book Review – Ernst Kern, War Diary 1941-45: A Report (New York: Vantage, 1993)

War Diary is Ernst Kern’s memoir of his service in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1944. He served as an infantryman and medical orderly with the 12 Company, 91st Mountain Regiment, 4th Mountain Division, and saw action in the Caucasus, Ukraine and Romania.[1] The narrative was compiled during 1945 while Kern was at medical school from his own war diaries and letters from the front.[2]


Kern details the impact of the extreme cold that he and his comrades had to suffer dressed in summer uniforms and not receiving adequate food. Consequently, they were freezing and hungry for much of the time. In the winter of 1941/2, things had got so bad his comrade contemplated cannibalism. Kern reasoned ‘there were large quantities of meat lying around, sufficient to make the company survive the winter. After all, Russian could not be that much worse than mule meat’.[3]


Insignia of 4th Mountain Division (Wehrmacht)

On top of this, Kern relates that the leadership by the majority of his officers and NCOs was poor and was characterised by incompetence and bullying. Colonel von Stettner was ‘feared and unpopular, even among his own officers, because of his Napoleonic manners and coldness’.[4] Kern’s own  NCO Corporal Rockl was a bully and made Kern do ‘every conceivable demeaning job’; Rockl was killed in 1942 and Kern wrote that for ‘the first and only time during the war I did not regret the death of a man.’ [5]

The things that kept Kern going were the relationships with his close comrades; he recalled that ‘the fighting spirit and morale of any unit was based on the bonding of the men who knew each other well, could rely on each other, and especially knew that one would never be left behind wounded. Compared to this, the quality of the officers was much less significant, as was clearly the case in our unit’.[7]


This account of the Eastern Front is probably one of the best available as it is so honest and frank. Kern does not gloss over many of the war crimes that his unit participated in or he witnessed. He recalled seeing the execution of Jews by the SS or the fact that men from his own unit shot Soviet POWs.[8]


[1] Ernst Kern, War Diary 1941-45: A Report (New York: Vantage, 1993), p.7.

[2] Ibid., p.151.

[3] Ibid., p.32.

[4] Ibid., p.9.

[5] Ibid., pp.46, 51.

[7] Ibid., p.132.

[8] Ibid., p.6, 64, 128.