Adolf Hitler emerged into politics from obscurity shortly after the end of the First World War. Throughout his life in politics, he sought to recreate the atmosphere of national unity and purpose he remembered on its outbreak in 1914, and to avoid the "stab in the back" by supposedly Jewish subversives and revolutionaries that he wrongly believed caused the defeat of the German Army in 1918. Nazi propaganda constantly portrayed him as a simple front soldier, fighting bravely against the enemy on the Western Front, an image he reinforced in Mein Kampf, which described his war experience as a crucial episode in his life.
Historians have not accepted at face value either his own self-mythologizing account or the self-serving memoirs of his comrades-in-arms. Nearly everyone is agreed that the war gave Hitler a sense of identity and belonging, even a sense of purpose. But this sits oddly with the fact that, as his biographer Ian Kershaw remarks, he was regarded by his comrades as an oddity; "the artist," as they called him. While they chatted and joked, smoked, drank or went to brothels, Hitler generally sat on his own, reading. Where they were cynical about the war, Hitler vehemently reaffirmed his commitment to total victory, though he generally did this in private, as his surviving correspondence testifies.
Moreover, historians now generally agree that his notorious, murderous anti-Semitism emerged well after Germany's defeat, as a product of the paranoid "stab-in-the-back" explanation for the catastrophe. His first political activities for the army during the Revolution of 1918 even involved propagandizing in the ranks for the revolutionary government in Munich. It was only later, when he was sent to observe far-right political groups, that his political convictions became clear and firm. What effect service in the war had on his political views is shrouded in mystery.
In this readable and well-researched new book, young German historian Thomas Weber, who teaches at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, sets about clearing up these and other mysteries about Hitler's war service. He does so on the basis of research so obvious that one wonders, as with many brilliant research ideas, why nobody has done it before: He tracked down and worked his way through the wartime records of the List Regiment, in which Hitler served throughout the war. Pitching these critically against the memories of the regiment's soldiers and indeed the memories of Hitler himself, Weber strips away many myths.
Most historians, for example, have described Hitler's rank as "corporal," following his promotion, but in fact the rank to which he was promoted, Gefreiter, did not allow him to order any fellow soldiers about, as a real corporal did; it would best be described as "senior private." The award to him of an Iron Cross, First Class, is usually taken as evidence of exceptional bravery, needed in any case in a dispatch runner, as Hitler was for much of the war. Weber shows, however, that Hitler was not considered particularly brave at the time, and while his actual position as dispatch runner for regimental headquarters did involve some exposure to danger, it mainly involved activities behind the front line. Serving at HQ brought soldiers like Hitler into close contact with officers who had the power to award medals, and such soldiers were greatly overrepresented among those who won the Iron Cross. Not surprisingly, the ordinary combat troops of the List Regiment regarded men living a relatively cushy existence as "rear-area pigs."
While overturning many Nazi claims about Hitler's war service, however, Weber broadens and deepens the existing picture of Hitler as a loner, a man who did not share the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, rather than turning this picture on its head. The camaraderie of the war years existed, in other words, as Weber shows, in Hitler's own mind, shaped by his own self-mythologizing after the war. Particularly illuminating is Weber's account of how the other soldiers of the List Regiment reacted to the experience of war and defeat, and later on the emergence of their former comrade as dictator.
Weber shows that the ex-soldiers took many different political stances after the war. It did not turn them into rabid anti-Semites and right-wing revolutionaries any more than it did Hitler. Most, like the majority of German soldiers, just went home and took up their prewar political beliefs. It's too easy to forget that Hitler failed to get even 3 per cent of the national vote as late as 1928.
Yet Weber goes too far in drawing from these facts the conclusion that the First World War had little effect on overall patterns of German politics, and his argument that the German political system just resumed its steady march toward democracy in the 1920s does not convince.
The war radicalized German politics in many ways. It made people far readier than before to use violence for political ends, as the proliferation of paramilitary groups even among mainstream democratic parties showed. It encouraged most Germans to believe in victory, leading to almost universal rejection of the peace terms concluded after defeat. It destabilized the German economy, which did not resume normal growth until 1948.
To read the records of the violent parliamentary debates of the 1920s and those of the pre-1914 Reichstag is to realize how utterly different, how much more violent and dangerous, how much less tolerant, Germany had become. Weber comes perilously close to reducing the history of Weimar democracy to a mere set of chance contingencies. Nevertheless, he has written an intelligent, informative and absorbing book that has to be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of modern Germany, or in the effects of war on politics in general.
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War.
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