The Experience of War - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 3. The Experience of War

“As probably was the case for every German, the most unforgettable and exciting time in my life had begun,” Hitler wrote rather melodramatically in Mein Kampf. “Everything previous paled into nothingness compared to the events of this giant struggle.”1 The First World War was Hitler’s defining experience and marks a caesura in his life. Having failed to achieve his lofty artistic ambitions, after seven years of privations, disappointments and rejections, the 25-year-old loner finally thought he had found a way out of his disoriented, useless existence. Hitler would never have developed as he did had he not fought in the First World War, and it was the war that made his political career possible in the first place.2

On 28 June 1914, when Hitler heard the news that the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife had been assassinated in Sarajevo, he was sitting, as was his wont, over his books in his room on Schleissheimerstrasse. Given the tense situation in Europe, and in particular the drastically deteriorating relationship between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the previous years, Hitler had no doubt that “a stone had begun to roll and there was no stopping it.”3 He was hardly alone in thinking that a major European conflict was inevitable. People all the way up to the highest echelons of political and military power in Wilhelmine Germany shared that view. In point of fact, however, war could have been averted in July 1914, had the Reich leadership in Berlin, urged on by military commanders, not decided to use the assassination as a pretext for a test of strength with the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia. The aim was to drive apart the powers “encircling” Germany and alter the European balance of power in the Reich’s favour. On 5 and 6 July, not only did Germany assure its ally Austria-Hungary of its complete support in the event of military action against Serbia; Berlin also encouraged Vienna to respond quickly and with determination. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was all too aware that Germany was incurring a tremendous risk in issuing Austria-Hungary such a blank cheque. “Military action against Serbia could lead to a world war,” he admitted on the evening of 6 July to an intimate, Foreign Ministry Legation Secretary Kurt Riezler.4

The public had little idea of what was going on in the governing cabinets in Berlin and Vienna as the crisis continued to escalate. Hitler, too, followed the general assumption that “ruling circles in Vienna” were the ones pushing for war and that Germany had no other option than stay unswervingly loyal to its ally.5 Hardly anyone realised how slyly Bethmann Hollweg manoeuvred Imperial Russia into the role of the aggressor in the final stage of the crisis so that the tsar could be blamed for the war. “Ruthlessly and under all circumstances, Russia must be made into the source of injustice,” the chancellor told Kaiser Wilhelm II on 26 July.6 Bethmann Hollweg’s plan worked. The German public believed that their country was defending itself from enemy attack and put aside all domestic quarrels and class enmity to come together as a nation.

By late July 1914 in Munich, as in most big German cities, public demonstrations of patriotism were sometimes ending in wild excesses. When the band leader at a café refused to play the patriotic song “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine), for example, the premises were ransacked.7 In early August, as war became more and more certain, there were outpourings of enthusiasm. On 2 August, a crowd of many thousands assembled on Odeonsplatz in front of the Feldherrnhalle. “All the melodies, military tunes and enthusiastic words that resonated up to the heavens sounded like a song of songs about German might and German self-confidence,” reported one eyewitness.8 Among the jubilant masses was the “artistic painter” Adolf Hitler, and a picture taken by his later “court photographer” Heinrich Hoffmann shows him getting carried away by the euphoric atmosphere.9 In Mein Kampf, Hitler described his feelings with his characteristic bent towards exalted language: “Even today, I am not ashamed to say that I, overcome by tempestuous enthusiasm, sank to my knees and thanked heaven with an overflowing heart that I was fortunate enough to live in these times.”10

Many people felt the way Hitler did. Suddenly everything that confined and divided Germans seemed to have disappeared, leaving an intoxicating sensation of togetherness. “To be honest, I must acknowledge that there was something grand, captivating and even seductive about this eruption of the masses, which was difficult to resist,” recalled Stefan Zweig many years later.11 Even the anarchist and pacifist Erich Mühsam found himself “somehow captivated by the general uproar unleashed by angry passion.” In his diary, Mühsam wrote: “The confidence of the Germans, their pious and intense enthusiasm, is harrowing, but also grand. There’s a spiritual unity there that I hope to see some day employed for great cultural works.”12

But not everyone joined in the chorus of glee. There was little enthusiasm for war in the German countryside. “Deep concern is making the rounds among the many, often large farming families whose fathers will be going away, whose sons, horses and wagons will be commissioned by the military, and whose harvests still have to be brought in,” reported the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten on 4 August 1914.13 In the big cities, too, enthusiasm for the war was largely confined to the middle classes. Blue-collar workers, particularly those who were members of the SPD and the trade unions, were in a serious, almost despondent mood. “What do we care if the heir to the throne of Austria was murdered?” one worker in Hamburg was overheard remarking in a bar. “I’m glad I’m too old to go [to war],” said another. “I have no desire to get shot and killed for anyone else.”14 The attitudes in Munich’s working-class districts in late July 1914 would hardly have been much different.

Intellectuals, writers and artists were most likely to get caught up in the intoxication of the “August experience.” The reasons varied from dissatisfaction with the ossified structures of Wilhelmine society, to weariness with bourgeois complacency and the comfort of a long stretch of peace, to the longing for adventure, challenges and feelings of community. “How could the artist, the soldier in the artist, not have thanked God for the breakdown of a peaceful world of which he was so very sick?” asked Thomas Mann, who was living in Munich at the time. “War! What we experienced was cleansing, liberation and an enormous sense of hope.”15

The “artist” Adolf Hitler felt something very similar. In Mein Kampf he recalled that the war seemed like “liberation from the annoying sensibilities of youth” and a way out of the idle cycles of his oddball existence.16 The prospect of belonging to a community and of devoting himself to a seemingly worthy national cause enlivened Hitler. If Mein Kampf is to be believed, on 3 August 1914, he wrote a letter beseeching King Ludwig III of Bavaria to allow him to join a Bavarian regiment despite being an Austrian citizen. One day later Hitler received permission by special cabinet order.17 This account is very implausible, however.18 It is much more likely that in the chaos of the first days of military mobilisation, as hordes of patriotic enthusiasts were signing up for military service, no one bothered to check Hitler’s citizenship. Otherwise he would never have been allowed to serve in the Bavarian army.

Hitler first tried to volunteer on 5 August, but he was sent away, and it was not until 16 August that he was inducted into Recruit Depot VI of the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment. This replacement battalion was quartered in a school that had been hastily converted into barracks. Here Hitler was given field uniform and equipment, and he underwent basic military training.19 On 1 September, he was transferred to the reconstituted 16th Reserve Infantry Regiment. The “List Regiment,” nicknamed after its first commander, Colonel Julius List, was a rather ragtag bunch. Young volunteers served together with older men known as “replacement reserves.” Munich students and artists marched side by side with farmers, rural labourers, small entrepreneurs, artisans, workers and professionals. The regiment thus represented a cross section of ages and social classes.20

On 10 October 1914, it left Munich for combat training at Lechfeld, an outwash plain near the city of Augsburg. “The first five days at Lechfeld were the hardest of my life,” Hitler wrote in a letter to his landlady, Anna Popp. “Every day we have a long march, major exercises and a night-time march of up to forty-two kilometres, followed by major brigade manoeuvres.”21 Hitler’s biggest concern during these weeks, if we take him at his word, was that the war would be won by the time he got to the front. “This alone robbed me time and again of my peace of mind,” he claimed in Mein Kampf.22 Any worries proved unfounded. The German army may have advanced rapidly through Belgium and northern France, but the retreat of German troops to the Marne in early September 1914 spelled the end of the original plan of destroying the French army by squeezing it in a surprise pincer movement. Realistically, the war was already lost for Germany. The Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke—the nephew of the great, victorious Prussian commander—suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced on 14 September by Reich Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn. But the scale of the military disaster was kept secret from the public. As a result, broad segments of German society, and in particular volunteers eager to get to the front, maintained dangerous illusions about the true situation.

Early in the morning on 21 October, the List Regiment was loaded onto three trains and taken to the Western Front. “I’m immensely looking forward to it,” wrote Hitler.23 In Ulm, the first stop on the journey, Hitler sent a postcard to Joseph Popp with “best regards on my way to Antwerp.”24 The next morning the train reached the River Rhine, which had long been a bone of contention between Germany and France. Hitler still recalled this moment in March 1944: “I saw the Rhine for the first time when my regiment was sent west in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that welled up in me when I first caught sight of this historic river.”25 Via Cologne and Aachen, the train continued to Belgium. There Hitler could see the traces of war. The train station in Liège, he reported, was “badly shot up,” and the city of Louvain was a “pile of rubble.”26 Two months before, from 25 to 28 August, German troops had committed a number of war crimes in Louvain, massacring 248 Belgian civilians, destroying parts of the old city centre and setting fire to the city’s famous university library.27

On 23 October, Hitler and his comrades arrived in Lille, where the din from the battlefields of Flanders could be easily heard. Falkenhayn had stuck with the general staff’s offensive tactics. By strengthening the German army’s right flank he hoped to surround the French and British armies. This was the beginning of the famous “Race to the Sea,” a series of battles leading ever closer to the English Channel. The attacking Germans suffered heavy casualties, particularly among young volunteers who naively ran into enemy machine-gun fire. The 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, of which the List Regiment was part, was deployed in the middle of the First Battle of Ypres. On 27 October, after three days of rest to recover from the journey, the regiment was ordered to march to the front. There, in the early hours of 29 October, as part of an assault on the Flemish village of Gheluvelt, Hitler received his “baptism of fire” in a forest along the road to Becelaere. It was a life-changing experience about which he reported in detail in a letter to the Munich court assessor Ernst Hepp, who before the war had purchased two of his watercolours and occasionally invited him out for a meal.28

The letter, which Hitler wrote on 5 February 1915, three months after the events described, is an astonishing document.29 It showed that Hitler was not only a keen observer, but had a talent for putting his experiences into words—even if he had not quite overcome his poor spelling and punctuation. “Around 6 a.m. we met up with the other companies at an inn,” Hitler wrote.

At 7 our day began. We marched in columns through a forest to our right and emerged with our ranks intact in an elevated field. Four marksmen were dug in ahead of us. We took up positions behind them in large trenches and waited…Finally came the command “Forwards.” We climbed out of our holes and sprinted across the field…towards a small farmstead. Left and right shells were exploding, and in the middle English bullets were humming, but we paid them no mind. For ten minutes we took cover and then again came the command “Forwards’…Now the first of our numbers were falling. The English had trained their machine guns on us. We threw ourselves on the ground and slowly crawled forward in a furrow. Sometimes we had to stop because someone had got shot and could no longer move, and we had to lift him out of the furrow.

The decimated attackers sought shelter in a stretch of forest. “Overhead there was whining and rushing, and shredded tree trunks and branches were flying all around us,” Hitler continued. “Shells would hit the underbrush and throw clouds of stones, soil and sand in the air. They uprooted the mightiest of trees and covered everything in a horrible, stinking yellow-green mist. We couldn’t stay there for ever, and if we were going to fall, it was better to do so out in the open.” The soldiers sprinted across the fields of the farmstead and jumped into the first British trench. “By my side were men from Württemberg, and under me were dead and wounded Englishmen,” Hitler wrote. “I suddenly realised why my landing had been so soft.” They were soon engaged in bitter hand-to-hand combat.

Anyone who didn’t surrender got cut down. We cleaned out trench after trench in this fashion. Finally we reached the main road…To the left were several farmsteads that were still occupied, and we came under heavy fire. One after another of our number crumpled…We charged four times and were beaten back every time. There was only one soldier left from my group besides me, and in the end he fell too. A bullet tore its way through my right sleeve, but miraculously, I remained without a scratch…We fought like this for three days until finally the English were taken care of.

The List Regiment was first withdrawn from battle on 1 November and the survivors marched back to the village of Werwick. They had suffered enormous casualties: “In four days, our regiment had shrunk from 3,500 to 600 men. There were only three officers left in the entire regiment.”30 Among the dead was their commander, Colonel List.

Without doubt, Hitler’s first encounter with the bloody realities of war was a traumatic experience, which seared the images of battle into his memory. He could still recall them vividly when he wrote Mein Kampf during his Landsberg incarceration, and in late July 1924 read the most recently written passages to his fellow inmate Rudolf Hess.31 In a letter to his future wife Ilse Pröhl, Hess described the scene: “The champion of the people read ever more slowly and hesitantly…He took longer and longer pauses. Then he suddenly lowered the manuscript, put his head in his hands—and sobbed.”32

The terrible price paid by the List Regiment had brought only insignificant territorial gains. After Germany’s second attempt to decide matters in the west had failed, the front lines hardened in November 1914. Exhausted soldiers hunkered down in their trenches along an 800-kilometre-long line from Nieuport on the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. “A web of dugouts, trenches with embrasures, saps, wire entanglements and landmines—in short, an almost impregnable position,” was how Hitler described the trench-warfare system in a letter from January 1915.33 Hitler himself, however, did not have to stay at the very front line. A few days after being promoted to private first class on 3 November 1914, he was transferred to the regimental staff, where until the end of the war he served as one of several dispatch runners. These runners were responsible for bringing the regimental commander’s orders to the front lines during battle, if other lines of communication to the battalion and company leaders no longer functioned. It was a dangerous job.34 In early December 1914, Hitler himself wrote that since he had been made a runner, he had “risked his life every day and looked death in the eye.”35

In mid-November 1914, the new regimental commander, Philipp Engelhardt, recommended Private Hitler for the Iron Cross, Second Class, but soon afterwards a shell hit the tent where Engelhardt was conferring with several company leaders. The commander was seriously wounded, and several members of his staff were killed. Hitler had left the tent five minutes previously—as so often would be the case later in his life, luck was on his side.36 On 2 December, he received his Iron Cross from the regimental adjutant, Lieutenant Georg Eichelsdörfer. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he wrote in a letter to Joseph Popp. “Of course almost all of my comrades, who deserved one too, are dead.” Hitler asked Popp to save the newspaper announcement of his award. “If the good Lord keeps me alive, I’d like it as a memento.”37

Since late November 1914, the regimental staff had been pinned down by heavy fire in the totally destroyed town of Messines, not far from the front. “Day after day for the past two months, the air and ground have shaken with the howling and cracking of shells and the explosions of shrapnel,” Hitler wrote in late January 1915.

The hellish concert starts early at 9 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m., only to reach its crescendo in the afternoon between 3 and 5. At 5 it’s over. It’s eerie when the cannons begin to thunder in the night. They start in the distance and get closer and closer. Gradually rifle fire is added, and after half an hour things calm again. Only the flares still gleam, and in the distance to the west you can see the searchlights and hear the constant artillery fire of the heavy armoured ships. But we won’t leave this place, come hell or high water.38

In his letters to Munich, Hitler complained that the constant fighting was making him “dulled” and what he missed most was regular sleep. He felt very nervous, admitting that uninterrupted heavy artillery fire “ruined even the strongest of nerves in time.”39 But on 24 December 1914, something very unusual happened on the battlefields of Flanders. Almost everywhere, the weapons went silent. German and British soldiers crawled from their trenches, first alone and then in groups. They met one another in no man’s land, exchanged gifts and agreed a ceasefire for the following day. It seemed like a miracle. The same men who had only the day before tried their best to kill one another stood together, laughing, chatting, smoking and toasting each other’s health. “We were as happy as children,” an officer from Saxony noted in his diary.40

The 16th Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR 16) was also involved in the fraternisation. In a letter to his parents dated 28 December 1914, one member of the regiment wrote: “It was very moving. Between the trenches, the most hateful and bitter enemies stood around a Christmas tree singing carols. I’ll never forget the sight as long as I live.”41 Hitler did not record his reaction to the “Christmas miracle on the front,” but according to one of the other runners, he had remarked disapprovingly: “Something like this should be out of the question in wartime.”42

In his later monologues, Hitler repeatedly returned to his experiences during the First World War. If he were twenty or twenty-five years younger, he remarked in July 1941, a few weeks after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, he would volunteer for the front. “I was a passionate soldier,” he said.43 But was Hitler really the brave front-line fighter sharing “the misery of millions of Germans who squatted in their trenches for weeks at a time, permanently subject to mortal fear,” as he claimed at an NSDAP meeting in Munich in September 1930?44 In the 1920s and increasingly in the 1930s, doubts arose as to Hitler’s depiction of his military past. In the spring of 1932, two veterans of the List Regiment published articles in left-wing newspapers, the Braunschweiger Volksfreund and the weekend edition of the Hamburger Echo, in which they accused Hitler of spending the war in the safety of the regiment’s main headquarters, and not at the front as he claimed.45 Runners did indeed enjoy easier conditions than the soldiers in the trenches: they had dry quarters and were given better food, and they were not permanently exposed to machine-gun fire and sharpshooters’ bullets. “Every soldier in the trenches thought that the regimental staff members were lucky bastards,” another former comrade wrote to Hitler in March 1932. “It’s true, and no one can deny it, that things were much better in the staff than they were in the company.”46 But that does not mean that the runners’ job was without risk. For them the biggest danger came from artillery shells striking behind the front lines.

After 1933, the NSDAP party archive began to collect statements from former comrades at the front who testified that Hitler had shown “constant engagement” and not shied away from any “dangerous route.” One of them reported that he had always been surprised that Hitler came back from his deliveries unwounded.47 These statements must be treated sceptically since they obviously served to support Hitler’s own version of his wartime experiences. The reports of Hitler’s military superiors are more believable. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Petz, who succeeded Engelhardt and commanded the regiment until March 1916, wrote in February 1922:

Hitler was an extremely hard-working, willing, conscientious and dutiful soldier, who was also completely reliable and obedient towards his superiors…Particularly worth stressing are his personal daring and the heedless courage he displayed when confronting dangerous situations and all the dangers of battle. His iron calm and cold-bloodedness never deserted him. When the situation was at its most dangerous, he always volunteered to make deliveries to the front and carried them out successfully.48

It is possible that Petz sympathised with the ambitious young right-wing matador in Munich, which may explain why his assessment was so positive. But Fritz Wiedemann, the adjutant in the List Regiment from January 1916 to April 1917, offered a similar, if less upbeat, assessment after 1945. Hitler, he said, had been the “paradigm of the unknown soldier carrying out his duty silently and calmly.”49 This assessment carries all the more weight because Wiedemann had every reason to be critical of the former private. After being named Reich chancellor, Hitler had appointed Wiedemann his personal adjutant, but in early 1939 he had stripped him of that post and banished him as a consul general, first to San Francisco and then to Tianjin, China. Wiedemann subsequently distanced himself from Hitler and after the war voluntarily testified against other Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.50

When we weigh up all the sources, we can conclude that Hitler did not stand out as particularly brave but neither did he occupy a “shirker’s job” guaranteed to keep him out of harm’s way. Attempts to cast Hitler as a coward are misleading.51 Even an outspoken critic of Hitler like the writer Alexander Moritz Frey, who also served in the List Regiment and was forced to emigrate from Germany after 1933, stated in 1946: “If people say he was cowardly, that’s not accurate. He wasn’t brave either. He lacked the coolness for that.”52

Yet if Private Hitler was such a dutiful soldier, why was he never promoted? In 1948, Wiedemann amused everyone in the courtroom in Nuremberg by stating that Hitler “lacked leadership qualities”—the German word he used was Führerqualitäten. In his 1964 memoirs, Wiedemann reiterated that in his opinion Hitler did not have what it took to become a superior officer. His posture was “sloppy…with his head usually sloping towards his left shoulder” and his answers, when asked questions, were “anything but militarily brief.”53 Max Amann—a sergeant major in RIR 16 and later NSDAP chairman and party publisher—testified after the war that Hitler had not wanted to be put up for promotion. When Amann informed him one day that he was being considered for promotion to junior officer, Hitler supposedly reacted with “horror” saying: “Please don’t do that—I have more authority without an officer’s bars than with them.”54 We cannot be sure whether this story is true, or whether Hitler feared that he could be transferred to another regiment and given a more dangerous job, if promoted.

Hitler did not deny that he, like many other volunteers, quickly lost the idealism of August 1914 when confronted with the shocking reality of the war: the mass, machine-like killing on the battlefield. “The romance of battle had been replaced by horror,” he wrote in Mein Kampf. “My enthusiasm cooled, and fear of death strangled my exaggerated jubilations.”55 Hitler also made no secret of the fact that he was afraid of dying, and that his self-preservation instincts worked against his sense of duty. “He admits quite openly, and without any sense of shame, that his nerves were more sensitive than other people’s,” Rudolf Hess reported in June 1924. “In any case, almost everyone felt that way, more or less strongly. Anyone who denies that either didn’t see battle or is a liar.”56 In the end, though, Hitler assured the readers of Mein Kampf, his sense of duty won out: “My will finally regained complete control.”57

The experience of being forced to toughen up while growing ever more indifferent to human suffering was one of the main lessons Hitler would take from the First World War. At the front, he asserted during a night-time round of tea in his headquarters in October 1941, “people were often subjected to demands on their nerves that the military leadership could not imagine…The key was to stay hard…You can only defeat death with death.”58 He summarised his experience even more vividly in February 1942: “Either the fire at the front sweeps you away because you succumb to cowardice or you overcome your inner weakling and become hard.”59 For Hitler, the war seemed to confirm what he had read in pan-Germanic pamphlets and newspapers in Vienna, namely that in human society, as in nature, only the strong would survive, while the weak would drop dead in their tracks. More than once in his monologues, Hitler confirmed that such social Darwinist beliefs, which he would maintain until the end of his life, originated in his experience of the war. “I went to the battlefield with the purest idealism,” Hitler said, “but when you see thousands get injured and killed, you become aware that life is a constant, terrible struggle, which serves to preserve the species—someone has to die so that others may survive.”60

Hitler was respected by his comrades in the regimental staff, yet, as was the case in the men’s home in Vienna, here too a distance remained that could scarcely be bridged. His comrades sensed that Hitler was different—“a little bit eccentric” was how Amann later put it.61 Hitler still neither drank nor smoked. From early 1915 he no longer received any letters, and he did not seek contact with French women or join the others on their brothel visits. A fellow runner named Balthasar Brandmayer described how Hitler had responded to the suggestion that they reward themselves for a job well done with a visit to a French mademoiselle: “ ‘I’d die of shame if I made love to a French woman’ interjected Hitler in his provincial Bavarian dialect. The others laughed their heads off. ‘If it isn’t the friar,’ someone joked. Hitler’s expression grew serious. ‘Do you not have any German sense of honour in you?’ Hitler countered.”62 There is no reliable evidence for the contention that in 1916 and 1917 Hitler had an affair with a French woman named Charlotte Lobjoie and that she gave birth to an illegitimate son in March 1918.63 Nor is there any trustworthy indication that Hitler had a homosexual relationship with another regimental runner named Ernst Schmidt.64 Given the riskiness of their job, runners had to depend on one another: they got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and formed a community aimed at mutual survival. But as far as we know, Hitler’s friendship with Schmidt never went beyond camaraderie. And it would be hard to square a homosexual relationship with the fact that even after he was named Reich chancellor and had reason to fear scandals, Hitler kept in contact with Schmidt, even visiting their old battlegrounds with him and Amann after Germany defeated France in 1940.65

Hitler felt more comfortable in the exclusively male world of the regiment than in civilian society, and his experience of war would determine his views on military hierarchies and greatly influence the organisational structure of the NSDAP. In the army he did not have to earn his daily bread, and life was governed by discipline and order. He seems not to have had much difficulty integrating into the system of command and obedience. Hitler behaved obediently, even subserviently towards his superiors.66 He took no part in the crude amusements and coarse jokes of his comrades, and he remained an outsider among them. In the photographs that survive from this period, he appears on the margins, an extremely thin figure with a fixed, almost stony stare. When he does put his arm around one of his comrades, the gesture feels artificial and alien.67

One photograph shows a white fox terrier which ran away from the British front lines in January and which Hitler adopted in January 1915. He was very attached to the animal, teaching it a number of tricks. Once, in January 1942, when the situation at the Eastern Front took a dramatic turn for the worse, Hitler spent half the night telling stories about “Foxl.” “I was very fond of him,” he reminisced. “I shared everything with him, and he slept with me at night…I would never have given him up, not for any price.” In September 1917, when the regiment was redeployed to Alsace, Foxl suddenly disappeared. It was a major blow for Hitler. “The bastard who took him away doesn’t know what he did to me,” Hitler complained in 1942.68 In later life, Hitler’s pronounced affection for dogs stood in stark contrast to the coldness with which he treated even those people who belonged to his most intimate circle.

Unlike in the Vienna men’s home, Hitler seems to have kept his political views to himself during the war. “I was a soldier and didn’t want to make things political,” he wrote in Mein Kampf.69 In Nuremberg in 1947, when asked whether Hitler gave political speeches during the war, Amann also answered with a definite “No.”70 The only time Hitler’s anger arose against his comrades was when someone doubted that the Central Powers would win the war. “There is no way we can lose the world war,” Hitler would protest.71 In a rare moment of openness, in a letter to Ernst Hepp in early February 1915, he did give a hint as to his political views. Those soldiers who were lucky enough to see their homeland again, Hitler wrote, “will find it purer and cleansed of foreignness.” He added his hope “that the daily sacrifices and suffering of hundreds of thousands of us…will not only smash Germany’s enemies abroad but also destroy our internal internationalism—that would be worth more than any territorial gains.”72

Thus, while annexationist circles in heavy industry, conservative parties and nationalist associations may have seen the war in terms of territorial conquests, for Hitler it was a struggle in which Germany defended itself abroad against international enemies while restoring its domestic, ethnic homogeneity and shattering the power of the “internationalist” Social Democratic labour movement at home. The fact that the SPD had supported the Imperial German government and approved lines of credit for the war on 4 August 1914 apparently did nothing to alter Hitler’s negative view of the party. The prejudices and phobias acquired during his Vienna years were too deeply ingrained to be dislodged.

From March 1915 to September 1916, RIR 16 dug in near the town of Fromelles, where it was responsible for defending a 2.3-kilometre stretch of the front. In the respites between battles, Hitler had time to do a bit of painting and to read books. “I carried five volumes of Schopenhauer around with me throughout the war,” he later boasted. “I learned a lot from him.”73 We don’t know how intensely Hitler studied Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but he was certainly familiar with the basics of The World as Will and Idea, including the notion that all geniuses, and especially artistic ones, were destined to be misunderstood. Reading Schopenhauer may also have strengthened Hitler’s conviction that strength of will could help him not only lead a life of sexual asceticism, but overcome his fears of dying.

In late September 1916, Hitler’s regiment was redeployed to the south, just in time to be sent into the Battle of the Somme, which had been raging since 1 July. One of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, almost 20,000 British troops died on the first day alone, and by the time the fighting was over, 419,000 British and 204,000 French soldiers had been killed or wounded; German casualties totalled some 465,000.74 “This is not war, but a mutual annihilation using technological strength,” wrote Vice-Sergeant Hugo Frick from another regiment to his mother in October 1916. “Beyond the word horrible, there’s no describing the hardships and mortal fear we endure here.”75

Again luck was initially on Hitler’s side, but on 5 October a shell hit the entrance to the bunker where the regimental staff runners had sought cover. Hitler took some shrapnel in his left thigh. Adjutant Wiedemann wrote that as he bent down over the wounded man, Hitler said: “It’s not so bad, Lieutenant. I want to stay with you in the regiment.”76 In January 1942, Hitler recalled: “Strangely enough, in the moment when you’re wounded you hardly feel the pain. You sense a blow, and think, that’s nothing. The pain only comes when you’re transported away.”77 Hitler’s injuries proved not to be as serious as initially feared. He was given medical treatment in a field hospital near the town of Hermies and then sent to a Red Cross hospital in Beelitz, south of Berlin, where he recovered from 9 October to 1 December 1916. “What a difference!” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “From the mud of the battlefield to the gleaming white beds of that wonderful building! You hardly dared to lie down in them at first. It took a while to get used to this new world.”78

In the hospital in Beelitz, Hitler encountered soldiers who were sick of the war and had no qualms about saying so. In Mein Kampf, he expressed his outrage at those “miserable scoundrels” who had poked fun at the “beliefs of respectable soldiers with all the means of their poor eloquence.” Hitler was especially scandalised by a soldier who had inflicted an injury on himself to get away from the conflict.79 For Hitler, who apparently continued to believe in the war, such forms of rebellion indicated the demise of military morale. We do not know whether he himself ever doubted that Germany would emerge victorious, as virtually no first-hand documents—letters or anything else—of his opinions from the second half of the war survived.

On 4 November 1916, the convalescent Hitler was granted permission to travel to Berlin. It was his first time in the capital of the Reich whose chancellor he would become seventeen years later. What he saw and heard there hardly lifted his spirits. “Everywhere, people’s suffering was great,” he recalled in Mein Kampf. “This million-strong city was starving. There was great dissatisfaction.”80 Since the winter of 1915/16 it had become increasingly difficult to supply Germany’s major cities with necessities, and there were long queues in front of grocery shops. Women and children stood for hours in all kinds of weather to obtain a pound of butter, a couple of eggs or a piece of meat. People’s disgruntlement with such intolerable conditions grew the longer they went on, and eventually led to public unrest and spontaneous strikes. Such protests also became increasingly political, directly targeting the prevailing social hierarchy, the privileged and the wealthy. In April 1916, a Berlin police officer reported: “The mood in general is very downbeat. Everyone longs for an end to the war…People are dissatisfied with the measures taken by the government, which have failed to combat inflation and profiteering sufficiently. Soldiers leave for the battlefield embittered. The general view is that the war is being fought not for the fatherland, but for capitalism.”81

Nothing was left of the enthusiasm for war in August 1914. Exhaustion and longing for peace now set the tone among urban populations. Hitler would experience this when he was discharged from the hospital on 2 December 1916 and sent to Munich, where he reported to a replacement battalion of RIR 16. He no longer recognised the city. “Anger, sullenness and complaints wherever you went!” he recalled in Mein Kampf.82 People’s disgruntlement was, on the one hand, directed against “the Prussians,” who were hated equally by Bavarian soldiers and civilians. In August 1917, a policeman jotted down remarks made by Bavarian soldiers during a rail journey: “The soldiers’ main wish was for a speedy end to the war, and they mentioned that Germany was also at fault for prolonging it…As long as Bavaria was allied with Prussia, there would be war, for the big-mouthed Prussians had been involved every time there was war.”83

As social tensions increased, anti-Semitic resentment played a larger and larger role in public dissatisfaction. Jews were accused not just of shamelessly profiting from the misery of the general populace, but of trying to shirk military service by whatever means they could. Since late 1915, the Prussian War Ministry had practically been flooded with complaints about Jewish “shirking.” People of the Jewish faith, contended a campaign primarily launched by the influential Pan-Germanic League, were using their wealth and resources to ride out the war in desk jobs at headquarters in the rear. The Jewish industrialist and writer Walther Rathenau was appointed director of the Raw Materials Division of the Prussian War Ministry in August 1914 but was forced to resign in March 1915 after receiving numerous threats. In 1916 he wrote about the growing waves of anti-Semitism: “The more Jews fall in this war, the more their enemies will contend that they all hid far behind the front lines and engaged in profiteering. The hatred will double and triple.”84

Rathenau’s fears were all too justified. On 11 October 1916, only a few weeks after these remarks, Prussian Minister of War Adolf Wild von Hohenborn ordered a review of the types of military service being performed by Jews. The so-called “Jewish census” was an abomination as the government was reacting to completely unfounded anti-Semitic accusations—at the very time when many Jewish Germans were sacrificing their lives for their fatherland. “Two years of absolute sacrifice for our homeland and then this!” wrote Georg Meyer, a captain in a Bavarian artillery regiment, when he heard about the census. “It’s like someone boxed my ears.”85

It is difficult to imagine that Hitler, who had been exposed to Jewish stereotypes in his years in Vienna, would have remained completely unaffected by the increasingly radical anti-Semitic defamations circulating towards the end of the war. If we believe what he wrote later on, it was in his barracks with the replacement battalion in Munich in December 1916 that he first saw the “truth” about alleged Jewish shirking: “The offices were full of Jews. Almost every clerk was a Jew, and almost every Jew a clerk.”86 In Mein Kampf, Hitler also reproduced the common stereotype of Jews as wartime profiteers: “Here [in the economy] Jews had in fact become ‘indispensable.’ The spider slowly began sucking the blood through the pores of the people.”87

We have no way of knowing for sure whether Private Hitler thought in these terms in late 1916 and early 1917. If his experiences of the home front did in fact make him more susceptible for the Jew-hatred that was going round, he concealed it from his comrades. In any case, there is no record of him making any anti-Semitic statements.88 Wiedemann was astonished when he encountered Hitler again in the 1920s as a popular anti-Semitic politician. He never discovered the origin of Hitler’s fanatical Jew-hatred: his interactions with officers and comrades in RIR 16 did not offer “the slightest indication” of anti-Semitism.89

Interestingly, Hitler neither visited his former landlords, the Popps, nor any other pre-war acquaintances in Munich. Reminders of his civilian existence seemed to make him uncomfortable. He was bored in the barracks and longed to get back to the front. “At the moment I’m undergoing dental treatment, but I’ll report immediately and voluntarily for the front,” Hitler wrote to Karl Lanzhammer, the regiment’s bicyclist, on 19 December 1916. Two days later he told Brandmayer: “I’m sitting with swollen cheeks in my four walls thinking of you. There was a transport a few days ago to the regiment. Unfortunately I wasn’t on it.”90The regimental staff had become Hitler’s adoptive family. In a letter to Wiedemann, in which he declared himself once again “battle ready,” he said that he greatly longed “to return to my old regiment and old comrades.”91 Wiedemann fulfilled Hitler’s wish. On 5 March 1917, Hitler celebrated his return to the front.

By that time his regiment had been redeployed to La Bassée. In late April 1917, under the leadership of regimental commander Major Anton von Tubeuf, it moved to the area of Arras in northern France. In mid-July it returned to the scene of Hitler’s first action in Flanders, where it was thrown into the Third Battle of Ypres. On 31 July, in the course of a major offensive, British forces unveiled a new weapon: tanks. “It was our misfortune that our leadership back then didn’t recognise the value of technological weaponry,” Hitler opined in August 1941. “If we’d had 400 tanks in the summer of 1918, we would have won the world war.”92 Hitler was partly right. Germany’s army commanders had in fact decided too late to build a German tank, and they could no longer make up the lost ground—although that was not what decided the war.93

In early August 1917, having suffered heavy casualties, Hitler’s regiment was withdrawn from the battle in Flanders and redeployed to a quieter stretch of front in Alsace. Here, on 17 September, Hitler was awarded the Military Merit Cross, Third Class. Later that month, for the first time, he was given an eighteen-day home furlough, which he spent in Berlin visiting the parents of a comrade named Richard Arendt, who lived in the district of Prenzlauer Berg. Unlike his quick visit in November 1916, this time around Hitler got to enjoy all of Berlin’s cultural attractions.94 “The city is grandiose,” he wrote to Ernst Schmidt on 6 October. “A true world city. The traffic is also immense. Out and about almost the whole day long. Finally have the chance to study the museums more closely. In short, I have everything I need.”95 Hitler sent three postcards to Amann alone. In one of them, he expressed his regret that his days in Berlin were passing so quickly.96 On 17 October, he returned to his regiment, which had been redeployed to the province of Champagne.

Amidst the labourers, artisans and lowly office workers who populated Prenzlauer Berg, it could not have escaped Hitler during his second Berlin visit how explosive the situation in the capital had become. In April 1917, Berlin had been hit by the first major strikes by workers in the armaments industries. As was also the case in other big German cities, the effects of the February Revolution in Russia were making themselves felt. “We have to do as they did in Russia, then everything will be different,” a police informant overheard a working-class woman in front of a Hamburg grocery shop saying, and such statements surely reflected a widespread feeling.97 The anti-war protest movement coalesced around the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had constituted itself as an alternative to the mainstream SPD in April 1917. Although military and civilian authorities took draconian action against opponents of the war, they failed to impose calm. “The populace no longer has any hopes of a favourable outcome to the war,” a Berlin police officer reported in mid-July 1917. “There is a fervent longing for an end to the war at any price.”98 In December of that year, the tension was ratcheted up even further after justified fears that negotiations over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Bolsheviks, who had come to power in Russia, could fail due to the inflexibility of the German delegation.

In late January 1918, the general dissatisfaction led to a massive strike. Hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Nuremberg and many other cities for a swift end to the carnage. “I can tell you, when I saw the procession of serious-looking workers and women move so silently and united through the streets, I felt jubilation running through me,” a Hamburg office worker wrote to her boyfriend at the front.99 As far as we can tell from soldiers’ intercepted letters, the news of the strikes drew a mixed response, with some soldiers expressing their unconditional support, while others were dumbfounded or rejected the protest. The spectrum extended from “All of my comrades rejoiced at the strike” to “Do these lunatics really think the strike will end the war more quickly?”100 Private Hitler belonged to the latter group. In Mein Kampf he dismissed the strike as “the biggest criminal act of the entire war,” which served only to strengthen “the enemy peoples’ faith in their ultimate victory.”101 Hitler blamed the leadership of the Majority Social Democratic Party (MSPD) for the protests, even though, unlike the USPD, the MSPD had not been involved in declaring the strike and only cooperated with it in Berlin and other places to ensure the popular movement ended as soon as possible. “Once the unrest had broken out,” Berlin Police President Heinrich von Oppen noted on 29 January 1918, “the respectable SPD joined the movement against their will so as not to be shunted completely into the background.”102

In March 1918, after dictating terms of peace to Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the German Army Supreme Command made one last attempt to decide the war in Germany’s favour with a massive military offensive in the west. Initial triumphs seemed to justify the wildest of hopes. On 21 March, German forces attacked along a broad line from Cambrai in northern France to St. Quentin in the south, advancing as many as sixty kilometres. But after a few days the advance stalled, and none of the three subsequent offensives in April, May and July 1918 could turn the tide. By late May, the vanguard of the German army had reached the Marne and was once again only a few days’ march from Paris, but the strategic position of the German forces had worsened as the bulging front lines were vulnerable to counter-offensives. The Army Supreme Command had pushed things too far and exhausted Germany’s offensive capabilities. On 18 July, the French counter-attacked and achieved a major breakthrough of German lines. The Allies had regained the initiative and could count on reinforcements in the form of fresh American troops.

The List Regiment took part in all the offensives—on the Somme, the Aisne and the Marne—resulting in further heavy casualties. Half of the regiment’s men were killed or wounded in April 1918 alone.103 Hitler remained unharmed, and on 4 August 1918, after the regiment was withdrawn from the defensive battle on the Marne and redeployed in a recovery position in La Cateau, he received the Iron Cross, First Class—an accolade not usually given to privates. The Jewish lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, who had replaced Wiedemann as regiment adjutant, may have put Hitler forward for that distinction, although we cannot be sure. If he had been nominated by Gutmann, Hitler never thanked him. Instead, he later remarked: “We had a Jew in our regiment, Gutmann, a coward beyond compare. He was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class. It was an outrage and a disgrace.”104

On 8 August 1918, four days after Hitler received his decoration, British tanks broke through German lines near Amiens. This “black day” for the German army was the final turning point of the war. Exhaustion and war fatigue were more evident than ever before, and at the front there were reports of breached discipline and disobedience. Things were also boiling over in garrisons on the home front, with increasing numbers of soldiers trying to avoid the transports to the front lines. “The letters contain hardly a trace of patriotism,” reported a military censor in early September 1918. “Individual interest in the war has been pushed to the background. Almost to a man, the soldiers take the view: ‘I’m going to avoid the front as best I can!’ ”105 Nonetheless, it was a good four weeks until the Supreme Command, which since August 1916 had been led by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, acknowledged their military bankruptcy. On 29 September in the Belgian town of Spa, the two commanders declared to Imperial Germany’s entire military leadership that the war was lost and Germany would have to sue for a ceasefire. A parliamentary government under Prince Max von Baden would be formed to this end, and the mainstream Social Democrats, as the largest party in the Reichstag, would be part of the new regime.

Hitler was no longer at the front when these events took place. On 21 August he had gone to Nuremberg to take part in a course for radio and telephone operators, and after that, from 10 to 27 September, he spent his second home furlough in Berlin. With the exception of a brief remark he made in his headquarters in October 1941, we have no accounts of this time. Hitler seems to have spent most of it on Berlin’s Museum Island, looking at the various art collections, and we do not know whether he saw the signs of impending revolutionary crisis or ignored them.106 After he returned to the front, his regiment took up position near Comines, where it had first been stationed in the autumn of 1914, although now it was charged with repulsing British attacks, not going on the offensive. In the night of 13-14 October, Hitler and several of his comrades became the victims of a mustard gas attack. “As morning dawned, the pain was increasing by the quarter of an hour, and around seven, I stumbled back with burning eyes, clutching my last message of the war,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “A few hours later, my eyes had turned into burning coals, and everything had grown dark around me.”107 He was given emergency treatment in a Bavarian army field hospital near Oudenaarde and then taken to the reserve military hospital in Pasewalk near Stettin (today the city of Szeczin in Poland). He arrived on 21 October. This is where Hitler experienced the beginning of the German revolution of 1918-19.

Scholars today still disagree on how close Hitler came to going blind and what sort of treatment he received in Pasewalk.108 His patient file went missing but it seems fairly certain that the poison gas attack had left him with inflammation of the conjunctiva and the eyelids, and that, at least temporarily, he could hardly see. In a letter from 1921, Hitler himself reported that in the Pasewalk hospital his blindness had receded relatively quickly and his vision gradually returned.109 The supposition that Hitler was never seriously poisoned by mustard gas and that his “blindness” was caused by hysteria is far less likely. And there is no truth whatsoever to the wild theory that one of the doctors who treated him, psychiatrist Edmund Forster, cured his hysterical blindness using hypnosis but forgot to wake Hitler from his trance, thus turning the later dictator into a victim of medical negligence.110

No doubt the news of Germany’s military collapse and the revolutionary unrest of early November 1918 shook Hitler greatly. He had felt comfortable as a soldier and had grown fond of his regiment, and suddenly everything he identified with was simply wiped out. For Hitler and many others who blindly hoped for a positive outcome to the war, the search for scapegoats had begun—and what could have been easier than to look where the Pan-Germanic League and the far right had already identified them? In the autumn of 1918, as Germany acknowledged military defeat, right-wing propaganda intensified. Defamation of Jewish “shirkers” and “wartime profiteers” was now combined with the stab-in-the-back legend, which held that the German army at the front had been undermined and cheated of victory by traitorous Jews and Social Democrats at home. Military leaders and their supporters used such fairy tales in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the demise of the empire. In late October 1918, the deputy chairman of the Pan-Germanic League, Lord Konstantin von Gebsattel, was already calling for the “situation to be used for fanfares against the Jews who should be made into lightning rods for all the injustice.”111

In Mein Kampf, Hitler tried to represent his shock at German defeat and revolution as a political epiphany. In early November 1918, he claimed, revolutionary sailors had already appeared in Pasewalk. A few days later, Hitler wrote, an “abominable intimation” became reality. On 10 November, the hospital chaplain told the patients that the Hohenzollern dynasty had been deposed and that Germany was now a republic. When the aged clergyman added that the war was lost and Germany was dependent on the “mercy of the victors,” Hitler was overcome:

Everything went black again, and I felt and stumbled my way back to my sickbed and buried my burning head in my blanket and pillow…Everything had been in vain…Must not now the graves open of all the hundreds of thousands who had once marched out, believing in the fatherland, never to return?…Had everything happened only so that a band of criminals could get their hands on our fatherland?…In the nights that followed, my hatred grew, my hatred for those responsible for this deed.

Hitler closed this passage with the oft-cited sentence: “I decided to become a politician.”112

But Hitler did not make any such sudden determination. His decision to put his artistic and architectural ambitions on the back burner and devote himself to politics seems to have gradually coalesced during 1919. The historian Ernst Deuerlein was right when he wrote: “Hitler did not come to politics—politics came to Hitler.”113 As far as his ideological development was concerned, the Pasewalk episode marks the transition between the defining experience of war and the equally defining experience of revolution and counter-revolution in Munich. Hitler’s hatred for the “November criminals” combined phobia of the Left with resentment of Jews. But he would have to go through further life-changing experiences before the bête noire of “Jewish Bolshevism” would become the focus of his world view.