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Private Hitler exposed,
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This review is from: Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (Paperback)
This is one of the most interesting books that I have ever read about Adolf Hitler, and I have read a great many. Not only does it successfully demolish a number of myths about this German private who served in World War 1 (‘WW1’) and then later destroyed so many innocent lives as well as most of Europe. To summarise it would be difficult, but let me attempt to list some of the many things that I found fascinating in this superbly researched book by Thomas Weber.
Hitler’s bravery and activities in WW1 are examined minutely. He was so insignificant a personality during the war that there were few records relating to such an unimportant figure in that terrible war. Weber uses the records of, and the memoirs of those who belonged to, the Bavarian regiment, which Hitler joined in 1914, to explore effectively a number of points including Hitler’s reputed bravery. Many of Weber’s sources antedate Hitler’s accession to the German Chancellorship in 1933, and are therefore undistorted by the Nazi’s manicuring of Hitler’s military record. After 1933, much was done to hide the truth about Hitler’s real role during the struggle for the Western Front in France and Belgium. For, it appears that Hitler had little to be proud about, and he must have known that revealing the truth would have helped demolish the myth that helped bring him support from the German people.
Weber describes vividly the terrible conditions that front-line soldiers had to endure in the trenches during the often brief time before they succumbed to bullet, shells, grenades, and disease. For the most part of Hitler’s wartime career, he was not on the front-line. He was a regimental dispatch runner working for the regimental headquarters which were always well out of the firing line. In addition, he spent his nights in comfortable, well-protected, dry quarters quite different from those ‘enjoyed’ by soldiers on the front-line; their quarters in the mud was a living hell.
Granted, Hitler must have been at some risk as he dashed from headquarters to command posts well behind the lines, but this risk was insignificant compared to those in the trenches and shell craters on the front.
It is well-known that Adolf Hitler received the Iron Cross. Virtuous as this may seem, this medal was awarded far more often to those working in regimental headquarters than to those whose lives were at grave risk on the front-line. It came as a surprise to learn that Private Hitler was awarded his Iron Cross by his Jewish superior office, a man who some years later had to flee from Germany to save his own life.
It is commonly understood that Hitler was forced to leave the theatre of warfare when he was temporarily blinded near the end of WW1. What is not so well known was that the hospital at Pasewalk in Berlin to which Hitler was sent was not an ophthalmic hospital but a psychiatric one. For, Hitler’s blindness was not physical but psychosomatic. This fact was well-suppressed in Nazi Germany.
Weber examines some factors that some have thought may have been relevant to explaining the brutality of the Nazis and their armed forces in the ‘30s and ‘40s. One of these, anti-Semitism, does not seem to have been a significant aspect of life in Hitler’s regiment. Brutalisation of combatants during WW1 is also shown not to have been significant in causing what was to follow when Hitler came to power. Weber explores this thoroughly. Thirdly, Weber demonstrates conclusively that the politics of those in Hitler’s regiment bore little correlation with those who were to support Hitler later. Few combatants in Hitler’s regime became enthusiastic supporters of Nazi politics. Of course, I am drastically simplifying what Weber writes so eloquently and in great detail.
After the war, Hitler was reluctant to leave his military ‘family’, and remained in his regiment. His activities during the left-wing revolutionary period in post-1918 Munich were, Weber reveals, ambiguous. At first, a supporter or sympathiser with the Communist revolutionaries, he later became involved in counter-revolutionary intelligence activities. It was whilst snooping on one particular party that threatened the integrity of Bavaria that Hitler became attracted to that party, and joined it. This marked the true beginning of his political career.
Something that particularly interested me in Weber’s book was his frequent references to the small town of Ichenhausen. This rural town where many of my ancestors lived during the 18th and 19th centuries had a large Jewish population. A number of the Jewish members of Hitler’s regiment were from Ichenhausen. Weber charts their various fates after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. As Ichenhausen’s Jewry has been well-documented, Weber was able to use this town to illustrate many aspects of the involvement of Jewish soldiers in WW1 and its aftermath. He makes frequent reference to the autobiography of Arnold Erlanger, whom I knew well. His father Levi, one of Ichenhausen’s Kosher butchers, fought in Hitler’s regiment and was eventually ‘rewarded’ by being killed in the Holocaust.
Ichenhausen also illustrates well how some Catholics reacted adversely to Hitler’s attempts to alienate the German gentiles against the Jews. Although the Catholics were essentially anti-Semitic, they valued their Jewish neighbours as being fairer in business than the agricultural cooperatives with which they could also do business. Weber is quick to point out that in other parts of Bavaria, notably in Nuremburg, Jews could expect little or no sympathy from their gentile neighbours.
Not only does this book explore and re-explore aspects of Hitler’s early life that have hitherto been accepted uncritically, but also it gives a most revealing insight into the everyday nitty-gritty of military life on the Western front during WW1.
I have read this book as an interested amateur with no specialist knowledge. I am in no position to assess Weber’s information and sources professionally, but I feel that his account is honest and likely to be reliable. Until someone else with his level of scholarship challenges what he has written, I believe that this book deserves to be read by anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of 20th century Europe.
Review by the author of “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, an account of life in Yugoslavia during its final 2 decades.