I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur is a fascinating alternative look at one of the most hated men in history. In his memoir of his time in service to Hitler, Erich Kempka reflects on the work he did and the man he thought Hitler really was.

I Was Hitler's Chauffeur by Erich Kempka
I Was Hitler's Chauffeur by Erich Kempka

In his twenties, Erich Kempka became one of Hitler’s drivers. After some time in his service, Kempka gained Hitler’s trust and moved up in rank to become his primary chauffeur. It was in Hitler’s service that Kempka got a closer look at the man Hitler was. Kempka shares several stories of Hitler’s kindness to him. Often Hitler would bring a snack along for Kempka to make sure he had plenty to eat on longer rides. When Kempka’s father died, Hitler showed compassion and care for his grief.

Kempka, who wrote his memoir in 1950, stood in alliance with his employer. His support of Hitler’s work is apparent throughout the pages, although any mention of the violence done in his name is conspicuously absent. Kempka’s memoir is not without a villain, though: Martin Bormann, who he believes manipulated and used Hitler’s kindness for political advancement. After Hitler’s suicide and the end of the war, Kempka writes that time will likely show that Hitler’s biggest flaw was that he was too trusting and too kind to those who would use him.

Was Hitler saintly, evil, or somewhere in the middle?

Kempka was a devoted follower of Hitler. After his cultural upbringing and then having Hitler treat him so well, one can hardly blame him for his devotion to Hitler and his causes. However, Kempka paints Hitler as a saint who did everything he did for the sake of others, rarely thinking of himself. Unlike Kempka, history has painted Hitler as one of the most evil men to ever live. Hitler’s kind actions toward those who followed him confuse a “black or white” look at the man we know to be responsible for so many deaths.

Kempka viewed Hitler as a hero.

He believed that Hitler truly cared for those around him, and for his country. While I read some passages with skepticism, he wrote about kind things Hitler did in response to hardship. For example, in one situation Hitler had heard about an area that had been suffering from hunger. He ordered that a large amount of grain be sent there for relief. My skeptical brain thought, “Yeah, but did you actually see the grain get delivered, Kempka?” However, Kempka’s belief in Hitler’s kindness in response to suffering was steadfast.

In the end, he believed that Hitler’s biggest flaw was how trusting he was. He watched as Hitler was manipulated by Bormann. After Hitler’s suicide, Kempka mourned him as a hero.

Most modern readers view Hitler as evil incarnate.

Hitler was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Children who draw swastikas get in trouble because of the evil that the symbol represents. Nearly a hundred years later, we are aware of the damage that was done.

Reading about Hitler being kind is hard for a modern reader who knows about the evil that was done by Hitler. Every time I read about something kind Hitler did, my mind could not process it. My brain either pretended it was someone else or thought he was manipulating the person he was interacting with.

When I was talking to my (incredibly smart) husband about this, he reminded me that even evil people are good to their friends. “Isn’t that in the Bible?” he asked. We ended up discussing it some more, and it makes sense. And it is, like my husband asked, in the Bible. In Luke 6:33 it says, “And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.” Hitler being kind to those in his care was necessary for him to gain influence and loyalty. Even an evil man can do good to those who do good to him.

Though evil, Hitler was human.

It is easier to paint Hitler with a broad brush and say he was all evil. I want to do that. And it would be so much easier for me to do that. The millions of lives he took make me want to stamp him with that label. However, like all of us, Hitler was still human. Although his evil was greater than the evil of most people we will ever hear about, to elevate him to a superhuman position is to give him more power than he deserves.

“Only later generations will be able to form a precise assessment of this man.”

Erich Kempka

Hitler was a real human. He fell in love and got married. His employees worked for and loved him. Hitler gained their loyalty by his kindness toward them. While we cannot lose sight of the fact that his kindness was in the context of a greater evil, we also cannot lose sight of the fact that a man as evil as Hitler was capable of kindness. I like to believe that the capacity for kindness that Hitler had means that those who commit evil deeds today are equally capable of kindness. Perhaps then there is also hope of rehabilitation for the most evil men and women of our day, since Hitler’s time has passed.

Quick Review:

I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur was an enjoyable read for a very different perspective. While I did not read the appendices, they are supposed to add additional historical and political context. Although some of the longer, German words made it slower to read, that is less of a problem except where it occasionally impacts comprehension and speed. While I am never going to say that Hitler was a good man, this was a good book to stretch me outside of my comfort zone. It forced me to humanize a figure that I have seen as superhuman for so many years. Because of this, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves history or anyone who is interested in stretching themselves.


What most surprised you about Hitler from Kempka’s memoir? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

No Wall Too High

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Xu Hongci may be the only man to have ever escaped one of Mao’s prisons. Others caught attempting to escape were either killed on the spot or recaptured and put in chains. Despite two previous failed attempts in a less secure prison, Hongci escaped from Mao’s darkest prison. No Wall Too High is the fascinating account of his arrest, imprisonment, and freedom.

No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci
No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci

Hongci lived his early life in exuberant support of communism, studying to become a doctor under the regime’s orders. He met and fell in love with Ximeng, despite her relationship with another man. When the regime began looking for counterrevoluntionaries in their midst, Hongci was accused of counterrevoluntionary activities and multiple affairs (because of his unseemly relationship with Ximeng). He was sentenced to an undefined period in prison, where he would be reformed through labor.

After two unsuccessful escapes from prison, he was given a six year sentence. When the end of his six years approached, he was forced to remain as a “post-sentence detainee.” During this time, he was convicted and given another twenty year sentence. He was sent to Mao’s worst prison. It was from there that he escaped permanently.

Hongci was right to become disillusioned about communism under Mao.

Hongci loved communism and believed that it could still work. However, he saw so many things that were wrong with it under Mao’s leadership. Many of the prison convictions given out were complete fabrications. The prison systems that were meant to reform those who were convicted were ineffective because many prisoners had done no wrong. There was widespread violence and starvation in China, despite the regime’s insistence that they were providing abundance to everyone. In fact, some were so starved that they resorted to cannibalism.

Hongci’s desire for life is inspiring.

In an environment that supported the decision to commit suicide, Hongci chose to live. During his escape, he made a concentrated nicotine liquid to kill himself with in case he got captured. However, he fought as hard as he could to escape because he wanted to live. He knew that the prison was planning his execution, and that staying in prison would mean death. Refusing to accept his fate, he chose to take a small window of opportunity and escape. During his trip from the prison to Mongolia, he walked for hours at a time in bad conditions. His refusal to surrender and die kept him moving.

This book gave me a lot to ponder.

Books are great entertainment. There were a lot of things in this book that were fascinating. And while I was certainly entertained, I was also stimulated by information about a world I can hardly fathom living in. No Wall Too High has given me plenty of things to think about beyond the hours I spent reading it.

It made me think about the ways in which power corrupts.

Mao’s communism allowed those in power to do unspeakable horrors. The prison guards abused those in their care. In all of his years in prison, only one prison guard he encountered helped Hongci do anything to better himself. Unfortunately, even that small good was short lived because other prison guards saw that Hongci and the other inmates were talking and learning from each other. They used their power in a way that hurt and killed the prisoners.

It made me think about the ways I use my own words.

Hongci reflected on an incident where several men were forced to carry a heavy piece of equipment over a hill. While resting, the equipment began to slip and would have fallen to where it could not be retrieved. One of the prisoners jumped in front of it and used all of his strength to prevent it from falling. However, he did not receive a single word of affirmation for his good work. During Hongci’s years in prison, the guards only used their words to tear down the prisoners instead of building them up.

That made me really think about the ways I use my own words. While it may seem “helpful” when I instruct someone else about something that may have gone wrong, if all they ever hear from me is negativity, they may lose their desire to do anything for me. If all I see (in their perspective) is what they’ve done wrong, then what motivates them to do anything right? I can motivate more with positive language than negative.

It made my “first world problems” seem pretty silly.

I have had a dreadful cold all week. My husband can attest to the fact that I have been the whiniest person in the world. Yet, I’m not suffering from a cold while living in a prison cell. I don’t have to work hard labor for nineteen hours, whether I’m healthy enough to do so or not. On Thursday I was able to go to the doctor and the pharmacy to get antibiotics to treat the infection that has developed, something that Hongci would have been unable to receive. And as much as I whine for more, I’m receiving more than enough sympathy for my cold, something Hongci would not have received any of during his imprisonment. While my cold is still annoying, it is rather cozy when I compare it to all of the problems Hongci endured.

Quick Review:

No Wall Too High was a fantastic book. Xu Hongci’s perspective of life under Mao’s dictatorship was valuable and raw. Despite my liking it, this book contained pervasive violent material. However, I do not see how Hongci could tell his story without the descriptions of violence. There was some profanity and crude language. With its different perspective, this book will make you think. Although it is a longer book, it is worth taking the time to read.

Augustine’s Confessions: The Story of Us All

C. C. I. Fenn is a guest blogger from Thoughts from Canaan. His blog can be found here.

You might think that humanity has changed a lot over the past 2,000 years. And I suppose in some ways it has. But when you get right down to it, people are people. Always have been, always will be.

And if you’re in doubt, just read the first memoir ever written: St. Augustine’s Confessions.

Though first penned over a millennia and a half ago, Confessions is just as relevant today as it ever was. Augustine deals with the same issues and struggles we all do. And as I read, I was reminded again and again of how stable the human condition is.

This isn’t to say that Augustine’s story sounds like it could’ve happened in modern America. The cultural distance between North Africa in the fifth century and the Western world of the twenty-first century is great.

Augustine discusses philosophic and religious ideas that the average American won’t ever encounter (I mean, when was the last time you met a Manichee?). He has relationships and conversations that will sound peculiar to modern ears (when he and his dad are in a public bath and his dad notice he is…ahem…reaching puberty, he gets excited about potential grandchildren. Augustine is 16 at the time).

But so much of what Augustine writes mirrors our own lives.

Illegitimate children? Check.

Violent entertainment? Check.

Political maneuvering? Check.

So even though the form these things take may be foreign, the reality beneath is very modern. It’s because of this that I can say Confessions is the story of us all.

Who hasn’t struggled with the problem of evil? Or felt the sting of a broken relationship? Who hasn’t gone through life without grieving? Or rejoicing? Without searching for truth or meaning in life?

These are the things we read about in Augustine’s story. And as we read them there, we’re compelled to see our own journeys in light of his.

For example, as he reflects on one particular sin (stealing some pears from a neighbor’s tree), he delves into the reasons underlying his wrong doing. He digs deeper than I ever have:

“With regard to my theft, then: what did I love in it, and in what sense did I imitate my Lord, even if only with vicious perversity? …Was I, in truth a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom, attempting a shady parody of omnipotence by getting away with something forbidden?”

What a thought he has here! That we, in our sin, are fools “attempting a shady parody of omnipotence.” I can’t help but think about the sins that filled my own past. And when I think of them, I see exactly what Augustine is talking about. Every time I used my words to hurt rather than heal – every time I used others for my own advantage – what was I doing but stretching for godhood. Like a little boy who puts on his daddy’s tie and trots around the house with an empty briefcase, my sins were my way of saying “I’m a big boy. I can be just like Dad.”

“No one can tell me what to do,” I might’ve said. “Not even God.”

I was my own god.

But that’s how sin works. It’s the declaration of independence from a good, faithful, and gracious Father.

And so, as we read his Confessions, Augustine prompts us to look deeply into the well of our own hearts. Not simply to stare at ourselves like some modern Narcissus (or one of his off-spring). But in hope that God’s Spirit is stirring the waters.

Drawing us; purifying us; preparing us – all for Him.

Whether we realize it or not, this is what life is about: living into God’s call. Augustine’s prayer in the opening of his memoir couldn’t be truer: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”

Though I may not agree with all of Augustine’s theology (and I don’t), I can’t help but appreciate his journey. And – even more than that – the candor with which he recounts it. It’s a great reminder that even as the world around us changes, humanity remains largely the same. We love and fight, worship and politic. But whether we were born in the first century or the twenty-first century, we have the same problem (sin) and the same solution (Christ).

Reading Augustine’s Confessions will remind you of that fact and call you to reflect on your own journey.

May we continue down the well-worn path trodden by those who have gone before – including St. Augustine.

C. C. I. Fenn is a guest blogger from Thoughts from Canaan. Thoughts from Canaan is a blog, podcast, and community that helps its readers experience spiritual growth through knowledge and grace. His blog can be found here.

Diamonds at Dinner

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Within a few pages of starting Diamonds at Dinner, I was captivated by the story that author Hilda Newman laid out. Throughout the pages of this memoir written at the age of 97, she reflects on the memories of her early adult years working in a stately home as a lady’s maid.

Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman with Tim Tate
Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman with Tim Tate

In her early teenage years, Hilda’s family helped her get an apprenticeship with a seamstress. After paying the fee to allow her to learn from the seamstress and studying under her for four years, the seamstress died suddenly. At the age of nineteen, with full training as a seamstress but no job, Hilda began to work at a hotel. A friend mentioned that with her training she might make a good lady’s maid for one of the aristocracy. Intrigued and excited about this idea, she talked to her parents and wrote letters to two ladies hiring lady’s maids. When one wrote back and eventually hired her, she went to live at Croome Court. There, she became the lady’s maid for the Countess of Coventry, Nesta Donne Phillips.

She found the work to be difficult, although her new employer was kinder than many others. Despite some harsh reprimands, Hilda felt that she and the Countess had built up a bond. She even believed that the Countess had a fondness for her. When the Countess had gotten into an accident, she asked only to be attended to by Hilda while they waited on the doctor. At Christmas, Hilda received a broach from the Countess. Unfortunately, the second World War meant the end of Hilda’s working at Croome Court and the closing of that chapter in her life.

Hilda Newman’s memoir may be one of my favorites that I’ve read in a long time.

I will admit that historical biographies are not typically my favorite. If there are too many dates and names, I feel my eyes glazing over. However, this memoir captured my attention and had me enthusiastically chatting about it to my husband. While I tell him about the plots of most of the books I read, I frequently found myself saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve ever read!”

Finally, after having said that for about the fiftieth time, my husband asked exactly what made it so great. After reflecting further, I believe that four things made this memoir especially good:

  • It was excellently written. The story was organized and edited together well. I thought that the writing style was both warm and readable, which is hard to find in many memoirs. Although reading British English can sometimes take a few pages to adjust to, that is only a minor thing. By the end of the book, it ends up being part of the charm.
  • It was clean. Despite writing about the war, there was no swearing or explicit content.
  • Hilda was very lovable. There are a lot of memoirs I enjoy, despite not liking the person the memoir is about. I enjoyed this book so much more because Hilda was very easy to love. It was easy to imagine her as both the young woman my age and the 97-year-old woman writing the book.
  • The story was interesting. She wrote about a world I did not know about. Her perspectives on the wars, Hitler, and the changes in the last seventy years are so interesting because she has lived through all of those things. Even if I focus solely on her work as a lady’s maid, she wrote plenty to pique my interest.

Quick Review:

If you are looking for an interesting read about those serving the English aristocracy in the 1930’s, Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman is the perfect book. It is a charming story written by a lovable woman about a very interesting time in history. Even though it handles issues like poverty and war, it does them in a clean and dignified way, making this book suitable for teens as well as adults. Best of all, the reader does not need to sacrifice good writing for good content in this book. It really is one to read.

The Woman Who Would be King

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Female leadership, especially in ancient times, is a strange thing to some people. I discovered this book when I saw a former professor of mine post about it on her Facebook page. When I read what it was about, I immediately wanted to read it. As a female undergoing the requirements to become a pastor and chaplain (often thought to be a man’s role), stories of women who have successfully led despite gender bias are of particular interest to me.

The Woman Who Would be King by Kara Cooney
The Woman Who Would be King by Kara Cooney

When you hear the name “Hatshepsut,” it does not conjure up any images. Her name is not a household name (for good or for bad) like the few other women who led in ancient times. If I were to say “Jezebel,” you may not be able to tell me exactly what her story was, but you would know at least that she was a woman with power who did not use it in a positive way. Hatshepsut had more power than any woman of her time could dream of having, but is easily forgotten because her life did not end in scandal. While she shrewdly positioned herself to gain her power, she did not kill her relatives or use her sexuality to gain it.

“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right, a woman who could match her wit and energy to a task so seamlessly that she made no waves of discontent that have been recorded.”

Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut was the daughter of the king, Thutmose I. She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, who ruled only a short time. Unable to produce a male heir to the throne, it would have to go to the child of a “lesser wife,” a son by the name of Thutmose III (really, I’m not making this up). While this boy who was still a baby grew, Hatshepsut took the place of queen-regent, a role usually reserved for the mother of the king. In the seventh year of this role, she had the people crown her king. Thus, she and the young Thutmose III both ruled as co-kings, something that had happened in Egypt in cases where an older king wanted to teach a younger king how to rule before he passed on. Though theirs was an unconventional rule, Hatshepsut cleverly used the conventions of Egypt to provide herself with as much power as possible.

Hatshepsut sacrificed her femininity in order to rule well.

Throughout the pages of this book, it was painfully clear that Hatshepsut changed who she was to please the people she ruled so that she could keep the power she held. While she acquired her power by emphasizing her ties to her father and her divine role in the Egyptian temples, there is evidence she may have struggled to keep her power as the young king grew older.

The earliest statues she had made of herself show her in a woman’s dress with the king’s clothing over it. She is smiling slightly, and her figure is feminine. Over time, though, the statues that she has created portray her as more and more masculine, until her statues are identical to those of her co-king Thutmose III.

“She may have been king, the most powerful person in the ancient world, but beliefs and expectations greater than she was forced her to perform unending ideological gymnastics to satisfy the sacred role. In the end, Hatshepsut had no choice but to change her outward appearance.”

Kara Cooney

For me, this was the most heartbreaking part about reading this book. While she may have suffered a lot of other things that may fall to speculation, it is abundantly clear that she changed her portrayals of herself. She may have even changed the way she actually dressed to please the people that she was leading. While I am not entirely advocating dressing however you want whenever you want, I find it hard to swallow that often the way women find they can fit into leadership roles is by making themselves appear more like men. There have been times that women I care for have been asked to wear subdued colors only when serving in leadership roles in ministry. While I am fortunate that in my context I have not faced any criticism for how I dress (bright yellow and all), I know that my situation may not always be that way.

“Hatshepsut’s story can help us appreciate why authoritative women are still often considered to be dangerous beings who need to be controlled, monitored, contained, and watched.”

Kara Cooney

I am not the type of person who writes about how unequal or unfair things are for women very often. Things have improved for women a lot in the last fifty years, and in the United States women enjoy a lot of freedoms that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy in other countries. However, it is foolish to deny that we do not view women in power differently than we do men in power. Women using a strong tone of voice while speaking are viewed as hysterical or unhinged while men may just be viewed as passionate. Women posing the same questions or making the same comments in a meeting may be seen as being nags, while men are being diligent. Women sometimes face more scrutiny for their mistakes and may be criticized for not balancing their home and work lives better. These things may not always be the case in all places, but some women face even worse than these bad perceptions. Despite this, women like Hatshepsut still lead. Women will continue to seek leadership positions at all levels and in all fields. My hope is that we will be able to lead in a way that is authentic to who we really are in a world who will accept us for what we have to contribute.

The Age of Daredevils

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

This is the most exciting book that has ever put me to sleep. At first glance, that might seem like an attention-grabbing comment meant to lure you into reading more of this blog post. My own feelings toward the book The Age of Daredevils are more complicated, though.

The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson
The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

Clarkson’s book details the stories of the daredevils who took trips over Niagara Falls or in the rapids below. He primarily focuses in on the Hill family, who lived on the Canada side of the falls and were present at and participating in many of these stunts. He carefully describes the tension felt at each of these events, including the emotions of the daredevil and the crowd.

“Could his life be better? Sure, and it will be, but he has to remind himself he has already lived other people’s dreams, and today they have turned out in the tens of thousands just to watch him live them out, and others have come to visit the dark part of their soul that wants to see a man snap his spine.”

Michael Clarkson

I was often inspired by the heroics and the humanity of Red Hill Sr., a so-called “river man” who fished bodies from suicides and accidents out of the river below Niagara Falls. He worked hard, though sometimes doing illegal things, to provide for his large family. However, the falls and the stunts of daredevils on them always called him (much to his wife’s dismay). After his passing, several of his sons would go on to try stunts on the falls and the rapids below. His son, Red Hill Jr., would die in an accident on the falls, crushing the family and encouraging police to enforce daredevil laws more closely.

My Favorite Daredevil Story

I loved reading about Annie Taylor and her adventure going over Niagara Falls. She was not only the first person to go over the Falls and survive, but she was a women who did so in a time when women we not even allowed to vote. Before her stunt, the news openly mocked her for her foolishness. However, afterwards she was celebrated. Although her life ended many years later in poverty, this stunt brought her some amount of fortune and notoriety.

Why This Book Made Me Sleep

I have had a very difficult time pinpointing exactly why I had a difficult time reading this book. The stories were enjoyable. Clarkson’s writing style was sharp and easy-to-read. When I think about the book, I even think of it fondly and would recommend it to other people.

However, I fell asleep while reading it. It wasn’t a book that made me want to fight sleep and stay up all night reading. In fact, I fell asleep while reading this book several times, even when I wasn’t especially tired. While I am not especially sure what the reason is that I struggled with this book, I think the fact that it was so detailed about such a large period of time with so many different people has something to do with it. When there are that many details, it is harder to keep up with and makes my mind tired.

While I know it’s a strange personal preference, I also like shorter chapters because they make me want to read the next chapter (since it’s such a manageable size). This book did not deliver that for me with its long chapters that covered long chunks of history that included lots of names, dates, and places.

A Good History Text

Despite these feelings, though, I believe that if I were in school and had to read this as a history text on some of the culture surrounding Niagara Falls, I would be thrilled. It is an interesting history text. However, as a book to read for pleasure, it was harder to read because of the amount of concentration it required.

Quick Review

The Age of Daredevils was a very well-written book. Michael Clarkson did an excellent job giving the reader a feel for the overall history of the daredevils who went over Niagara Falls. However, my preference for more narrowly-focused histories (biographies and memoirs) kept me from enjoying it to the fullest. Although necessary to tell the story, having such a large number of names, dates, and places made it harder for me to keep my mind engaged. Despite this personal bias (I admit it!), I do wholeheartedly recommend this interesting book.