Book Review – Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1990)

Henry Metelmann’s memoir of his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War is one of the best accounts I have read.

Metelmann served as a driver in the 22nd Panzer Division and saw action in the Crimea, Russia and Ukraine from the winter of 1941/2 until 1944 when he was injured. After that, he saw brief action in the West before surrendering to the Americans in 1945. Metelmann was born in Altona in Hamburg in 1922.[1] He was born into a working-class family where his father served as an unskilled railway worker.[2] After the war, he settled in Britain and lived here until his death in 2011.[3]

The account does have some weaknesses. Dates and times are not precise and it is difficult to create a detailed timeline for Metelmann’s movements during the war. Also, he does not mention what sub-unit of the 22nd Panzer Division he actually served with. However, despite these flaws, it is a remarkable account for three reasons.

Insignia, 22nd Panzer Division

Firstly, he is reflective of his experiences and considers how his knowledge of war changed his political views. During his youth, he was an avid Nazi and a member of the Hitler Youth. He recalled that ‘even though Father hated everything connected with the Nazi, I liked it in the Hitler Youth. I  thought the uniform was smashing…The songs we sung were beautifully melodic, all about our great race, our Lebensraum in the East, and the glory of fighting and dying for the Fatherland. I liked the comradeship, the marching and the war games. We were brought up to love our Fuhrer, who was to me like a second God, and when we were told about his great love for us, the German nation, I was often close to tears.’[4] When Metelman was called up in 1941, he said he ‘was full of myself, and now felt able to serve my Fuhrer and Fatherland in a far more significant way that hitherto.’[5]

However, his experience of combat on the Eastern Front radically changed his perspectives on things. He was inquisitive about his enemy as he had been ‘told from early youth that Bolshevism was bad and criminal, I wanted to know what made these Bolsheviks tick’. He spoke to a POW to find out why the Russians were fighting. The POW explained the Russian revolution to him and how ‘we Russian people and know that now for the first time ever we are fighting for our own sake, our own existence, our own future and not for those anymore who before the Revolution kept us down and robbed us!’[6] On speaking to a Russian Commissar he found that what he was told ‘shook him to the core’ and he felt ‘naked and defenceless’. [7] Metelmann’s father had been a committed socialist and anti-Nazi and as the war progressed, Metelmann increasingly began to agree with his father’s socialist ideas and sentiments about Hitler and the Nazi party.[8] After the war, Metelmann became a dedicated member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.[9]

Henry Metelmann

The second reason his account is so powerful is that Metelmann is explicit about the atrocities the German army committed on the Eastern Front and his part in them. He admitted himself in turning Russian peasants out of their house into the freezing winter, shooting POWs, burning peasant houses down, actively plundering to find food and being indifferent to the starving of Russian civilians.[10] He also reports the regular execution of Red Army Commissars and civilians.[11]

The final reason is his account is so interesting is that he presents a very different view of rank and file relationship with the officer class than is normally given. Many accounts suggest that the inter-rank relationships between officer and ranker were largely positive, with officers caring for their men and leading by personal example in battle. Metelmann only mentions one officer in a positive light and that was because ‘unlike most other officers, this one was generally liked as he flaunted none of the usual arrogance.’[12] For Metelmann, officers were ‘largely unimaginative and dogmatic’.[13] He records them as treating their men as idiots. In one incident ‘one of us asked one of the Lieutenants [about where the unit was going next and]…he was told contemptuously that we should not try to reason about events which were above our understanding, that we should leave thinking to the horses who had much bigger heads. The response angered us – we were fit enough to fight and die and serve as cannon fodder – but not to know what it was all about’.[14] Some were incompetent; Captain Zet led three disastrous and costly attacks in one day which led to one unknown soldier murdering the Captain during the night.[15]



[1] Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1990), p.12.

[2] Ibid., p.13.

[3] Accessed 12 December 2020.

[4] Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler, pp.14-15.

[5] Ibid., p.19.

[6] Ibid., p.61.

[7] Ibid., pp.77-80.

[8] Ibid., p.14.

[9] Accessed 12 December 2020.

[10] Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler, pp.35, 72, 135, 126, 167-168.

[11] Ibid., pp.77, 67

[12] Ibid., p.131.

[13] Ibid., p.135.

[14] Ibid., p.38.

[15] Ibid., pp.91-96.