Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Hitler’s Last Courier

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 25, 2001

On April 19, 1945, I still idolized Axmann and both of us idolized Hitler, and we were dedicated and committed to follow his path unerringly. We were convinced we would be part of the “New Order” destined to last a thousand years and benefiting all of Europe. How difficult it must be for all those who live in a democracy, used to a free press and to open exchanges of opinions, used to a multiple party-system or, at least, to a two-party system, to understand the one-track mind of youth in a dictatorship.

Lehmann’s account of the last days of Hitler’s Germany, from the standpoint of a sixteen-year-old, is fascinating, but just as fascinating is his account of the ten years leading up to that end.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorArmin D. Lehmann
Length536 pages
Book Rating5

Armin D. Lehmann was born in 1929 in Weimar Germany. Among his first memories are Hitler’s rising to power. Both his grandfather and his father were followers of and believers in Hitler’s movement. “As a young boy, I witnessed, with a great excitement, the first rally and torchlight procession of storm-trooper units.” He joined the Hitler Youth at ten. Throughout the book, Lehmann does an amazing job of resurrecting his boyhood mindset, long since abandoned, from his first experience at four to the final days of Hitler’s government. The book begins with fragments of memories of the early years of Hitler’s government, and ends in a frantic portrayal of life in Berlin and in the infamous bunker in the very last days of that government.

At the age of sixteen, he became engaged to be married with a nurse who was treating him for his war wounds. As the war went badly for Germany, Hitler called on the Hitler Youth to fight, and Lehmann went enthusiastically, and almost died. When Lehmann describes his fiancé; leaving him as he boards a train to visit his grandmother, I have to think of Liza Minelli in “Cabaret”:

“Tapfer Sein!” (Let’s be brave) were her last words. She turned around and left, not turning her head back but still waving.

They fell in love, but the failure of the German postal system conspired against them.

He describes how, in the Jungvolk (scouting-style) camps, they were taught about the responsibility of the German people to “rid ourselves of all bad habits that had been perpetuated by inferior races, and that the Jews and the Communists were out to destroy Germany.”

Since, at that time, I didn’t know any Jews or Communists and as far as I know had never come into contact with any, these were non-personal, ideational enemies. A few months later, the infamous Crystal Night made me realize the nice people in a candy store I frequented were Jewish.

His father, a member of the SS, implied strongly that he had taken part in that night’s activities. “Tonight, for once, we really made it hot for the Jews!”

How many people were ashamed of what had happened? We will never know. They kept it to themselves. Both of my grandmothers were, as I found out much later.

Lehmann is a good writer, but not a great one. You have to provide your own insight, and while in a sense that’s a good thing, it’s also a disappointment. He doesn’t appear to have learned any more than that his parents were misguided and his government was evil, and that they passed this on to their children--of whom he was one. While there are insights sprinkled throughout the book, they are never built upon. About his attempt at entering the prestigious NAZI school, he wrote:

In this environment, we took into our minds what was presented to us, without thinking and without comparing, because all of it was impressive and new to us. We had no knowledge of anything to the contrary. We were never encouraged to question any kind of information or passed-on knowledge.

Some teachers wanted to teach correctly, but were afraid to. One of his instructors, he noted, would occasionally “shake his head” when hearing the young boy speak of how the war could be won “with loyalty to the Fuehrer”. But Lehmann believes that instructor kept silent because “he might have risked his life. After all, I was the son of an SD officer, a fact that was known to him.”

He also writes about how he thought that some forms of capital punishment were too cruel. Two students at the University of Munich were being put to death for treason. He overheard two nurses discussing it; one thought that execution by guillotine was correct, the other that perhaps the students had been lead astray by a professor.

My feeling was that execution by a firing squad or even by hanging would have been a preferable choice for execution. I thought that this cruel “French method” of execution was un-German.

He writes about how some of this must seem unbelievable, that not only children but also adults and even foreigners who had been taken over could succumb to the ideology of the Nazis, even “an increasing number of Czech citizens”. Of his friends during this time, he writes “They are all humane human beings. Thank God, we were not old enough to be given orders to commit murderous acts.” The unwritten phrase is, “because we might have followed those orders.”

That is perhaps the most important contribution of this book: he does a wonderful job of describing his boyhood friends and family, and we can see them personally. Then, we see how they supported the Nazis, and we are forced to ask not only if we would have done the same, but are we? The thesis running throughout this book is that good people will do bad things if they allow themselves to believe lies. And the other thesis is that it is easy to believe those lies. Throughout the book he talks about how Hitler said this, and the media said that, and teachers agreed. When the government controls the educational system, there isn’t much chance of children learning to question the government. And when the media also presents the government view of things, there really isn’t any way out. And yet some people did realize it. He writes about the leaflet that the treasonous students handed out; he saw it after the war and realized, if he had found that leaflet, he would have turned it in.

You can hear echoes of modern rhetoric in what he was taught as a child:

We fought to preserve the new social order, which eliminated all social differences and regional and sectarian rivalries, establishing the ideal of a genuine national community.

To stress how compelling the new ideology was, he mentions in a couple of places how varied the movement was, including not only Germans but also nationals from other European countries; he even provides an appendix summarizing the voluntary service of foreigners in the Waffen SS. The message: it is so easy to believe lies that even the people Germany conquered sometimes were sucked into the ideology.

Even at the very end of the war, when it should have been clear that Germany had already lost, Lehmann and the people still believed in Hitler. On the bus into Germany, they were dodging Russian and possibly American fire; Russian troops had already crossed the Autobahn. The young troops, including Lehmann, were naively optimistic, believing that the Fuehrer had a secret weapon that would win the war; their unit leader had spoken of it before sending them to see the Fuehrer. The bus driver made fun of them, but even he asked them to speak to the Fuehrer about the “miracle weapon--before it is too late!”

Even on April 19, 1945, with Russians across the Autobahn, Lehmann could say about himself and one of the leaders of the Hitler Youth:

Both of us [still] idolized Hitler, and we were dedicated and committed to follow his path unerringly. We were convinced we would be part of the “New Order” destined to last a thousand years and benefiting all of Europe.

Even now, you can hear the child Lehmann sounding wounded because his hero deserted him:

I never knew until after the war that Hitler had told Axmann that the best had sacrificed their lives on the battlefields already. Those who survived were the inferior ones. Even though it was a lie, what an insult to the German people--to those surviving!

Of all the other books I’ve read, this reminds me most of “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” by Stanislaw Lem. It especially becomes clear as Lehmann is moving around in the bunker in the midst of the war, transferring messages between the various military and political leaders, and remembering that, on being introduced to General Baerenfaenger, that the General “shook my hand and then actually patted me on the back... I had just received my Iron Cross First Class. He had been decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves.”

In a TIME Magazine letter dated December 18, 1995, Lehmann wrote:

We should not ask if Bosnia is worth dying for, but instead ask if thousands of innocent people, mostly women and children, are worth protecting. I wish that I had had the chance of putting my life on the line as a peacekeeper instead of being forced to fight for a dictator who turned out to be one of the biggest mass murderers of all time.

Political leaders will always use the threat of dead innocents to further their own military aims. And the phrase “peacekeeper” will always be used to spread war. Sometimes it will be right, sometimes it will be wrong; but the claims always require maximum scrutiny. We should always ask. Indeed, he may have come to understand this later, as he writes in his book about how the German government told them that what they were doing, they were doing for the benefit of Europe. “It all started with promises for a better life.” In what seems to be of direct application to the bombings of Serbia, he wrote in “Hitler’s Last Courier”:

I hope that in this new Millennium, the world will reach a level of humanness that even military strikes to prevent wars will no longer be necessary! Above all, common people should never be made to suffer for their leaders’ criminal acts.

His “list of insights” is presented as a short epilogue. He describes how, when the Americans asked him if he was a Fascist, he said “no!”, because to him, “Fascist” meant Mussolini’s Italians who were not held in high regard by the Hitler Youth. He also says,

I see the new Millennium as a challenge for future generations to gradually transform our planet, non-violently, into one world for one humanity. Not to hate! Not to cause unnecessary pain! Not to afflict cruelties! Not to kill! We have to start with the minds of our children and be willing to give up some of our freedoms whose effects can be too destructive and therefore endanger others.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what those freedoms are, nor how we must “start with the minds of our children”. Is he recommending that we give up freedom of speech, in the hopes that future conspirators will not speak in secret? (Or in the hopes that they will?) Is he recommending more of the curfews that allowed his father to head off into the night and throw rocks through Jewish storefronts? Is he recommending that we disarm minorities in the hopes that future brownshirts will voluntarily disarm and refrain from killing with fists, clubs, knives, and rope? As I write this, I’m about to head to a Gay Pride parade. Today’s gay-bashers appear to be able to do their thing quite effectively with fists, clubs, and rope. Organizations such the Pink Pistols think gay-bashers’ victims should be armed, and I think that even when I supported gun control I would have found it hard to disagree.

Or perhaps he simply means a completely different thing when he writes the word “freedom” than I do when I read it. He doesn’t say. But I cannot read without a chill a former Hitler Youth telling us that to achieve a united world we must change the minds of our children and give up freedom. Not because I believe he has sinister motives, but simply that he may still be buying into the belief that a protective government can solve our problems if we simply turn our heads. If we give up freedom for safety; if we give up the minds of our children to a single, government-controlled educational system.

All that said, I feel this is an important book. A friend of mine called it “Anne Frank from the other side”, and while that’s almost an insult to Anne Frank, there is a truth to it. We have a strong need in our country to believe that Nazi Germany happened solely because of Hitler. That there is a single evil man on which can be pinned all of the blame for the Second World War and the Holocaust. What Lehmann tells us is that a Hitler cannot happen unless we let him happen. That we must be ever vigilant for the lies that are easy to believe because they promise a glorious future, or a blameless present.

Lehmann is honest. He doesn’t pull any punches, or try (as near as I can tell) to make his younger self look better. When he discusses the nascent German resistance, he tells us that he also would have turned in any resisters he discovered. When he helps the old Jewish lady across the street, he reminds us that this didn’t mean he felt any good feelings towards Jews in general; that in fact he bought the party line that Jews were responsible for Germany’s troubles. This is an insight into the Hitlerian German mindset that I have not found anywhere else. For that alone, Lehmann is to be congratulated, and this book becomes a must-read for anyone living in a democracy, especially a democracy where the state controls education.

If you ever get the chance to read this book, I recommend it. As a historical record of one boy’s perspective on the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, it is fascinating. Most Hitler Germany-era books I've read and movies I’ve seen do us all a disservice; they portray Hitler to be a raving lunatic, and leave it at that. One thinks that the Germans must have been complete idiots to support this man and this regime. Lehmann shows us what at least one German was thinking at the time, and what he was seeing then, things that at the time made Hitler and Hitler’s Germany look like a good place to be.

If accompanied by an insightful instructor, this book would make a great discussion text for high school or college students--with part of the discussion being has the author truly understood what went wrong in Nazi Germany that could happen here? I think the answer to this is the most important message of this book, and he provides the perspective we need to see that. Despite its high price, I recommend purchasing it, and I strongly recommend reading it. Note, however, that this is a self-published book, so you are unlikely to run across it in libraries or used bookstores. If you really want to read it, you probably will have to purchase it. Buy it and then lend it to as many people as you can.

Hitler’s Last Courier

Armin D. Lehmann

Recommendation: Possible Purchase