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Old 04-17-2021, 12:01 PM   #11 (permalink)
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When the List Regiment were ordered to the slaughterhouse that was The Somme on October 2 1916, Hitler found the terrain far different to any he had encountered in other battles, such as Fromelles a few months before. He still had to jump from shell-crater to shell-crater in order to make his way, but the muck here was unlike anything he had experienced up to that. Indeed, back at Fromelles and Fournes the weather had made battle impossible, as each side dug in and awaited the departure of the rain and for the ground to be traversable. But the Somme was a constant, perpetual, almost living thing, the battle never stopping, never pausing, men being cut down on every side, artillery firing, rain slanting down and soaking to the skin, mud sucking like quicksand as the feet tried to move, dead left where they fell. There was no pause, no let-up, and again to use the old English cricket term, rain did not stop play. Orders were given, countermanded, conflicted, confused, and things got so dangerous that as many as six runners would be sent out with the same message, in the hope that at least one would get through.

Even the war-mad and fanatical Hitler must have lost some of his enthusiasm in this atmosphere of despair, death and debacle. No hot food for a week, dysentery running rampant through the trenches, his regiment shrinking day by day as more men were killed, it was his comrade Brandmayer who put it into words: “The arena in the west no longer concerned the waging of war, but the inhuman extermination of a young generation. After a week we already imagined ourselves to be living in the burning and bottomless pit of hell.” Worse was to come.

A massive offensive by the English took place on October 7, involving some of the worst and most desperate fighting of the battle. Hitler, however, would miss it, to his great chagrin. His legendary luck finally running out on October 5, he was wounded when a shell landed in the crater he had jumped into and, over his protestations, was evacuated to Berlin. Though he was delighted to be back in his Fatherland, this joy soon faded as he took in the general atmosphere around Berlin and Munich, blaming the mood of depression and defeatism, as he would everything for the rest of his miserable life, on the Jews.

“Clearly there was dire misery everywhere. The big city was suffering from hunger. Discontent was great. In various soldiers’ homes the tone was like that in the hospital. It gave you the impression that these scoundrels were intentionally frequenting such places in order to spread their views. But much, much worse were conditions in Munich itself! The offices were filled with Jews. Nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk. I was amazed at this plethora of warriors of the chosen people and could not help but compare them with their rare representatives at the Front. As regards economic life, things were even worse. Here the Jewish people had become really ‘indispensable.’ The spider was slowly beginning to suck the blood out of the peoples’ pores”

On his return to his regiment (having been originally assigned to a different one but pleading or demanding to be sent back to the List) Hitler was not slow to denounce the traitors and slackers, the Jews and the Communists promoting munitions strikes back home, and so leaving him and his comrades without the necessary weapons to defend themselves. This time his speeches and rhetoric struck home, and people listened, and Hitler no doubt learned a valuable lesson about the timing of political speeches; at a time when people are hungry, railing against striking bakers or the unfair price of bread will be received with much more enthusiasm than it will when bellies are full, so to speak.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 must have been a strange dichotomy for Hitler. On the one hand, he would have been enraged to see the monarchy subverted and replaced by a rabble of Communist Reds, proving his claim that Russia would soon be overwhelmed by Communism (as it was). On the other hand, the troubles at home weakened the Russian fighting forces and soon they would be impelled to leave the war altogether, thus surely heralding good news for Germany. The entrance of the United States into the war was a setback for Germany, but in reality didn’t change the outcome, as they joined the fight too late to make much impact. What did make an impact, undoubtedly, was the appearance for the first time ever of armoured vehicles, huge machines of steel that could crawl over terrain men could not hope to negotiate, that were mostly impervious to small-arms fire and which surely struck terror into the hearts of those who saw them for the first time, including Hitler, who quickly also recognised the important part they would play, not only in this war, but in the one he would start and prosecute twenty years later.

“Our first orders for the production of tanks were issued in 1917. If we’d had 400 tanks in the summer of 1918 we’d have won the world war. It was our misfortune that the leadership at that time did not correctly recognize the significance of technical weapons . . . That the need for tanks and defences against them was not recognized by us was the ground of our downfall.”

Tanks were of course the mainstay of the lightning war, or Blitzkrieg, which won Hitler so much ground so early and allowed him to have most of Europe under his heel by 1940, a mere twelve months after declaring war. Nobody had anticipated the speed of the German attack in 1939, Hitler’s Panzers faster and more agile than the lumbering English tanks, able to drive through forest and across fields virtually unopposed, and it was the Panzers too, though phantom ones, that der Fuhrer would believe were to come to his eleventh hour rescue as Berlin fell.

In August 1918 the List Regiment moved to Alsace, which was a period of relaxation for the troops, though it was here that an unscrupulous person (whom he would no doubt later claim was a Jew, though no records of such seem to exist), after trying to buy Hitler’s dog and being rebuffed - “He offered me two hundred marks. I told him it could be two hundred thousand and you wouldn’t get him!” - abducted Foxl, causing the future leader of the Third Reich much anguish and also much anger. After they were moved to Laon, Hitler, having taken a dispatch to headquarters, came back raging against the disparity there, where men had plenty to eat and drink and lived in comfort; he snarled that they should all be thrown into the trenches. Hardly tallies with his own lifestyle as commander-in-chief later, when he would consume pastries and tea in comfort while his men fought and died in the snow of the Eastern Front. Apparently the lesson learned here was not that all men should be equal, but that as soon as possible he should join the ones who considered themselves the elite, and rise above the ordinary soldier.

In July of 1918, as the war began to enter its final months and German forces were steadily pushed back, Hitler and the List Regiment experienced bombardment from the air for the first time. Although dogfights had been duelled out between German and Allied pilots ever since aircraft entered the theatre of the war, to the men on the ground they had been at best spotters directing the artillery, at worst an annoyance, making noise as they buzzed overhead. But now they were strafing the German positions, taking down barrage balloons and dropping bombs - literally: one man holding a bomb in his hand over the side of the plane while the pilot flew, and dropping it where it could do most damage - and the enemy aircraft were suddenly a new threat the Germans had to face. I don’t know if the German fighters were doing this too, but one can only expect they would copy such a tactic, unless they believed it “ungentlemanly conduct” perhaps.

Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross First Class on August 4 1918, though the circumstances under which this happened have become so lost in rumour, Nazi folklore and propaganda and confusion that it is impossible to say why he earned the medal, except that he had, according to all reports, displayed exceptional bravery and a heedless disregard for his own life while delivering important messages. Perhaps it was a way of bolstering what must have been flagging German morale at the time. In any event, Hitler’s biographers and propagandists - most notably, of course, Goebbels - made as much of the incident as they could, recounting unlikely and increasingly bizarre and hard to believe stories relating to Hitler capturing a whole French troop by himself. Uh, yeah.

Again his guardian angel (or more likely devil) deserted him when on October 13 he was one of the victims of a mustard gas attack, went partially blind and had to be evacuated to a field hospital in Stettin, where his eyes slowly recovered and sight returned. As he lamented his faith, he had a sudden attack of self-recrimination, and there and then, having learned of Germany’s defeat and the armistice, he decided to enter politics after the war.
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