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Old 04-17-2021, 11:59 AM   #10 (permalink)
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II: Fortunate Son: Hitler Goes to War and Comes of Age

“You will hear much more about me later. Just wait until my time comes.” - Adolf Hitler, 1915

“A peace that last more than twenty-five years is harmful to a nation; peoples, like individuals, sometimes need regenerating through a little blood-letting” - Adolf Hitler, 1942

Running out of money after the death of his mother, Adolf Hitler scrimped and scraped by until he received the last part of his late father’s estate in 1913, and bade farewell - with some contempt and no regrets - to Vienna. He travelled across the border to Germany, settling in Munich where, at the outbreak of World War I, he eagerly signed up for military service. Previous to this he had been conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army but found unfit for service. Returning from Salzburg to Munich, he joined the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, also known as the List Regiment, after its first commander. Far from being in a crack troop however, as he would no doubt have preferred and perhaps even expected, the young Hitler was recruited into a regiment whose purpose can only fairly be described as “cannon fodder”. With no trained men in the unit, a mere seven weeks training and the regiment being a reserve into the bargain, Hitler and his comrades were essentially sent to the Front to die.

Perhaps ironically, given how many innocents he was to order imprisoned when in power, as they left the barracks in Munich on October 12 1914, the first French soldiers the recruits encountered were prisoners taken at the beginning of the war. Though he might like to have thought so, the sun did not shine on Hitler’s first exodus to war - it rained all day and he was miserable - and they boarded a train to take them to the Front. This was the first time Hitler would see the majestic River Rhine, and it had a powerful effect on him, as did the adoration and congratulations of the people in every town through which the train passed.

Typically, and as he would do for the rest of his life, as they entered war-torn Belgium Hitler only saw the structural damage, taking into and considering of no account the suffering of the people: [We] crossed into Belgium at 10 p.m. As we left Aachen, we were given an enthusiastic send off by thousands of people, and much the same thing happened throughout our journey. At 9 a.m., we arrived at Liège. The railway station was badly damaged. The traffic was tremendous. Army transport only, of course. At midnight, we arrived at Louvain. The whole town is a heap of rubble. Perhaps also ironically, and presumably due to shortages rather than as any mark of disrespect, the regiment were transported to Brussels in cattle cars.

One thing that emerged very clearly in Hitler’s mind during his first weeks in combat was the way propaganda could be used to the advantage of the one spreading it, and none of it had to be true. Caricatures of English and Scottish soldiers, deemed to be cowardly and mercenary, not committed to the fight and ready to run at the first opportunity, showed themselves to be devastatingly untruthful when Hitler and his regiment first came face to face with the real thing. Despite the fact that the propaganda had fooled them into a false sense of security, Hitler could see that you could basically say anything you wanted with it, and people would believe it if it was what they wanted to hear.

Hitler volunteered for messenger duty, taking dispatches from place to place across the battlefield, and soon gained a reputation for bravery and reliability, though it was wondered why he put himself at risk, not being German born. However perhaps he was playing the odds, as when the company engaged the English on their first day in combat, they lost over a third of their number. After the battle Hitler was promoted from infantryman to corporal, and recommended for the Iron Cross. Despite his undoubted bravery - or, if you prefer, which I do, fanaticism - the newly-promoted corporal did not endear himself to his comrades, refusing to join in with, and in fact berating their complaints about their treatment, the general strategy and even the need for the war. He was unshakeable in his belief in their commanders and Germany’s destiny as victors, and had many arguments with others who did not feel the same way. This naturally isolated and alienated him from the larger part of his fellow soldiers, but it didn’t seem to bother him, as he was at heart a loner, an insular, morose, taciturn kind of man who rarely smiled or joked.

Nevertheless, taking into account that many of the stories about Hitler in the First World War are either unreliable or possibly apocryphal, or at best impossible to corroborate, he is said to have won his first of two Iron Crosses for having rescued an officer under fire and carrying him back to the trenches, although that officer is said to have been dead by the time he got him back. Still, as a single bullet could easily have ended Hitler’s life there and then, and conceivably have written a new time line for us, the future leader of the Thousand Year Reich would look back to his incident many times, recounting it as proof that Providence (as he called it) had great plans for him, and would not allow him to die on the battlefield. Given that there were several attempts on his life later, it’s easy to see why he would believe some supernatural agency was working on his behalf to keep him alive. As they say, the Devil looks after his own.

Indeed, only a short time later, at the forest Wytschaete, when four divisional commanders needed space in their tent, Hitler and his comrades stepped out to allow them room. A moment later a French grenade hit the tent, killing most of those inside. Once again, the little corporal had had a close brush with death, and had come out intact.

Not at all surprising to find that, just as the German press were mocking and demeaning the fighting attributes and courage of the British Tommy, the English papers were doing the same, as this extract published in the Times, written by its special correspondent, crowed: . “Everywhere I hear the same story. The German foot soldier cannot shoot, he will not stop to fight. When attacked he runs away: he fires over his shoulder as he runs, or throws down his arms and surrenders.” Well, who ever expected the Press to be unbiased, eh?

As the dreary November weather drew in, 1914 preparing to shudder and shiver its way out and usher in an equally bleak and more savage year, both sides of the conflict realised proper fighting was next to impossible. The heavy rain had turned the ground into mucky, swampy, treacherous terrain in which no kind of advance could be considered, and thick dark fog obscured all but a few metres in front. Now began the cruellest phase of the Great War, the hated trench warfare, as men on either side dug deep wide emplacements in the soggy ground and prepared to wait out the winter in the most uncomfortable and least healthy conditions. They say waiting is the worst part, and while this was certainly not true - how many men, shivering and cursing in those mud-filled trenches in which they passed their days and nights feared in their hearts the order to go over the top, the order to attack? - it must have been akin to Hell on Earth. With poor food, little sleep and disease running rampant through the trenches, many must have wondered why they were there, suffering as they did, and dreaming of home.

Not Corporal Adolf Hitler, EK2 (Iron Cross 2nd Class) though. Far from being repulsed by death he seemed attracted to it. One of his comrades, Hans Mend, tells of an incident where he came across Hitler standing staring at two dead soldiers on whom the grass had, as he said, already begun growing. Oblivious to the fact that he was a target, standing out in the open, Hitler was lost in his own world, and did not seem to relish the interruption of his friend. He was not like a man contemplating his own mortality or the futility of war, but more like a scientist studying an interesting specimen. Hitler had already acquired a reputation for strangeness among the men, and this was only exacerbated as Christmas came around. Unlike the others, who delighted in singing Christmas carols and receiving Christmas packages from home, Hitler was not interested. He received no package, nor did he want one, and had no desire to see the contents of those of other soldiers, who tried to share theirs with him only to be gruffly rebuffed.

With the war temporarily stalled - as the English might say, rain stopped play! - Hitler had plenty of time, when he wasn’t running messages to headquarters, dodging enemy shells and sniper fire, to read the mountain of racist rhetoric and propaganda that spewed forth from the pages of the German newspapers, and to file away for future reference how people could be made to believe anything if the terms were couched cleverly enough. The reports no doubt also would have made a war fanatic like him itch to be back in the thick of it, but even Adolf Hitler couldn’t control the weather, and he just had to stay put. For those who, like me, believed the story of the English/German Christmas Truce, which has long been told, retold, acted and re-enacted in film and books, to be a fiction, here’s a first-hand account from Mend.

At 3 o’clock on the morning of 26 December, we were moving forward in the trenches. Everything was frozen hard. prepared myself to be met by heavy fire. But imagine my astonishment when not a shot came. The men we relieved told us that they had been exchanging things with the English, which seemed crazy to us. As proof, I found a few English cigarettes in my dugout, which tasted very good.21 Shortly after dawn Englishmen appeared and ‘waved to us, to which our people replied’. More men emerged from the trenches; the Germans carried a Christmas tree, which they lit in no-man’s-land. ‘Everyone [now] moved freely out of the trenches and it would have been unthinkable to have fired a shot. What had seemed crazy a few hours before, I was now able to see with my own eyes.’ Bavarians and Englishmen ‘until now the fiercest of enemies shook hands, spoke to one another and exchanged things’. One came up to me straight away, pressed my hand and passed me a few cigarettes; another gave me a diary, a third signed his name on a field postcard, a fourth wrote his address in my notebook . . . One Englishman played a German comrade’s mouth organ; others danced, others again were immensely proud to put on a German helmet...I will never forget this sight for the rest of my life . . . Christmas 1914 will be unforgettable to me.

There is, however, no mention of the famous football match between the two enemies, so that may be made up, but then again, Mend says that this period of truce lasted almost a week, so it could have happened. I just have not, as yet, found any proof of one taking place. Needless to say, one soldier was not impressed and did not take part in the festivities, and a Christmas-hating, English-hating, war-loving, frustrated Hitler fumed as his comrades, in his eyes, degraded themselves by fraternising with the enemy and treating them as human beings, not vermin to be wiped out to the last man. As 1915 began its slow, cold trudge across the blasted fields of Flanders though, and reality, for him, re-established itself, with clear lines now once again redrawn between friend and foe, Hitler adopted a dog, a fox terrier that had come from the English lines, whom he called, with astonishing originality, Foxl and whom he grew to love, if the man could ever be said to have loved anyone or anything. With astonishing lack of knowledge of dogs (perhaps it wasn’t known at this time) he relates how he would feed chocolate to Foxl; chocolate is toxic to dogs.

The arrival of new recruits to the regiment gave Hitler a chance to expound on his political views, and many an argument was had between him and those who did not hold his radical racist and anti-semitist views. In a chilling presentiment of the future, after one particularly heated debate it was prophesied - jokingly - that Hitler would be chancellor after the next election. It would take another twenty years, but many a truth in jest… Again foreshadowing the future, though hardly a unique order in war, especially one that was currently being lost, Hitler’s regiment was told it must “hold to the last man”, orders that would echo across the war-torn and bloodied streets of Stalingrad a quarter of a century later, issued by the man who now took the orders and swore to obey them. I suppose in a twisted way, in retrospect you can see why he expected and would brook no surrender at Stalingrad; if he, as a mere soldier, was prepared to obey orders and die if necessary rather than capitulate to the enemy, why should his troops feel, or be allowed to do any differently? To Hitler surrender was unthinkable, both when he was in the trenches of World War One and when he was commanding his armies as the Russians closed in on Berlin in 1945. He probably would have shot himself or gone out in a suicidal blaze of glory rather than surrender. He carried this through, in the end, to the last.

His surly and taciturn nature, and his aversion to French women (whom he no doubt believed impure and just waiting to taint his bloodline) earned Hitler the name among his comrades of “woman hater”, but his anti-Semitism was mirrored among the men. Jews, though serving in the army, were universally believed to be shirking their duties, volunteering, engineering or even bribing their way into “cushy” jobs; the reality was far from this. Even a specially commissioned investigation by Heinrich Class, which had already decided in advance that Jews were serving in disproportionately smaller numbers than “true” German and set out to prove this, drew inescapable conclusions that told the reverse story, and was quietly hushed up, after a protracted media campaign, rather than admit the truth. But racism among the soldiers was not confined to Jews; they ridiculed the “black savages” - Indian and other Caribbean troops who fought on the English side, “drunken” Irishmen and Scotsmen whom they derided as women due to the kilts they wore into battle.
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