Feature Articles - A Slow Fuse - Hitler's World War One Experience

Corporal Hitler during World War One (U.S. National Archive) On 10 November, 1918, an elderly priest from Pasewalk, Germany, walked into the nearby military hospital to deliver grave news to its wounded occupants - the war was lost and Imperial Germany was no more.

The old man wept as he outlined the details to his stunned audience.  There was to be an armistice on the next day, Germany was now a republic, and the Kaiser, the nation's leader, was to abdicate.  A Lance-Corporal, recovering from the effects of poison gas, reeled away from the crowd. In his memoirs he wrote: "I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow."

Adolf Hitler, a veteran of the War's worst firestorms, began to cry.  It was inexplicable; Germany, the nation of Aryans, the nation destined to dominate the 20th Century had lost.  He desperately sought a reason for defeat.  Imbued with a burning hatred of Jews, Bolsheviks and even Democrats, the solution was simple - the country had been stabbed in the back by Fifth Columnists, or in Hitler's words: "a gang of despicable and depraved criminals!"

The First World War created the Dictator that the world would bitterly come to know.  The brutal propaganda, the carpet bombing, the terrifying military technology, the demand to see a 'World in Flames' - all of Hitler's major Second World War policies stemmed his experiences of the Great War.

He himself admitted this in 1941, saying: "When I returned from the War, I brought back home with me my experiences at the front; out of them I built my National Socialist community."  Indeed, the seeds of Hitler's twisted Darwinian theories, the ones that led to the creation of Auschwitz, were developed among corpses littering the First World War's trenches and dugouts.

But an entire generation had experienced the War and most, although haunted by its horrors, had managed to return home and help rebuild a more civilised and more modern society.  Why was Hitler different?  What had happened to him in these years of conflict?

The story of Hitler's World War One begins not in 1914, but five years earlier in 1909.  Hitler was living on the breadline in Austro-Hungary's capital city, Vienna.  With both parent's dead and his inheritance spent, Hitler eked out a living by performing odd jobs, painting picture postcards or designing adverts for local businesses.  His aspirations had been dashed by two rejections from the Viennese Academy of Art.  At night he slept in a doss-house behind a railway station.

Hitler (circled) in Odeonsplatz, Munich, on 1 August 1914 (click to enlarge)Reinhold Hansich, a vagrant, remembered the future Fuhrer: "On the very first day there sat next to the bed that had been allotted to me a man with nothing on except an old torn pair of trousers - Hitler.  His clothes were being cleaned of lice, since for days he had been wandering about without a roof and in a terribly neglected condition."

Hitler sincerely believed that he was an artistic genius.  Thus he raged against the society that had refused to recognise his talents.  Unfortunately, the failed artist was presented with numerous targets which he could vent his frustrations upon.  Edwardian Vienna, a city of high culture, art and elegance was also a hotbed of anti-Semitism.  The twisted racial theories were also mixed up with heady notions of greater Germanic nationalism.  These philosophies gave the destitute Hitler a feeling of personal and communal superiority.

The young man would work in fits and bursts.  Hitler spent most of his time in the city's libraries reading political tracts (or any other literature that fitted in with his distorted world-view).  He would also discuss and debate the latest news with his fellow down-and-outs.  Reinhold Hansich recalled: "he would hang around the night shelters, living on bread and soup he got there, and discussing politics."  Anyone who disagreed with his views quickly found themselves on the receiving end of an enraged rant about conspiracies and Jewish plots.

By 1913 the failed artist was becoming sickened by his homeland's efforts to modernise and to devolve power (all be it very slowly).  Rather than attempting to uphold an already unravelled state, Hitler believed the authorities should cut their losses and pursue an Anschluss, the unification of Germanic Austria with Germany proper.  In Mein Kampf he wrote: "My inner aversion to the Hapsburg State was increasing daily... This motley of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs and Croats, and always the bacillus which is the solvent of human society, the Jew."

It was this, Hitler declared, that drove him to travel to Munich: "I came to love that city more than any other place known to me.  A German city.  How very different from Vienna."

Yet Hitler was papering over an important but rather inconvenient fact - he arrived in Munich as a draft dodger.  He was meant to have presented himself to the relevant authorities as early as 1910.  By 1913 he was being actively pursued by the Austrian police.  Once located in Munich, he was given the choice of either appearing voluntarily at a board of inspection or face extradition and arrest.

Fighting for the Austrian Empire was an abhorrent idea for Hitler, however, he need not have been worried - on 5 February 1914 he was turned down for military service due to a lack of fitness.  The Gestapo was ordered to find and destroy all of the relevant files pertaining to this incident after the Nazis had occupied Austria in 1938.  Hitler was furious when told that they had gone missing.

His fortunes had obviously improved on his return to Munich.  He was now able to rent lodgings.  Perhaps he was drawing a little more money from advertising commissions.  He still spent most of his time arguing politics in cafes or beer cellars.  And, as always, he carried on reading works that appealed only to his views.  By the summer of 1914 it would be safe to say that Adolf Hitler was travelling on a road of disappointment and obscurity.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand's body lying in stateOn 28 June Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.  Hitler was loath to fight for the Hapsburgs and their decrepit Empire.

It was the cause of Germany that held special appeal for him.  Hitler asked for special permission to enlist with a Bavarian regiment.  He received the reply with baited breath: "I opened the document with trembling hands; no words of mine can describe the satisfaction I felt."

He added: "I sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart."  Hitler the crude provincial Austrian had become Hitler the German soldier.  The road to obscurity was no more - the chance for glory and for recognition, the two things he craved most, were now open.

Hitler was enrolled in the 1st Company of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.  Unofficially it was known as the 'List' Regiment, named after its original Commander, Colonel Von List.  Interestingly, Rudolf Hess was a volunteer in the same regiment.

He recovered his health during the months of drill and training.  On 8 October he took an oath of allegiance to the Bavarian King Ludwig III.  Many new recruits saw the oath as an Army quirk; for the nationalistic Hitler it took on an almost religious significance.  Indeed, the oath represented a sacred contract between him and his beloved Germany.  The intensity of his beliefs explain the extent to which Hitler felt betrayed on 11 November 1918.  He believed that whilst he had upheld his side of the bargain, the State (hijacked by traitors), had reneged.

On 21 October 1914 the List Regiment entrained for the Western Front.  After a two-day journey they reached Lille and were promptly attached to the 6th Bavarian Division in Crown Prince Rupprecht's VI Army.  The German army was in the throes of fighting the First Ypres.

The early war engagements, because of their less static nature, often appear to be less deadly than the grand offensives made during the years of trench stalemate.  Nothing could be further from the truth; unused to the murderous capability of modern weaponry, commanders had their men advance in 19th Century fashion with terrible results - swathes of 'assault' troops were mown down by the firepower of accurate rifles and lethal machine guns.  The Bavarians arrived just after the famous and semi-mythological Kindermord zu Ypren, the massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.  Hitler's regiment would shortly suffer a similar fate.

German troops in 1914 (click to enlarge)On 29 October three battalions of the List Regiment were thrown into the raging battle.  Two companies from the 1st Coldstream Guards and one from the 1st Black Watch obstructed the German objectives near Gheluvelt.  With virtually no fire support (artillery was limited to a paltry 9 rounds per gun) it is a testimony to the British infantryman's skill that he not only repulsed the Germans but also inflicted serious casualties upon them.

Hitler, much as we would like him to have been a coward and a shirker, was in fact a very good soldier.  He remained calm under fire, showed respect to his superiors and never questioned his orders.  Whilst casualties mounted and morale fell away, Hitler unstintingly carried on with his duty.  He was rewarded with a promotion to Lance Corporal.

As the fighting continued the List regiment was used in a number of assaults just to the south of Ypres.  Facing the French this time, the Germans received yet another mauling.  Hitler earned an Iron Cross 2nd Class in an engagement near Croonaert Wood, Wytschaete.  During the fighting and under heavy fire, Hitler, now appointed Meldeganger (a dispatch runner), stumbled across a seriously wounded officer left out in the open.

Along with a friend, he managed to pull the wounded man back to safety.  Hitler received his award in December 1914.  The action at the First Ypres decimated his regiment.  Hitler wrote to his Munich landlord reporting that only 600 men were left out of approximately 3500.  Colonel List was among the fatalities.

It is easy to forget that the phrase 'over by Christmas', although seen today as insanely naïve, really was the expectation that the 1914 volunteers took with them to war.  The realisation that the conflict was to be longer than expected came as a deep blow to the morale of the fighting men.  The foot-soldier was now fighting a war of willpower, nerves and stamina.  Hitler, unlike many of his compatriots, had recognised this fairly early on.

Ypres in 1914-15 (click to enlarge), copyright OctofishThe horrors of 1914, however, were a mere taster of the hell that was yet to come.  1915 was a year of advances - advances in killing and very little else.  Hitler's regiment was at the battle of Neuve Chapelle facing the British assault.  Still somewhat inexperienced in the art of trench war, both the British and the Germans entered into a deadly match of attack and counter attack.

Aiming to recapture the initiative, the Germans launched another assault at Ypres about a month after Neuve Chapelle.  The Second Battle of Ypres brought a new low to warfare.  It was the first occasion that a modern nation employed poison gas to kill its enemies.  The List Regiment, having suffered from the battering of Neuve Chapelle, was used primarily in a support role.

Hitler, from all the surviving (and un-doctored) accounts of him, was something of an enigma to his mucking in pals.  He refused to behave like a normal soldier, in that he never requested leave and refrained from entering into bawdy talk concerning the local girls.  His greatest pleasures were to either paint trench scenes or spend time eating bread piled high with jam.  At one point he befriended a dog called Fox (Hitler had a great affinity with canines). He was distraught when the dog was either lost or stolen.

Now and then he'd pontificate upon the evils of smoking and drinking - hardly a cause endearing to the average soldier.  At points he drove many to the edge of distraction, especially when it came to his political 'lectures'.  Listening to his rants on Marxist conspiracies and Jewish plots, whilst stuck in a dug-out on the receiving end of an Allied bombardment, would have made any man despair.

In the art of soldiering, Hitler was a consummate professional, and this gained him a great amount of respect with his comrades.  It took nerves of steel to rush, deliver and return with staff messages in the midst of a heavy barrage.  Hitler's survival against suicidal odds gave him a certain mystique in the eyes of his comrades.

In regards to the question of survival and fate (a matter that plagued every protagonists mind), there were two veins of thought.  Many believed in luck.  Chaos and random factors dictated the chances of living and the chances of dying.  Others saw the hand of providence behind almost every major sequence of events.

Hitler, given his personality, became obsessed (obsessed even in the eyes of fellow veterans!) with an idea that he was being preserved by a divine force.  Later, as Fuhrer, he would emphasise a number of examples that backed his beliefs.  In the first case, Hitler recalled how a mysterious voice had told him to leave a crowded dugout during a minor barrage.  Within minutes of walking out into the trenches an incoming shell flattened the bunker killing all of its occupants.

Painting of Hitler as Fuhrer (click to enlarge)The second and even stranger event occurred either at the beginning or the end of the war (records are confused).  Private Henry Tandey, a highly decorated British soldier, was presented with a clear shot of Hitler trying to get back to his lines.

Instead of pulling the trigger, the Englishman let him go - a moment of compassion that perversely sentenced the world to further suffering. Hitler, having seen Tandey lower his rifle, felt that the gods of war had intervened on his behalf and, strange as it may seem, had a picture of his 'saviour' hung on a wall at Berchtesgaden (for further information on this bizarre episode click here).

Of all the battles that Hitler took part in, it was the Somme that affected him the most.  The Somme was to become a defining moment in the history of Britain - when blind faith in the righteousness of King and Country was lost forever amid bullets, barbed wire and corpses.  But the Somme also damaged the German national psyche.

One of the battle's greatest myths claims that the Kaiser's soldiers were hunkered down in bunkers impervious to the Allied bombardment - and that is how the British saw it.  Believing the enemy had been annihilated, they were shocked to find that the Germans had not only survived but were able to resist the attacks.  'Shellproof' bunkers became the only possible explanation for this.

While it is true that the Germans were in well built defences, it is just as true that the heaviest of British shells could obliterate pretty much anything in their path - including most bunkers.  The Germans were subjected to one of the world's heaviest bombardments.  It is impossible to know just how many dug-outs became tombs.  The noise alone put fear of God into the soldiers and this was combined with the knowledge that an incoming shell could bring instant death; no wonder many men were driven out of their minds.

It became a question of mental toughness.  If enough men remained alive and sane, then the trenches could be held and re-enforcements brought up to face the onslaught.  The tactic, as the British found out, worked.  The German death rate skyrocketed when the High Command ordered frivolous counter-attacks to retake what had became a scorched wasteland.  These troops were mown down in exactly the same fashion as their British counterparts - except their suffering has been overshadowed.

On 7 October, 1916, whilst stationed near Bapaume, Hitler received a severe wound to the leg resulting from a shell blast.  He was sent to convalesce at Beelitz, near Berlin.  When he was well enough he visited the nation's capital for a spot of sight-seeing.  By now the city was suffering from acute food shortages. Basic supplies of meat were a luxury item.  Long hours under intense manual strain and on empty stomachs were too much for many munitions workers - strikes became inevitable.  These shortages of rations, and in-turn munitions, were, if anything, the real causes behind Germany's defeat.  Yet Hitler, an eye-witness to much of this, still labelled the public as cowards and traitors.

Declared fit for light duties, Hitler was posted to the List Regiment's Reserve Battalion station back in Munich.  Although he was happy to be 'home', he despaired of the civilians for their defeatist attitudes.  The lack of morale, the lack of action and the lack of camaraderie depressed him.  He later wrote, "I could not tolerate this squabbling among people of the same German stock."  He applied for frontline duties.  By February 1917 he returned to his unit to the utter astonishment of surviving comrades.

Ypres in 1917 (click to enlarge)He quickly fell back into his old ways of making rambling political speeches.  And it comes as no surprise that his favourite topic was now conspiracy on the Home Front.  Hans Mend, a comrade of Hitler's, wrote: "He sat in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands in deep contemplation.  Suddenly he would leap up, and running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy."

Hitler had returned just in time to feel the full weight of the British offensive at Arras and then the Third Ypres, the muddy holocaust fought in and around Passchendaele.  Once again Hitler performed his duties with determination and bravery.  He was awarded a number of citations as well, including the Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords.  A decorated veteran like Hitler was well within his rights to apply for promotion.  But he displayed a distinct lake of enthusiasm - Hitler preferred to remain in the role that had assured him glory and respect.

One of the greatest events to alter the war on the Western Front actually happened far away in the East.  With the Tsar toppled and the Bolsheviks in disarray, the Germans forced their terms on Russia.  With the Eastern Front secured, men, material and machinery was transported to the West in preparation for a grand breakthrough.  The German Army, confident of success in 1918, was infused with a new espirit de corps.

Hitler was positively chaffing at the bit by the spring of 1918: "It was my luck that I was able to take part in the first two offensives and in the final offensive.  These have left stupendous impressions on my life."  But was he right to feel confident?  True, the German Army was well prepared and its morale was indeed high.  They were even employing new tactics - the core component of which were small teams of highly manoeuvrable, but well armed shock troops.  Yet behind all of this lurked impending disaster - it was Germany's last throw of the dice, and most in High Command knew it.

U.S. troops in action in 1918 (click to enlarge)American troops, guns and airplanes were pouring into France.  US industrial might and its overwhelming source of manpower (combined with the asphyxiating naval blockade) would ensure a German defeat either in the winter of 1918 or the spring of 1919.  Thus the Germans had to knock the Allies out in one devastating blow.

The List Regiment was thrown into the fight to re-take Chemin Des Dames.  By late June, German forces were on the Marne and within striking distance of the French capital.  But it was all a pipe dream.  Even if the Germans had made it to Paris, they would still have to take the city and, as the Second World War went on to show, taking vast urban areas was usually a nightmare for the attacking side.  Together with American men and material, it was only a matter of time before the Allies unleashed a vast counter-attack.  To put it bluntly, the German offensive, whilst spectacular, was never going to be enough.

On 4 August 1918, with the Germans in the last throes of their grand offensive, Hitler received an Iron Cross 1st Class for, 'personal bravery and general merit.'  He had single handily captured a group of Frenchmen huddled in a shell hole.  Cunningly, Hitler had crawled to the lip of their impromptu shelter and then shouted out to the men that they were surrounded and had better surrender.  Duped by his ruse, the Frenchmen came along without a fight.  Once in power, the Nazi propagandists explicitly increased the number of prisoners he had captured - a mistake that the Fuhrer was happy to leave uncorrected.

Hitler's Iron Crosses (click to enlarge)The Iron Cross First Class gave Hitler the reward, recognition and the status that he had been craving for.  The prize was rare for officers - but rarer still for non-commissioned ranks.  It was official recognition of his bravery, honour and, at a subconscious level, racial superiority.  Whilst other Nazi leaders, most notably Goering, adorned themselves with medals, tassels and shining epaulettes, Hitler simply wore his Iron Cross - it was his badge of honour.

By late September the German front was beginning to unravel.  The over-extended army was fighting for its life just as the Allies were about to launch the 'Big Push'.  British and French experience, combined with American vigour was an inexorable force.  The Germans reeled back from punch after punch.  Although the Kaiser's troops were aware of the precarious nature of things, very few realised that the military machine was about to break down for good.

The German authorities had done well to hide the facts not just from the public but the politicians too.  On 2 October members of the Reichstag were astounded when informed that peace negotiations were almost inevitable.  Morale on the Home Front, already damaged, quickly collapsed.  It was simply a case of speeding up the inevitable.  There was no secret cabal of traitors pulling invisible strings - German defeatism was an organic force.

Dead German machine gunner during the Allied advance, 1918 (click to enlarge)In October 1918, the List Regiment found itself battered and bruised in Werwick, to the south of Ypres.  On the night of 13/14 October Hitler was caught in a British gas attack.

The poison deprived him of his sight and on the following day his ability to stand.  He was sent back to recover at Pasewalk - and it was there that his war ended.

Hitler's First World War career as a soldier was not only unusual but, as unpalatable as it may be, commendable.  Not once did he shirk or shy away from danger.  His bravery won him numerous citations and awards, including the Iron Cross First Class.  But festering under this façade of military prowess was a putrid mass of extremism, hair-brained scientific ideas and twisted racial theories.  In exploring Hitler's Great War we have seen the emergence of these demons - from the ramblings of a down-and-out to the rants of a soldier who was now able to exploit his proud military record for political means, and thus command the respect of his peers.

On November 10, the pride of his war experience was combined with the bitterness of defeat.  It was a lethal cocktail - one that led him to pursue power and ultimately, the Third Reich.  1914-1918 was, for Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, not only unfinished business, but a blueprint on how to conduct the titanic struggles of the future.  Thus the embers of one war ignited the fuse of another.

The USA suffered 57,476 fatal army casualties during the war.

- Did you know?


On This Day