Hitler’s First War:
the Men of the List Regiment,
and the First World War
By Thomas Weber
Oxford, 416 pages
It might seem impossible for the moral character of Adolf Hitler to be revealed as more cynical and opportunistic than we already suppose, yet that is precisely the revelation arising from the painstaking archival work of Thomas Weber in his superb new work of history, Hitler’s First War. An investigation into young Hitler’s service with an infantry regiment in the First World War, Hitler’s First War also tells the story of the future Fuehrer’s ideological journey in the year following Germany’s surrender in 1918. This is where the book’s true importance lies. Weber—who was educated at Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton and is now a fellow at Aberdeen University—proves beyond doubt that Hitler’s own account in Mein Kampf of how and when he formed his National Socialist theories and policies, hitherto accepted as accurate by his many biographers, was at best tendentious and full of gaps, and at worst completely invented.
Those biographers have generally accepted Hitler’s own contention that his National Socialist views were fully formed by November 1918, when, in an army hospital during his recovery from a temporary gas blinding, he heard of Germany’s surrender. In the year that followed, those views were, we have been told, merely cemented by the revolutionary ferment inside Germany following the defeat; by September 1919, he had joined the National Socialist Party. Weber demonstrates that, far from being a convinced radical proto-fascist in this vital period of political maelstrom, Hitler was in fact politically “confused and disoriented.” At one point, Hitler was an active supporter of the peculiar experiment in revolutionary governance called the Bavarian Soviet Republic and demonstrated public support for its founding father, Kurt Eisner, a Jew and a Communist. “Hitler made sure figuratively and quite possibly literally to burn any traces of his activities during this period,” writes Weber, and small wonder.
But that comes later in the book. The early sections feature eye-opening material on the medals Hitler was awarded during the war—the Iron Cross 2nd Class in 1914 and 1st Class in 1918. Weber has investigated tales of Hitler’s heroism minutely and shows in each case that they were wildly exaggerated by Nazi propagandists or by former comrades keen to curry favor. Far from exhibiting notable courage, Hitler was in fact no braver than the next man, and those decorations were handed out almost “with the rations” to people the officers in his regiment knew and liked. Hitler’s Iron Cross 1st Class, he writes, “was less a sign of bravery than of his position and long service within regimental headquarters.” Indeed, Hitler and others who ran dispatches from commander to commander were dubbed “rear area pigs” by the front-line soldiers whom they almost never saw.
“An incorrigible embellisher of his own war service,” Weber calls Hitler, especially once he had the power of Josef Goebbels’s state propaganda apparatus behind him. The stories of his single-handedly capturing a dozen enemy combatants—some accounts claim a score—are proved here to be ludicrous. (In one letter, Hitler said his regiment had even captured the Belgian village of Messines, when it had been miles away and uninvolved.) Far from spending three months fighting in the Battle of the Somme, as John Toland stated in his self-proclaimed “definitive biography” published in 1976, Hitler was there for only four days.
Weber subjects the gullibility of Toland and other prominent biographers, including the eminent Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, to coruscating ire. Their willingness to take Hitler at face value is even more apparent when it comes to Hitler’s postwar political awakening. “It is impossible convincingly to arrange the existing evidence from Hitler’s time after the war,” Weber writes, “in any way consistent with either a portrayal of Hitler as a Socialist or as the hyper-nationalist Pan-German anti-Semite that he was to become for one simple reason: he was neither.”
In fact, like so many other Germans at the time, Hitler was politically disoriented, with no clear Weltanshauung (worldview). Weber shows how at this vital but politically fluid moment, Hitler’s “future was undetermined and he could have moved in the direction of diametrically different political movements, as long as they combined the promise of a classless society with some kind of nationalism.”
The author of Mein Kampf skates very quickly and superficially over the first five months after the end of the war, which is unsurprising, since in the spring of 1919 in Munich, he, in Weber’s words, “served a government that he was later to deride as treacherous, criminal and Jewish. And he did not keep his head down.”
The story is complicated. Eisner, then the head of state in Bavaria, was assassinated on February 21 by a would-be member of the proto-fascist Thule Society. At Eisner’s funeral in Munich, Hitler actually walked behind the coffin in his role as head of a military unit, the Ersatz Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. Surviving film footage shows Hitler wearing two armbands at Eisner’s funeral: one the black band of mourning, the other a red armband of the socialist revolution. There are also still photographs of Hitler so attired (taken, ironically enough, by the man who was to become his court photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann). Hitler chose publicly to side with the fallen Jewish Communist leader rather than with the Thule Society, among whose members were several future Nazi leaders, and continued to serve as deputy battalion representative after the Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared in the wake of the riots following Eisner’s death. It came to an end three months later, in May.
Weber goes to pains to show how all the traditional explanations for Hitler’s tergiversations of this period—that he was a socialist, or an agent provocateur, or a secret nationalist counter-revolutionary, and so on—simply do not stand up to the kind of rigorous analysis steeped in the realities of the contemporary political scene to which historians and biographers ought to have subjected them. “If he really had been a committed dyed-in-the-wool Pan-German anti-Socialist, anti-Semite and hyper-nationalist and had only overtly cooperated with the new regime to steer the men around him away from Communism and Social Democracy,” Weber points out, he would have done what many right-wing youths in Germany were doing at the time and joined, even in secret, a Freikorps, a paramilitary gang.
Weber shows that Hitler could easily have resigned his post, as other comrades did, if he had wished. Nor did he do anything to overthrow the regime, unlike genuine fascists of the day, such as Otto Strasser, who later taunted Hitler with his absence. Equally, asks Weber, “If Hitler really had been hiding his true colors and had been the champion of all the other anti-revolutionary men in the unit who were also keeping their heads down, why did none of those men make a statement to the effect once Hitler had become famous, and…why did he not brag about it in Mein Kampf instead of keeping silent about this time?” The answer was that Hitler had not determined which way he was going to move; he had not even yet decided that anti-Semitism was likely to be a useful political tool.
On March 13, 1920, Hitler was formally discharged from the army after 2,050 days of service. He was now free to concentrate on the Nazi Party full-time and to create its policies and philosophies from the maelstrom of often contradictory impulses that had hitherto made up his political thinking. Hitler may have adopted an anti-Semitism that had not previously been evident in his psychological makeup from an opportunistic power-lust rather than a set of racist principles to which he had long adhered.
Hitler’s cynicism about politics and human nature, and his growing faith in his own leadership abilities once he had secured control of the National Socialist Party, were such that he took Germany down the path to unprecedented horror. Yet that specific path had been far from predetermined at the end of the Great War, despite what Hitler himself subsequently claimed. He was always going to be a vicious totalitarian dictator, but whether it was of the fascist or the Communist type would be determined, on the evidence presented in this highly important revisionist work, by the prevailing winds of his calamitous time.