The First World War
The First World War created the Dictator that the world would bitterly come to know. The brutal propaganda, the carpet bombing, the terrifying military technology, the demand to see a ‘World in Flames’ – all of Hitler’s major Second World War policies stemmed from his experiences of the Great War.
In the fetid, lice infested trenches of World War I, Adolf Hitler found a new home fighting for the German Fatherland. After years of poverty, alone and uncertain, he now had a sense of belonging and purpose.
The “war to end all wars” began after the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was gunned down by a young Serbian terrorist on June 28, 1914. Events quickly escalated as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany urged Austria to declare war on Serbia. Russia then mobilized against Austria. Germany mobilized against Russia. France and England then mobilized against Germany.
All over Europe and England young men, including Adolf Hitler, eagerly volunteered. Like most young soldiers before them, they thought it would be a short war, but hopefully long enough for them to see some action and participate in the great adventure.
It was the cause of Germany that held special appeal for him. Hitler asked for special permission to enlist with a Bavarian regiment. He received the reply with baited breath: “I opened the document with trembling hands; no words of mine can describe the satisfaction I felt.”
He added: I sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart.” Hitler the crude provincial Austrian had become Hitler the German soldier. The road to obscurity was no more – the chance for glory and for recognition, the two things he craved most, were now open.
Hitler was assigned to 1st Company 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, named the List Regiment after its commander. Hitler would zealously drill and train in the months leading up to deployment. On 8 October he took an oath of allegiance to the Bavarian King Ludwig III. Many new recruits saw the oath as an Army quirk; for the nationalistic Hitler it took on an almost religious significance. Indeed, the oath represented a sacred contract between him and his beloved Germany.
The war proved a march into hell. An entire generation of young men would be vanish amid the downfall of the old European culture of kings and noblemen and their codes of honor.
The early war engagements, because of their less static nature, often appear to be less deadly than the grand offensives made during the years of trench stalemate. Nothing could be further from the truth; unused to the murderous capability of modern weaponry, commanders had their men advance in 19th Century fashion with terrible results – swathes of ‘assault’ troops were mown down by the firepower of accurate rifles and lethal machine guns. The Bavarians arrived just after the famous and semi-mythological Kindermord zu Ypren, the massacre of the Innocents at Ypres. Hitler’s regiment would shortly suffer a similar fate.
On 29 October three battalions of the List Regiment were thrown into the raging battle. Two companies from the 1st Coldstream Guards and one from the 1st Black Watch obstructed the German objectives near Gheluvelt. Hitler remained calm under fire. Whilst casualties mounted and morale fell away, he unstintingly carried on with his duty. He was rewarded with a promotion to Gefreiter.
As the fighting continued, the List regiment was used in a number of assaults just to the south of Ypres. The Germans received yet another mauling. Hitler earned an Iron Cross 2nd Class in an engagement near Croonaert Wood, Wytschaete. During the fighting and under heavy fire, Hitler, now appointed Meldeganger (a dispatch runner), stumbled across a seriously wounded officer left out in the open. Along with a friend, he managed to pull the wounded man back to safety, but not all were so lucky. The action at the First Ypres decimated his regiment. Hitler wrote to his Munich landlord reporting that only 600 men were left out of approximately 3500. The experience of such grisly slaughter drove Hitler to become aloof and withdrawn from his comrades for the remaining years of war.
The realization that the conflict was to be longer than expected came as a deep blow to the morale of the fighting men. The foot-soldier was now fighting a war of willpower, nerves and stamina. Hitler, unlike many of his compatriots, had recognized this fairly early on.
The horrors of 1914, however, were only the beginning. In 1915, Hitler’s regiment was at the battle of Neuve Chapelle facing the British assault. Still somewhat inexperienced in the art of trench war, both the British and the Germans entered into a deadly match of attack and counter attack.
Aiming to recapture the initiative, the Germans launched another assault at Ypres about a month after Neuve Chapelle. The Second Battle of Ypres brought a new low to warfare. It was the first occasion that a modern nation employed poison gas to kill its enemies. The List Regiment, having suffered from the battering of Neuve Chapelle, was used primarily in a support role.
Hitler was something of an enigma to his mucking in pals. He refused to behave like a normal soldier, in that he never requested leave and refrained from entering into bawdy talk concerning the local girls. He never complained about bad food or the horrible conditions, preferring to discuss art or history. He received a few letters but no packages from home and never asked for leave. His greatest pleasures were to either paint trench scenes or spend time eating bread piled high with jam. At one point he befriended a dog called Fox. He was distraught when the dog was either lost or stolen.
Now and then he’d pontificate upon the evils of smoking and drinking – hardly a cause endearing to the average soldier. At points he drove many to the edge of distraction, especially when it came to his political ‘lectures’. Listening to his rants on Marxist conspiracies and Jewish plots, whilst stuck in a dug-out on the receiving end of an Allied bombardment, would have made any man despair.
In the art of soldiering, Hitler was a consummate professional, and this gained him a great amount of respect. He was eager for action and always ready to volunteer for dangerous assignments even after narrow escapes from death. It took nerves of steel to rush, deliver and return with staff messages in the midst of a heavy barrage. Hitler’s survival against suicidal odds gave him a certain mystique in the eyes of his comrades.
Hitler became obsessed with the idea that he was being preserved by a divine force. Later, as Fuhrer, he would emphasize a number of examples that backed his beliefs. In the first case, Hitler recalled how a mysterious voice had told him to leave a crowded dugout during a minor barrage. Within minutes of walking out into the trenches an incoming shell flattened the bunker killing all of its occupants.
The second and even stranger event occurred either at the end of the war. Private Henry Tandey, a highly decorated British soldier, was presented with a clear shot of Hitler trying to get back to his lines.
Instead of pulling the trigger, the Englishman let him go – a moment of compassion that perversely sentenced the world to further suffering. Hitler, having seen Tandey lower his rifle, felt that the gods of war had intervened on his behalf and, strange as it may seem, had a picture of his ‘savior’ hung on a wall at Berchtesgaden.
On 7 October, 1916, whilst stationed near Bapaume, Hitler received a severe wound to the leg resulting from a shell blast. He was sent to convalesce at Beelitz, near Berlin. It was his first time away from the front after two years of war. Following his recovery, he went sight seeing in Berlin, then was assigned to light duty in Munich. By now the city was suffering from acute food shortages. Basic supplies of meat were a luxury item. Long hours under intense manual strain and on empty stomachs were too much for many munitions workers – strikes became inevitable. These shortages of rations, and in-turn munitions, were, if anything, the real causes behind Germany’s defeat. Hitler was appalled at the anti-war sentiment among German civilians. The lack of morale, the lack of action and the lack of camaraderie depressed him. He later wrote, “I could not tolerate this squabbling among people of the same German stock.”
To get away from the apathetic civilians he labeled “cowards and traitors,’ Hitler asked to go back to the front and was sent back in March of 1917 to the utter astonishment of surviving comrades.
As the tide of war turned against the Germans and morale collapsed along the front, Hitler became depressed. He would sometimes spend hours sitting in the corner of the tent in deep contemplation then would suddenly burst onto his feet shouting about the “invisible foes of the German people,” namely of a conspiracy by Jews and Marxists on the Home Front. Hans Mend, a comrade of Hitler’s, wrote:
He sat in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up, and running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.
Hitler had returned just in time to feel the full weight of the British offensive at Arras and then the Third Ypres, the muddy holocaust fought in and around Passchendaele. Once again Hitler performed his duties with determination and bravery. He was awarded a number of citations as well, including the Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords. A decorated veteran like Hitler was well within his rights to apply for promotion. But he displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm – Hitler preferred to remain in the role that had assured him glory and respect.
One of the greatest events to alter the war on the Western Front actually happened far away in the East. With the Tsar toppled and the Bolsheviks in disarray, the Germans forced their terms on Russia. With the Eastern Front secured, men, material and machinery was transported to the West in preparation for a grand breakthrough. The German Army, confident of success in 1918, was infused with a new espirit de corps. Hitler was positively chaffing at the bit by the spring of 1918:
It was my luck that I was able to take part in the first two offensives and in the final offensive. These have left stupendous impressions on my life.
It’s eastern borders secure, the German Army prepared for one last throw of the dice. With American troops, guns and airplanes pouring into France, Germany had to knock the Allies out in one devastating blow before they were overwhelmed by America‘s industrial might.
The List Regiment was thrown into the fight to re-take Chemin Des Dames. By late June, German forces were on the Marne and within striking distance of the French capital. But it was all a pipe dream. Even if the Germans had made it to Paris, they would still have to take the city and, as the Second World War went on to show, taking vast urban areas was usually a nightmare for the attacking side. Together with American men and materiel, it was only a matter of time before the Allies unleashed a vast counter-attack. To put it bluntly, the German offensive, whilst spectacular, was never going to be enough.
On 4 August 1918, with the Germans in the last throes of their grand offensive, Hitler received an Iron Cross 1st Class for, ‘personal bravery and general merit.’ He had single handily captured a group of Frenchmen huddled in a shell hole. Cunningly, Hitler had crawled to the lip of their impromptu shelter and then shouted out to the men that they were surrounded and had better surrender. Duped by his ruse, the Frenchmen came along without a fight.
The Iron Cross First Class gave Hitler the reward, recognition and the status that he had been craving for. The prize was rare for officers – but rarer still for non-commissioned ranks. It was official recognition of his bravery, honor and, at a subconscious level, racial superiority.
By late September, the German front was beginning to unravel. The over-extended army was fighting for its life just as the Allies were about to launch the ‘Big Push’. British and French experience, combined with American vigor was an inexorable force. The Germans reeled back from punch after punch. Although the Kaiser’s troops were aware of the precarious nature of things, very few realized that the military machine was about to break down for good.
The German authorities had done well to hide the facts not just from the public but the politicians too. On 2 October members of the Reichstag were astounded when informed that peace negotiations were almost inevitable. Morale on the Home Front, already damaged, quickly collapsed.
In October 1918, the List Regiment found itself battered and bruised in Werwick, to the south of Ypres. On the night of 13/14 October Hitler was caught in a British gas attack. The poison deprived him of his sight and on the following day his ability to stand. He was sent back to recover at Pasewalk – and it was there that his war ended.
On 10 November, 1918, an elderly priest from Pasewalk, Germany, walked into the military hospital to deliver grave news to its wounded occupants – the war was lost and Imperial Germany was no more.
The old man wept as he outlined the details to his stunned audience. There was to be an armistice on the next day, Germany was now a republic, and the Kaiser, the nation’s leader and symbol, was to abdicate. Hitler reeled away from the crowd. In his memoirs he wrote:
I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow.
There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was lost…in these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed.
Adolf Hitler, a veteran of the War’s worst firestorms, began to cry. It was inexplicable; Germany, the nation of Aryans, the nation destined to dominate the 20th Century had lost. He desperately sought a reason for defeat. Imbued with a burning hatred of Jews, Bolsheviks and even Democrats, the solution was simple – the country had been stabbed in the back by Fifth Columnists, or in Hitler’s words:
A gang of despicable and depraved criminals!
Not the military, in his mind, but the politicians back at home in Germany and primarily the Jews.
Hitler said it was during this experience that he became convinced the purpose of his life was to “save Germany.”
Two passages in Mein Kampf reveal Hitler’s obsession with poison gas:
At the beginning of the Great War, or even during the War, if twelve or fifteen thousand of these Jews who were corrupting the nation had been forced to submit to poison-gas . . . then the millions of sacrifices made at the front would not have been in vain.
These tactics are based on an accurate estimation of human weakness and must lead to success, with almost mathematical certainty, unless the other side also learns how to fight poison gas with poison gas. The weaker natures must be told that here it is a case of to be or not to be.
Hitler had long admired Germany, and during the war he had become a passionate German patriot, although he did not become a German citizen until 1932. Hitler found the war to be ‘the greatest of all experiences’ and afterwards he was praised by a number of his commanding officers for his bravery. He was shocked by Germany’s capitulation in November 1918 even while the German army still held enemy territory. Like many other German nationalists, Hitler believed in the Dolchstoßlegende (“dagger-stab legend”) which claimed that the army, “undefeated in the field,” had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian leaders and Marxists back on the home front. These politicians were later dubbed the November Criminals.
The Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of various territories, demilitarized the Rhineland and imposed other economically damaging sanctions. The treaty re-created Poland, which even moderate Germans regarded as an outrage. The treaty also blamed Germany for all the horrors of the war, something which major historians such as John Keegan now consider at least in part to be victor’s justice: most European nations in the run-up to World War I had become increasingly militarized and were eager to fight. The culpability of Germany was used as a basis to impose reparations on Germany (the amount was repeatedly revised under the Dawes Plan, the Young Plan, and the Hoover Moratorium). Germany in turn perceived the treaty and especially, Article 231 the paragraph on the German responsibility for the war as a humiliation. For example, there was a nearly total demilitarization of the armed forces, allowing Germany only six battleships, no submarines, no air force, an army of 100,000 without conscription and no armored vehicles. The treaty was an important factor in both the social and political conditions encountered by Hitler and his Nazis as they sought power. Hitler and his party used the signing of the treaty by the “November Criminals” as a reason to build up Germany so that it could never happen again. He also used the “November Criminals” as scapegoats, although at the Paris peace conference, these politicians had had very little choice in the matter.