I am re-reading the book Hitler’s First War by Thomas Weber. It is an eye-opening revision of Adolf Hitler’s World War I career, based on various sources but principally the archives and official account of the Sixteenth Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR 16), the unit Hitler belonged to during the First World War. Weber had to blow the dust off of these sources because none of Hitler’s previous biographers had ever bothered to consult them. Yet these are the oldest non-Nazi sources of information about the unit made famous by Hitler’s and the Nazis’ accounts. How does this record match up with the official Nazi version, the same version that became the official scholarly version even after Hitler and the Nazis were discredited in every other respect?
They do not match up well. Hardly at all, in fact. Weber’s conclusion about Hitler, that he lied about his World War I experience, might seem unsurprising to the uninitiated. Indeed, it should not be surprising. Yet what is surprising is that some four generations of historians and Hitler biographers actually believed Hitler’s lies. Weber cites several famous histories and biographies of Hitler that take Hitler’s lies as if gospel:
Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Joachim C. Fest, Hitler, New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1974.
John W.Toland, Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.
John Keegan, The First World War, New York: Knopf, 1999.
These and other seminal works suggest that Hitler was a brave and dutiful soldier who, as a dispatch runner or messenger, had a more dangerous job than most other members of his regiment. This myth is based on a variety of tainted sources, which may be reduced to Hitler himself combined with Nazi Party solicited and approved propaganda. A variety of accounts appeared during the 1930s, even before Hitler came fully to power, that supported Hitler’s own account in his semi-fictional memoir, Mein Kamp, published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926.
Both Hitler and his hagiographers told of his daring missions in the trenches of the Western Front. The trouble, says Weber, is that Hitler rarely had to go into the trenches, and only certain aspects of the war ever came behind the lines where Hitler spent most of his early military career. (One of Hitler’s Nazi-era biographers wrote that he and Hitler were shot at by British machineguns on the streets of Messines, a town that was securely behind the German lines and therefore not subject to enemy machinegun fire.)
The trick is that while Hitler was, indeed, a dispatch runner (German: Meldegänger), but he was a regimental runner, meaning that he rarely was asked to go into the trenches. He moved between the regimental headquarters—in one sector located in a castle—and the battalion headquarters located at the very back of the trench area. He would give the battalion commander a dispatch from regimental HQ, and the battalion commander would give it to another runner who would carry the message through the trenches to the company commanders. It was not Hitler’s job to venture beyond battalion HQ.
Hitler did serve in combat beside his comrades in First Company from the end of October 1914 when RIR 16 arrived at the Front in Belgium until 9 November when he became a regimental dispatcher, a period of little more than a week. Being anywhere near the Front was certainly dangerous, and Hitler had some near misses with death during those first weeks as well as later, although his risks were greatly reduced and became less frequent immediately with his assignment to the staff area around the regimental HQ. Also, Hitler exaggerated his achievements. Hitler and his hagiographers give him nearly full credit for rescuing his commanding officer, Col. Philip Engelhardt, for example, mentioning that he was assisted by one fellow dispatcher named Anton Bachmann; however, the official regimental history, published in 1932, gives primary credit for the rescue to Bachmann, acknowledging assists by Hitler and two other men.
When I first read Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler, I was struck by the contrast between Hitler the pre-war slacker and Hitler the dutiful soldier. From my own experience with twenty-something aimless-ness, I knew that it would be unlikely for me to become dedicated and conscientious just because I joined some organization. Fest said so, so I accepted it even though my gut told me it could not be. It turns out that it was not so. Hitler was a lackluster soldier, which is why he never advanced in the military. Weber says that he did not even attain the rank of corporal which his supporters all pretended that he did. He was Private Hitler.
More significantly, Hitler’s claim to be representative of his unit was a lie of mythic proportions. He neither served beside them in the worst of it nor shared their views. One of his biographers reports that Hitler was involved in the five-month long Battle of the Somme for three months. In fact, he was barely near the engagement for four days. His unit moved into trenches near the Somme at the beginning of October 1916, three months after the battle began, and an enemy shell found its way behind the lines a few days later, killing several of the regimental staff and wounding Hitler. He was sent to a hospital deep in Germany while the rest of his comrades experienced the worst fighting they had seen to date. Hitler completely missed what his comrades were subjected to over the next two months.
Notably, Hitler had been behind the lines during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. His company experienced it, but Hitler was at HQ the whole time and could only offer his disapproval after the fact but without first-hand knowledge.
It is difficult to know what Hitler was really thinking during this time. He rarely discussed politics explicitly, although there were hints. He certainly hero worshipped his superiors. He got along with his sergeant, Max Amann, and reportedly did anything asked of him by the officers. Aside from helping to save Colonel Engelhardt’s life, he served as a beater for a later commander when he went hunting for quail. Curiously, he once remarked that a Jewish radio operator was an all right fellow. “If only there were more Jews like him.” While this is a clearly bigoted remark, it is far from what would be expected from a virulent anti-Semite such as Hitler later claimed to have been already. We must question to what extent Hitler had already formed his prejudices before 1914 as he later claimed.
On the other hand, Hitler did say, in a letter to one his only two war-time correspondents, Ernst Hepp of Munich, that he fervently wished to punish the British and to expel all foreign influences from Germany after the war. What did he mean by that? Did he include Jewish people among “foreign influences”? Weber says that the views betrayed in that one letter fell outside of mainstream German politics before World War I, and confirm that Hitler was already dabbling in fringe political views by early 1915.
When Hitler’s party later began to publish books and articles about Hitler’s heroic exploits during the war, there were some naysayers. A newspaper published accounts that contradicted Hitler’s version in the early 1930s. Hitler sued. The newspaper could not provide any corroboration, however, and Hitler won the case. It is largely because of this victory that the court of public and scholarly opinion has ever since held to the myth of the brave and dutiful Corporal Hitler. The trouble is that the officer from Hitler’s regiment who provided the newspaper with the unflattering information about Hitler’s first war was probably telling the truth, but he did not dare come forward and testify. He liked continuing to breath, and even though the Nazis were not fully in power before 1934, the Stormtroopers led by arch thug Ernst Rohm were already on the march everywhere in Germany, and no one wanted to cross them. If you impugned Hitler, Rohm’s thug would get you. One of Hitler’s hagiographers, Hans Mend, was said to be willing to tell “the truth” about Hitler’s war record to anyone who provided him with a drink. He said in 1932, "If my book had cited all the details of what I deliberately suppressed... Hitler would certainly not have emerged as a great hero.” He soon fell out of favor with Hitler and died in prison in 1942.
Once Hitler consolidated his power in 1934, anybody who contradicted any jot or tittle of Nazi propaganda risked their life. After that, Hitler’s heroic exploits became the stuff of school textbooks at every grade level. Whether it passed the smell test or not, it was the truth because the state said so. "When I returned from the War,” Hitler said in 1941, “I brought back home with me my experiences at the front; out of them I built my National Socialist community." This was an exaggeration at best and more than likely a lie because he had not known the company of most war veterans, but only that of men who were behind the lines. Most of the men of his unit who saw the worst of the war, Weber says, tried to return to civilian life and very few became Nazis. What remains remarkable is that even after the Nazis’ defeat and repudiation, historians continued to think that Hitler’s exoneration in libel court on the eve of his taking power actually proved that the fabrications he foisted on his own people should continue to be believed by the world from which his stain had otherwise been removed.