Dodging a torrent of fire from Red Army soldiers to deliver dispatches from Adolf Hitler’s Berlin bunker, Hitler Youth member Armin Lehmann witnessed the dying days of the only world he had ever known.
Raised on the lies of their elders, in the last Wagnerian days of Adolf Hitler’s vaunted “Thousand Year Reich,” thousands of boy soldiers from the Hitler Youth chose to obey their to the last man. One of those who remained by Führer’s decree that Berlin would be held Hitler’s side was Armin Lehmann, who was witness to the final days of the Battle of Berlin.
World War II: Describe your life before the war.
Lehmann: I was born in Munich in 1928. My father was first in the car business and had several jobs. In Weisswasser, a small town near Niesky in Silesia, we lived in Waldgut Horka [forest estate]. In 1938 we moved to Breslau where I entered high school.
WWII: You grew up during some pretty tumultuous times. Do you have any memories of the Nazis and their rise to power?
Lehmann: I remember the Kristallnacht [crystal night], the evening in 1938 when the Nazis attacked Jewish shops. My father had left the house and returned home the next day. When we asked him where he had been he said, “We really made it hot for the Jews last night.” When I went to school the next day there was a Jewish shop and the windows had been smashed in and were boarded up.
WWII: Did you ever personally come into contact with any of your Jewish fellow citizens?
Lehmann: I noticed after Kristallnacht that one of the candy stores I frequented was Jewish. They didn’t have their windows broken in, but the store was empty and the owners were gone. Somebody outside reminded me that they were Jewish. Then I had an encounter with a blind Jewish woman who had a seeing-eye dog. One day this seeing-eye dog was missing, and she seemed lost. I asked her what happened to her dog, and she said it was drafted.
WWII: As a young boy of 10, how much did you know or understand about the political climate and what was happening to the Jews and people in opposition to the Nazis?
Lehmann: We were taught that Germany belonged to the Germans and the Germans only. I should have questioned this but never did because nobody, not even my family or friends, ever did. Dictatorships are closed societies. Kristallnacht was an act of revenge encouraged by the government. A German embassy official [Ernst von Rath, third secretary of the German embassy in Paris] had been assassinated. Hitler wanted the whole nation to react, and he succeeded. Most of the older people went along and so did most of the young people. But what did the rest of the world do? Nothing!
WWII: How did you come to join the Hitler Youth?
Lehmann: I was 10 years old. As I recall, in September of 1937, it became law that all boys had to join the Hitler Youth and the girls had to join Bund Deutscher Mädel [Hitler Youth for girls]. I was eager to join as soon as I was old enough because I would get a uniform and, even more important, I would get a hiking knife.
WWII: So you were in uniform by the time the war began. What do you remember of September 1, 1939, and the start of the war?
Lehmann: I recall going to school and seeing military trucks with soldiers on them and they waved at us and we waved back at them. Then of course a Sondermeldung [“special bulletin”] came over the radio declaring that the Poles had attacked us and we counterattacked. They used the lie that Polish troops had captured a radio station near the Polish border.
WWII: The next couple of years must have been pretty heady for you and the other boys, with Germany winning one victory after another. It wasn’t until Stalingrad that the tide began to turn. After the surrender of the Sixth Army at the end of January 1943, did you begin to worry about what was going to happen?
Lehmann: You know, I cannot speak for the people, but I listened to the radio, which was the main source of information at the time. It was presented to us that the battle was lost but the war would be won.
WWII: The Hitler Youth was a paramilitary organization that prepared its members for military service. Did you make any plans about your own service?
Lehmann: I volunteered for premilitary training. There were opportunities to volunteer, and as a young boy after the war started, I thought of becoming a U-boat commander until the U-boat heroes dwindled and it became known how contained a U-boat is. Then there were the aces in the sky, and I wanted to become a pilot and [Werner] Mölders and [Adolf] Galland became the heroes of the day. Everybody in Germany knew about Manfred von Richthofen, the flying ace from World War I. As the war progressed, there were fewer U-boats, and the Luftwaffe became smaller and smaller, and it became clear that I would not be accepted. With my interest and my orientation at that time, I thought it would be fun to join the mountain troops. I volunteered for the Gebirgsjäger headed by General [Eduard] Dietl. I was drafted into the Vorbildungshule, a premilitary training program, to become a Gebirgsjäger. I left right after Christmas 1944 and arrived near Garmisch-Partenkirchen high up in the Alps at a premilitary training camp.
WWII: What was the training like?
Lehmann: I cannot really say. It was cut short because the Russians were approaching Breslau, and I figured I had to get home and assist my mother packing up and leaving town.
WWII: Your father was away serving in the SS and your mother was alone. What did you find when you reached Breslau?
Lehmann: I arrived in Breslau on New Year’s Day 1945. The situation was that everything was concentrated on setting up a local homeland defense force. All men between 16 and 55 years old had to remain in Breslau to defend what became the fortress.
WWII: Once a town was designated as a “fortress” by Nazi leaders, it was supposed to be defended to the end. You must have been unable to return for your military training, so what did you do?
Lehmann: I went to the Hitler Youth office where the officers and leaders of the Kinderlandverschickung, where I had been a camp counselor, were. [Kinderlandverschickung (KDV) was a Nazi program to separate children from their families and send them to the countryside for safety and indoctrination.] I met my former boss, Stammführer [group leader] Karl Gutschke, who also had a military rank of first lieutenant. He was glad to see me and said he was setting up a Hitler Youth unit, which would be sent to defend Breslau.
WWII: You were still pretty young and had not even received all of your military training. What did you do?
Lehmann: I became a courier for Gutschke. He picked me right away because he knew me better than the other boys who came from other Hitler schools and premilitary training camps.
WWII: Did you receive any sort of briefing or preparation for what you were about to face?
Lehmann: No, we just had to go out and meet the advancing enemy and stop them. The first night we stayed at a village called Ohletal. The name of the village we had to recapture was called Wansen. On January 30, 1945, we advanced from Ohletal early in the morning and attacked the Russians in Wansen and recaptured this village. I was wounded and ended up on a hospital train heading for Dresden.
WWII: It sounds like a difficult introduction to combat.
Lehmann: I was wounded but was able to get control of the bleeding, and I was able to pull some of my wounded comrades into a ravine so they were out of the line of fire. That’s why I later received the Iron Cross second class.
WWII: It must have been frightening for you. What were conditions like on the train that you were evacuated on?
Lehmann: First, we went by truck to the rail station. I think it was in Goerlizt where I got on the big hospital train. I was in the upper berth about 20 kilometers outside Dresden when the enemy planes came. Although we did have a Red Cross—well I didn’t see it myself, but I was told there was one on top of our car—we were shot at. One of the shots hit my elbow, but this was only a superficial flesh wound that bled a lot. We were unloaded in Hof, which is a little town on the River Saale where two schools next to each other were converted into military hospitals.
WWII: When you were on the hospital train outside Dresden, did you see that city being bombed?
Lehmann: Night and day. Dresden was bombed and it looked like fireworks from 20 kilometers away.
WWII: With Germany scraping the bottom of the barrel for fighting men, you must have known you’d be sent back to the front. What was next for you after you recovered from your wounds?
Lehmann: I was sent back to Silesia. Breslau had become a fortress, and we were destined to be flown in, but the Russians had destroyed the landing strip. So Gutschke got orders for us to depart for Berlin and become an advance unit to stop the Russians before they reached that city.
WWII: It must have been good to at least be back with Gutschke and the rest of your unit. Did you stay with them?
Lehmann: I forgot the name of the village we were in, but Lieutenant Gutschke had selected an old farmhouse as his command post when suddenly this German jeep, a Volkswagen and a few other cars drove up. I was busy polishing my belt and dropped everything because I recognized the person with the wooden arm who came out of the car. He was Reichsjugendführer Artur Axmann. He spotted my Iron Cross immediately and asked if there were others in my unit who had been awarded the Iron Cross. I told him yes, and he asked me who my commander was and I told him Lieutenant Gutschke. Axmann and his staff went and spoke to Gutschke and decided that three decorated boys from our unit should be in Berlin on April 19, 1945, to become members of the Hitler Youth delegation on Hitler’s birthday, which was April 20.
WWII: Were you even considered a member of the Hitler Youth at this point?
Lehmann: I guess not technically. We were in the barracks and examined very superficially by a doctor and had been issued SS pay books and dog tags so I guess I was in the SS. Axmann had promised Hitler a certain number of new soldiers, and when he did not meet the quota an order was issued that the boys born in 1928 would automatically be attached to an army group.
WWII: Having been raised on stories about Hitler, being told you were going to be part of his official birthday festivities must have been pretty exciting. Can you describe the reception?
Lehmann: An order came that Hitler’s reception would begin at 10 in the morning, and apparently that one was only for staff. Another was scheduled at 5 p.m. and [Hermann] Göring had already left, so we were lined up in the garden, and there were three delegations: one from the Waffen-SS, a Frundsberg unit; an army unit from Kurland [Courland]; and the third composed of Hitler Youth members who had been decorated for bravery.
WWII: What was Hitler’s condition when you finally saw him?
Lehmann: I had seen Hitler in 1938 and he looked strong and healthy, but when I saw him on this day, I was shocked. He looked older than both of my grandfathers, who were in their 70s. Hitler was only 56. Two of his adjutants, [Obergruppenführer Julius] Schaub and [Sturmbannführer Otto] Günsche, were on each side and positioned to catch him in case he should lose his balance. He was shaking, especially his left arm, and he was holding on to the back of his jacket to control the tremor.
WWII: Did he make any remarks?
Lehmann: Hitler gave a speech saying that we had to keep on fighting and that we were close to victory. The German nation is like a patient with a fatal disease and German scientists have discovered a medication that will save the patient. And then he said, “Heil euch,” which means “hail you.” It was customary to reply, “Heil mein Führer,” but nobody did, so there was this silence. [Heinrich] Himmler came up to speak to the first delegation, and then he continued and came to me. He told me that we might meet soon at the officer school of the Waffen-SS. I told him that I had already been transferred into the Waffen-SS. So he then told us we should have appeared in SS uniforms and not those of Hitler Youth.
WWII: Why were you not wearing a Waffen-SS uniform?
Lehmann: After Kampfgruppe Gutschke became a Waffen-SS unit, we were issued Waffen-SS uniforms and insignia. As I recall, Gutschke refused to put them on since he was a Wehrmacht veteran. Axmann, who was leader of the Hitler Youth, insisted that all members of the Hitler Youth delegation change into Hitler Youth uniforms, so we did.
WWII: Having been to the front and seen what was happening in Breslau and Dresden, you must have known that Germany was in pretty dire straits. Did you believe what Hitler was saying about winning the war?
Lehmann: I believed it. I mean, everybody talked about the Wunderwaffen [wonder weapons]. We had the V-1 and the V-2 rockets going.
WWII: What was your impression of Himmler?
Lehmann: His face looked soft. He did not have the face of a soldier.
WWII: You had already had quite a remarkable journey since leaving premilitary training; what was next?
Lehmann: Axmann had just learned that I had been Lieutenant Gutschke’s courier, and he was now setting up his own staff. I was the only one he knew who had experience. He asked me if I could ride a motorbike, and I said yes. Then he asked if I had a driver’s license, and I didn’t, so he said he would get a motorbike and a driver. He picked a fellow named Hannes, and I’m very glad he did because Hannes was a Berliner and knew the city inside and out. I would have gotten lost on my first mission if not for him.
WWII: What was your first mission as a courier like?
Lehmann: I went to Kampfgruppe Gutschke. That was the unit I belonged to and that was the unit most advanced to the east. I didn’t read the order I delivered, but Axmann told me it was to stand firm and not to retreat.
WWII: The situation at the front was fluid. Were there difficulties reaching Gutschke’s unit?
Lehmann: The autobahn was clogged up with refugees mostly in horse-drawn carriages, and there was actually a battle going on when we arrived there. The Russians approached from the east, and there was light artillery fire landing all around. We had trouble finding Gutschke. In one of the last houses in Jacobsdorf I found him, and the bullets were swishing by. After looking at the order I delivered, all he could say was “Send reinforcements! Send reinforcements!” Later, I was in a small farmhouse when the Russians entered and I just played dead. I felt somebody kick me and then take my pistol. I expected to be shot, but I wasn’t. I then found my way back to Hannes, and we made it back to Berlin. As the Russians came closer and closer, Axmann decided we should be nearer to the Führer, so he moved his command post and his staff to the party chancellery, which was located right across from Hitler’s bunker on Wilhelmstrasse.
WWII: What was going on in your new location?
Lehmann: We had to relocate the wounded in Dr. Gertrud Huhn’s infirmary and Axmann put me in charge of this. I don’t know why. We had one truck. It wasn’t diesel or gasoline but rather ran on charcoal like a steam engine. Because of the advancing Russians, we had to take an alternate route and we ran into three Russian tanks. I had a Panzerfaust [bazooka] and was able to eliminate one of the tanks and get all the wounded and the doctor’s staff into the cellar of the chancellery. So I received the Iron Cross first class for getting the wounded to safety, and I got the Panzerabschusstreifen, or tank destruction stripe, for having shot this tank. This took place on the 23rd or 24th of April 1945.
WWII: Can you describe Hitler’s bunker?
Lehmann: It was like an air raid shelter. The rooms that were decorated I never entered. Eva Braun had a living quarters and bedroom, and Hitler did as well. There was one sitting room that was also used for conferences. There were some paintings and maybe also a rug on the floor, but the place where I spent most of the time waiting for dispatches was just a hallway with a bench. Every once in a while a cart would come in with open-face sandwiches—German style— which was a slice of bread with some butter and perhaps a slice of wurst. Most of the food we ate there was canned.
WWII: While inside the bunker, did you come in contact with Josef Goebbels or Party Secretary Martin Bormann?
Lehmann: I saw Bormann, but he never gave a dispatch directly to me. He even once asked, “Who is this guy?” He did not even refer to me as a soldier. He had this very busy secretary, a Fraulein Krüger. Bormann would have a dispatch, give it to an officer, and then I would get it. In one of the rooms in the bunker, there was a teletype or an unusually high typewriter. One day a telegram arrived for the Goebbels family from Gauleiter [district leader Karl] Hanke, who was the governor of Silesia. It was addressed to the “Family Goebbels” and since Mrs. Goebbels and the children were upstairs in the upper bunker and Dr. Goebbels was downstairs with [Hitler’s personal physician Dr. Ludwig] Stumpfegger and the military people, I went upstairs to deliver the telegram. Just at this moment, Goebbels came upstairs to see his family. Mrs. Goebbels must have had a glimpse of the telegram because she said, “Ah, a letter from Hanke.” The reason I remember this is because my father and I knew Karl Hanke from Silesia. The Goebbels children were in the background, and I saw them on one other occasion. They were playing with what I thought at the time was their governess, but it turned out to be one of Hitler’s secretaries, [Gertrud] “Traudl” Junge. Two of the children reminded me so much of my two sisters.
WWII: What was your impression of Goebbels?
Lehmann: You know, he looked so familiar because he was practically in every newsreel I had seen growing up. Seeing Hitler was a shock, but Goebbels appeared exactly how I had expected.
WWII: When you were in the bunker, did you know that Goebbels and Bormann had planned to murder their children?
Lehmann: I only knew about it after the war. I know that Bormann had sent a dispatch to his wife to have his 10 children killed. Apparently the officer who received the dispatch never gave it to Mrs. Bormann, so all of his children survived.
WWII: With the war coming to an end, how did Hitler encourage you and the others to keep fighting?
Lehmann: We had what you might call a newspaper, the Panzerbär. It was printed for the soldiers and it was full of slogans like “The Führer is with you” and “Women will be raped.” Until the day Hitler committed suicide, we were inundated with these slogans.
WWII: Did you witness any execution squads for deserters?
Lehmann: Hannes and I saw a young boy who was hanged, but not an execution squad in action. There is a book written by a Berliner Hitler Youth who said that six or seven in the Olympia Stadium had been shot—executed. One instance remains in my mind. I think it was a Werewolf unit that caught and executed deserters on the spot. We had been stopped at this checkpoint, and that’s where this World War I general, or whatever he was, who was with the unit checked out our story that we were not deserters but couriers for Axmann.
WWII: Did you ever consider deserting?
WWII: Hanna Reitsch, the famous German test pilot, was also in the bunker during the last days. Did you ever see her?
Lehmann: Yes, she seemed beside herself. There was a book I read that said she arrived in a black turtleneck, but I remember very distinctly that she wore an ivory-colored blouse, dirty and all messed up. Somebody must have given her this turtleneck later in the bunker. She was a mistress to Göring’s successor, [Robert] Ritter von Greim, who became Luftwaffe chief and she acted very possessive of him. There is a connection between the families because my grandmother in Bad Warmbrunn had a dentist who was Hanna Reitsch’s father. I didn’t expect her to remember me, but we were once there for coffee and cake. I thought she would be friendly, but she wasn’t. I addressed her as Frau Reitsch. “I am Captain Reitsch,” she snapped back at me.
WWII: Were there any other occasions on which you came close to Hitler before his suicide?
Lehmann: Once I was waiting in the anteroom and it must have been 4 or 5 in the morning after the wedding ceremony took place. Most of the literature says that Eva Braun took the guests out to the officer’s mess hall and that they danced. This could be true, but only if it took place in the cellar of the new chancellery and not in the bunker. That night I picked up and delivered a couple of dispatches and it was very quiet. Upstairs, in what some called a dining hall—it wasn’t big enough for a dance hall—there was a little dining area. It was quiet; nobody was dancing. I was sitting down there waiting for a dispatch, and Hitler just came out and seemed completely disoriented. Then we had a hit from an artillery round and some of the mortar fell down from the ceiling. Hitler took no notice but just mumbled something like “another hit.” I was frozen and he turned in to a room to where I think the teletype was.
WWII: Did you ever speak to Eva Braun?
Lehmann: Eva Braun I remember seeing several times. Once she was with two other ladies. One was Mrs. Goebbels, I am almost sure, and the third one was probably one of Hitler’s secretaries. I came to the lower bunker to where there was a tea cart with German soft drinks. Braun poured a glass and it was moist and my hands were probably dirty and it slipped out of my hands. She tried to comfort me and said, “It’s OK,” and she poured me another glass. The other memory that I have is that her hair looked different at that time. She must not have used her curlers because the previous times I saw her she had quite wavy hair. This was the last time just before the suicides.
WWII: It was only a short trip from the bunker to the chancellery where you delivered messages to be transmitted to units outside Berlin, but the enemy was all around you. The dash across the street must have been perilous.
Lehmann: You know, I would say your chances were 9-to-1: killed nine times before you were lucky enough to make it across. I went by instinct, not by the sounds of the firing but by the air pressure, and was just lucky enough always to get behind one hit before the next one. Most of the wounded got taken care of right away. I remember helping to put the dead bodies in the garden of the party chancellery. The SS watch unit buried the dead ones in the garden. The wounded were either taken to Dr. Gertrud’s hospital or to a Professor Schenck’s hospital.
WWII: You had grown up in the Germany that Hitler and the Nazis created. What was your reaction when you received word that your Führer had committed suicide on April 30?
Lehmann: The whole situation turned into an emergency. The first thing Axmann told me was to get Dr. Gertrud. In less than five minutes Dr. Gertrud came out crying, and then there were a couple of meetings. Axmann met with [SS-Brigadeführer and commander of the citadel, Wilhelm] Mohnke, and they decided on a breakout.
WWII: How was the breakout organized?
Lehmann: We were to leave at 20-minute intervals. The main concern was the wounded—Dr. Gertrud wanted to come along. Axmann finally gave in after a long argument. We tried to get into contact with the Hitler Youth unit outside the Spree area to merge with them but were unable to. I was under the impression that we would head for the Alps, but then Axmann gave me an envelope and it was addressed to [Karl] Dönitz [head of the navy and Hitler’s successor], who was at Ploen near the Baltic. Our group was in fifth position, but Axmann became impatient and decided to move us up to third position. When we left the bunker, the enemy fire was intense. It seemed that we were being fired at from all sides, and then I was hit. I must have gone down. I don’t remember it. A piece of shrapnel hit my spine.
WWII: What is your first memory when you regained consciousness?
Lehmann: I was apparently on a Russian stretcher, and there was a lady who was overweight and had a lot of decorations on her uniform. She turned out to be a doctor who spoke German. She had an adjutant write down all my answers to her questions. I was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, and it was decided that I would be transferred somewhere. Then I remember being on a truck where a woman was being raped. I remember Russians pouring vodka into my mouth and it got into my eyes and it burned like hell. These are all just flashes of memories because I remember next lying alongside a road and then being picked up by Russian military police or whatever. I was in and out of consciousness. Later, I noticed that the feelings in my lower body had returned, and I got control again of my bowels. Other wounded guys with me wanted to commit suicide, and I remember one woman coming up and saying: “Don’t do yourself in. I’ll take care of you.” I then remember arriving on crutches at my uncle’s farm at about 5 in the morning. Weeks later it was rumored that the Americans were going to withdraw back to the Elbe River and the Russians would close the gates. As I was able to walk again, I decided to cross the river. I had a rucksack, which hit against my spine, and suddenly I couldn’t walk again. Somehow I ended up at a U.S. military reception center and there was a military interrogation officer, a Captain Samuel Rosen, who was born in Germany but whose family had gotten out in time. He made all of us see the newsreels that Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery had ordered to be made when Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps were liberated.
WWII: How did these images affect you?
Lehmann: I was so shocked. I couldn’t eat or sleep for three days.
WWII: Did the other prisoners with you feel the same way?
Lehmann: Some of the old ones said it was Hollywood, but I knew that it was not staged. Captain Rosen made sure that we got the full impact of the newsreels.
WWII: Was Captain Rosen Jewish?
Lehmann: Yes, Captain Rosen I remember very well. I remember him saying, “My name was Siegfried but now I am Samuel.”
Tim Kauffman is a general contractor in Scotts Mills, Ore. Armin Lehmann eventually emigrated to the United States and lives in retirement at Coos Bay, Ore., where he works to compile data on the losses suffered by the Hitler Youth during the final battles in and around Berlin. For further reading, see Lehmann’s account of his Hitler Youth service, In Hitler’s Bunker: A Boy Soldier’s Account of Hitler’s Last Days.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.