The Truth about Private Hitler—Historian Thomas Weber on His New Book "Hitler’s First War"Historians/History
Perhaps no modern historical figure has been more closely examined than Adolf Hitler. Most biographers have attributed Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism and hyper-nationalism to his experience on the Western Front in the First World War. With little evidence on Hitler’s war record, historians relied heavily on Hitler’s own account in Mein Kampf, and on Nazi Party mythology that depicted a heroic Hitler whose comrades in the war shared his intolerant beliefs and became a core of the Nazi Party.
However, a long-hidden treasure trove of new evidence discovered by historian Thomas Weber, PhD, presents the clearest picture yet of Hitler’s war years and debunks the Nazi myths. Dr. Weber’s new book, Hitler’s First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2010), includes new revelations based on documents from Hitler’s comrades and army records, including:
- Hitler served a few miles behind the lines as a runner for regimental headquarters in relative comfort, and was considered a mere “tea boy” messenger or “rear-area pig” (Etappenschwein) by frontline soldiers.
- Hitler was a loner and occasional object of ridicule who never displayed leadership qualities, never rose above the rank equivalent to a U.S. Army private first class, and never had authority over any other men in his four years of service.
- There is no evidence that Hitler shared anti-Semitic or anti-Bolshevist views with comrades, and indeed, he served with the leftist Soviet Republic of Munich after the war ended before he embraced fascism.
- There is virtually no evidence of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s regiment during the war.
- Few of Hitler’s fellow soldiers in his regiment joined the Nazi Party, and many indeed cold-shouldered him at a 1922 veterans’ reunion.
- The Nazi Party suppressed records from the war that cast Hitler as anything other than a gallant soldier.
- The First World War did not radicalize Hitler contrary to Nazi propaganda.
Dr. Weber studied the archives of Hitler’s regiment, the List Regiment (the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment—RIR 16) and personal documents of soldiers from the regiment, and also conducted interviews with family members. Much of the material on Hitler’s regiment in the Bavarian War Archive was uncataloged and not considered in previous biographies, and many documents pertaining to Hitler’s unit had been untouched. Dr. Weber and his researchers compiled a database with a sample of more than seven hundred soldiers and followed the lives of fifty-nine Jewish veterans from the regiment. According to Dr. Weber, over 70 percent of his book is based on new material.
Hitler’s First War has been acclaimed for its groundbreaking findings based on original research of previously unknown material. Norman Stone wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “With some luck and a lot of diligence, Mr. Weber has discovered the missing documents of Hitler's war service, and it is fair to say that very little of Hitler's own account survives the discovery.”
Dr. Weber teaches history and is also the Director of the Research Centre on Global Uncertainties at the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom. He earned a doctorate at Oxford University, and after that taught or held fellowships at Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of Glasgow. Dr. Weber’s first book, Lodz Ghetto Album, won a 2004 Golden Light Award and a 2005 Infinity Award. His second book, Our Friend “The Enemy” received the 2008 Duc d’Arenberg History Prize for the best book of a general nature, intended for a wide public, on the history and culture of the European continent.
Dr. Weber spoke at length about his new book from his office at Harvard University during a speaking tour in the United States.
Lindley: Hitler must be the most scrutinized historical figure in recent memory. What sparked your biography focusing on World War I?
Weber: I also thought everything had been written about Hitler, but when I was looking for a new topic to write about, a historian at Oxford, Adrian Gregory, said it was really surprising that no one had ever written about Hitler and his regiment in the First World War. We concluded that everything we think we know about Hitler and the First World War is based on Mein Kampf and propagandistic claims, but that by looking at the regimental papers of Hitler’s First World War unit I would be able to look beyond the tales told by Nazi propaganda and thus be able to tell if the war really “made” Hitler. We quickly came to the conclusion that it would be a great idea to do a book using this approach, and the rest is history, I suppose.
Lindley: When you set out, did you know that documents were in archives in Germany that had not been reviewed or found by other historians?
Weber: I kind of knew they existed. While doing my graduate work at Oxford in the second half of the 1990s, I once briefly discussed the issue with one of my professors, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. And that’s how I generally knew there had to be papers, but at that point nobody knew how extensive they would be.
Obviously, Hitler biographers had visited the Bavarian War Archive in Munich and had looked for facts specific to Adolf Hitler, but they did not find many files, of course, as they looked for documents that specifically mentioned Hitler—and Hitler was just a dispatch runner. There was also some suggestion that Hitler had files removed from these papers after 1933. And the second and more significant reason is that researchers didn’t realize that most of the files relating to Hitler’s regiment were not housed with the papers of the regiment, but with the division and the brigade to which the regiment belonged. And the extensive Military Justice files were not cataloged at all. So, if you went to the archives and asked for materials on Hitler’s regiment, you wouldn’t easily know these files existed.
The Military Justice files were an extraordinary set of sources. There were about 190 cases of files on Hitler’s regiment, and each case included [information] on the soldiers and officers, and often also confiscated letters and diary fragments. They were really wonderful in shedding light on what really happened in Hitler’s regiment.
It was this material in the Bavarian War Archive that was the starting point of my research on Hitler’s regiment. But I then quickly realized that there was more material to be found in other archives. I decided early on to compile a database of a random selection of approximately seven hundred soldiers. I checked the names of these soldiers against Nazi Party membership files and de-Nazification files to tell how typical Hitler was compared in his political development to other men of the regiment. I also compiled a database of the fifty-nine Jewish soldiers and then systematically looked for material on them and on the communities from which they came. This allowed me to identify where some of those Jewish soldiers had emigrated after 1933, and it allowed me to find some sources on them in other archives and even to find the families of two of the Jewish soldiers. I also went to northern France to look for sources on the communities in which Hitler’s regiment had stayed during the war.
What also greatly helped was a newspaper in Upper Bavaria, which published a story on my research and encouraged people to come forward if any of their family members had served in Hitler’s regiment in the First World War. A surprising number of people got in touch with me and offered the letters or papers of their [forebears].
But some finds also resulted from serendipity. For instance, one day I talked to someone whom I encountered in the Bavarian War Archives who turned out to be an archivist in a small Bavarian town and I told him I was working on Hitler in the war. He replied that the great-granddaughter of a soldier from Hitler’s regiment had come to him for a high school project the previous year and she had asked him to help her with some records. He put me in touch with her, which allowed me to see the papers of a soldier who knew Hitler well.
So there was a lot of detective work involved. And without the computer and Internet revolution of the past few years, I could not have written the book. For instance, Google Books allowed me to search millions of books for the names of the Jewish soldiers, which led me to often obscure books, which sometimes would refer to files in archives relating to the Jewish soldiers that I otherwise would not have found. For example, this is how I found the personal papers of a daughter of Jewish soldier from Hitler’s regiment in an archive in New York City.
Lindley: How long did the book project take?
Weber: The actual writing and research for the book took about four years.
Lindley: You dispel many of the previous views of Hitler’s First World War service in your book, and you come up with a wealth of information that was missed by noted Hitler biographers and probably thousands of researchers. Can you talk about your new findings and how earlier historians missed the story you tell?
Weber: My view is that we as scholars constantly have to deal with new evidence, and to use new tools, and constantly to go back to old questions and revise those interpretations in light of new evidence.
I would be the last person to criticize historians [and Hitler biographers] such as Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw and Alan Bullock. I can only be in awe about the productivity and the intelligence of these historians. But they also had to base their books on evidence available at the time. And if you write a biography of Hitler’s entire life from 1889 to 1945, you inevitably have to base your book on what specialized studies of evidence exists, and those specialized studies on Hitler in the First World War had either not been done or were not particularly good studies.
I’m not criticizing at all the magisterial Hitler biographies by people like Kershaw or Bullock or Fest, but they could only be as good as the material and research that existed on these questions. Ian Kershaw’s book necessarily had to rely on publications about Hitler in the First World War that existed when he wrote his Hitler biography. I spent about four years researching Hitler in the First World War. If Ian Kershaw had spent a similar amount of time on each of Hitler’s years of his life, he would never have been able to write his biography. And also, a majority of Hitler biographers—including Ian Kershaw—are experts on the Third Reich itself. Therefore, and this is no criticism, they knew the archives for the years 1933 to 1945 much better than for the earlier years.
Lindley: You debunk popular notions about Hitler’s First World War service such as the idea that Hitler served with gallantry in the war with comrades who were mostly just as hyper-nationalistic and anti-Semitic as he became. What was Hitler’s role in the war?
Weber: With the exception of the first few days of the war when he was a combat soldier, he was a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters. Of course, people knew all along that he was a dispatch runner. But the conventional view, which was facilitated by Nazi propaganda, was that as a dispatch runner his job was more dangerous than that of a combat soldier in the trenches because, unlike soldiers who were somewhat protected in the trenches, he had to run on a day-to-day basis from trench to trench through machine gun fire and therefore risk his life every day.
In reality, his job was very different. He was a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters and he operated a few miles behind the front and took messages from regimental headquarters, for example, to division headquarters or to the command of a battalion. I’m not saying that this was a pleasant job or that it was not dangerous and I’m not saying it’s something I would want to do myself. The point here is twofold. The first one is, even objectively speaking, Hitler grossly exaggerated the dangers and realities of his work during the war. The second, and more important, is what the soldiers in the front line thought of Hitler’s tasks rather than what dangers of his job objectively were. Hitler was seen by front-line soldiers as an Etappenschwein, or a “rear-area pig,” or the term in American forces would be “rear echelon motherfucker.”
I found this in a letter from one of Hitler’s peers at regimental headquarters, written in 1932, when Hitler was waging a legal campaign against some of his critics who were questioning his war record when he ran for the German presidency. The letter basically said—and I’m paraphrasing, “Look Hitler, you know as well as I do that we both served honorably, but you also know as well as I do that everyone in the trenches thought otherwise. They thought that we were Etappenschweine. They thought our job wasn’t as dangerous. They thought we could sleep in a warm bed at night while they slept in trenches and were exposed to the cold and the rain and enemy fire.”
The letter confirmed the claims made in accounts critical of Hitler’s war record which had been published by newspapers in the twenties and thirties but which have been dismissed as not trustworthy by Hitler biographers. I managed to demonstrate that the most important and most scathing of these articles—which was anonymous and against which Hitler took legal action on in 1932—was, in fact,
written by an officer in Hitler’s regiment. He himself had served as a dispatch runner earlier in the war and later became the commander of the company to which Hitler at least nominally belonged.
The more I looked, the more I found ample evidence that ordinary soldiers thought Hitler’s job was a much lesser, cushy job. This is so important because of the gulf that emerged during the war between soldiers in the trenches and the support staff of regimental headquarters. This gulf existed during and after the war, and explains why a majority of the veterans of Hitler’s regiment cold-shouldered him later.
To be sure, a number of people, particularly from regimental headquarters, joined Hitler’s Nazi Party early on, but the majority of the veterans did not join the Nazi Party. And Hitler ever attended only one veterans’ reunion of his regiment in 1922, in high hopes of recruiting people for his movement, but he was cold-shouldered there. In fact, the veterans at the 1922 reunion were celebrating the main speaker at the event, an officer who later became a member of a resistance group to Hitler and was married to someone who, according to Nazi criteria, was Jewish.
After that, Hitler never again attended a reunion of the veterans’ association. Even in 1934 when Nazi propagandists staged a huge reunion amidst much pageantry in Munich, Hitler did not attend the meeting. Among the materials I received from the great-granddaughter of one of Hitler’s wartime peers—the one the local archivist I met in the War Archive had told me about—I found a postcard written the day after the 1934 reunion by the wife of another of Hitler’s wartime peers. She wrote: “I hope that the day will come soon when Hitler can stay with his loyal comrades. My heart is bleeding that there are still comrades who lack the holiness and inner conviction that the future lies with Hitler. This is why Hitler cannot attend [reunions of the List Regiment]. I understand this all even though I am just a woman.”
The fact that ordinary soldiers of the List Regiment did not think of Hitler as one of them meant a great deal later on when Hitler tried to recruit people for his party. It also shows that the Nazi myth about Hitler’s war years that became the conventional view of Hitler’s First World War to the present day—according to which he was “made” by the war and a typical product of the regiment politically and in every other sense—is just not true.
Lindley: A fellow member of the support staff of regimental headquarters of Hitler described his job as being a “postmistress.”
Lindley: Hitler was awarded two Iron Crosses, including the somewhat rare Iron Cross, First Class. Did you see the citations and the reasons noted for awarding these medals to Hitler?
Weber: There’s a copy of the official citation in Munich in the Bavarian Archives. The citations were written in very general terms, basically saying that Hitler had been courageous and served honorably, but not singling out any specific action or event for which he was honored.
Lindley: Wouldn’t a specific event be noted with particulars in most cases?
Weber: I think it would be especially true for the Iron Cross, First Class, except maybe for high-ranking officers. For ordinary soldiers, they would be more specific, and especially for infantrymen, they would mention what specifically was done because it was a rare award. It’s curious that the one [awarded to] Hitler was so non-specific.
Lindley: And ironically, the Iron Cross was awarded to Hitler by Hugo Gutmann, a Jewish officer.
Weber: It was proposed by Gutmann.
Lindley: Did Hitler then get the award for longevity, since he served through the entire war, and because he was submissive to his superiors?
Weber: It’s difficult to tell for certain. It’s probably a combination of two things. In a traditional sense, he was a very good soldier. He did what he was asked to do without complaining. It seems likely that there was a specific incident, which triggered the proposal by Gutmann. There’s a suggestion that the proposal was triggered, in the summer of 1918, when Hitler and someone else offered to take a message forward through difficult terrain. Apparently Gutmann said, “If you make it through there, you will get an Iron Cross.” There is a suggestion that Gutmann had difficulty in delivering on his promise as Hitler’s action was insufficient for an Iron Cross, First Class, which if true might explain why the citation is so general. That suggests that Gutmann and the other officers of regimental headquarters felt they had to deliver on the promise and probably also considered Hitler’s longevity and the fact that Hitler was well liked by his superiors. There seems to have been a sense that, if we put down in the citation what he actually did, we might not get it through higher ranks, and therefore we have to come up with something general to get the proposal through.
Lindley: And Hitler was wounded twice. Once by shrapnel in the leg, and later supposedly blinded by gas. With his wounds and hospitalizations, he missed some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
Weber: That is correct.
Lindley: And some writers suggest the blindness was psychosomatic rather than resulting from exposure to gas.
Weber: As far as the blindness is concerned, part of the Nazi Party or Hitler myth was that he had been blinded by mustard gas to show how dangerous his job was, how brave he was. There also was a claim that he had been recovering, and as he understood Germany had lost the war, he temporarily lost his eyesight again.
A few publications from recent years, however, have presented evidence that Hitler’s blindness indeed was not caused by mustard gas, but rather was psychosomatic or triggered by war hysteria. In September of this year, following the British release of my book, I found more evidence. In San Francisco, a radio listener who had listened to my interview with the BBC World Service at the time, came forward and gave letters to me from his father that provide further evidence that Hitler’s blindness was indeed psychosomatic.
It’s possible he suffered from post-combat stress. There has been some suggestion that he was released from hospital early, and his treatment was at a stage where he was left uncured. This may explain some personality traits he developed. Whether that is raw speculation or plausible, I find difficult to determine. However, I think we can safely say that, in 1919, Hitler is not just radicalized but also suddenly moves from being an unremarkable soldier without any leadership qualities to becoming a leader. No one around him saw leadership qualities in Hitler in the First World War.
Lindley: Yes. His lack of any leadership qualities in the war is stunning.
Weber: Suddenly this follower, within months, turns into this charismatic leader who found his voice and preached with a high degree of certitude. To understand not only his radicalization but also this change in personality, we really have to look at the psychological development of Hitler. I can’t really say what happened, but it’s plausible that Hitler’s mental makeup changed, and that he developed some kind of personality disorder that helped him become a charismatic leader able to exercise leadership functions.
Lindley: He seemed to display an authoritarian personality disorder.
Weber: When you compare Hitler and Stalin, it’s complicated. Hitler is this absolute tyrant, responsible arguably for the largest number of people ever killed. On the other hand, people who personally interacted with him in the 1920s and 1930s generally found him quite charming. That could explain why people who met Hitler underestimated him, or said what was happening was horrible but was probably not Hitler’s fault because they tried to divorce Hitler from the violent reality of the Third Reich.
Stalin, by contrast, was on every level of the word a thug. He tyrannized and killed people in his immediate entourage. He enjoyed having the people who surrounded him drink themselves senseless and then watch their behavior. Hitler treated his immediate entourage very differently, which also raises questions about Hitler’s mental development and personality traits.
Lindley: Unlike Stalin, he didn’t usually execute his officers.
Weber: Except for the Night of the Long Knives. But that‘s the exception rather than the rule. For Stalin, the rule was that he had no qualms about executing people with whom he had had personal interaction.
Lindley: You note that Hitler had little social contact with other soldiers and didn't join in carousing but preferred to paint or read political books. Can you say more about his rather atypical behavior?
Weber: We cannot know for sure what he did beyond these activities but it seems that he did not do much else—as he did not indulge in the favorite pastime of many soldiers: drinking. Unlike many of his peers, all evidence suggests that he also did not frequent brothels. It's important to remember that soldiers often suffered from extreme boredom during the war. So there is really a limit as to what Hitler could do during the war to keep himself occupied when he was not on duty. While on leave, he once visited Brussels and probably also took part in a day trip to the Belgian coast while not on duty. Hitler had a real thirst for knowledge, particularly as far as it related either to architecture or to history, and would have thus been excited to visit Brussels—less for the temptations of drink and sex that a city behind the front offered (as would have been the case for many other soldiers) than for the architectural wonders of Brussels.
Lindley: Some of Hitler’s List Regiment comrades joked that he was so inept that he couldn’t even feed himself in a canned food factory because he couldn’t open a can with a bayonet.
Weber: Yes, but almost all of his immediate comrades seem to have gotten on with him. There seems to have been no people who really hated him amongst those who had frequent interaction with him. But it also seems that almost everyone, irrespective of whether they later sided with Hitler or not, saw him as a bit of a loner, an awkward person, as someone they accepted in their midst, but not someone who they really saw as one of them. His immediate comrades showed no sign that they were rallying around Hitler or even that Hitler was formulating political ideas in the trenches (with which they either agreed or disagreed). Even people who later joined him and who genuinely liked him seemed not to have taken Hitler particularly seriously during the war.
Lindley: You put to rest in your book the idea that Hitler was openly anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik during the First World War.
Lindley: It will be stunning for most readers that Hitler displayed no leadership qualities during the war.
Weber: It was stunning to me. Of course, once Hitler becomes a charismatic leader, his experience in the First World War, particularly his experience in his unit at regimental headquarters, became very important. The regimental headquarters provided for him a model of a functioning organization and of how to set up an organization and how leadership might work. While he had not shown leadership qualities himself during the war, and there was not a single soldier who had to answer to Hitler, it was still those experiences that mattered retrospectively when Hitler was trying to find a way of how to build an organization and deal with people.
And of course, when he built the Nazi Party, he turned to Max Amann, the staff sergeant of regimental headquarters, and asked him to join as managing director of the Nazi Party because Hitler could trust him in building an organization. And, during the peacetime years of the Third Reich, Hitler turns to Fritz Wiedemann, the regimental adjutant, and asks him to become one of his personal adjutants in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler indeed tries to reproduce the organization model of regimental headquarters in the First World War.
Lindley: Was Hitler ever at a rank equivalent to a U.S. Army corporal during the First World War?
Weber: No, he wasn’t. It’s basically a mistranslation of the German term Gefreiter. To be fair, it’s also a reflection of the difficulty of translating military ranks. But the correct translation for Gefreiter would be private first class. Hitler had no line of command over anyone else. It’s quite wrong to describe Hitler as Corporal Hitler.
Lindley: Among his lies, Hitler falsely claimed that he was a sole survivor of one battle with Scotland’s Gordon Highlanders and the Black Watch. What did Nazi Party do to spread such stories and suppress the truth?
Weber: They disseminated stories like this one through textbooks for primary and high school students, through newspaper and magazine articles, photo books, textbooks for members of the Hitler Youth, etc. They suppressed the truth mainly through intimidation, by putting people temporarily into concentration camps. They also liquidated people who had knowledge of Hitler's medical record from 1918, which showed that his blindness resulted from war hysteria and not from mustard gas. And they of course also suppressed the truth by cleverly discrediting critics of Hitler. They also cleverly made use of the code of honor of the military which made it very difficult openly to attack a former wartime peer without the risk of being ostracized themselves for such an attack.
Lindley: You indicate that Hitler’s war experience dictated the way he fought World War II.
Weber: I wouldn’t say fully dictated. The First World War provided lessons to Hitler on how to fight and not fight a war. Particularly, in the second part of the Second World War, he no longer trusted the generals and very often overrode their decisions, saying—I’m paraphrasing, “Look, you generals may have been officers in the First World War, but you were behind the front,” leveling the same criticism at them as his comrades leveled against him. “I know what the realities of the First World War were, and this is what we did, for instance, in the Spring Offensive of 1918, and this is what we are going to do in Russia.” He’d use those retroactively reconfigured experiences to advance nonsensical propositions of how to fight the Second World War.
Lindley: I think readers will also be surprised that, just after the First World War ended, Hitler served with the left-wing Soviet Republic of Munich, rather than with the right-wing Freikorps.
Weber: Yes, it’s amazing. At the very least we can say is that Hitler’s path toward fascism was very unusual for fascists. The standard route was to be radical right wing at the end of the First World War, then through the Freikorps, to becoming a fascist. Hitler’s political socialization is very different. While his future fellow fascists are fighting the Soviet Republic, he is in the center of Munich serving the Soviet Republic. He even serves as one of the elected representatives of his postwar unit.
Hitler biographers have tried to make sense of his actions by arguing that maybe they were a smokescreen for what he really wanted to do, or that he was a secret spokesperson for hyper-nationalists, or that he was a full-fledged communist. I find none of these explanations persuasive. The problem is that scholars thought that they had to resolve Hitler’s contradictory actions during this time by showing that one action was a smokescreen for another.
My argument is that the whole point is that Hitler’s actions should not be resolved. His actions were contradictory and he had flexible political ideas. The least we can say, whatever ideas Hitler might have secretly harbored, that was not why his fellow soldiers voted for him as a representative of his post-war battalion in 1919.
The idea that all of these soldiers [who served with Hitler] were German nationalists and Hitler had stayed in the army like other German hyper-nationalists doesn’t work. The overwhelming majority [of his fellow soldiers] in the Bavarian Elections of 1919—and we know this because special election districts had been set up in military barracks and military hospitals—voted for the Social Democrats or for other democratic parties. As up to 80 percent of soldiers in Munich still in the military in early 1919 voted for democratic parties, it is inconceivable that the soldiers from Hitler’s postwar unit would have voted for Hitler if they saw him as some sort of anti-socialist and anti-democratic radical.
Lindley: What do you think sparked Hitler’s radical anti-Bolshevist and anti-Semitic views?
Weber: It’s a difficult question on what is cause and what is effect here: whether his morbid anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism were the cause of his fascism or the effect. It’s remarkable that this person with no leadership qualities suddenly became a charismatic leader, but also that his ideology goes far further than that of most other fascists in Germany during this time. To be sure, other fascists shared his ideas and his eliminationist anti-Semitism, but not all of them. Indeed, some did not take his extreme form of anti-Semitism seriously. But, as it later turned out, this extreme anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism was the core of his ideology and very much drove his actions from 1933, and particularly after 1941.
We can only answer that question [about the genesis of Hitler’s extreme views] once we know more about what happened to Hitler between March of 1919 and the fall of 1919. I find it convincing that Hitler was not immediately radicalized in a fascist way by the experiences of the Soviet Republic. He even had fluctuating political ideas in the summer of 1919, and he was intermingling with people with similarly fluctuating ideas. His political mentor during this time, Karl Mayr, who was also his commanding officer, ends up as a defender of the Weimar Republic and a Social Democrat. In 1933, he fled Germany for France but after the German invasion of France, he was put in a concentration camp. And Ernst Schmidt, Hitler’s fellow dispatch runner during the war with whom Hitler spent almost all the time during the revolutionary period, becomes a Nazi in the 1920s, but, like Mayr, shows democratic leanings until the mid-1920s.
This is all to say that it’s difficult to know what exactly triggered Hitler’s move to fascism in 1919. It might have been the result of a politicization, or other contingent factors, including an attempt to find a new ersatz family now that his ersatz family from regimental headquarters from the war had disintegrated. And maybe there was an element of him trying to distance himself from his actions during the Soviet Republic of Munich, but that’s speculation.
Lindley: It seems Hitler was disappointed that List Regiment veterans did not rally to his fascist cause, and that most indeed rejected his political views.
Weber: I’m just speculating, but I think he was genuinely hurt by this rejection because I think he sought acceptance by the members of his regiment. And he respected even those veterans who were critical of him.
Interestingly—and this goes back to the Hitler-Stalin comparison—despite the fact that a significant number of veterans openly challenged Hitler, he did not have any of them liquidated. He put some of them temporarily in concentration camps or prison, but he did not order any of them liquidated, not even Jewish veterans. Gutmann was put into a Gestapo prison in 1937, but was not eliminated, and crucially, he came out of prison again. The same is true of another Jewish veteran, Siegfried Heumann, who is tried in 1936, and gets away with it. Of course, a significant number of Jewish veterans, including Heumann, ultimately died in the death camps of the East in the Holocaust. But the important point here is that they die as Jews and not as members of his regiment. Hitler did not order any of his fellow Jewish or non-Jewish fellow soldiers liquidated. So, despite being hurt and cold-shouldered, there’s a sense that Hitler seeks approval from his regiment, and in a way he respects them more than they respect him.
Lindley: You grew up in Germany, and your grandfather served with the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Did your background prompt your research on Hitler?
Weber: I find it difficult to answer. I prefer other people answer, rather than analyze myself. It’s true that if you grow up in a country that’s a Western democratic modern state, but you realize that not long before, your state was very different, and it was your country that committed unspeakable crimes, you ask why. The people that you know and you experience as friendly neighbors or loving grandparents were involved with this regime. I’m not saying they all fully supported it, but they were all some way or another involved in this regime. I suppose that raises the question of how do we make sense of this. Why is it that a country that was arguably the most educated in the world and a country of nice neighbors and loving grandparents managed to unleash war and genocide at an unprecedented level? I’m sure that triggered at least in part my questions.
Lindley: In the United States some fear a similarly repressive regime here. We trust our system of checks and balances to prevent such an extremist nightmare. Yet Germany had a democratic government with the Weimar Republic in the 1920s when Hitler and his thugs were marginalized, but with a bad economy and a tragic series of events, Hitler came to power in 1933.
Weber: I think it’s unlikely that anything like Nazi Germany could happen in the United States, which after all is one of the great success stories of the modern world. However, I don’t want to sound like a doomsayer, but even seemingly strong democratic states can rapidly de-democratize and radicalize in certain periods of time. Periods of extreme economic volatility may go hand in hand with war or other extreme crises. Any kind of war creates an atmosphere of you’re with us or against us. I’m the last person who would want to equate the United States with fascist regimes. Nevertheless, I am still with Fritz Stern—the eminent historian and public intellectual—who in a series of articles and talks since 9/11 has warned the American public about the danger of how even democratic societies can radicalize. In extreme periods of crisis, even stable democratic states quickly can become prone to radicalization and to an undermining of democracy.
Lindley: How do you think your book adds to our understanding of Hitler?
Weber: It changes our understanding in two ways. First, on seeing how Hitler was “made” or radicalized. If you can show that the most extreme political leader of the twentieth century was politicized and radicalized in a very different manner than was previously believed, then that in itself is a very significant finding.
In addition, it changes our understanding of how Hitler came to power, and how he was inventing and re-inventing himself in a way that made him attractive to a German electorate. And it sheds new light on how Hitler rose to power.
It also changes our understanding of many other issues. For instance, we now know that, when Hitler based decisions in the Second World War on experiences from the First World War, he was not governed by immediate experience, but rather by reconfigured or reinvented experience. It changes our understanding of how Hitler’s anti-Semitism came about.
Beyond Hitler, it changes our understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations and it raises the question of whether the First World War was the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century that George F. Kennan famously thought it was. I’m convinced it was a catastrophe for Eastern Europe, but I’m not sure it was the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century for Germany or for Hitler.
Lindley: What does it mean that the First World War was not the "seminal catastrophe" in twentieth-century German history? Didn't Hitler derail democracy by stressing the war myth?
Weber: The idea of World War I being the “seminal catastrophe” in twentieth century German history really is that the First World War planted the seeds of all subsequent problems and disasters in German (and European) history. My argument is that that is not really true but that despite First World War, the future of a democratic (or at least semi-democratic) Germany still looks fairly bright as soldiers return from the war. The argument is that subsequent events (and not the war itself) functioned as the root problems of Germany's subsequent descent into darkness.
Yes, Hitler did derail democracy by stressing the war myth but my point is that there is no direct line from Hitler's war experience to the failure of democracy in Germany. I think your question implicitly already answers why the war not the seminal catastrophe of Germany's twentieth century: You refer to “the war myth” rather than “Hitler's war experience.” In other words, not the war itself but what was made of the war after the event was the problem. This is to say that only because of things that happened after the war was it possible for the war to be “reinvented” in a way that derailed democracy.