Dwight R. Messimer. Eleven Months to Freedom: A German POW's Unlikely Escape from Siberia in 1915. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Maps. 224 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-065-7.
Reviewed by Aleksandra Pomiecko (University of Toronto)
Published on H-War (July, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
In Eleven Months to Freedom: A German POW’s Unlikely Escape from Siberia in 1915, Dwight R. Messimer exposes readers to the remarkable story of Erich Killinger, a naval aviator during the First World War. Having managed to escape from Russia as a prisoner of war (POW), Killinger made the dangerous journey back to Germany, across Japan, the Pacific Ocean, the United States, and the Atlantic Ocean, and past the rigid British blockade. Messimer benefited from reports that Killinger himself wrote in addition to memoirs based on his extraordinary experience. Although Killinger is the focus of this story, readers are introduced to other vibrant characters and key historical periods, thanks to Messimer’s research.
Messimer first offers an introductory background into Killinger, noting his upper-class upbringing. Yet despite Killinger’s privileged life, his perceptions and experiences as a young man enlisting to fight were similar to others during the early stages of the First World War. The early enthusiasm that infected many enlistees equally affected Killinger and drove a desire to be an active fighter for his country. The second chapter follows this biography by offering context to the war, which may be particularly helpful to readers less familiar with this history. The next four chapters take place in Russia, discussing Killinger’s capture, incarceration, confinement, isolation, and travel further east to various POW camps. This portion of the work underscores Killinger’s personal thoughts, fears, and experiences as a POW, but it also reveals foreign perceptions of Russia and its people. Drawing from Killinger’s work, Messimer focuses on the naval aviator’s understanding and distinction of Russian people and his place within the system. Typically, he complained of the treatment he received, particularly as an officer who expected certain standards even when captured. Other times, Killinger became aware that, in fact, he was being treated better then Russian citizens themselves. One of the most striking moments was Killinger’s time traveling on a train with Russian peasants being resettled in the East—an experience Messimer describes as “first class” for the German POWs “compared to the peasants” (p. 63).
Chapters 7 to 12 follow Killinger’s escape and journey back to Germany. It is a story that commences with four German POWs, eventually involving only Killinger himself. Messimer offers further insight into the narrative by explaining the German escape system for POWs and discussing the different considerations an escapee would have taken into account based on their circumstances. To further contextualize Killinger’s journey—and its success—Messimer also includes examples of other German POW escapees who made particular decisions that offered greater chances of success or failure. With this information, the reader is able to better situate Killinger’s story within the context of war and survival. Yet what these chapters expose goes beyond that of a mere escapee trying to get home. They reveal a story of cultural interaction, shock, and awe on behalf of Killinger, putting aside the danger he faced throughout this period. This part of Messimer’s work also exposes the interconnectivity of states and institutions, even though they were scattered between continents and states, whether allies, neutral, or enemies.
The last two chapters center on Killinger’s arrival in Germany and continued work as a naval aviator during the war. Messimer then discusses Killinger’s life during the interwar period, which he spent traveling the world as a businessman to many of the places he had escaped from. The work concludes with a chapter on Killinger’s activity during the Second World War; he was primarily in charge at the Dulag Luft interrogation center for Allied airmen. The British later sentenced him for a period in prison for his involvement in war crimes. In this section, Messimer provides detailed biographies of those accused during this trial and of those who provided testimonies against Killinger and other Germans.
Killinger’s life essentially serves as a vehicle through which to explore other fascinating parts of this history. Although focusing on the perspective of a German national, the book, through Killinger’s life, exposes a transnational history, underscoring how different states, institutions, and individuals were closely considered and intertwined in this story of escape and war. Furthermore, Killinger’s perspectives, opinions, and emotions, which Messimer explains and contextualizes well, reflect similar experiences by other soldiers of the First World War. At the same time, this remarkable case is a window into the lives of soldiers and a generation that experienced both world wars. Through his research, writing style, and historical approach, Messimer offers a work that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative. A general audience will find this work easy to follow, whereas more knowledgeable readers will still find value in the specific details that Messimer incorporates.
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Aleksandra Pomiecko. Review of Messimer, Dwight R., Eleven Months to Freedom: A German POW's Unlikely Escape from Siberia in 1915.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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