Hitler’s First War

hitler_book_coverHitler’s First War:
Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War
by Thomas Weber

Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, September 2010, ISBN 978-019-233-205, 450 pp., index, bibliography, 28 photographs, Hardback. Available for £20.00/$34.95 + postage from Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP. Or online at – www.oup.com

Adolf Hitler’s name will forever be remembered in connection with the Second World War, for reasons that are so obvious that they do not need explaining. But some two decades before the start of World War II Hitler had participated in another war — not as the Aryan warlord of Europe but as a humble German infantryman. Historian Thomas Weber has made Hitler’s earlier military career the subject of an in-depth investigation, which is as comprehensive as it is biased and wrong-headed.

The broad outline and highlights of Hitler’s war service are well-documented. In 1913, the year before the outbreak of the War, he had been scraping out a bare-bones existence as a street artist in the German city of Munich. But Hitler held Austrian rather than German citizenship, and was ordered to present himself to the Austrian army as a conscript. Hitler felt that the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire was harmful to the interests of its German minority population, and he had no intention of serving in its army.

Adolf Hitler (circled) among patriotic crowds celebrating the outbreak of the First World War in Munich, August 1914

Adolf Hitler (circled) among patriotic crowds celebrating the outbreak of the First World War in Munich, August 1914

In February 1914, he was finally forced to submit to a medical examination prior to being drafted. Hitler was let off the hook, however, when the doctors decided that his health was too poor for military service. Later that year, the First World War broke out. Hitler had always been an enthusiastic German patriot — even if he was technically not a German citizen — and immediately petitioned the king of Bavaria (the German state in which he was residing) for permission to enlist. Permission was swiftly granted, and Hitler soon found himself in the First Company of Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (RIR 16), commonly known as the “List Regiment,” after its first commander, Julius von List.

The List Regiment largely consisted of draftees. The men, few of whom had any prior military experience, were given the briefest and most basic training, armed with obsolete rifles, outfitted with cloth caps (because helmets were in short supply), and quickly sent into combat, where they were slaughtered in appalling numbers. In the last week of October, 1914, RIR 16 took part in the battle known to the Germans as Langemarck, and to the British as 1st Ypres. After four days of fighting, Weber reports that “the regiment had been reduced by approximately 75 percent, from 3,000 to 725, and the number of officers from 25 to 4” (p. 49). In retrospect, it seems amazing that the regiment survived at all, as it fought elements of some of the toughest units of the British Army, including the York Regiment, the 1st Coldstream Guards, the 1st Black Watch, the 1st Grenadier Guards, and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders (p. 45). Adolf Hitler was not among those killed, wounded or captured: the same man whom the Austrians had deemed unfit for military service less than a year earlier, had proven to be an outstanding soldier.

Adolf Hitler (seated right) with comrades from the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment

Adolf Hitler (seated right) with comrades from the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment

The young artist’s courage, composure and skill did not go unnoticed by his superiors. After having been at the front for only week, he was promoted to the rank of Gefreiter (usually translated as “lance corporal,” but which Weber calls “private”). A few days after that, he was reassigned from his company to the regimental headquarters: clearly, he was thought too valuable to be wasted as cannon fodder. He was given the job of Meldegaenger, or dispatch runner, whose primary job it was to hand-carry messages from the regimental headquarters to the battalion headquarters closer to the front lines.

His transfer to the regimental headquarters did not mean that he was out of danger: only a few days after being given his new assignment, Hitler and another dispatch runner used their bodies as human shields to protect the regimental commander from enemy fire when he stepped out into an exposed position. For this, the two men were awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class. It was only the first of a number of medals that Hitler would win during the course of the War.

Although he is invariably hostile to and dismissive of Hitler, even Weber has to concede that:

“Private Hitler’s assignment as dispatch runner for the regimental HQ was very dangerous, as was any assignment in his regiment. By the time RIR 16 moved to its section of the front near Frounelles [in 1915], it had its fourth commander . . . Colonel List himself had been mortally wounded. As we have seen, Hitler might well have died together with Phillip Englehart, the regiment’s second commander, back in November . . . Hitler had already narrowly escaped death when he had been lucky enough not to have been present at the combat post of the regimental HQ in Bethlehem Farm, when the post was shelled by the French forces. At the time, a piece of French shell had flown through the door of the farm, grazing the regimental adjutant … and killing the division doctor.” (p. 92).

Indeed, although he was not stationed in the trenches, he could have been killed at any moment, as the regimental headquarters was located within the range of enemy artillery, and was shelled daily (p. 103).

The Battle of the Somme, where Adolf Hitler was wounded in October 1916

The Battle of the Somme, where Adolf Hitler was wounded in October 1916

So even when the front was relatively quiet, Hitler was still in a dangerous place. But in time of battle, the task of dispatch runner became the most dangerous assignment of all: while the other troops were hunkered down, the runners had to make their way through the battlefield carrying their messages, regardless of artillery and machine gun fire, poison gas, land mines, barbed wire and the like. Often, two runners were sent at once with the same message — this would increase the chance the message would get through in case one runner became a casualty. Yet Hitler seemed to lead a charmed life: time and again he would volunteer for the most dangerous assignments, and return unscathed.

Still, no one’s luck lasts forever. On October 5, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Hitler was struck in the thigh by a fragment of a grenade which exploded at the door to the dugout where he and several fellow runners had taken cover. The wound was serious, but not life-threatening. Hitler pleaded with a superior to be taken to a field hospital for convalescence, rather than be sent back to Germany to recover, as he did not want to leave his comrades and the regiment. But the wound was such that he was sent to a military hospital back in the Reich. As soon as he recovered, he returned to unit (p. 156).

On August 4, 1918 — four years since the start of the War and only a few short months away from its end — Hitler earned the highly coveted Iron Cross, First Class. The medal was given only for exceptional bravery. Weber notes that it was “the highest honour in the German armed forces available to men of his rank” (p. 214). Bizarrely, Weber gives no narrative account of what Hitler did to be nominated for this award. Instead, he simply notes that “Hitler delivered a dispatch to front-line units on a particularly dangerous occasion,” and that subsequently Capt. Hugo Guttmann had nominated him for the honor (p.215). What seems to gall Weber in particular is that Guttmann was a Jew. The reality that a Jew had in some way facilitated Hitler’s Iron Cross, First Class, seems to disturb the author to such a degree that he is unable to write about it — although he is willing to go on and on about what did not happen on that occasion.

For an account of this pivotal moment in Adolf Hitler’s life, we have to turn to the two-volume biography of him written by Sir Ian Kershaw, which — although unfailingly anti-Hitler — at least makes a stab at impartiality and historical truth. In the third chapter of the first volume of his tome, Kershaw writes:

“From the available evidence, including the recommendation of the List’s deputy commander Freiherr von Godin on 31 July [sic] 1918, the award was made — as it was to another dispatch runner — for bravery shown in delivering an important dispatch, following the breakdown of telephone communications from the command headquarters to the front during heavy fire. Guttmann, from what he subsequently said, had promised both dispatch runners the [Iron Cross, First Class] if they succeeded in delivering the message.”

In October 1918 Adolf Hitler was the victim of a mustard gas attack that left him temporarily blinded and invalided out of the last few weeks of the First World War

In October 1918 Adolf Hitler was the victim of a mustard gas attack that left him temporarily blinded and invalided out of the last few weeks of the First World War

In any event, Hitler’s participation in the First World War was nearing its end. On the night of October 13/14, the regimental headquarters had come under British artillery fire that included rounds of mustard gas. Among those exposed to the agent were Hitler and other dispatch runners. They were able to make their way to the rear only with difficulty. By the next morning, Hitler had become blind. Weber claims that the quantity of gas to which Hitler was exposed was not enough to cause blindness, and that his loss of sight was psychosomatic (pp. 220-221). This is possible, although one cannot say for sure, as Hitler’s medical records for this incident have been lost. If it was a psychosomatic blindness, it is easy to see how it could occur. Hitler had been under incredible strain for many years: he had served at the front for 42 of the 51 months that the War lasted, with his life being in potential danger every moment of every day for that period (p 222). He had been wounded and had experienced the horrors of war firsthand, and now his beloved Germany was only a few weeks away from utter defeat. An exposure to poison gas, even at a non-lethal level, may have been enough for his mind to tell his eyes that he had done all that he could do, and that now it was time to rest.

By any reasonable standard, Hitler’s war record was impressive. Of the 51,000 Iron Cross, First Class, awards, only 472 went to ordinary troops below the rank of sergeant (p. 214). Whether Hitler’s award was for a specific act of bravery (as seems to be the case), or for continuous meritorious “service within the regimental headquarters” (as Weber wants us to believe), is really beside the point; what is clear is that Adolf Hitler was an exemplary soldier. But it was not only his superior officers who held Hitler in high esteem.

In marketing this book to the public, both the author and the publicists for Oxford University Press emphasized an obscure piece of World War I German military slang: Etapenschweine, which translates as “rear area pig.” This term, they told book reviewers, is how front-line soldiers in the trenches referred to Hitler. But, perversely, that is not what Weber writes. Rather, it is simply a general term of abuse which the soldiers in the trenches applied towards all personnel who served further back from the front lines than they did (p. 105). Nowhere is the claim made that any specific German soldier ever specifically used this term of insult to describe Hitler. That there is some generalized tension between troops in the trenches, living in mud and filth, and those living towards the rear, billeted in relative comfort, is hardly surprising. But such animosity was not directed solely or particularly at Hitler.

Rather, Hitler’s reputation among his battle comrades was a good one. Weber’s book is full of numerous quotes from ordinary soldiers, from NCOs and from officers, all praising both Hitler’s performance and his comradeship. In fact, there are perhaps dozens of such citations sprinkled throughout the book. Here is one of them chosen at random:

“Even among the support staff at the regimental headquarters, Hitler was something of an outsider, but a well-respected one . . .[regimental telephonist Hans] Bauer described Private Hitler as a ‘lonely man’ who spent his time reading while maintaining that his ‘relationship with Hitler as a comrade [was] the same as with all of his comrades.’ According to another member of the regimental HQ, Hitler spent his free time memorizing historical dates from a study guide, while according to Jackl Weiss, Hitler either constantly talked about history or paced up and down a patch of grass in Fournes, thinking and studying. Ignaz Westenkirchner, one of Hitler’s fellow dispatch runners, meanwhile, recalled that he ‘was always the one to buck us up when we got downhearted: he kept us going when things were at there worst . . .he was one of the best comrades we ever had.'” (p. 140)

Incredibly, Weber criticizes Hitler for his behavior while on leave: Hitler, he solemnly tells us, refused to get drunk or visit prostitutes, but instead preferred to go to the theater and visit art museums (pp. 123, 202). Yes, clearly the man was a monster! Weber numerous times lambasts Hitler for showing respect and courtesy towards his superior officers, as though this was a grave moral failing. In describing such admirable behavior as though it were reprehensible, one gets the feeling that Weber is telling the reader more about himself than about Adolf Hitler!

Another example of the petty bias Weber displays concerns an episode early in the Battle of Langemarck. Hitler reports in an autobiographical section of Mein Kampf that the List Regiment went into action singing the Deutschlandlied (“Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles . . .”) (Mein Kampf, Vol. I, Chap. 5). Rather, says Weber, historical evidence suggests that if any song was sung, it was more likely to have been Watch on the Rhine. Weber’s point, which he takes a full page to make, is that Hitler’s account of the War in Mein Kampf is mendacious and unreliable (p. 44). But Hitler’s account was written 10 years after the event, while he was in prison and without research materials. Even if his memory failed him on this very minor point, it hardly invalidates the rest of his recollections.

For reasons he never clearly enunciates, Weber is fascinated with the handful of Jewish soldiers who served in the List regiment, and the book is full of endless trivial anecdotes concerning them, and their fates after the War. (A high percentage of them seem to have committed suicide, suggesting either mental instability or possibly what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder, but he never comments on that directly.) And in this connection we should note that no account of the trench fighting on the Western Front during World War I would be complete without a long soulful rumination on the Holocaust – and here Weber does not disappoint us.

Indeed, there is a bit of an unexpected turn, for Weber, not once but twice, challenges the symbolic, kabalistic number of Six Million as the number of Jews killed in Europe during World War II. “By the end of the Holocaust, between five and six million Jews had been killed at the hands of a large number of Germans and their collaborators,” he writes (p. 331), repeating the same figures again several pages later (p. 337). Were he a racial nationalist or a Revisionist historian, such a claim would place him in legal jeopardy throughout much of Europe for “minimizing” or “trivializing” the Holocaust, or for “insulting the memory of the dead” — but somehow we think that Weber is not in much danger on that account.

Adolf Hitler was on good terms with many of his former opponents in the First World War, such as the group of British veterans shown here who met him as part of an official British Legion delegation

Adolf Hitler was on good terms with many of his former opponents in the First World War, such as the group of British veterans shown here who met him as part of an official British Legion delegation

There is a lot more in this book: it is long, rambling and disorganized, and simply lacks clarity. Its putative subject is Adolf Hitler’s war record from 1914-18, but perhaps less than a third of the book actually deals with this subject in a focused manner. The rest has to do with sociological speculation concerning anti-Semitism, Jews in the List regiment, anti-Semitism, why the German people supported Hitler, anti-Semitism, why everyone else in academia is wrong about Hitler but the author, and anti-Semitism.

Still, credit where credit is due: Weber has raised the subject of Hitler’s record as a soldier in a way that has not been done before (at least in English), he has done valuable original research, and he has brought together strands of information from many different sources. We recommend this book to those who are interested in World War I, in Adolf Hitler or in National-Socialism, but we recommend it with the caution to read it with a critical eye to the author’s very obvious biases. This is not the last word on the subject, but rather the opening word in a new field of historical and biographical investigation.

Reviewed by Martin Kerr, Falls Church, Virginia

This review first appeared in Issue 44 of Heritage and Destiny.

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