With each passing year, another collection of works about World War II is produced. From economic analyses to military histories to biographies to historical fiction, there seems to be an endless supply. The war was a moment, lasting less than a decade, in which the world attempted to destroy itself. It is a moment that has left us still, in some ways, working toward reconstruction. The result was toppled economies, obliterated cities, remapped nations, and the long struggle of the Cold War. But it was what people suffered through that is most important to reflect upon.
A Boy Soldier’s ViewIn “Save the Last Bullet: Memoir of a Boy Soldier in Hitler’s Army,” we are given an uncommon view of the war: the view of what a young boy witnessed and participated in during World War II, primarily during the final days of the war in defense of Germany along the Eastern Front. Wilhelm Langbein’s experience, as a pre-teen and young teenager fighting along the front at 14, provides an understanding of just how the propaganda worked on the minds of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).
Langbein’s war was one of pride, chaos, confusion, despair, and finally utter devastation upon the realization of Germany’s crimes. This memoir is of a child thrown into the war machine assembled by the hands of wicked men, and who in the post-war era had to grapple with the truth, his more-than-bleak future, and his war-time actions.
The Use of ChildrenLangbein’s story begins in 1934 at age 4 and progresses into his elementary school years. Though these chapters, labeled by their year, are quite short, they are incisive. They pinpoint the subtle moves by Hitler’s Third Reich to cultivate the minds of children, specifically by use of German textbooks. Each year proposed a different definition of the purpose and use of children: from being a gift from God to being a mechanism for the State.
Along with this, Langbein hints at his community’s changing attitude toward Jewish people, from not being able to conduct business with them to Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” He tells these stories in part and parcel, in the way he understood them at the time, or more pointedly, the way he didn’t understand them at the time.
When the war begins and progresses, we witness how the State begins to commandeer children for its own uses under the guise of protecting them. German children are moved en masse to territories less affected by the conflict. The purpose is less about protecting them and more about indoctrinating them to become soldiers of the Nazi Party. There are suspenseful, even humorous moments, told by Langbein during his time in the Jungvolk, the Hitler youth organization for boys between the ages of 10 and 14. But we know the ultimate reality of what is to come.
A Sprawling Emotional ViewThis is merely the beginning of the uncontrolled violence perpetrated not only by the enemy, but by the Germans themselves. There begins the unraveling of who Hitler was supposed to be and what Nazi Germany was supposed to represent. But this is just the unraveling. The spool has yet to completely come undone.
The spool remains relatively intact even during the harsh fighting, during which the young boy is commissioned to fire anti-tank guns at the oncoming Russian T-34s. Langbein dictates the incredibly graphic violence he witnessed at 14: the death of friends in the most brutal of ways, as well as having to kill a young Russian in order to survive. We witness, as the reader, the soul of a young boy, from the SS execution to the chaos and violence of frontline warfare, begin to fracture.
But Langbein’s story is not solely about enduring war and hunger, or witnessing the destruction of his country. It is about how one young boy did all he could to retain his sanity. To retain his goodness. To retain his very soul in the face of those who conceived to strip him of it. We see this in his recollection of rescuing a fellow Hitlerjugend who had been separated from his group. Langbein had seen the dangling bodies of several Hitlerjugend, who had been executed by SS officers. Langbein and several others had to kill two SS officers to save the boy soldier.
The book is a memoir of sprawling emotions, from peace and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to confusion and rage. His post-war interactions with Allied soldiers, from the Americans to the British is disturbing, atrocious, yet understandable. The world, and those who tried to either destroy it or save it, was fueled by rage, though fueled from different sources. Just as Langbein was blind to the ultimate reality of the war, including the Holocaust, Allied soldiers were blind to his contributions, or lack thereof, to it.
Langbein is placed on a slow-moving train which becomes, for practical purposes, a moving picture displaying the aftermath of the war in Germany. More so, the ride becomes a slow retribution. Forcing all those to not just view the destruction of their country, but also to endure for several weeks what the Germans had perpetrated upon the Jews, the Romani, socialists, and others. With no room on the trains, the huddled masses had to stand for days on end, defecating on themselves, and lifting and tossing the dead off the moving boxcars.
When Langbein returns to his destroyed town of Witten and is reunited with his family, he is no longer trying to physically survive (though hunger still plays a role), but he is trying to mentally and emotionally survive. He is directly associated, despite unwittingly, with one of the great horrors of human history. When he comes to these realizations, and when he is not able to communicate any of his experiences to anyone (because discussion of the war has become taboo), he is forced, by sheer human emotion, down the darkest of tunnels.
His glimmer of hope arises from a rather unexpected source; but that hope does arise, and soon formulates into a man of action and honor dedicated to peace and freedom. This true story proves that a crushed spirit can rise again, and that redemption, through perseverance and the hope for a better tomorrow and to become a better person, is possible.
“Save the Last Bullet” is a World War II memoir from an uncommon source, and it is a powerful and necessary addition to the ongoing narrative of the war. Langbein's daughter has dutifully assembled a memoir that proves both easily readable and memorable.
The epilogue, however, plays as a last ditch effort to tie modern politics to the era of World War II. It is heavy-handed, one-sided, and therefore rings rather hollow. But this is the discourse of our current society, where sermonizing has irritatingly become a near requisite in order to complete a good story.