Thomas Weber, Hitler’s First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2010). 416 pages.
Reviewed by Andrew Iarocci
Thinking back on our high school history, some of us may recall mention of Adolf Hitler’s experience as a brave ‘corporal’ in the First World War, as well as the impact of that conflict on rank and file German soldiers like him. The story usually goes something like this: Hitler, like millions of young Germans, went enthusiastically to war in 1914. Like millions of others, Hitler served as a front line soldier, bled for his nation, was highly decorated, was brutalized by the intensity of modern warfare, and became disillusioned by the defeat of Imperial Germany and the ignominy of the Treaty of Versailles. According to the meta-narrative, each of these developments is instrumental in explaining the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War. This story is significant not only for what is says about Hitler’s war experience, but also because it implies that the war radically shaped the worldview of many other German soldiers, just as it did for Hitler.
Thomas Weber squarely challenges this interpretation of Hitler’s first war. He incorporates evidence from Hitler’s own writings, National Socialist propaganda, and carefully engages with leading historical scholarship on Hitler and the National Socialist period, Including Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler. Weber’s book is actually two stories woven together into a single strand. On one hand, Hitler’s First War re-examine’s Hitler’s personal war experience, but it is also a regimental history of his unit, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR 16), known as the List Regiment, after Colonel Julius von List, its first wartime commander.
The central question of the book asks if the war politically radicalized Hitler and his fellow soldiers. Weber argues that it did not. Instead, he suggests that many of Hitler’s fellow soldiers emerged from the war with their 1914 worldviews more or less intact. Those veterans, like Hitler, who did eventually gravitate toward extreme political movements after 1918 were not so much propelled in that direction by their war experience as they were drawn in by political and economic developments of the interwar period. In other words, the violence of the front lines did not solely determine the paths that veterans followed after 1918. One of the most interesting dimensions of Weber’s book is the revelation that Hitler’s personal war experience was not nearly as intense as Mein Kampf, Nazi propaganda, or postwar scholarship have suggested. Based on a thorough mining of primary evidence concerning the List Regiment and its soldiers in archival collections from Munich to Jerusalem to New York, Weber shows that Hitler was hardly the brave warrior that he branded himself as (with generous help from the Nazi propaganda machine). Yes, Hitler was a dispatch runner in the List Regiment, but he was not a company or a battalion runner. Instead, he worked mostly at regimental headquarters, a job that normally kept him out of harm’s way – certainly out of the range of direct fire weapons.
Weber shows that most of the popular anecdotes concerning Hitler’s war are badly distorted, if not wholly untrue. His wounding by shell fragments on the Somme in October 1916 is an example. In contrast with most versions of the episode, primary evidence shows that Hitler’s wound was relatively minor; that he was not wounded in the front lines, but rather, by a stray shell in a regimental dugout some two kilometres behind the firing line; and that he did not endure weeks of heavy fighting on the Somme. On the contrary, Hitler was involved in the battle for a grand total of just four days as a regimental runner before being evacuated with the shrapnel wound. Furthermore, contrary to most sources that discuss Hitler’s military career in the Imperial German Army, Weber points out that the young Austrian never attained the rank of a non-commissioned officer. The German army rank Gefreiter is often incorrectly translated into English as ‘corporal’ (a non-commissioned rank). The correct translation is in fact private. Apparently there was little about Hitler’s military conduct that suggested much daring or leadership potential.
Was Hitler a fervent anti-Semite during the war? Weber argues not. If Hitler had in fact already adopted the radical anti-Semitic views that characterized his later National Socialist ideology, how was it that Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, a Jewish officer in RIR 16, saw fit to recommend him for the Iron Cross 1st Class? Did Hitler’s Iron Cross 1st Class show that he was a brave combatant? Again, the evidence suggests not. Only a relative handful of soldiers of Hitler’s rank received the Iron Cross 1st Class during the war. Those who did receive the medal, were, like Hitler, often assigned to regimental staffs or other headquarters units, where they cultivated good relationships with officers and were thus more likely to be recommended for awards. Hitler’s relationship with Gutmann appears the most significant factor in the award. Of course, National Socialist legend never mentioned this detail when it came to Hitler’s Iron Cross.
Beyond the revisionist account of Hitler’s war experience, the book looks closely at the German Army in the First World War, albeit through the lens of a single infantry regiment. Weber argues that German soldiers were not universally radicalized by their war experiences, and were not necessarily as committed to the war effort as scholarship from the Allied side might suggest. The book builds a strong case for the 1914 Christmas truce; evidence shows that men from RIR 16 fraternized with several units of the 5th British Division. Beyond 1914, we find that discipline and morale in RIR 16 ebbed and flowed with changing circumstances. As might be expected, low points came on the Somme in 1916 and during the Battle of Arras in the Spring of 1917. Assessing the war as a whole, Weber contends that neither aggressive militarism nor brutalization, neither Anglophobia nor Francophobia, sufficiently explain why the German Army continued to fight for so long. Rather, he suggests that a cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of defeat was the most important motivating factor for an army that was otherwise rife with internal divisions, along regional and class lines for example. This aspect of the study is likely to be the most controversial, especially given the complex structure and organization of the Imperial German Army.
Canadian studies of First World War operations often have little to say in particular about the German forces, ostensibly for lack of evidence, but more often than not because the primary sources are beyond convenient reach. Weber’s study reminds us that there is in fact a rich body of surviving primary source material on the Imperial German Army waiting to be rediscovered in archival collections in Europe and North America. Hitler’s First War will be of interest to historians of National Socialism, as well as anyone who wants to learn more about the soldiers who occupied the other side of No-Man’s-Land on the Western Front of 1914-18.