Biographies of Hitler are often frustratingly vague about his experiences as a soldier in WWI. Beyond the information that he: served as a message-carrying ‘runner’ on the Western Front; achieved the rank of ‘Gefreiter’ ( not quite, as Thomas Weber assures us, the equivalent of the ‘Corporal’ or even Lance-Corporal it is often translated as); was awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second Class; was generally perceived by his comrades as a brave, patriotic and efficient soldier, we are none the wiser about what made the Fuhrer the appalling political phenomenon that he was.
After the publication of this ground-breaking and minutely detailed study, biographers will no longer have any excuses for skimping on such scanty information. Hitler’s military career, it can be safely stated, has never been subjected to such careful forensic examination before, and all students of Nazism are in Weber’s debt.
That said there are problems with the book that prevent it from being as definitive as it might have been. Weber is not content with his great achievement in unearthing a previously un-catalogued collection of records of Hitler’s army unit – the 16th Bavarian Infantry (List) Regiment – and in tracking down many other inaccessible accounts of his war years. It seems that Weber is on a mission to denigrate Hitler’s military record, straining every sinew as he seeks to prove that he was not only a mass-murdering tyrant, but a chiselling little malingering coward into the bargain. It has to be said that the evidence does not support such an interpretation, and that while he was no hero, Hitler seems to have been an averagely keen and competent soldier.
Besides the previously un-consulted regimental records he found in Munich, Weber has dug out myriad comments by army comrades who served with Hitler – both those who remained in touch with him and sympathised with National Socialism, and those who became Social Democrats. Weber invariably gives more credence to those who denounced Hitler as an ‘Etappeschwein’ (rear area pig), who remained safely far from the front line trenches and grovelled to the officers, than he does to those who testified that he was a good soldier.
Although it is obvious that Nazi propaganda ‘sexed up’ Hitler’s war record to make the most of his unbroken service (orphaned lone-wolf Hitler had no home to go to when on leave) – there is no convincing evidence that he was, as Weber implies, a yellow belly. Indeed, despite himself, he even quotes one Social Democrat ex-comrade who, detesting Hitler’s politics, nonetheless testified (presumably through gritted teeth) that he was a fine fighting man. Weber also claims that Hitler was not, as is often thought, already a dyed-in-the-wool racist during the war. Indeed, he suggests that his politics were fluid and that he could even have become a Communist if the chaotic situation in post-war Munich had tended that way. Sometimes Weber contradicts himself, writing ‘The popular claim that Hitler “knew what it meant to live in the mud and slime of the Western Front” is thus quite wrong’, while on the very next page stating, ‘This is not to say that he never made it to a trench’, and ending lamely, ‘But this was not normally his job’. Anyone reading this book should discount Weber’s un-historical ‘message’ and concentrate on the fascinating picture of Hitler he does provide. Hitler was one of the greatest monsters of all time. It is not necessary to pretend that he was a miserable coward too.
Oxford University Press £18.99