Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War Hardcover – Oct 1 2010
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"Fascinating from start to finish, Weber's painstaking research and lively writing style are bound to make this a seminal work, one as informative as it is engaging." --The Canada Post
About the Author
Thomas Weber teaches European and international history at the University of Aberdeen. Since earning his DPhil from the University of Oxford, he has held fellowships or has taught at Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of Glasgow. His first book, The Lodz Ghetto Album, won a 2004 Golden Light Award and a 2005 Infinity Award. His second book, Our Friend "The Enemy" is the recipientof the 2008 Duc d'Arenberg History Prize for the best book of a general nature, intended for a wide public, on the history and culture of the European continent.
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Top Customer Reviews
First, it completely demolishes the belief, so beloved by Nazi propagandists and all too often echoed by historians, that Hitler was a front-line soldier brave enough to have earned the Iron Cross First Class.
It is true that Hitler did volunteer for the List Regiment, of which this book is a Hitler-focused history. But that was in the first flush of excitement, when hundreds of thousands of men on both sides rushed to enlist in a war almost all thought would be brief, exhilarating and not too unpleasant. At that point, Hitler was displaying no more courage than millions of fellow Germans, English and French.
The separation of the truly brave from the slackers came in the next few months when the reality of unending trench warfare set in. Most of the soldiers on both sides gritted their teeth and endured a misery in which millions of them would die. Hitler did not. He quickly found for himself a spot in one of the most comfortable and least risky positions available to someone with his limited education. He became a regimental dispatch runner.
The key word to understand is "regimental." Regimental runners were assigned to regimental headquarters, typically at comfortable quarters in some French village several miles from the front. No fire from machine guns every reached them and the French artillery rarely fired on French villages. There, the quarters were warm and the food was good. (I would add that the women were pretty, but there's no evidence that Hitler ever cared about that.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
First, what's good about the book. It gives what I assume to be an accurate history of the List Regiment in the First World War. (However, a map would have been useful, and I hope will be added to any future edition.) It also tells quite a bit about the fate of some veterans of this unit of the Bavarian Royal Army which fought on the Western Front for over four years.
Of course, the only reason you are likely to read about the List Regiment is because it was Hitler's unit, where he served as a regimental dispatch runner and was awarded the Iron Cross both First and Second Class. Unfortunately we know very little about the details of the future Fuhrer's WWI experience. Weber rather than expanding this knowledge actually diminishes it, as he distrusts almost all memoirs (including, of course, Mein Kampf).
I would think there must be descriptions of other regimental dispatch runners, whose experience would give some insight into Hitler's. And the Bavarian Army must have had regulations detailing the duties of its dispatch runners. But you will not find any such information in Weber's book.
Instead, Weber is one of those "idea" historians who is not primarily interested in facts at all, but only interested in what may or may not be facts as long as they support his idea.
Weber's idea is that Hitler's World War One experience was of very little importance to his career except as a propaganda tool. Now propaganda can be based on truth as easily as lies. Nazi propaganda was that Hitler was in some ways a typical frontline fighter, and in other ways showed courage beyond the typical. At one point, Weber actually leans toward the latter proposition, as he presents evidence that it was very unusual for a common soldier to receive the Iron Cross First Class. But to support his central idea, Weber must explain away how Hitler got the medal. Here he writes himself into a corner, for it was a Jewish captain who recommended Hitler for the award. This fact seems as awkward for Weber as for Dr. Goebbels. If a Jew recommended Hitler for a medal for bravery above and beyond the call of duty, isn't that compelling evidence that Hitler was a brave soldier? But Weber would rather break his teeth than say that.
This gets into the real problem with this book, which is that it bends over backwards to be politically correct. Of course, if you bend over backwards far enough you put your head up your ass. It is almost comical to read Weber touching upon other "genocides" of the 20th Century ; when he mentions the Armenians he cannot call it a "genocide" but opts for "ethnic cleansing." As we know, a certain group does not recognize what happened to the Armenians as "genocide" - and I don't think Weber is being mindful of the Turks.
It should be possible to write a balanced book about Private Hitler and the Great War, but the author would have to try to get into the mindset of men who experienced war on the Western Front without clairvoyant knowledge of what would happen a quarter century later. By always taking what he believes to be the moral and historical high ground,Weber never shows us the viewpoint of a humble private who would go on to greater things.
What makes this author draw such different conclusions? Briefly put, on the scholarly level there are two major differences between Weber's treatment and such a one as Williams's. First, Weber does have access to some new data which were not previously available, including official records from Hitler's regiment (Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16) and some private diaries and letters. Second, he opposes many previously used sources, foremost the memoirs and statements of Hitler's fellow veterans, which he considers untruthful and infused with Nazi propaganda. This is, therefore, a very "revisionist" account of Hitler's military career that breaks genuine new ground. As such, it is to be welcomed. However, it becomes obvious very early on that apart from the simple facts, the author also has a clear political agenda in mind, which at times is directly harmful to his standards of research and scholarship. This, which lends this in part powerful read a frustrating overall quality, comes up particularly clearly in a number of passages, some of which will be summarized and commented on below as representative examples.
One of the stranger statements by Weber is that, citing a NATO comparative ranks document(!), he claims that Hitler's rank of Gefreiter really means "private" rather than "corporal" or "lance-corporal" as it's usually translated. His reasoning is suspect, to say the least. It probably goes without saying that the enlisted and non-commissioned officer ranks of the World War I Bavarian Army were not the same as the NATO-adjusted ranks of the present-day Bundeswehr. A full treatment of these goes far beyond the scope of this review, but suffice it to say that Hitler's rank of Gefreiter (senior to an Oberschütze, junior to an Unteroffizier) would at the time (and in US Army terms) put him somewhere in between a Private First Class and a Corporal in seniority, a little like the modern Specialist rank. Precisely how we ought to render his rank in English might thus perhaps be debated, but calling him a mere private is plainly inaccurate. The inescapable impression is that the author simply wants to belittle Hitler in any way possible, and is ready to grasp at any straw to "debunk" even such a trivial achievement of Hitler's as reaching PFC/Specialist/Corporal rank. It comes across as both unscholarly and petty.
This clear Tendenz continues throughout the book. The author repeatedly stresses, on his own authority and -- at best -- with some anecdotal evidence to support it, that Hitler had it easy, that his operational specialty as dispatch runner was not really very dangerous (even though agreeing that he was wounded at least twice and had several other close calls) and that he later exaggerated his war stories. No matter how inconsequential a statement Hitler might make in a letter, in Mein Kampf or in his war reminiscences, Weber analyzes it for an opening to attack him. For example, Hitler claimed that in his first battle, some of the men with him were singing the national anthem during the close-quarters fighting. This Weber calls a lie, because he can find no contemporary portrayal of the battle that mentions this. He does admit that the official regimental history agrees that there was singing, but latches on to the fact that it claims the song to have been "Watch on the Rhine", another patriotic song. We might of course ask whether this is in any way important; perhaps there was singing of different songs, perhaps Hitler simply misremembered the exact song (heard under significantly stressful conditions, after all). In neither way is the substance of his claim (there was patriotic singing) put into doubt. But to Weber, this discrepancy is clear proof that there can have been no singing at all, that this was only made up after the war for reasons of propaganda, and that Hitler was lying.
In the same battle, Hitler also claimed to have been the last man left standing of a group of soldiers. Weber, of course, does not believe this, and argues his case on the basis that the official regimental history records too few confirmed deaths for Hitler's company on this date for a whole group of dead men to be credible. (He fails to consider any possibility of other categories of casualties, namely wounded or missing in action, making up part of the losses Hitler's group suffered.) But he also hedges his bets by stating -- entirely without evidence, old or new, and purely on his own supposition -- that if this was indeed so after all and Hitler was a lone survivor, then it was "almost certainly" only because Hitler was a coward who concentrated on staying alive and took little part in the actual close-quarters fighting. Though there are exceptions and examples of superior research, this is unfortunately quite typical of his approach to Hitler's military experience in both respects: First he uses some tenuous argument to "debunk" a claim, then he adds derogatory commentary.
At other times, Weber does not shirk from tarring the whole army Hitler served in with his broad brush in his attempts to trivialize the Gefreiter's accomplishments. This comes to the fore most prominently in the matter of the Iron Cross he was awarded. The Iron Cross, First Class (German: Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse, or EK I for short) was the highest award for bravery in the field that could be given to an enlisted man in German service. It was also very rarely given to enlisted men: Weber himself admits that by the summer of 1918, only 472 EK Is had been so awarded in the whole army. (The EK 1 was rather more commonly awarded to officers and non-commissioned officers, in some tens of thousands.) Yet Weber goes off on a tangent citing wholly anecdotal and circumstantial evidence -- effectively the say-so of one man, and some awkward handwaving to justify it -- to "prove" that the EK 1 was more often given to enlisted men in cushy rear-echelon assignments than to combat soldiers. And Hitler, too, he claims, must thus have been awarded his not because of bravery, but because of favoritism from the staff officers.
This is simply too gratuitous to stomach. Not only is Weber's argument a complete non sequitur and his evidence non-existent, but in his desire to denigrate Hitler, he baselessly insults not only -- or even primarily -- him, but more importantly, all the tens of thousands of men who earned and were awarded the very respected EK I in their World War I service.
In general we notice a tendency in Weber's use of sources. Writings that may be used to speak negatively of Hitler are usually accepted more or less uncritically, while on the other hand, those memoirs, statements and other sources which are in any way positive to Hitler are scrutinized hyper-critically or simply ignored. These alternating standards are not based on any discernible objective grounds, but seem to be driven only and precisely by those considerations. Some brief further examples of this: Weber argues that because the Nazi propaganda censored later editions of Hitler's fellow veteran Balthasar Brandmayer's memoirs, changing many details, this can be taken as evidence that not only was the first edition wholly unreliable and doctored to begin with (If so, a reader might wonder, why the big changes to the later versions?), but all other similar memoirs published in Germany were as well. (We have already noted Weber's propensity for hasty generalizations when they suit his thesis.) At the same time, Weber considers an anonymous anti-Hitler article published in a Marxist newspaper (which he authoritatively declares, true to habit on his own supposition, must also have been written by a fellow veteran) a more reliable source. Naturally, this later source has far more negative things to say of the by then quite prominent right-wing politician Hitler's military past.
To our view, it makes rather more sense to use the memoirs (and etc) which Weber handwaves away the same way other biographers have already done for decades: With a critical eye, not without due caution and with awareness of possible ulterior motives, but also more humbly than Weber's wholly dismissive attitude. And needless to say, the same methodology should be applied to his new anti-Hitler sources, as well.
There are many more examples that could be given, but this is already becoming a very long review. Certainly these are sufficient to tell us that even as Weber brings a wealth of new evidence to the table, he also goes far beyond that evidence in his arguments and conclusions. In every case his purpose appears to be to belittle Hitler and deny or minimize his medals, his war wounds, his accomplishments and sacrifices. In this, Weber's work is similar to all too many other Hitler biographies: Rather than honestly try to understand or explain the man, instead it does its best to fit him into the author's preconceived notions. It is, in fact, quite saddening that a work of such potential fails to aim higher. Weber's propagandistic spin is both unscholarly and unnecessary; we do not need him to persuade us, in order to deplore the Führer's later political decisions, that Hitler was also a coward and failure as a soldier.
On the contrary, Hitler did far too much real evil for us who disagree emphatically with his views to be in any need whatever of inventing spurious failings on his part in order to make him look bad. And one need hardly be a Hitler apologist, far less a neo-Nazi, to wish for the historical record to be set as straight as possible, without obfuscation. A fellow World War I veteran with Socialist sympathies, Michael Schlehuber, once said: "I disagree entirely with Hitler on political matters, and give this testimony [of his exemplary military service] only because I highly respect Hitler as a war comrade." (Weber, naturally, dismisses Schlehuber too and insinuates -- yet again without a shred of evidence -- dishonest motives on his part.)
To our mind, unlike Weber's, bravery in battle and moral bankruptcy on other matters are by no means necessarily mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary: In the person of the war volunteer and dictator Adolf Hitler, most biographers agree that we can fairly recognize both. The former should no more be denied than be used to excuse the latter.
* * * * *
So what then do we say? Our final verdict on this frustrating work must be twofold. On the one hand, Weber deserves full credit for his original research and the new sources he adds to our understanding of Hitler's military life. On the other, however, we cannot but censure the plainly agenda-driven manner in which he argues his case against Hitler's every military accomplishment. While not a *falsifier* of history, Weber is indeed a great *simplifier* who far too often and too certainly delivers simple and definitive answers to complex questions. There can be no question, in his view, of both good and bad in a man, or of two descriptions of historical events being measured against each other in anything but a binary True/False fashion. Further, Weber's perhaps understandable but still quite unscholarly antipathy towards Hitler makes for an awkward matrix of interpretation, which allows him to dismiss anything that speaks remotely positively of the man on the flimsiest of pretexts, even when by doing so he must also slight tens of thousands of other decorated German veterans. His view appears to be that because the future dictator Hitler would do a number of atrocious things, the lance-corporal Hitler -- who enlisted as a volunteer to fight for his new country in World War I, who served in deadly combat, who was seriously wounded at least twice, and who was decorated with some of his nation's highest awards for bravery and gallantry -- must also have been an incompetent and a coward. We have already stated our view that this conviction undermines Weber's integrity as an historian.
Thus: Weber's scholarly achievement lies in unearthing new data and in stimulating further debate. His own thesis, however, is not merely unconvincing, but relies on manifestly faulty arguments and will not stand the test of time and critical review. Far from being the "definitive" account of Hitler's military service it was hailed as by some media, we predict that this work will instead be considered by future historiographers as merely the first flawed attempt in a new wave of superior Great War-centric Hitler studies.
Here is one example as a starter: page 221. In the middle of discussing Hitler's hospital stay at the end of the war, Weber starts talking crazy. He tells the reader that Hitler was diagnosed in the hospital as a psychopath and given experimental hypno-treatment. The magic hypno-treatment gave Hitler a confident personality. The doctors forgot to undo the treatment when they released Hitler. Weber considers this nonsense to be a reasonable explanation of Hitler's change after the war. This kind of thing usually shows up in books on UFOs rather than books written by Oxford Professors. The sources weber gives in the notes are junk books on Hitler. To even buy into this nonsense it's clear that Weber doesn't understand anything about hypnosis.
Weber in the book does a real good job in tracking down nearly every story about Hitler from fellow soldiers in the war. But he doesn't do anything useful with the stories. The problem with the stories is that they tend to tell one of two stories depending on the politics of the teller. Its not all that different from what happened when John Kerry ran for president with people attacking and defending his military record. The only way to really find the truth is to compare the stories and find things said in common regardless of politics. Weber doesn't do that. He uses what appears to be his intuition to decide that the anti-hitler stories must be true. Future historians will be happy that Weber gathered all that stuff up in one place. But I doubt they will pay much attention to what he wrote.
Weber tries really hard to make the case that Hitler's job as a messenger wasn't dangerous. But he isn't convincing. The front line trenches (or really bunkers in the case of the Germans) were far from the only dangerous place on the battlefield. Even the book shows that without saying it. And the other thing he doesn't quite is that messenger had to go where the message had to go. Weber seems to think a regimental messenger just went back and forth in safety to battalion headquarters. He also doesn't understand that anyone moving around outside was in danger. The Germans didn't stand around in the front trenches getting hit by shells. They usually hid out in concrete bunkers. Being a messenger wasn't as dangerous as going over the top. But it was still dangerous.
Weber also goes after Hitler's medals. He tries to minimize the first iron cross by saying that hitler wasn't acting alone in the situation. But so what? He tries to brush off the second one by saying that it was the result of politics up way high in germany. On that one he is right but he is wrong. He is right in saying that the german government wanted more iron crosses given out to ordinary soldiers. But he is wrong because the officers over hitler still had the choice of who they were going to give the medals to. I find the idea of hitler as the artful backslapper and manipulator of officers impossible to accept. He was a cog in a machine. Weber is right in that he was more likely to get a medal because of his contact with officers. But thats true in all wars. And if he were no good as a messenger, they would have sent him back to the trenches.
This is where I don't get why Weber is so hysterical about this stuff. What does it matter to the history of this monster how a good or bad he was at delivering messages in a war? Whats next? Are we going to study how he brushed his teeth for understanding?
Weber tries to minimize all of Hitler's war wounds too. But again, its not convincing. He says that Hitler getting exposed to gas was no big deal. Weber somehow knows exactly how much gas was used on Hitler and he knows that Hitler didn't even need medical treatment. Rather than being wounded, he wants us to think that Hitler was either crazy or a coward who used the gas attack as cover to flee the fighting. But that makes no sense. If Hitler were the manipulating coward Weber capable of tricking officers into giving him an Iron Cross first class, he would have been more than clever enough to get himself posted away from the frontline entirely and much earlier in the war. And if he is not a manipulating coward, why would he flee a "safe" job as messenger? The book contradicts itself and in the end if we readers accept everything he says, we end up with hitler whose actions can't be explained at all.
Weber's understandings of the first world war and its battles are also poor. He doesn't really know what he is talking about most of the time. He makes the mistake of calling people liars because their memories of dates don't line up with the written history of the regiment. If he had more experience, he would know that this very typical and that the art is not in calling soldiers liars but in trying to line up how the stories they tell might have happened. He doesn't understand what the phrase fog of war means.
The truth about hitler's career as a soldier is that its very boring. He was an ordinary soldier who was good at one minor thing (running back and forth). He was rewarded as a solider for being a good cog in a bigger machine. He did what he was told and in most armies full of drafted men of any nation, many men couldn't even do that little. Was Hitler a war hero? No. Did hitler and the nazis brag up what he did the war? Yes. Thats makes hitler what the traditional history always made of him as a soldier: a nothing. The old insult of calling him the little corporal is more powerful against Hitler's war record than 400 pages written by Weber.
Weber fails in the book to make hitler in the war less than nothing. But that was a crazy thing to try in the first place. Some parts of Weber's books will serve a useful purpose in leading future scholars to hitler's military records. But the bulk of it will go on the shelf with all the other crazy books about the nazis written in the past decade.
I found the tranlation and use of Gefreiter (Corporal)as Private tiresome. A futher attempt to demonize Hitler. In the German Army one has Schuetze (Rifleman), Oberschuetze (like a PFC), Gefreiter, Obergefreiter, and Stabsgefreiter. There are three ranks of Corporal, and I am not comparing the rank by the Brits or US system, which are not the same. I dont think because Hitler happended to be selected as a dispatch runner, makes anyone a coward; you may not be in rifle, or machinegun range, but one was certainly in danger of artillery, or gas attacks. Any area, or Front for that matter, in which one served during the Great War, was Hell; it is just a matter of degrees.
I do not think that Professor Weber ever served as a soldier; it is much easier to write about something than to experience it. I think the bits about Hitler being a homosexual and a communist are absurd. Hitler was an social oddball by any stretch of the imagination. The notion of homosexuality is a further attempt to discredit the man. I would strongly suggest Hitler was a staunch prude. I don't think he chased whores, or sired a son by a French woman either during the First World War. I would also suggest, while being a good soldier, he was rather a bore, and a bit of a loner. I also think that his award of the EK I (Iron Cross 1st class) of which he was proud, was embarassing as well, as he was recommended for the award by Hugo Gutmann, who was a Jew. That, in itself, did not look too good, once Hitler rose to power.
I think this book would have been better, had it concentrated on the military aspect of World War One, Hitler, and the List Regiment, and less on the political axe which Professor Weber had to grind. Based on that alone, I was disappointed. There are mountains of books available on Hitler after the First World War, but very little during.
One last point, is Professror Weber is quick to point out Hitler was a "foreigner" in the Bavarian Army. There is culturally, or ethnically for that matter, no difference between the German Austrian and a Bavarian. THey speak the same dialect. What is now Austria, was once Bavaria, and created by Charles the Great in the 8th century AD in order to drive a wedge between the Slavs. The 10% of German Austrians who don't speak a Bavarian dialect, live in the Voralberg (next to Switzerland).
While this is the book's principal focus, I found it to be extremely valuable from another perspective: it is one of the most realistic portrayals of what it must have been like to be stuck in the madness of trench warfare for four years. Any romanticized views of the First War are obliterated by the discussion of misery, discomfort, and emotional strain that soldiers on both sides endured in order to gain a few feet of territory, only to give it back during the next round.
The author adds a further 110 pages on Hitler's activities from 1918 until his suicide in 1945. The goal here is to see how Hitler and later the Nazis sought to distort (in the author's view) Hitler's war experiences and their supposed radicalizing effects. The author demonstrates that there was a great propaganda effort made to utilize Hitler's wartime experiences as shaping his outlook on how to revive Germany. while suppressing any information that did not support this position. A number of Hitler's regimental mates are analyzed to demonstrate that they had not been similarly radicalized.
All told, the book runs some 433 pages, including notes, illustrations and bibliography. The author has certainly done a fine job of researching the historical record, and while some of his speculation is perhaps debatable, it does not impair the contributions of the book. Hitler did not spring up fully formed in 1933--the role of the First War was important (if not determinative) in shaping him, and this book helps us understand its impact.
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