Pros: Very readable, smooth narrative. Matter-of-fact account of the last weeks of the German military.
Cons: A bit dry at times, a little more recitation of facts than personal account.
Berlin Dance Of Death is the personal account of Helmut Altner, a 17-year-old boy who joined the German army in the last weeks of World War II in Europe. It begins with his "induction" into the army in Berlin on March 29, 1945, and his immediate mustering to Grenadier Training & Replacement Battalion 309. It ends just weeks later, shortly after the fall of Berlin, on May 3, 1945, when he is taken prisoner by the Russians. Barely 5 weeks. What can happen in such a short time? Everything.
This is not a typical "romantic" war tale of a boy's transformation to a man during combat. Though only 17, the author is already old before he even enters the military. On his way to register, he sees the death and destruction inflicted on Berlin all around him, but it's already long ceased bothering him. He has no more reaction to the torn and piecemeal human remains in the streets than an even younger boy of twelve in one of the crowds, who merely watches while eating his breakfast.
The futility and absurdity of Germany's military situation is already crystal clear to Helmut as he stands with the other recruits who are to join him soon in basic training. He notes with the barest trace of humor how Germany's last hope is vested in the children and old men who are soon to be thrown into battle. Some of the men are so old they were declared too old to fight during the first world war. Even so, appearances must be kept up; recruits are inspected and vaccinated by army doctors, who pronounce each person fit(!), no matter how young, old, or feeble. Though few are able, all must go, and soon.
Much of the training Helmut will get is going to be during combat; there are no longer sufficient resources or time to train recruits extensively before going into battle. Despite the frighteningly high casualty rates this kind of "training" creates, it's all rationalized politically, as it's an honor to die so young for Hitler. Helmut, though unconvinced, keeps his opinions to himself; once can be executed for defeatist talk.
And speaking of death, Helmut gets his first taste of it not on the battlefield, but well behind the front lines, in the still peaceful woods of German-occupied territory. Here he gets to see his first executions; deserters and others who are shot for cowardice. Like public hangings in our own wild west, the event is more show than somber; officers and their wives attend in their best clothing, and experienced soldiers chat about the soon-to-be-deceased. To be sure the new recruits understand the seriousness of the situation, they are given front row seats.
Does the desperation of the German military situation make all those in uniform come together to fight the Russians and Americans? Not at all. Human nature still rules, and often badly. Romanian soldiers who were forcibly put into German uniform after their country was defeated are treated as inferiors, though they have done some of the heaviest fighting in the war. The Russian soldiers brought over to Germany by General Vlassov are seen as mere canon fodder; most of them already dead by the time Helmut's narrative starts. Minor level bureaucrats and clerks get special treatment; they are never sent into battle as they are indispensible, and some of them outrank the most experienced front line troops. Many of them have already received special passes to allow them to leave Berlin legally before the Russians reach it; to be in uniform and otherwise leave without a pass is to be shot.
Training outside the battlefield is mostly useless disciplinary style punishment marches, drills, and barracks cleaning exercises. Weapons handling is firing a few clips of substandard ammunition from a rifle. Some of the weapons, like the panzerfaust (similar to a bazooka), don't get to recruits until they are used in battle. And strategy? Tactics? Their leadership is often either youngsters like themselves, promoted quickly to sergeant or even lieutenant, or captains or majors who are office workers, and have no combat experience. Stand and die are orders of the day. Others are no retreat. Hold fast. Hold out just one more day. And the most glorious order of all. Attack. Throw yourselves by the hundreds against an enemy with vastly superior numbers, far more heavy equipment and arms, and immensely greater combat experience. If you live, regroup with the other survivors, and try again.
Helmut sees his comrades killed all around him, faster than replacements can be found and brought to the front. His company is decimated over and over again, and given impossible orders to retake lost ground, to drive the enemy back, and to win the war. Idealism and faith does not save you; the most ardent youthful Nazis, the most devout believers in Hitler, are shot down just as quickly as the most doubting fatalists.
And yet, with an almost unkillable regularity, the remnants of the German army function. The routine goes on, no matter what. Uniforms are issued. Fresh troops are brought forward. Food and medicine are distributed. Weapons are received. Mail is delivered. Medals and promotions are awarded. The routine continues.
It goes on even after the unthinkable occurs; Hitler's death is announced. The war does not end, because a successor is named. The fight goes on, though by this time Helmut has gone back to Berlin with a rag-tag group of survivors from the last battle with the Russians. Still, the child soldiers fight, even as the Russian tanks and troops close in on the last German-controlled parts of the city. When the last strongholds are isolated, including the Zoo complex of bunkers and artillery, a breakout occurs. It becomes a slaughter for the Germans, as no matter where they run, they are outnumbered and outgunned. Still trying to escape, Helmut is captured, and becomes a prisoner of war.
Is there a point to war? Does it accomplish anything useful? Do people learn anything from it? Those, and other fundamental questions, are not answered by this book. It's told from the point of view of a combatant who simply did as he was told, put on a uniform and went to fight, and left the larger issues, whatever they may be, to others.