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Book review: Hitler's First War

From his earliest day in politics and literally to his last, Adolf Hitler never tired of talking about his experiences as a frontsoldat (frontline soldier) on the Western Front during World War One. According to him, his five-year sojourn in the forward area was the seminal experience of his life and the foundation of his racist anti-Semitism, anti-communism and fascism. According to Thomas Weber, this is a pack of lies.

Hitler joined 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (better known as the “List Regiment”, after initial commander Colonel Julius von List). The regiment was formed just after the outbreak of war and was disbanded at its end. According to Hitler, he was initially a rifleman. But after a few weeks h was posted to regimental headquarters as a runner. Hitler liked to recount that this was a particularly dangerous task as messengers could not take shelter from artillery or machine gun fire. As such, he was soon rewarded with the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. He was wounded in October 1916,by his telling, by artillery fire, in no-man's land. He returned to the front after recovering in hospital in Germany. Hitler was again injured in 1918, this time claiming to be blinded in a gas attack. This too, Weber say, is untrue. By then he had been awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class, for single-handedly capturing, depending on which Nazi party version of the tale one chooses to believe, either a dozen French troops or about half as many British (a comment, in itself, on the man's antipathy to the French). The future Führer and his propaganda machinery also had much disparaging to say about Jewish officers and so forth.

So, what does Weber find Hitler doing? He indeed joins the List Regiment at the outbreak of war and after training followed the Bavarian army into Belgium. Here the men of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division work themselves into a froth over franc tireurs (partisans). Hitler sees combat near Gheluvelt (First Battle of Ypres for the British, Langemarck for the Germans). After a few weeks he indeed becomes become a runner, but unlike platoon, company or even battalion runners who did face intense danger, his post at the regimental level was quite “safe” by comparison. His task, running messages to battalion headquarters generally kept him at least two kilometres behind the frontline, and he no doubt used sunken and concealed routes there and back.

Weber argues Hitler, who was estranged from the little left of his relatives, saw his fellow runners and the regimental officers as a replacement family, and did everything he could to remain with them. There is also the implication that he was not desirous to get in harm's way and had found a way to survive the war – can one blame him? This included refusing opportunity for promotion and a special appeal to the unit adjutant after he was wounded (by shrapnel in the door of the runner's bunker), usually he would have gone into a “pool” for assignment as required. Hitler was lucky in many other ways. His division was seen as unimpressive and was used as a defensive formation (all it was deemed capable of) on quiet and very quiet sectors of the front. That luck also ensured he was away when the division was caught up in battle. As such he missed most of the Somme battle and the Canadian attack at Vimy Ridge, among others. He and his fellow runners lived a cushy life with beds and good food. As such they were considered “rear area pigs” by the men forward who often slept in slime and had rats gnawing their faces. As for Hitler's medals, it was uncommon for the Iron Cross to be awarded to privates, but regimental runners were a well-known exception – the award of the medals being in the gift of the regimental staff. Promotion to gefreiter (translated corporal but a senior type of private) was also common. The great irony of the Iron Cross 1st Class was that regimental adjutant Hugo Gutmann had to motivate heavily for it – and he was Jewish.

So when did Hitler become an anti-Semite fascist and why? Gutmann would surely not have “gone out on a limb” for a racist... How did Hitler's protected experiences compare with those in the combat companies? Weber explores this and many other questions and attitudes in a way that is educational and very interesting. The answers are well articulated in his work which is well worth the buying, let alone reading.


Thomas Weber
Hitler's First War – Adolf Hitler, the men o the List Regiment, and the First World War
Oxford University Press
Oxford
2010

450 pages
Index
Illustrated
Bibliography

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