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Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the…

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and…

by Thomas Weber

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Thomas Weber's Hitler's First War: Adolph Hitler, the Men of the LIst Regiment, and the First World War seeks to measure the impact of the First World War on the man most responsible for starting the even more terrible Second World War. I first got interested in this book when I read a summary of Weber's findings on a blog (HNN's Clio, I think). I admit I like books that spin conventional wisdom on its head. Later I heard Marshall Poe interview Weber on his excellent "New Books in History" podcast. It sounded like good historical grunt work and a window in to the life of front line soldiers. Weber chronicles the entire regiment in order to provide context for Hitler's experience. His primary theses is that the war did not make Hitler a Nazi. There was no outstanding sense of anti-semitism or proto-fascist/authoritarian sentiment in the unit. In fact, using the area the List veterans lived in (rural Bavaria), their religion (mostly Catholic), and individual accounts they were indeed less likely to become members of the Nazi party than other Germans. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, as some of Hitler's closest comrades took advantage of his rising power.

Weber finds that Hitler's ideology at the end of the war was a fuzzy fascination with the mixture of collectivism and nationalism, but few specific ideas. He first participated in the Bavarian Soviet which quickly collapsed. After the collapse of the revolutionary left, Hitler migrated to the revolutionary right. The mixture of collectivism and nationalism provided the bridge. Mein Kampf, therefore, was an attempt to cover up this left ward experience and root his ideology closely in a national experience that fit the tenets of his new party.

Weber makes many other arguments as well. Here is a sample.

*Hitler was not a frontline runner dodging machine gun bullets, but a "rear area pig" who had a comfy billet in the regimental HQ behind the lines.
*The regiment had few volunteers, it consisted mostly of reservists and high command considered it low quality unit to be used only when no other was on hand.
*His Iron Crosses owed much to this proximity to regimental officers.
*Hitler was only mildly injured from the gas attack of 1918 and that his injuries were psychosomatic, another fact of his past that Hitler wanted to conceal.
*An oddball loner from Austria with few social skills and no leadership abilities, he was promoted only one grade during the entire war. Never a corporal, he spent the whole war a private.

From my blog: http://gregshistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/12/private-not-corporal.html ( )
  gregdehler | Aug 24, 2014 |
An interesting examination of the idea that Hitler was "made" by the First World War, which is ultimately let down by lack of material. What is reasonably clear is that Hitler, as a regimental dispatch runner, had relatively little interaction with the horrors of the front line trenches other than a 4 day "baptism of fire" at the beginning of 1 Ypres. It is possible, as Weber hypothesises, that this lack of direct experience may have led him to a rather rosy view of trench camaraderie that may well have existed in regimental HQ well behind the firing lines, but the evidence suggests did not exist in the misery of the pulverised, waterlogged, rat infested trenches. Its also clear that as a loner, Hitler certainly did value the relationships he built up with comrades at HQ , almost as an ersatz family, and romanticised that on to a wider canvas. But for most front line troops, he and his ilk were "rear area pigs".

There is also little evidence of Hitler forming any strong political views of any kind during the war - but then again there is no evidence that he didn't. We simply don't know - what we do know is that if he held strong opinions he kept them to himself. Weber is able to demonstrate that their was little anti-semiticism in Hitler's List regiment, or in the German Army generally, and that unsurprisingly most soldiers rather than being brutalised by their trench experience were happy to take the chance to fraternise with the enemy as the repeated attempts at Christmas truces would appear to show. Mostly, they just wanted to go home

But the book cannot solve the problem of what then did radicalise Hitler? In 1918 he is associated with the shortlived Bavarian Soviet wearing the red armband of the left. Something happens that turns his worldview around - but in Weber's book we don't find out what that is. This is not Mr Weber's fault - its just that the documentation doesn't exist

What we do go get is a very interesting battle by battle account of the List Regiment's World War 1 experience, and Private Hitler's general absence from the worst of it. Probably the myth that the trenches of Flanders "made" Hitler can be put to bed - but we still don't know what did make him ( )
  Opinionated | Sep 22, 2013 |
This book provides an interesting interpretation of Hitler and his experience in the First World War. In particular, the author claims that Hitler, contrary to the standard narrative, was not an especially brave front-line soldier in the First World War. He documents how Hitler spent most of his time in the relative (compared to the trenches) safety and comfort of a rear-area headquarters, how Hitler fortuitously missed some of the deadliest fighting that his regiment engaged in because he happened to be away either on leave or in hospital, and that Hitler was a loner, spending his free time reading and making sketches rather than sharing a beer with his comrades. In particular, he claims that Hitler's two Iron Crosses resulted from the fact that he interacted regularly with high-ranking officers at the headquarters who could recommend such awards, rather than any particular bravery on the battlefield. Most of the soldiers in his regiment appear to have considered Hitler one of the "rear area swine" because he spent most of his time at headquarters and rarely ventured into the front lines. This narrative challenges the standard line (apparently taken from Hitler himself in *Mein Kampf*) that his cameraderie with his fellow soldiers in the trenches formed the basis of his political awareness and principles.

Perhaps even more controversially, the author presents evidence that Hitler had not formed any particular political ideas (including anti-Semitism) by the end of the war, and even, for a brief time, supported the Soviet-style government that temporarily gained power in Bavaria. He notes how Hitler's description of this period of his life in *Mein Kampf* is uncharacteristically vague, as if he had something there to cover up. The book still leaves the genesis of Hitler's later political ideas and dynamism somewhat unexplained, but it does appear to shatter the myth that Hitler's experience in the First World War was the crucible that forged the future Nazi. ( )
  quizshow77 | Aug 7, 2011 |
In approaching this close examination of the relationship between Hitler and the Bavarian 16th Reserve Infantry Regiment, one has to be a little surprised that no one has done such a study to date. However, it’s not because the material wasn’t there and Weber proceeds with a systematic dismantling of war legend that Hitler created for himself. The bedrock reality being that while Hitler seems to have been a respectable soldier, his role as a regimental dispatch runner meant that he was anything but a front fighter, and he put forth a lot of effort to retain this sinecure. This is not to mention what the limitations of the man’s own personality meant for his ability to bond and socialize.

Actually, Weber's argument is that Hitler’s estrangement from the trench-war experience contributed to his infuriated inability to comprehend Germany’s loss. This is particularly since the man had a knack for being away from his regiment when the going got tough, at least between 1914 and the very end of the war. It would almost be farcical if one didn't know what was to come.

In tandem with this close examination of Hitler’s personal military career within the context of his regiment’s history, Weber also has some doubts about some of the conventional wisdom that has arisen about what the experience of the Great War in the trenches meant for post-war Germany. The short version is that Weber doesn’t find a widespread radicalization of personal sensibility or political outlook, meaning he doesn’t accept argument that the trenches created the prototype of the so-called “Volksgemeinschaft” (unity of community) that Nazi ideology esteemed; certainly not in the ranks of the Bavarian reserve infantry. As far as can be traced Hitler’s fellow soldiers mostly retained the primary identities with which they started the war once they returned to civilian life, nor did they become men for whom war had become a way of life.

The proof of this for Weber is that in the first Bavarian elections after the war the parties that had been dominant before the war remained dominant. If anything radicalized Bavarian politics it’s the brief existence of the Bavarian Soviet government, the experience of which left a residue for the parties of the radical right to exploit. It’s largely this milieu that created Hitler, who even at this late date seemed to be a personality in flux.

This brings me to my main problem with this book; at a certain point you have to deal with the issue of when does Hitler, the unpleasant slacker, become Hitler the dynamic political leader. The impression that Weber leaves one with is that the circumstances of the break-up of the European empires and economic collapse is what made Hitler; it all can’t come down to contingency though. Perhaps the question begged is that while the trenches really weren’t Hitler’s political school, the HQ of the 16th Bavarian RIR was, and that this is where the man learned the skills of manipulation that served him so well in the future. ( )
1 vote Shrike58 | Jun 9, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199233209, Hardcover)

Perhaps no individual in modern history has received more intensive study than Adolf Hitler. His many biographers have provided countless conflicting interpretations of his dark life, but virtually all agree on one thing: Hitler's formative experience was his service in World War I. Unfortunately, historians have found little to illuminate this critical period. Until now.

In Hitler's First War, award-winning author Thomas Weber delivers a master work of history--a major revision of our understanding of Hitler's life. Weber paints a group portrait of the List Regiment, Hitler's unit during World War I, to rewrite the story of his military service. Drawing on deep and imaginative research, Weber refutes the story crafted by Hitler himself, and so challenges the historical argument that the war led naturally to Nazism. Contrary to myth, the regiment consisted largely of conscripts, not enthusiastic volunteers. Hitler served with scores of Jews, including noted artist Albert Weisberger, who proved more heroic, and popular, than the future Führer. Indeed, Weber finds that the men shunned Private Hitler as a "rear area pig," and that Hitler himself was still unsure of his political views when the war ended in 1918. Through the stories of such comrades as a soldier-turned-concentration camp commandant, veterans who fell victim to the Holocaust, an officer who became Hitler's personal adjutant in the 1930s but then cooperated with British intelligence, and the veterans who simply went back to their Bavarian farms and never joined the Nazi ranks, Weber demonstrates how and why Hitler aggressively policed the myth of his wartime experience.

Underlying all Hitler studies is a seemingly unanswerable question: Was he simply a product of his times, or an anomaly beyond all calculation? Weber's groundbreaking work sheds light on this puzzle and offers a profound challenge to the idea that World War I served as the perfect crucible for Hitler's subsequent rise.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Hitler claimed his service in the List Regiment in WWI was the most formative time of his life. Until now the only evidence we had for this were his own Mein Kampf and accounts from the Nazi Party. Through detailed investigation into Regimental archives and personal documents of other soldiers, Weber reveals a different picture.… (more)

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