I was first drawn to this book by the extravagant claims advanced on its behalf by the popular press. According to a number of reviews, Weber had successfully proved that more or less everything about Hitler's military service was mere lies. (For example, The Guardian: "Adolf Hitler a war hero? Anything but, said first world war comrades"; Der Spiegel: "A Hero in His Own Mind: Hitler Biography Debunks Mythology of Wartime Service".) Now, as is usually the case, the actual book turns out to be rather more restrained in its tone than these sensationalist headlines would suggest, but they are on the right track: Weber has consciously set out to "debunk" as much as he can of the "myth" of the combat veteran and minor war hero Adolf Hitler, whose bravery and integrity have to date been upheld by such varying and critical biographers as Bullock, Fest, Maser, and Kershaw. (Or, most recently, Williams, also in a specialized monograph, "Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918" (Frank Cass, 2005).)
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.
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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.