Most biographers have attributed Adolf Hitler's rabid anti-Semitism and hyper-nationalism to his experience in the First World War. With little evidence on Hitler's war record, historians have relied heavily on Hitler's account in "Mein Kampf" and on Nazi Party mythology that depicted a heroic Hitler whose wartime comrades embraced his beliefs and became a core of the Nazi Party.
However, a long-hidden trove of evidence uncovered by historian Thomas Weber, Ph.D., presents the clearest picture yet of Hitler's war years and debunks the Nazi myths. Dr. Weber's 2010 release, "Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War" (Oxford University Press, $34.95), presents new revelations based on extensive research, such as Hitler never displayed leadership qualities and there is virtually no evidence of anti-Semitism in his regiment during that war.
Dr. Weber studied the archives of Hitler's regiment -- the List Regiment (the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment or RIR 16) -- related military documents and personal papers of soldiers from the regiment. He also interviewed family members. Much of the material in the Bavarian War Archive was uncataloged and hadn't been reviewed for previous biographies; many documents pertaining to Hitler's unit had been untouched. Dr. Weber and his researchers also compiled a database with a sample of more than 700 soldiers and followed the lives of 59 Jewish veterans from the regiment. Over 70 percent of his book is based on new material.
"Hitler's First War" has been acclaimed for its groundbreaking findings. Norman Stone wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "With some luck and a lot of diligence, Mr. Weber has discovered the missing documents of Hitler's war service, and it is fair to say that very little of Hitler's own account survives the discovery."
Dr. Weber teaches history and directs the Research Centre on Global Uncertainties at the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom. He also is the author of two prize-winning histories, "Lodz Ghetto Album" and "Our Friend 'The Enemy.'" Dr. Weber spoke at length from his office at Harvard University during a speaking tour in the United States.
Hitler must be the most scrutinized historical figure in recent memory. What sparked your biography focusing on World War I?
I also thought everything had been written about Hitler, but when I was looking for a new topic to write about, it was really surprising that no one had ever written about Hitler and his regiment in the First World War. Everything we think we know about Hitler and the First World War is based on "Mein Kampf" and propagandistic claims, but by looking at the regimental papers of Hitler's First World War unit, I would be able to look beyond the tales told by Nazi propaganda.
When you set out, did you know of documents in Germany that had not been found by other historians?
I kind of knew they existed. Hitler biographers looked for facts specific to Adolf Hitler, but they did not find many files [because] Hitler was just a dispatch runner. And the researchers didn't realize that most of the files relating to Hitler's regiment were not housed with the papers of the regiment, but with the division and the brigade [of the] regiment. And the extensive Military Justice files were not cataloged at all.
This material in the Bavarian War Archive was the starting point of my research on Hitler's regiment [and] I then quickly realized that there was more material to be found in other archives. Without the computer and Internet revolution of the past few years, I could not have written the book.
How did earlier historians miss the story you tell?
We as scholars constantly have to deal with new evidence, and to use new tools, and constantly to go back to old questions and revise those interpretations in light of new evidence. I would be the last person to criticize historians. I can only be in awe about the productivity and the intelligence of these historians, but they also had to base their books on evidence available at the time. I spent about four years researching Hitler.
What was Hitler's role in the war?
With the exception of the first few days of the war when he was a combat soldier, he was a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters. The conventional view facilitated by Nazi propaganda was that his job was more dangerous than that of a combat soldier because, he had to run from trench to trench, through machine gun fire and therefore risk his life every day.
In reality, his job was very different. He was a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters a few miles behind the front and took messages, for example, to division headquarters or to the commander of a battalion. The point here is twofold. Hitler grossly exaggerated the dangers and realities of his work during the war. More important is what the soldiers in the frontline thought of Hitler's tasks rather than what the dangers of his job objectively were. Hitler was seen by frontline soldiers as an Etappenschwein, or a "rear-area pig."
I found ample evidence that ordinary soldiers thought Hitler's job was a much lesser, cushy job. This gulf existed during and after the war. A number of people, particularly from regimental headquarters, joined Hitler's Nazi Party, but the majority of the veterans did not join the Nazi Party. Hitler attended only one veterans' reunion of his regiment in 1922, in high hopes of recruiting people for his movement, but he was cold-shouldered there. In fact, the veterans at the 1922 reunion were celebrating an officer who later became a member of a resistance group to Hitler and was married to someone who, according to Nazi criteria, was Jewish.
Hitler was awarded two Iron Crosses, including the rare Iron Cross, First Class. Was he cited for specific acts of bravery?
The citations were written in very general terms, basically saying that Hitler had been courageous and served honorably, but not singling out any specific action or event for which he was honored.
The fact that ordinary soldiers of the List Regiment did not think of Hitler as one of them meant a great deal later on when Hitler tried to recruit people for his party. It also shows that the Nazi myth about Hitler's war years -- according to which he was "made" by the war and a typical product of the regiment politically and in every other sense -- is just not true.
And ironically, the Iron Cross was awarded to Hitler by Hugo Gutmann, a Jewish officer.
It was proposed by Gutmann.
Did Hitler then get the award for longevity, since he served through the entire war, and because he was submissive to his superiors?
It's difficult to tell for certain. It's probably a combination of two things. In a traditional sense, he was a very good soldier. He did what he was asked to do without complaining. There is a suggestion that Gutmann had difficulty in delivering on [a] promise as Hitler's action was insufficient for an Iron Cross, First Class, which if true, might explain why the citation is so general. That suggests that Gutmann and the other officers probably also considered Hitler's longevity and the fact that Hitler was well liked by his superiors.
Wouldn't a specific event be noted in most cases?
I think it would be especially true for the First Class Iron Cross, [and] for ordinary soldiers, they would mention what specifically was done because it was a rare award. It's curious that the one [awarded to] Hitler was so non-specific.
His lack of any leadership qualities in the war is stunning.
Suddenly this follower, within months, turns into this charismatic leader who found his voice and preached with a high degree of certitude. I can't really say what happened, but no one around him saw leadership qualities in Hitler in the First World War.
Hitler is often described as a corporal but did he ever hold a rank equivalent to a U.S. Army corporal during the First World War?
No. It's basically a mistranslation of the German term Gefreiter [or] private first class. Hitler had no line of command over anyone else. It's quite wrong to describe Hitler as Corporal Hitler.
Some of Hitler's comrades joked that he couldn't even feed himself in a canned food factory because he couldn't open a can with a bayonet.
Almost everyone, irrespective of whether they later sided with Hitler or not, saw him as a bit of a loner, an awkward person, but not someone who they really saw as one of them. His immediate comrades showed no sign that they were rallying around Hitler or that Hitler was formulating political ideas.
I think readers will also be surprised that, just after the First World War ended, Hitler served with the left-wing Soviet Republic of Munich, rather than with the right-wing "Freikorps."
Yes, it's amazing. While his future fellow fascists are fighting the Soviet Republic, he is in the center of Munich serving the Soviet Republic. His actions were contradictory and he had flexible political ideas. Also, the overwhelming majority [of his fellow soldiers] in the Bavarian Elections of 1919 voted for the Social Democrats or for other democratic parties.
It's difficult to know what exactly triggered Hitler's move to fascism in 1919. It might have been the result of a politicization, or other factors, including an attempt to find a new ersatz family now that his ersatz family from regimental headquarters from the war had disintegrated. And maybe trying to distance himself from the Soviet Republic of Munich, but that's speculation.
How does your book add to our understanding of Hitler?
First, on seeing how Hitler was "made" or radicalized. If you can show that the most extreme political leader of the 20th century was politicized and radicalized in a very different manner than was previously believed, then that in itself is a very significant finding. In addition, it changes our understanding of how Hitler came to power, and how he was inventing and re-inventing himself in a way that made him attractive to a German electorate.
It also changes our understanding of how Hitler's anti-Semitism came about, and our understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations.
You grew up in Germany and your grandfather served in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Did your background prompt your research on Hitler?
I prefer other people answer, rather than analyze myself. It's true that, if you grow up in a Western, democratic modern state but you realize that not long before, that state committed unspeakable crimes, you ask why. The people that you experience as friendly neighbors or loving grandparents were involved with this regime. I'm not saying they all fully supported it, but they were all some way or another involved in this regime. Why did arguably the most educated country in the world of nice neighbors and loving grandparents manage to unleash war and genocide at an unprecedented level? I'm sure that triggered at least in part my questions.
Some fear a similarly repressive regime here, but we trust our democratic system can prevent such a nightmare. Germany also was a democracy with the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and Hitler and his thugs were marginalized, but with a bad economy and other tragic events, Hitler took power in 1933.
It's unlikely that anything like Nazi Germany could happen in the United States, which after all is one of the great success stories of the modern world. However, even seemingly strong democratic states can rapidly de-democratize and radicalize in periods of extreme economic volatility with war or other extreme crises. I am with Fritz Stern -- the eminent historian and public intellectual -- who since 9/11 has warned the American public about the danger of how, in extreme periods of crisis, even stable democratic states quickly can become prone to radicalization and to an undermining of democracy.