Hitler’s experiences in the Great War have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy, not least because there is relatively little material from that time written by himself.
Hitler’s experiences in the Great War have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy, not least because there is relatively little material from that time written by himself. Although Austrian by nationality, he volunteered for the German army in 1914 and served throughout the war in its List Regiment, mostly as a dispatch runner based at regimental headquarters. After he became a celebrity, quite a few former comrades wrote about his war service. Some were enthusiastically positive about Hitler’s military record, others were more sceptical.
The enthusiasts remembered him as particularly courageous. When the Colonel needed a reliable man for an important report, he called for Hitler, who was so devoted to the regiment that he did not seek any promotion which would take him away from it. Granted, even the enthusiasts had to admit that Hitler was a ‘mad Austrian’. He could never give a brief answer to a question, and seemed to live in his own world. He gazed lovingly at his rifle with the delight of a woman contemplating her jewellery, but could not open a tin with his bayonet. Whilst his comrades used their time off to fraternise with local women, Hitler drew buildings. But if the enthusiasts are to be believed, it was strange that he survived at all, given that the ranks of the List Regiment had to be repeatedly filled.
The sceptics amongst Hitler’s old comrades did not find it at all surprising, as he spent most of his time away from the front line as a ‘rear area pig’. He never mentioned in his autobiography that most of his war service was as a dispatch runner rather than a combat soldier. Nazi propaganda took up the testimony of the enthusiasts, and historians have also neglected Hitler’s sceptical comrades, as some of their accounts were never published.
In an enterprising and thoughtful new study based on skilful research in the archives and elsewhere, Thomas Weber gives more emphasis to the sceptical view and convincingly redefines the Hitler of the Great War and its aftermath. He has discovered new testimony from doubters and more details about the List Regiment at war and the type of work Hitler was doing. Weber concedes that Hitler was brave, yet he did not face danger as often as those in the trenches. As a dispatch runner, his principal activity was to take messages to the headquarters of the regiment’s various battalions, and these destinations were not on the front line. Usually battalion or company dispatch runners took messages to the trenches. As Hitler ran with his messages, he was certainly vulnerable to artillery fire, but for the most part was unlikely to be hit by machine-gun bullets, the great killers of the Western Front. In 1915 Hitler was photographed together with seven other regimental dispatch runners: all survived the war except for one who was transferred to a different unit.
Weber cites revealing testimony from a medical orderly at regimental headquarters who later wrote that Hitler ‘was always alert, ready for action, conniving, very much caring about himself’. To win promotion, Hitler would have had to leave regimental headquarters and serve in the trenches. This would have meant the loss of his better accommodation and food; the personnel at headquarters even had their own vegetable allotment.
Hitler’s comforts were later grist to his political enemies. In 1932 a Social Democrat newspaper published a resentful attack on Hitler by a former comrade:
While we stood up to our stomachs in the mud, Hitler lay on a warm, lice-free stretcher and had several metres of protective stone above his hero’s body. The front experience of Private Hitler consisted more in the consumption of artificial honey and tea than of the participation in any combat.
Although Hitler won two Iron Crosses, Weber questions whether this reflects extraordinary bravery on his part compared to the rest of the List Regiment. He increased his chances of winning an Iron Cross by being assigned to regimental headquarters, as medals tended to go to soldiers who worked with officers and were familiar to them. The regiment’s Jewish adjutant, Hugo Gutmann, successfully proposed Hitler for the Iron Cross First Class after he had for once delivered a dispatch to the front under considerable danger. Gutmann’s backing implies that if Hitler was anti-Semitic during the Great War, he kept this to himself. Nor do the List Regiment’s papers suggest that its Jewish soldiers were subject to anti-Semitism. But after Hitler came to power, many Jewish veterans of his old regiment fled. Gutmann got out of Brussels on the last train before the Wehrmacht arrived. At least 12 Jewish veterans of the List Regiment died in the Holocaust.
Weber writes that ‘Hitler’s second war was not just a total war, but a racial war … his first war had been neither.’ Although significant gaps remain in our knowledge of Hitler’s first war, not least in the development of his political ideas, Weber’s discoveries have enabled him to write a very informative and readable new analysis.