Book Review – Klaus Willmann [Lothar Herrmann], Death March Through Russia (Barnsley, Yorkshire/UK: GreenHill, 2019)

Death March Through Russia is the narrative that author Klaus Willman wrote of former German soldier Lothar Herrmann’s service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War and subsequent time in captivity as a Soviet POW.[1]

Herrmann was born in Breslau, modern-day Wroclaw in Poland, in September 1920 and he trained as a house painter and decorator.[2] He was called up for service in the Reich Labour Service in May 1940.[3] After that, he saw combat service in the artillery army of the Mountain troops.[4] Herrman first saw action with the 4th Mountain Division supporting Romanian soldiers during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa.[5] In October 1941, he was sent home after a bronchial attack.[6] He was finally passed fit for active service in August 1943 and became an artillery observer.[7] In late 1943, he was posted to the 8th Battery, 3rd Battalion of the 4th Mountain Division.[8] He was captured in late 1944 by Romanian troops after the defection of Romania to the Allies. Between 1944 and 1948, he was a Soviet POW.

Insignia of the German 4th Mountain Division

As Tomas Brogan, points out in his review of this work, the narrative is not an autobiography by Herrmann but a story put together by Willmann based on interviews with Herrmann. This approach poses major methodological challenges in ascertaining the veracity and authenticity of Herrmann’s experience. As Brogan points out, Willmann ‘undoubtedly influenced Herrmann’s narrative, for example through his choice of questions and occasional requests for clarification. It would have been interesting to have some more explanation about this process as it is unclear, for example, to what extent critical questions have been posed.’[9]

In many ways, Willmann’s authorship of Herrmann’s account was a missed opportunity for some critical inquiry into the Wehrmacht during the war, especially in light of recent historiography which proves the Wehrmacht was widely involved in criminal activity and war crimes (see for instance  Alex J. Kay & David Stahel, ‘Crimes of the Wehrmacht: A Re-evaluation’, Journal of Perpetrator Research 3.1 (2020)). Indeed, Ernst Kern, in his 1991 autobiography of his time in the 4th Mountain Division, reports a number of incidents upon which it would have been informative to get Herrmann’s perspective.[10]

For students of history interested in the German Army on the Eastern Front, this account does not really further our understanding of the Wehrmacht. However, it does make some interesting observations. For example, that the rank and file held the generals responsible for the military situation German found itself in by July 1944. It:

‘wasn’t Hitler who was held to be accountable for the difficult situation we were in, but his generals. The Fuhrer would remain sacrosanct. One thing was for certain: whilst the events of 20 July [1944] definitely didn’t boost our morale, as far as we simple Landsers [German soldiers] were concerned, they did indeed strengthen our resolve to at least remain faithful to our oath. For us, being duty-bound was non-negotiable’.[11]

The value of this account comes from the reporting of Herrmann’s time as a Soviet POW after the war. The experience of such soldiers is not well known or really understood. As Roger Moorhouse points out in his foreword of Herrmann’s account, these captive soldiers ‘were scarcely commemorated, let alone written about. They were largely ignored, as embarrassing, painful reminders of the lost war’.[12] Their narrative and experience is an important chapter of the Second World War that is rarely discussed. Herrmann’s account joins others, like that of Gottlob Bidermann and Oskar Scheja, in setting out the harsh and brutal time many German soldiers suffered at the hands of their Soviet captors.[13]



[1] Klaus Willmann [Lothar Herrmann], Death March Through Russia (Barnsley, Yorkshire/UK: Greenhill, 2019), pp.xv-xvi.

[2] Ibid., pp.1-16.

[3] Ibid., pp.17-37.

[4] Ibid., p.38.

[5] Ibid.,p.46.

[6] Ibid., p.57.

[7] Ibid., p.65.

[8] Ibid., p.70.

[9] Accessed 21.2.21.

[10] Ernst Kern, War Diary 1941-45: A Report (New York: Vantage, 1993), pp.6, 64, 128.

[11] Klaus Willmann [Lothar Herrmann], Death March Through Russia (Barnsley, Yorkshire/UK: Greenhill, 2019), p.79.

[12] Ibid, p.xi.

[13] See Gottlob Bidermann, In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front (Kansas: University of Kansas, 2000); & Oskar Scheja, The Man in the Black Fur Coat (Privately published, 2014).