Book Review: Hitler's First War
Hitler's First War:
Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment and the First World War
Oxford University Press 416pp £18.99
ISBN 978 0199233 205
In this very important and revealing – if flawed – study of Adolf Hitler’s early years in the German army between 1914 and 1920, Thomas Weber sets out to fulfill two distinct goals, in one of which he triumphantly succeeds; the other remains far more problematic.
His first objective is to provide by far the most detailed account and analysis yet published of ‘Hitler’s First War’ – his life as a volunteer with the 16th (List) Bavarian Infantry Regiment on the Western Front throughout the Great War; a crucial period often lightly skated over by Hitler’s biographers. The aim of the second part of the book is to shine a similarly searching light on Hitler’s immediate postwar years when, while still in the army, he began his meteoric political rise.
Soon after setting out on his research in Munich’s Bavarian War Archive Weber had the sort of stroke of luck that most historians can only dream of. He discovered, covered in dust, the untouched records of the brigade and division to which Hitler’s regiment belonged. Here was what he calls a ‘treasure trove’ of untapped primary sources on the unit in which the future Führer served, which had somehow escaped the attentions both of Nazi censors and of an army of post-1945 researchers.
Using this new material along with previously published accounts (both pro- and anti- Hitler) of his wartime comrades, Weber deconstructs and reassembles the story of Hitler’s first war to show that his own autobiography, Mein Kampf, and other Nazi hagiographies are exercises in mendacious myth-making. Hitler, claims Weber, was never a front-line soldier, but served as a regimental despatch runner (Meldegänger), who was normally quartered safely with the officers a mile or two behind the dangerous trenches. He was, Weber alleges, what real front line soldiers called ein Etappeschwein (‘a rear area pig’), who owed the two Iron Crosses he won not to his own gallantry but to his skill in crawling to the officers with whom he lived in relative comfort far from the hell of the trenches.
At first sight this is an attractive idea. We like our villains to be all of a piece. So, since Hitler was a mass-murdering monster, doesn’t it follow neatly that – as Weber continually implies – he must have been a chiselling little coward too? The problem is that the evidence Weber advances does not come close to supporting this proposition. Indeed some of it directly contradicts it, as when he quotes a wartime comrade who became a Social Democrat and detested Hitler’s politics – but admitted that he was a fine fighting soldier. Elsewhere Weber writes: ‘The popular claim that Hitler “knew what it meant to live in the mud and slime of the Western Front” is thus quite wrong.’On the very next page Weber lamely admits: ‘This is not to say that he never made it to a trench but this was not normally his job.’
Anyone with knowledge of the Western Front knows that a regimental runner was one of the most dangerous jobs going. Indeed, Hitler himself was both wounded (hence the ribald legend of his testicular deficiency) and gassed while performing his duties. He was recommended for his second Iron Cross by Hugo Gutmann, ironically a Jewish officer, who testified that Hitler was an unusually patriotic and brave soldier. It goes against the grain, but it must be admitted that the image of Hitler as an untypically keen soldier easily survives Weber’s sustained attempt to demolish it.
He is on much surer ground when it comes to analysing Hitler’s political evolution. Weber demonstrates pretty conclusively that Hitler did not, as he later claimed, enter the army already a convinced anti-Semitic völkisch nationalist. Far from it: he shows that during the short-lived Munich Soviet republic of 1919 Hitler served the Communist regime as a Soldier’s Soviet delegate and even marched in the funeral cortege of Kurt Eisner, the Jewish revolutionary who had overthrown the Bavarian monarchy before his assassination by a right-wing extremist. Hitler was, in short, an opportunist who drifted into racist politics largely to please the officers who employed him as a nark and agitator fending off the Bolshevik peril in their postwar Munich propaganda unit.
Weber’s book is valuable as a comprehensive portrait of the febrile morale of the German army as it moved from the triumphs of 1914 to the shame and defeat of 1918. He demonstrates that desertion and defeatism were, from as early as 1915, at least as common among Hitler’s comrades as in the Allied armies that faced them. In his relentless optimism and patriotism Hitler was atypical of the men he served with – even those like his sergeant, Max Amann, and his adjutant, Fritz Weidemann, whose wartime links with Hitler led to their rising high under his Nazi regime.
The Hitler who emerges from Weber’s deeply researched book is a strangely doglike figure, pathetically clinging to the army as a substitute family; blind to Germany’s certain coming defeat; confused and unsure of his way in life until it was laid out for him by the officers to whom he eagerly submitted. Despite its unconvincing attempt to portray Hitler as a malingerer, this is the best book yet on an underreported period in an otherwise over-examined life. All seriousfuture students of Hitler and the birth of Nazism will be in Thomas Weber’s debt.
Nigel Jones’s Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson) will be published later this year.