The First World War made Hitler possible. Without the experience of war, the humiliation of defeat, and the upheaval of revolution the failed artist and social drop-out would not have discovered what to do with his life by entering politics and finding his métier as a propagandist and beerhall demagogue. And without the trauma of war, defeat, and revolution, without the political radicalization of German society that this trauma brought about, the demagogue would have been without an audience for his raucous, hate-filled message. The legacy of the lost war provided the conditions in which the paths of Hitler and the German people began to cross. Without the war, a Hitler on the Chancellor’s seat that had been occupied by Bismarck would have been unthinkable.
Looking back just over a decade later, Hitler spoke of the fifteen months he spent in Munich before the war as ‘the happiest and by far the most contented’ of his life. The fanatical German nationalist exulted in his arrival in ‘a German city’, which he contrasted with the ‘Babylon of races’ that, for him, had been Vienna. He gave a number of reasons why he had left Vienna: bitter enmity towards the Habsburg Empire for pro-Slav policies that were disadvantaging the German population; growing hatred for the ‘foreign mixture of peoples’ who were ‘corroding’ German culture in Vienna; the conviction that Austria-Hungary was living on borrowed time, and that its end could not come soon enough; and the intensified longing to go to Germany, to where his ‘childhood secret desires and secret love’ had drawn him. The last sentiments were plainly romanticized. Otherwise, the feelings were genuine enough. And of his determination not to fight for the Habsburg state there can be no doubt. This is what Hitler meant when he said he left Austria ‘primarily for political reasons’. But the implication that he had left as a form of political protest was disingenuous and deliberately misleading. As we noted, the prime and immediate reason he crossed the border into Germany was very tangible: the Linz authorities were hot on his trail for evasion of military service.
Hitler wrote that he came to Munich in the hope of some day making a name for himself as an architect. He described himself on arrival as an ‘architectural painter’. In the letter he wrote to the Linz authorities in 1914, defending himself against charges of evading military service, he stated that he was forced to earn his living as a self-employed artist in order to fund his training as an architectural painter. In the biographical sketch he wrote in 1921, he stated that he went to Munich as an ‘architecture-designer and architecture-painter’. At his trial in February 1924 he implied that he had already completed his training as an ‘architecture-designer’ by the time he came to Munich, but wanted to train to be a master builder. Many years later he claimed his intention was to undertake practical training in Germany; that on coming to Munich he had hoped to study for three years before joining the major Munich construction firm Heilmann and Littmann as a designer and then showing, by entering the first architectural competition to design an important building, just what he could do. None of these varying and conflicting accounts was true. There is no evidence that Hitler took any practical steps during his time in Munich to improve his poor and dwindling career prospects. He was drifting no less aimlessly than he had done in Vienna.
After arriving in Munich on 25 May 1913, a bright spring Sunday, Hitler followed up an advertisement for a small room rented by the family of the tailor Joseph Popp on the third floor of 34 Schleißheimerstraße, in a poorish district to the north of the city, on the edge of Schwabing, the pulsating centre of Munich’s artistic and bohemian life, and not far from the big barracks area. His travelling companion, Rudolf Häusler, shared the cramped room with him until mid-February 1914. Apparently, Hitler’s habit of reading late at night by the light of a petroleum lamp prevented Häusler from sleeping, and so irritated him that he eventually moved out, returning after a few days to take the room adjacent to Hitler’s, where he stayed until May. According to his landlady, Frau Popp, Hitler quickly set himself up with the equipment to begin painting. As he had done in Vienna, he developed a routine where he could complete a picture every two or three days, usually copied from postcards of well-known tourist scenes in Munich – including the Theatinerkirche, the Asamkirche, the Hofbräuhaus, the Alter Hof, the Münzhof, the Altes Rathaus, the Sendlinger Tor, the Residenz, the Propyläen – then set out to find customers in bars, cafés, and beerhalls. His accurate but uninspired, rather soulless watercolours were, as Hitler himself later admitted when he was German Chancellor and they were selling for massively inflated prices, of very ordinary quality. But they were certainly no worse than similar products touted about the beerhalls, often the work of genuine art students seeking to pay their way. Once he had found his feet, Hitler had no difficulty finding buyers. He was able to make a modest living from his painting and exist about as comfortably as he had done in his last years in Vienna. When the Linz authorities caught up with him in 1914, he acknowledged that his income – though irregular and fluctuating – could be put at around 1,200 Marks a year, and told his court photographer Heinrich Hoffmann at a much later date that he could get by on around 80 Marks a month for living costs at that time.
As in Vienna, Hitler was polite but distant, self-contained, withdrawn, and apparently without friends (other than, in the first months, Häusler). Frau Popp could not recall Hitler having a single visitor in the entire two years of his tenancy. He lived simply and frugally, preparing his paintings during the day and reading at night. According to Hitler’s own account, ‘the study of the political events of the day’, especially foreign policy, preoccupied him during his time in Munich. He also claimed to have immersed himself again in the theoretical literature of Marxism and to have examined thoroughly once more the relation of Marxism to the Jews. There is no obvious reason to doubt his landlady’s witness to the books he brought back with him from the Königliche Hofund Staatsbibliothek (Royal Court and State Library), not far away in Ludwigstraße. In all the millions of recorded words of Hitler, however, there is nothing to indicate that he ever pored over the theoretical writings of Marxism, that he had studied Marx, or Engels, or Lenin (who had been in Munich not long before him), or Trotsky (his contemporary in Vienna). Reading for Hitler, as in Vienna, was not for enlightenment or learning, but to confirm prejudice.
Most of it was probably done in cafés, where Hitler could continue his habit of devouring the newspapers available to customers. This is where he kept abreast of political developments, and where, at the slightest provocation, he could flare up and treat anyone in proximity to his fiercely held views on whatever preoccupied him at the time. Café and beerhall ‘discussions’ were the nearest Hitler came in his Munich period to political involvement. His statement in Mein Kampf that ‘in the years 1913 and 1914, I, for the first time in various circles which today in part faithfully support the National Socialist movement, expressed the conviction that the question of the future of the German nation was the question of destroying Marxism’ elevates coffee-house confrontation into the philosophy of the political prophet.
Hitler’s captive audiences in the cafés and beerhalls were for most part the closest he came to human contact in his months in Munich, and presumably offered some sort of outlet for his pent-up prejudice and emotions. Contrary to his own depiction of the Munich months as a time of further preparation for what fate would eventually bring him, it was in reality an empty, lonely, and futile period for him. He was in love with Munich; but Munich was not in love with him. And as regards his own future, he had no more idea where he was going than he had done during his years in the Vienna Men’s Home.
He very nearly ended up in an Austrian prison. Already in August 1913 the Linz police had started inquiries about Hitler’s whereabouts because of his failure to register for military service. Evasion of military service was punishable by a hefty fine. And leaving Austria to avoid it was treated as desertion and carried a jail sentence. By way of his relatives in Linz, the Viennese police, and the Men’s Home in Meldemannstraße, the trail eventually led to Munich, where the police were able to inform their Linz counterparts that Hitler had been registered since 26 May 1913 as living with the Popps at 34 Schleißheimerstraße. Hitler was shaken to the core when an officer of the Munich criminal police turned up on Frau Popp’s doorstep on the afternoon of Sunday, 18 January 1914 with a summons for him to appear two days later in Linz under pain of fine and imprisonment to register for military service, and promptly took him under arrest prior to handing him over to the Austrian authorities. The Munich police had for some reason delayed delivery of the summons for several days before the Sunday, leaving Hitler as a consequence extremely short notice to comply with its demand to be in Linz by the Tuesday. That, together with Hitler’s run-down appearance, lack of ready money, apologetic demeanour, and somewhat pathetic explanation influenced the Austrian consulate in Munich to look with some sympathy on his position. He impressed the consular officials, who thought him ‘worthy of consideration’, and the Linz magistracy now granted him permission to appear, as he had requested, on 5 February, in Salzburg instead of Linz. No fine or imprisonment was imposed; his travel expenses were paid by the consulate. And, in the event, on duly attending at Salzburg he was found to be too weak to undertake military service.
Hitler returned to his mundane life as a small-time artist; but not for long. The storm-clouds were gathering over Europe. On Sunday, 28 June 1914, the sensational news broke of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife. Germany, like other countries in Europe, became gripped by war fever. By the beginning of August, the Continent was at war.
For Hitler, the war was a godsend. Since his failure in the Art Academy in 1907, he had vegetated, resigned to the fact that he would not become a great artist, now cherishing a pipe-dream that he would somehow become a notable architect – though with no plans for or realistic hope of fulfilling this ambition. Seven years after that failure, the ‘nobody of Vienna’, now in Munich, remained a drop-out and nonentity, futilely angry at a world which had rejected him. He was still without any career prospects, without qualifications or any expectation of gaining them, without any capacity for forging close and lasting friendships, and without real hope of coming to terms with himself – or with a society he despised for his own failure. The war offered him his way out. At the age of twenty-five, it gave him for the first time in his life a cause, a commitment, comradeship, an external discipline, a sort of regular employment, a sense of well-being, and – more than that – a sense of belonging. His regiment became home for him. When he was wounded in 1916 his first words to his superior officer were: ‘It’s not so bad, Herr Oberleutnant, eh? I can stay with you, stay with the regiment.’ Later in the war, the prospect of leaving the regiment may well have influenced his wish not to be considered for promotion. And at the end of the war, he had good practical reasons for staying in the army as long as possible: the army had by then been his ‘career’ for four years, and he had no other job to go back to or look forward to. The war and its aftermath made Hitler. After Vienna, it was the second formative period in decisively shaping his personality.
At the beginning of August 1914, Hitler was among the tens of thousands in Munich in the thrall of emotional delirium, passionately enthused by the prospect of war. As for so many others, his elation would later turn to deep embitterment. With Hitler, the emotional pendulum set moving by the onset of war swung more violently than for most. ‘Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm,’ he wrote, ‘I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.’ That on this occasion his words were true cannot be doubted. Years later, noticing a photograph taken by Heinrich Hoffmann (who was to become his court photographer) of the huge patriotic demonstration in front of the Feldherrnhalle on Munich’s Odeonsplatz on 2 August 1914, the day after the German declaration of war on Russia, Hitler pointed out that he had been among the emotional crowd that day, carried away with nationalist fervour, hoarse with singing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ and ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’. Hoffmann immediately set to work on enlargements, and discovered the face of the twenty-five-year-old Hitler in the centre of the photograph, gripped and enraptured by the war hysteria. The subsequent mass reproduction of the photograph helped contribute to the establishment of the Führer myth – and to Hoffmann’s immense profits.
It was doubtless under the impact of the same elation swaying tens of thousands of young men in Munich and many other cities in Europe during those days to rush to join up that, according to his own account, on 3 August, immediately following the Feldherrnhalle demonstration, Hitler submitted a personal petition to King Ludwig III of Bavaria to serve as an Austrian in the Bavarian army. The granting of his request by the cabinet office, he went on, arrived, to his unbounded joy, the very next day. Though this version has been accepted in most accounts, it is scarcely credible. In the confusion of those days, it would have required truly remarkable bureaucratic efficiency for Hitler’s request to have been approved overnight. In any case, not the cabinet office but the war ministry was alone empowered to accept foreigners (including Austrians) as volunteers. In reality, Hitler owed his service in the Bavarian army not to bureaucratic efficiency, but to bureaucratic oversight. Detailed inquiries carried out by the Bavarian authorities in 1924 were unable to clarify precisely how, instead of being returned to Austria in August 1914 as should have happened, he came to serve in the Bavarian army. It was presumed that he was among the flood of volunteers who rushed to their nearest place of recruitment in the first days of August, leading, the report added, to not unnatural inconsistencies and breaches of the strict letter of the law. ‘In all probability,’ commented the report, ‘the question of Hitler’s nationality was never even raised.’ Hitler, it was concluded, almost certainly entered the Bavarian army by error.
Probably, as Hitler wrote in a brief autobiographical sketch in 1921, he volunteered on 5 August 1914 for service in the First Bavarian Infantry Regiment. Like many others in these first chaotic days, he was initially sent away again since there was no immediate use for him. On 16 August he was summoned to report at Recruiting Depot VI in Munich for kitting out by the Second Reserve Battalion of the Second Infantry Regiment. By the beginning of September he had been assigned to the newly formed Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (known from the name of its first commander as the ‘List Regiment’), largely comprising raw recruits. After a few weeks of hurried training, they were ready for the front. In the early hours of 21 October, the troop train carrying Hitler left for the battlefields of Flanders.
On 29 October, within six days of arriving in Lille, Hitler’s battalion had its baptism of fire on the Menin Road near Ypres. In letters from the front to Joseph Popp and to a Munich acquaintance, Ernst Hepp, Hitler wrote that after four days of fighting, the List Regiment’s fighting force had been reduced from 3,600 to 611 men. The initial losses were indeed a staggering 70 per cent. Hitler’s initial idealism, he said later, gave way on seeing the thousands killed and injured, to the realization ‘that life is a constant horrible struggle’. From now on, death was a daily companion. It immunized him completely against any sensitivity to human suffering. Even more than in the Viennese doss-house, he closed his eyes to sorrow and pity. Struggle, survival, victory: these were all that counted.
On 3 November 1914 (with effect from 1 November), Hitler was promoted to corporal. It was his last promotion of the war, though he could certainly have been expected to advance further, as least as far as non-commissioned officer (Unteroffizier). Later in the war, he was in fact nominated for promotion by Max Amann, then a staff sergeant, subsequently Hitler’s press baron, and the regimental staff considered making him Unteroffizier. Fritz Wiedemann, the regimental adjutant who in the 1930s became for a time one of the Führer’s adjutants, testified after the end of the Third Reich that Hitler’s superiors had thought him lacking in leadership qualities. However, both Amann and Wiedemann made clear that Hitler, probably because he would have been then transferred from the regimental staff, actually refused to be considered for promotion.
Hitler had been assigned on 9 November to the regimental staff as an orderly – one of a group of eight to ten dispatch runners, whose task was to carry orders, on foot or sometimes by bicycle, from the regimental command post to the battalion and company leaders at the front, three kilometres away. Strikingly, in his Mein Kampf account, Hitler omitted to mention that he was a dispatch runner, implying that he actually spent the war in the trenches. But the attempts of his political enemies in the early 1930s to belittle the dangers involved in the duties of the dispatch runner and decry Hitler’s war service, accusing him of shirking and cowardice, were misplaced. When, as was not uncommon, the front was relatively quiet, there were certainly times when the dispatch runners could laze around at staff headquarters, where conditions were greatly better than in the trenches. It was in such conditions at regimental headquarters in Fournes en Weppes, near Fromelles in northern France, where Hitler spent nearly half of his wartime service, that he could find the time to paint pictures and read (if his own account can be believed) the works of Schopenhauer that he claimed he carried around with him. Even so, the dangers faced by the dispatch runners during battles, carrying messages to the front through the firing line, were real enough. The losses among dispatch runners were relatively high. If at all possible, two runners would be sent with a message to ensure that it would get through if one happened to be killed. Three of the eight runners attached to the regimental staff were killed and another one wounded in a confrontation with French troops on 15 November. Hitler himself – not for the only time in his life – had luck on his side two days later when a French shell exploded in the regimental forward command post minutes after he had gone out, leaving almost the entire staff there dead or wounded. Among the seriously wounded was the regimental commander Oberstleutnant Philipp Engelhardt, who had been about to propose Hitler for the Iron Cross for his part, assisted by a colleague, in protecting the commander’s life under fire a few days earlier. On 2 December, Hitler was finally presented with the Iron Cross, Second Class, one of four dispatch runners among the sixty men from his regiment to receive the honour. It was, he said, ‘the happiest day of my life’.
From all indications, Hitler was a committed, rather than simply conscientious and dutiful, soldier, and did not lack physical courage. His superiors held him in high regard. His immediate comrades, mainly the group of dispatch runners, respected him and, it seems, even quite liked him, though he could also plainly irritate as well as puzzle them. His lack of a sense of fun made him an easy target for good-natured ribbing. ‘What about looking around for a Mamsell?’ suggested a telephonist one day. ‘I’d die of shame looking for sex with a French girl,’ interjected Hitler, to a burst of laughter from the others. ‘Look at the monk,’ one said. Hitler’s retort was: ‘Have you no German sense of honour left at all?’ Though his quirkiness singled him out from the rest of his group, Hitler’s relations with his immediate comrades were generally good. Most of them later became members of the NSDAP, and, when, as usually happened, they reminded Reich Chancellor Hitler of the time that they had been his comrades in arms, he made sure they were catered for with cash donations and positions as minor functionaries. For all that they got on well with him, they thought ‘Adi’, as they called him, was distinctly odd. They referred to him as ‘the artist’ and were struck by the fact that he received no mail or parcels (even at Christmas) after about mid-1915, never spoke of family or friends, neither smoked nor drank, showed no interest in visits to brothels, and used to sit for hours in a corner of the dug-out, brooding or reading. Photographs of him during the war show a thin, gaunt face dominated by a thick, dark, bushy moustache. He was usually on the edge of his group, expressionless where others were smiling. One of his closest comrades, Balthasar Brandmayer, a stonemason from Bruckmühl in the Bad Aibling district of Upper Bavaria, later described his first impressions of Hitler at the end of May 1915: almost skeletal in appearance, dark eyes hooded in a sallow complexion, untrimmed moustache, sitting in a corner buried in a newspaper, occasionally taking a sip of tea, seldom joining in the banter of the group. He seemed an oddity, shaking his head disapprovingly at silly, light-hearted remarks, not even joining in the usual soldiers’ moans, gripes, and jibes. ‘Haven’t you ever loved a girl?’ Brandmayer asked Hitler. ‘Look, Brandmoiri,’ was the straight-faced reply, ‘I’ve never had time for anything like that, and I’ll never get round to it.’ His only real affection seems to have been for his dog, Foxl, a white terrier that had strayed across from enemy lines. Hitler taught it tricks, revelling in how attached it was to him and how glad it was to see him when he returned from duty. He was distraught late in the war when his unit had to move on and Foxl could not be found. ‘The swine who took him from me doesn’t know what he did to me,’ was his comment many years later. He felt as strongly about none of the thousands of humans he saw slaughtered about him.
About the war itself, Hitler was utterly fanatical. No humanitarian feelings could be allowed to interfere with the ruthless prosecution of German interests. He vehemently disapproved of the spontaneous gestures of friendship at Christmas 1914, when German and British troops met in no man’s land, shaking hands and singing carols together. ‘There should be no question of something like that during war,’ he protested. His comrades knew that they could always provoke Hitler with defeatist comments, real or contrived. All they had to do was to claim the war would be lost and Hitler would go off at the deep end. ‘For us the war can’t be lost’ were invariably his last words. The lengthy letter he sent on 5 February 1915 to his Munich acquaintance, Assessor Ernst Hepp, concluded with an insight into his view of the war redolent of the prejudices that had been consuming him since his Vienna days:
Each of us has only one wish, that it may soon come to the final reckoning with the gang, to the showdown, cost what it will, and that those of us who have the fortune to see their homeland again will find it purer and cleansed of alien influence (Fremdländerei), that through the sacrifices and suffering that so many hundred thousand of us make daily, that through the stream of blood that flows here day for day against an international world of enemies, not only will Germany’s external enemies be smashed, but that our inner internationalism will also be broken. That would be worth more to me than all territorial gains.
This was how he saw the colossal slaughter; not in terms of human suffering, but as worthwhile for the making of a better, racially cleansed, Germany. Hitler evidently carried such deep-seated sentiments throughout the war. But this political outburst, tagged on to a long description of military events and wartime conditions, was unusual. He appears to have spoken little to his comrades on political matters. Perhaps the fact that his comrades thought him peculiar hindered him from giving voice to his strong opinions. He appears, too, to have scarcely mentioned the Jews. Several former comrades claimed after 1945 that Hitler had at most made a few off-hand though commonplace comments about the Jews in those years, but that they had no inkling then of the unbounded hatred that was so visible after 1918. Balthasar Brandmayer recalled on the other hand in his reminiscences, first published in 1932, that during the war he had ‘often not understood Adolf Hitler when he called the Jew the wire-puller behind all misfortune’. According to Brandmayer, Hitler became more politically involved in the latter years of the war and made no secret of his feelings on what he saw as the Social Democrat instigators of growing unrest in Germany. Such comments, like all sources that postdate Hitler’s rise to prominence and, as in this case, glorify the prescience of the future leader, have to be treated with caution. But it is difficult to dismiss them out of hand. It indeed does seem very likely, as his own account in Mein Kampf claims, that Hitler’s political prejudices sharpened in the latter part of the war, during and after his first period of leave in Germany in 1916.
Between March 1915 and September 1916, the List Regiment fought in the trenches near Fromelles, defending a two-kilometre stretch of the stalemated front. Heavy battles with the British were fought in May 1915 and July 1916, but in one and a half years, the front barely moved a few metres. On 27 September 1916, two months after heavy fighting in the second battle of Fromelles, when a British offensive was staved off with difficulty, the regiment moved southwards and by 2 October was engaged on the Somme. Within days, Hitler was wounded in the left thigh when a shell exploded in the dispatch runners’ dug-out, killing and wounding several of them. After treatment in a field hospital, he spent almost two months, from 9 October until 1 December 1916, in the Red Cross hospital at Beelitz, near Berlin. He had not been in Germany for two years. He soon noticed how different the mood was from the heady days of August 1914. He was appalled to hear men in the hospital bragging about their malingering or how they had managed to inflict minor injuries on themselves to make sure they could escape from the front. He encountered much the same low morale and widespread discontent in Berlin during the period of his recuperation. It was his first time in the city, and allowed him to pay a visit to the Nationalgalerie. But Munich shocked him most of all. He scarcely recognized the city: ‘Anger, discontent, cursing, wherever you went!’ Morale was poor; people were dispirited; conditions were miserable; and, as was traditional in Bavaria, the blame was placed on the Prussians. Hitler himself, according to his own account written about eight years later, saw in all this only the work of the Jews. He was struck too, so he said, by the number of Jews in clerical positions – ‘nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk’ – compared with how few of them were serving at the front. (In fact, this was a base calumny: there was as good as no difference between the proportion of Jews and non-Jews in the German army, relative to their numbers in the total population, and many Jews served – some in the List Regiment – with great distinction.) There is no reason to presume, as has sometimes been the case, that this account of his anti-Jewish feelings in 1916 was a backwards projection of feelings that in reality only existed from 1918–19 onwards. Though, as we have noted, Hitler did not stand out for his antisemitism in the recollections of some of his former wartime comrades, two of them did refer to his negative comments about the Jews. And Hitler would have been voicing sentiments that were increasingly to be heard in the streets of Munich as anti-Jewish prejudice became more widespread and more ferocious in the second half of the war.
Hitler wanted to get back to the front as soon as possible, and above all to rejoin his old regiment. He eventually returned to it on 5 March 1917 in its new position a few miles to the north of Vimy. In the summer it was back to the same ground near Ypres that the regiment had fought over almost three years earlier, to counter the major Flanders offensive launched by the British in mid-July 1917. Battered by the heavy fighting, the regiment was relieved at the beginning of August and transported to Alsace. At the end of September, Hitler took normal leave for the first time. He had no wish to go back to Munich, which had dispirited him so much, and went to Berlin instead, to stay with the parents of one of his comrades. His postcards to friends in the regiment spoke of how much he enjoyed his eighteen-day leave, and how thrilled he was by Berlin and its museums. In mid-October, he returned to his regiment, which had just moved from Alsace to Champagne. Bitter fighting in April 1918 brought huge losses, and during the last two weeks of July the regiment was involved in the second battle of the Marne. It was the last major German offensive of the war. By early August, when it collapsed in the face of a tenacious Allied counter-offensive, German losses in the previous four months of savage combat had amounted to around 800,000 men. The failure of the offensive marked the point where, with reserves depleted and morale plummeting, Germany’s military leadership was compelled to recognize that the war was lost.
On 4 August 1918, Hitler received the Iron Cross, First Class – a rare achievement for a corporal – from the regimental commander, Major von Tubeuf. By a stroke of irony, he had a Jewish officer, Leutnant Hugo Gutmann, to thank for the nomination. The story was later to be found in all school books that the Führer had received the EK I for single-handedly capturing fifteen French soldiers. The truth, as usual, was somewhat more prosaic. From the available evidence, including the recommendation of the List Regiment’s Deputy Commander Freiherr von Godin on 31 July 1918, the award was made – as it was also to a fellow dispatch runner – for bravery shown in delivering an important dispatch, following a breakdown in telephone communications, from command headquarters to the front through heavy fire. Gutmann, from what he subsequently said, had promised both dispatch runners the EK I if they succeeded in delivering the message. But since the action was, though certainly courageous, not strikingly exceptional, it was only after several weeks of his belabouring the divisional commander that permission for the award was granted.
By mid-August 1918, the List Regiment had moved to Cambrai to help combat a British offensive near Bapaume, and a month later was back in action once more in the vicinity of Wytschaete and Messines, where Hitler had received his EK II almost four years earlier. This time Hitler was away from the battlefields. In late August he had been sent for a week to Nuremberg for telephone communications training, and on 10 September he began his second period of eighteen days’ leave, again in Berlin. Immediately on his return, at the end of September, his unit was put under pressure from British assaults near Comines. Gas was now in extensive use in offensives, and protection against it was minimal and primitive. The List Regiment, like others, suffered badly. On the night of 13–14 October, Hitler himself fell victim to mustard gas on the heights south of Wervick, part of the southern front near Ypres. He and several comrades, retreating from their dug-out during a gas attack, were partially blinded by the gas and found their way to safety only by clinging on to each other and following a comrade who was slightly less badly afflicted. After initial treatment in Flanders, Hitler was transported on 21 October 1918 to the military hospital in Pasewalk, near Stettin, in Pomerania.
The war was over for him. And, little though he knew it, the Army High Command was already manoeuvring to extricate itself from blame for a war it accepted was lost and a peace which would soon have to be negotiated. It was in Pasewalk, recovering from his temporary blindness, that Hitler was to learn the shattering news of defeat and revolution – what he called ‘the greatest villainy of the century’.
In reality, of course, there had been no treachery, no stab-in-the-back. This was pure invention of the Right, a legend the Nazis would use as a central element of their propaganda armoury. Unrest at home was a consequence, not a cause, of military failure. Germany had been militarily defeated and was close to the end of its tether – though nothing had prepared people for capitulation. In fact, triumphalist propaganda was still coming from the High Command in late October 1918. The army was by then exhausted, and in the previous four months had suffered heavier losses than at any time during the war. Desertions and ‘shirking’ – deliberately ducking duty (estimated at close on a million men in the last months of the war) – rose dramatically. At home, the mood was one of mounting protest – embittered, angry, and increasingly rebellious. The revolution was not fabricated by Bolshevik sympathizers and unpatriotic troublemakers, but grew out of the profound disillusionment and rising unrest which had set in even as early as 1915 and from 1916 onwards had flowed into what finally became a torrent of disaffection. The society which had seemingly entered the war in total patriotic unity ended it completely riven – and traumatized by the experience.
Amid the social division, there were certain common targets of aggression. War profiteering – a theme on which Hitler was able to play so effectively in the Munich beerhalls in 1920 – rankled deeply. Closely related was the bitter resentment at those running the black market. Petty officialdom, with its unremitting and intensified bureaucratic intervention into every sphere of daily life, was a further target. But the fury did not confine itself to the interference and incompetence of petty bureaucrats. These were merely the face of a state whose authority was crumbling visibly, a state in terminal disarray and disintegration.
Not least, in the search for scapegoats, Jews increasingly became the focus of intensified hatred and aggression from the middle of the war onwards. The sentiments had all been heard before. What was new was the extent to which radical antisemitism was now being propagated, and the degree to which it was evidently falling on fertile ground. Heinrich Claß, the leader of the arch-nationalist Pan-Germans, could report in October 1917 that antisemitism had ‘already reached enormous proportions’ and that ‘the struggle for survival was now beginning for the Jews’. Events in Russia in 1917 further stirred the pot of simmering hatred, adding the vital ingredient – to become thereafter the keystone of antisemitic agitation – of the Jews portrayed as running secret international organizations directed at fomenting world revolution. As it was realized that the war was lost, antisemitic hysteria, whipped up by the Pan-Germanists, reached fever pitch. Claß used the notorious words of Heinrich von Kleist, aimed at the French in 1813, when a ‘Jewish Committee’ with the purpose of ‘exploiting the situation to sound the clarion call against Judaism and to use the Jews as lightning rods for all injustices’ was set up by the Pan-Germans in September 1918: ‘Kill them; the world court is not asking you for your reasons!’
The atmosphere of disintegration and collapsing morale, the climate of political and ideological radicalization, in the last two war years could not but make the deepest impression on a Hitler who had welcomed the war so rapturously, had supported German aims so fanatically, and had from the outset condemned all defeatist suggestions so vehemently. He was repelled by many attitudes he encountered at the front. But, as we have seen, it was during the three periods, amounting in total to over three months, that he spent in Germany either on leave or recovering from injury in the last two war years that he experienced a level of disaffection at the running of the war which was new and deeply appalling to him. He had been shocked at the atmosphere in Berlin and, even more so, Munich in 1916. As the war dragged on, he became incensed by the talk of revolution, and incandescent at news of the munitions strike in favour of early peace without annexations which had spread briefly at the end of January 1918 from Berlin to other major industrial cities (though with little actual effect on munitions supplies).
The last two years of the war, between his convalescence in Beelitz in October 1916 and his hospitalization in Pasewalk in October 1918, can probably be seen as a vital staging-post in Hitler’s ideological development. The prejudices and phobias carried over from the Vienna years were now plainly evident in his embittered rage about the collapse of the war effort – the first cause in his life to which he had totally bound himself, the summation of all that he had believed in. But they had not yet been fully rationalized into the component parts of a political ideology. That would only emerge fully during Hitler’s own ‘political training’ in the Reichswehr in the course of 1919.
What part the hospitalization in Pasewalk played in the shaping of Hitler’s ideology, what significance it had for the shaping of the future party leader and dictator, has been much disputed and, in truth, is not easy to evaluate. In Hitler’s own account it has a pivotal place. Recovering from his temporary blindness, but unable to read newspapers, so he wrote, Hitler heard rumours of pending revolution but did not fully comprehend them. The arrival of some mutineering sailors was the first tangible sign of serious disturbance, but Hitler and fellow-patients from Bavaria presumed the unrest would be crushed within a few days. However, it became soon clear – ‘the most terrible certainty of my life’ – that a general revolution had taken place. On 10 November, a pastor addressed the patients in sorrowful terms about the end of the monarchy and informed them that Germany was now a republic, that the war was lost and that Germans had to place themselves at the mercy of the victors. At this, Hitler later wrote:
I could stand it no longer. It became impossible for me to sit still one minute more. Again everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow.
Since the day when I had stood at my mother’s grave, I had not wept … But now I could not help it …
And so it had all been in vain … Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the fatherland? …
The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?
There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was lost … In these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed.
In the days that followed, my own fate became known to me.
I could not help but laugh at the thought of my own future which only a short time before had given me such bitter concern …
He drew, according to his own account, the conclusion that: ‘There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard: either-or.’ And he made the decision that changed his life: ‘I, for my part, decided to go into politics.’
Hitler referred to his Pasewalk experience on a number of occasions in the early 1920s, sometimes even with embellishments. Some have been tempted to read into Hitler’s colourful accounts an hallucination which holds the key to his manic ideological obsessions, his ‘mission’ to save Germany, and his rapport with a German people themselves traumatized by defeat and national humiliation. The balance of probabilities suggests a less dramatic process of ideological development and political awareness.
Without question, Hitler was more than just deeply outraged by the news of the revolution. He felt it to be an absolute and unpardonable betrayal of all that he believed in, and, in pain, discomfort, and bitterness, looked for the culprits who would provide him with an explanation of how his world had collapsed. There is no need to doubt that for Hitler these intensely disturbing few days did amount to no less than a traumatic experience. From the following year onwards, his entire political activity was driven by the trauma of 1918 – aimed at expunging the defeat and revolution which had betrayed all that he had believed in, and eliminating those he held responsible.
But if there is any strength in the suggestion we have put forward that Hitler acquired his deep-seated prejudices, including his antisemitism, in Vienna, and had them revitalized during the last two war years, if without rationalizing them into a composite ideology, then there is no need to mystify the Pasewalk experience through seeing it as a sudden, dramatic conversion to paranoid antisemitism. Rather, Pasewalk might be viewed as the time when, as Hitler lay tormented and seeking an explanation of how his world had been shattered, his own rationalization started to fall into place. Devastated by the events unfolding in Munich, Berlin, and other cities, he must have read into them outright confirmation of the views he had always held from the Vienna days on Jews and Social Democrats, on Marxism and internationalism, on pacifism and democracy. Even so, it was still only the beginning of the rationalization. The full fusion of his antisemitism and anti-Marxism was yet to come. There is no authentic evidence that Hitler, up to and including this point, had said a word about Bolshevism. Nor would he do so, even in his early public speeches in Munich, before 1920. The connection of Bolshevism with his internal hate-figures, its incorporation into and adoption of a central place in his ‘world-view’, came only during his time in the Reichswehr in the summer of 1919. And later still came the preoccupation with ‘living space’ – only emerging into a dominant theme during the composition of Mein Kampf between 1924 and 1926. Pasewalk was a crucial step on the way to Hitler’s rationalization of his prejudices. But even more important, in all probability, was the time he spent in the Reichswehr in 1919.
The last implausible point of Hitler’s Pasewalk story is that he resolved there and then to enter politics. In none of his speeches before the putsch in November 1923 did Hitler say a word about deciding in autumn 1918 to enter politics. In fact, Hitler was in no position in Pasewalk to ‘decide’ to enter politics – or anything else. The end of the war meant that, like most other soldiers, he faced demobilization. The army had been his home for four years. But now once more his future was uncertain.
When he left Pasewalk on 19 November 1918 to return, via Berlin, to Munich, he had savings totalling only 15 Marks 30 Pfennige in his Munich account. No career awaited him. Nor did he make any effort to enter politics. Indeed, it is not easy to see how he could have done so. Neither family nor ‘connections’ were available to gain him some minor patronage in a political party. A ‘decision’ to enter politics, should Hitler have made one in Pasewalk, would have been empty of meaning. Only staying in the army offered him the hope of avoiding the evil day when he would once more have to face up to the fact that, four turbulent years on, he was no nearer his chosen career as an architect than he had been in 1914, and was without any prospects whatsoever. The future looked bleak. A return to the lonely existence of the pre-war small-time painter had no appeal. But little else beckoned. The army gave him his chance. He was able to stave off demobilization longer than almost all his former comrades, and to keep on the payroll, until 31 March 1920.
It was in the army in 1919 that his ideology finally took shape. Above all, the army, in the extraordinary circumstances of 1919, turned Hitler into a propagandist – the most talented demagogue of his day. Not a deliberate choice, but making the most of the conditions in which he found himself, provided Hitler with his entry into politics. Opportunism – and a good slice of luck – were more instrumental than strength of will.