Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Adolf Hitler according to his WWI regiment

In Nazi propaganda, he was a gallant First World War corporal who frequently risked his life. Now the myth of Adolf Hitler's heroism in the trenches has been debunked by research revealing he was little more than a 'teaboy' messenger dubbed a 'rear-area pig' by frontline soldiers.

No individual has been more scrutinized than Hitler, but detective work by Dr Thomas Weber, lecturer in modern history at Aberdeen University, unearthed new evidence.

Previously unpublished letters from veterans of Hitler's regiment have challenged the Nazi portrayal which suggested his virulent nationalism was prompted by his experience on the Western Front.

They overturn his image of his unit, the List Regiment, as a band of brothers, intolerant and anti-Jewish with Hitler 'a hero at its heart'.

They confront long-held views on Hitler’s brave war record, revealing that front soldiers shunned him as a “rear area pig” several kilometres from danger.

The letters and a diary also disclose that List men regarded him as an impractical object of ridicule, joking about his starving in a canned food factory, unable to open a can with a bayonet.

He was viewed by his comrades in regimental HQ as a loner. He was neither popular nor unpopular.

They referred to him as the 'painter' or the 'artist' and noticed that he did not indulge in their favourite pastimes – letter-writing or drinking – but was often seen with a political book in his hand or painting. He was also particularly submissive to his superiors.

'The commonly held view that Hitler had the dangerous job of running between trenches to deliver messages simply does not stand up,' said historian Dr Thomas Weber yesterday.

He added: 'I found his role was to deliver messages between regimental HQ and, for instance, battalions or the HQs of other units. So he would have been between three and five kilometres behind the front. Far from being considered a hero, Hitler was regarded as a "rear area pig" by the soldiers.'

Dr Weber said that previous biographies have had to rely on evidence from Hitler and Nazi propagandists: 'Since Hitler was an ordinary soldier in the First World War, there was not an easily available file on him. Biographers didn’t dig deep enough.'

'The myth of Hitler as a brave soldier and the camaraderie of the trenches was used by the Nazi party from the beginning in order to extend its appeal beyond the far right.

'They went to great lengths to protect this idea and through my research I discovered that a memoir written by one of his comrades was significantly altered between its first publication in 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War.'

He added: 'The story was that World War One created Hitler and radicalised him and led to the birth of the Nazi movement.

'But his life in the war really was his Achilles heel and the story could collapse like a house of cards. 'I've been trying to show that this is a totally made-up story. Hitler was untypical of the regiment and he was not really radicalised in the war.'

Within the Bavarian War Archives, he discovered papers undisturbed for almost nine decades. Elsewhere, he found unpublished letters and Nazi Party membership files, and traced Jewish List veterans.

It was known that Hitler served as a runner but, armed with new evidence, Dr Weber realises that historians have not distinguished between regimental runners, a relatively safe job, and battalion or company runners, who had to brave machine-gun fire between trenches – Hitler was a runner at regimental HQ several kilometers from the front, and living in comfort in a room.

He said: 'I never thought I would write about Hitler as so many books have been written. But I discovered we know next to nothing about Hitler and the First World War and virtually everything that we do know is based on Mein Kampf or Nazi propaganda. More than 70 per cent of my book is based on previously unused sources.'

In unpublished letters, Alois Schnelldorfer, who also served at List HQ, told his parents that his task was 'to sit in an armchair and make calls like a postmistress'. He also confirmed the front-line view of more generous provisions than the men in the trenches: 'I can drink a litre of beer under a shady walnut tree.'

Speaking of Hitler’s famous 1st Class Iron Cross - the 2nd Class was a relatively common award - Dr Weber says this was largely due to the fact he knew officers who made recommendations.

The documents also make clear that virulent anti-Semitism did not exist, as an unpublished diary by a Jewish List soldier shows.

Also, although it was known that Hitler’s Iron Cross was recommended by Hugo Gutmann, a List Jewish adjutant, when Gutmann was incarcerated by the Gestapo in 1937, it was List veterans who enabled him to survive, Weber discovered. Gutmann referred to a prison-guard who took risks to help him: 'As a good Catholic he despised the Nazis'. Another List ex-comrade helped him to escape to America.

Dr Weber also unearthed evidence to show that the veterans of the List Regiment did not – as maintained by all Hitler biographies – unanimously support Hitler after the war.

An unpublished 1934 postcard by a Hitler admirer laments his being cold-shouldered by veterans in 1922. Dr Weber discovered that few front-line List soldiers became Nazis, whereas several regimental HQ staff were prominent in the party.

Dr Weber concludes that Hitler, who worked for a left-government after the war, became violently nationalist and anti-Semitic from the post-war and post-revolutionary economic and political crisis. [That is also what Hitler said of himself in "Mein Kampf" -- JR]

Dr Weber discovered that records had survived largely intact and were housed in the Bavarian War Archive, but that those pertaining to Hitler's battle group were filed not under the List Regiment, but under the higher division to which the regiment belonged. As a result, they had lain untouched for decades.


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