Book Review: Helmut Altner, Berlin Soldier (Stroud: History Press, 2008 [1948])

 Helmut Altner’s memoir covers his period as a 17-year-old conscript soldier fighting in the defence of Berlin from his enlistment on 29 March 1945 to his capture by Soviet forces on 3 May. He initially joined the Grenadier and Training Replacement Battalion 309 that was part of the 309th ‘Berlin’ Infantry Division formed in February 1945.[1] He was deployed to defend the eastern approaches to Berlin and ended up fighting in the streets, suburbs and metro tunnels of the city.


The book is organised into a chronological diary form and was based on a diary kept by Altner and published in 1948 as a memoir in German as Totentanz Berlin. Altner’s son said that the initial print run was only 450 books and his father’s account was republished and translated into English in 2007 when historian and translator Tony Le Tessier discovered a copy in Berlin.[2]


The background to Altner’s narrative is set against the death throes of the Third Reich, the Battle for Berlin and the Soviet invasion. Altner is thrust into a military force made up of ‘16-year-olds to 60-year-olds’ that he labels ‘Germany’s last hope!’.[3] He receives little training, there are major shortages of weapons and those weapons that are available are ancient and obsolete types that are alien to Altner and comrades.[4] On top of this SS and police units are rounding up anyone capable of fighting and forcing them into battle against the oncoming Soviet advance.[5]


The theme of his account is survival trying to stay alive fighting the Russians and avoid being killed by his own side for treason, cowardice or defeatism He quickly forms close relationships with other 17-year-olds in his unit, notably Heinz Boy and Fritz Stroschn. Altner and Boy get ‘sozzled’ on beer ‘to forget’ an execution they were forced to witness.[6] Altner and his mates stick and mess together.[7] Just after a month of being together, on 25 April, Altner considers these two ‘best friends I could always depend on’. However, on that date, both Boy and Stroschn are reported missing.[8] The next day Altner and another friend, Blaczeck, decide to desert and hide in a bunker in a garden. A local resident gives them civilian clothes and food. They decide to leave the location to find another refuge and put their uniforms back on to avoid being arrested but are stopped at a checkpoint where they meet a former Sergeant who orders them back to their barracks.[9]


At this time, Altner confesses that he wants to ‘disappear, turn my back on everything and hide….The oath that binds me means nothing no more. I feel myself released from it since it became clear what sort of game was being played with us. But there is something that holds me back despite everything. The words ‘obedience’ and ‘duty’ are so deeply burned into our hearts they smoulder on like a small spark to hold us back. We simply cannot find a way out of the maze of feelings, out of the conflict between our upbringing and the common-sense that comes to us in terms that we recognise, as they contradict everything we have been taught in our lives. We do not hate the enemy, we only shoot because conformity to the mass seems to spare us from taking responsibly for ourselves’.[10]


On 28 April 1945, Altner writes that he was among soldiers whom he does not know. The units are filled with ‘mainly companies of stragglers’. They are given new objectives in order to fight the Russians but each new task is ‘as pointless as all the others, as they cannot possibly make any difference to the eventual outcome. Amid this unwilling mass everyone is for himself alone, leaving aside all thoughts and feelings to make things as easy as possible for oneself, thinking about neither the future nor the present, just swimming in the mass, being simply a tiny wheel without a purpose of its own…’[11] He is unit is led by a ‘Luftwaffe captain, who does not appear to have much idea about infantry warfare…’[12] In the final two days of the account, 1 and 2 May, Altner seeks to break out of Berlin with others but is captured by Soviet forces on 3 May.


What is fascinating is how Altner’s views of Hitler, the war and expected outcome of the conflict change radically over the short time span of the narrative. On 6 April he recalls that ‘the youth believe in Hitler as if he were the Messiah. Me Too!’[13] On 9 April, he reports that many ‘comrades talk about the war. Bayer complains that he has rheumatism in his right leg, and says he will be unable to take part in the victory march…Stroschn wonders how he can still believe in victory…’[14] By the 26 April, Altner confesses when ordered to break into Berlin residents’ flats to establish firing positions that it ‘is really too much to have to fight not only the enemy but also against our own countrymen in this meaningless defence’.[15] On hearing of Hitler’s death on 1 May, Altner said ‘it hardly bothers me, for the time is over when I thought that the heavens would collapse if that man no longer lived.’[16]


The other interesting dimension is how Altner feels that his experience of combat transforms him from a boy to a man. On the 17th April, he writes that he smoked ‘my pipe again. The tobacco tickles my throat, but I want to get used to it, it looks so manly’.[17] Two days later, after repelling a Russian attack he notes that ‘[t]here are new furrows, new lines etched on our faces. We have suddenly gone from being children to being adults, old people. We can kill, but we can’t cry anymore; we have learnt this’.[18]


This is a remarkable account. The narrative only covers 35 days but the time feels much longer. Altner’s survival in the chaos and insanity of the last few weeks of the Third Reich was probably a matter of luck with many of his friends being killed or wounded by either the Germans and the Russians. The book is well annotated by Le Tessier with notes and maps that provide some useful background.


[1] Helmut Altner, Berlin Soldier (Stroud: History Press, 2008 [1948]), pp.11, 253.

[2] Accessed 22 August 2020.

[3] Altner, p.13.

[4] Ibid., pp.61, 47.

[5] Ibid., pp.94-95.

[6] Ibid., pp.20-21.

[7] Ibid., p.112.

[8] Ibid., p.67.

[9] Ibid., pp.151-153.

[10] Ibid., p.157.

[11] Ibid., pp.161-162.

[12] Ibid., p.163.

[13] Ibid., p.25.

[14] Ibid., p.46.

[15] Ibid., p.125.

[16] Ibid., p.196.

[17] Ibid., p.64.

[18] Ibid., p.67.