In the 1935 book ‘The Story of Adolf Hitler Told for Children’, widely distributed throughout Nazi Germany by state authorities, Hitler’s time as a soldier was retold in lively language – once, he was said to have ‘run straight through machine gun fire’ to deliver messages between outposts on the frontline; and later he is described as ‘one of the bravest soldiers in every battle.’ Hitler’s service for Germany became an essential part of his political message: he had served his nation in the most selfless way possible, so he demanded the nation serve him in return.
Even opponents of Hitler accepted that the dictator’s record in World War One was impressive – he had won the Iron Cross twice, there were many apparent eye-witness reports of his bravery, and he served for the whole war. Almost without exception, respected western journalists have repeated as fact that Hitler was one of the bravest men in the trenches.
But a little historical research reveals Hitler’s ‘heroic’ war record was mostly a figment of Nazi propaganda.
Hitler the Draft Dodger
Before the war, Hitler dodged the draft. Conscripted to serve his native Imperial Austria in 1910, Hitler failed to report for duty. He did this at least three times, and it was probably to avoid military service that he moved from Vienna to southern Germany. Only in February 1914 did he surrender himself to the Austrian authorities, who deemed him medically unfit for duty. He tried to cover this up – through lies in Mein Kampf (for example, his autobiography claims he was in Munich on a day in 1912 when Viennese police arrested him for vagrancy), and by sending his Gestapo to destroy the official papers when Germany united with Austria in 1938. Hitler was furious when he was told the paperwork had gone missing.
Hitler the Coward
After he was caught up in a fateful battle on 29th October 1914, Hitler managed to wangle himself a cushy position at regimental HQ, several miles behind the frontline. There he lived in relative safety and luxury, only occasionally venturing near the trenches; usually he was just delivering messages between the regiment’s HQ and its administrative base, both well away from danger. Several times during the war, Hitler turned down opportunities for promotion to keep this precious role as a regimental dispatch runner. It was quite a feat to him to remain at the army’s lowest rank (not a corporal, as is sometimes reported) throughout the whole war. He spent a smaller proportion of his war years in the trenches than almost any other private in his regiment, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment.
Picture: Hitler with other despatch runners, safely away from the frontline at Regimental HQ, Fournes.
Hitler – and his propaganda machine – pretended he delivered reports between frontline positions, but he was only called into the frontline when German manpower was stretched. It meant he served at the battle of the Somme for only four days. He suffered a ‘light wound’ from wood splinters in October 1916, which meant he was in hospital on the days his regiment faced its worst battles. He missed other crucial days of fighting by being on leave.
Hitler: Not Blinded by Gas in 1918
Hitler claims to have lost his sight following a chlorine gas attack in mid-October 1918 – standing firm against the Allied assault, as Germany was ‘stabbed in the back’ by traitors back home. But the doctors who treated him in Pasewalk military hospital near Berlin diagnosed his blindness as a form of hysteria, and concluded it was caused by psychological exhaustion or ‘hysteria’ rather than gas. The medical papers were so damning – and sensational – that Hitler’s predecessor as German Chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher, who came across them in 1932, kept them personally – probably regarding them as an insurance policy, so he could blackmail Hitler later if he needed to. But Hitler struck first: Schleicher was gunned down on 30th June 1934, one of the first victims of the dictator’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’. The original papers have never surfaced. (So how do we know this account is true? It is the testimony of doctors and others interviewed in 1945 versus the word of the Fuhrer himself. I know whom I believe…).
Research credit: Thomas Weber, author of the excellent ‘Hitler’s First War’.
Image below: Hitler at the announcement of war, Munich, 2nd August 1914. This picture – the main protagonist of the Second World War celebrating the start of the First – has been doctored by Nazi spin doctors to imply the war was much more popular than it really was.