A University of Aberdeen historian has uncovered a wealth of new archive material and personal documents which challenge popular understanding of Adolf Hitler and the origins of the Third Reich.
Dr Thomas Weber has pieced together a dramatically different picture of the dictator from previously unseen material in his book Hitler’s First War, published in September.
Hitler’s biographers have provided countless interpretations of his life but virtually all agree that World War I and its immediate aftermath formed his political world-view and that he was at the heart of a close-knit regiment, with many of its veterans forming the core of the National Socialist Party.
Dr Weber’s ground-breaking book overturns all of these beliefs and the idea that it was the experience of war that radicalised and ‘made’ Hitler, and led to a brutalisation of German and European society.
· The Nazi Party worked to suppress and discredit accounts of the Great War that showed him as anything other than heroic – including an account written by Hitler’s commanding officer
· Hitler exaggerated claims that he was the only soldier, from the group in which he fought, to survive a battle against British forces, including the Gordon Highlanders and the Black Watch
· Hardly any of the regiment’s veterans supported Hitler after the war and that by 1933 only 2% had joined the Nazi party
· As a dispatch runner he was significantly distanced from his regiment’s front line troops and clearly despised by them, labelled a ‘rear area pig’
· His perception of the realities of war was significantly distorted and this had a direct bearing on his post-war beliefs
· Anti-Semitism was largely absent within Hitler’s regiment, contrary to the claims of Nazi propaganda
He traced some remarkable sources in order to reach his conclusions, including the relatives of the Jewish officer who proposed Hitler for the Iron Cross, and those of a Jewish soldier who served alongside Hitler and wrote a diary of his wartime experience.
Dr Weber took a different tack to many of his contemporaries in investigating Hitler’s wartime role, scouring the archives of his regiment (the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR 16), commonly called the List Regiment), much of which was uncatalogued and had not been used as a source in previous accounts of his life.
He discovered that records had survived largely intact and were housed in the Barvarian 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 and so had lain untouched for decades.
Dr Weber said: “I never thought I would write about Hitler as so many books have been written about his life 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.
“I was surprised how much new material we found and more than 70 per cent of my book is based on previously unused sources.”
Dr Weber says the significance of Hitler’s wartime experience and how it was used as a tool for Nazi propaganda cannot be underestimated.
“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,” he added.
“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.
“The reality was a gulf between the majority of soldiers and Hitler – a member of support staff with the Regimental headquarters.
“The commonly held view that Hitler had the dangerous job of running between trenches to deliver messages simply does not stand up – I found that his role was to deliver messages between regimental HQ and, for instance, battalions or the HQs of other units, and not companies, as has previously been stated - so he would have been between three and five kilometres behind the front line.”
While Dr Weber does not suggest this was safe, it carried significantly less risk than front line duties with none of Hitler’s immediate colleagues killed in action.
He suggests that far from being considered a hero, Hitler was actually regarded as a ‘rear area pig’ (Etappenschwein) by the regiment’s soldiers.
The award of the Iron Cross to Hitler, Dr Weber proposes, had more to do with being known by the officers who could make recommendations, than his heroics in battle, with the majority of awards made to enlisted men presented to support staff of regimental or divisional HQ staff rather than combat soldiers.
He points to accounts of a battle fought against British troops, including soldiers from the Gordon Highlanders and the Blackwatch, to prove Hitler exaggerated claims of his heroics.
In line with this, Dr Weber’s research reveals that Hitler attended only one meeting of veterans from his regiment (in 1922) where he was ‘cold shouldered’ and never returned, even in 1934 when the Nazis staged a huge reunion to mark the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war.
To compile his ground-breaking book, Dr Weber and his team of researchers turned detective, scouring thousands of sources in order to determine how typical Hitler was in terms of his regiment and German soldiers at the end of the First World War.
Given that the First World War is generally cited as a primary reason for the radicalisation of Germans, and of Hitler, Dr Weber wanted to overturn the idea that it was the experience of war that radicalised and ‘made’ Hitler, that the war led to a brutalization of German and European society, and that it was due to the war experience of the German population at large that a democratization of Germany after the First World War stood no chance.
To establish this, the researchers took on the painstaking task of building a database with a sample of several hundred soldiers and cross referenced them against Nazi membership files.
They also compiled a list of 59 Jewish members of the regiment and used various tools to find out what happened to them during the Holocaust. As a result of this, Dr Weber tracked down several families who were able to provide new and compelling information.
It was a search which took him five years and across the world and yet it was a series of remarkable coincidences which resulted in him making contact with the relatives of several important figures from the regiment, including the family of Hugo Gutmann, the Jewish Officer who proposed Hitler for an Iron Cross in 1918.
Dr Weber said: “Gutmann had emigrated to America and changed his name and I spent more than five years trying to track down the family. A newspaper in St Louis even ran a story on my search but it produced nothing.
“Then in May I received a call from a friend who works at a museum in Berlin – he said a couple from Buenos Aires had just walked in and that he was the great-nephew of Gutmann.
“We made contact and they were able to provide some of his private papers and gave me a photograph of Hitler from the First World War which had not been published before.”
Dr Weber also tracked down relatives of Justin Fleischmann, a Jewish soldier whose wartime diaries challenge received wisdom about Jewish experience of the Great War.
Again, it was an unlikely coincidence which led him to the family.
“I discovered Fleischmann had emigrated to Pittsburgh, USA in the 1930s. I have spent time in America teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and I remembered that an elderly gentleman who used to come into the Department had grown up in Pittsburgh so asked if he could put me in touch with any Jewish institutions which may be able to help in my search.
“I was amazed when he came back and said his own father had known him and he was able to put me in touch with relatives,” he said.
Fleischmann’s diaries make no mention of anti-Semitism within the regiment, and form a crucial part of Dr Weber’s book – contradicting the popular belief this increased between the years 1916-19.
Hitler’s First Warpaints a dramatically different image of Hitler which has implications for popular understanding of the origins and trajectory of the Third Reich, about the extent of its popular support and about the character and beliefs of Hitler himself.
The book argues that Hitler’s political future was still open after both the war and the revolution. It also posits that the war experience did not radicalise or even noticeably alter the political convictions of most Germans, that Weimar democracy stood in the tradition of pre-war homegrown political reform movements in Germany, and that a constitutional monarchy in post-First World War Germany would in the long run have produced a more stable and more democratic Germany.
Hitler’s First War is published by Oxford University Press and will be available from all good bookshops from September 16.