Due to his notoriety Adolf Hitler’s military service during World War One has been either blue pencilled or subject to negative spin.
An objective account however is rather more interesting and perhaps reveals his empathy for militarism. When the 1914-1918 war broke out, Hitler, then twenty-five years old wrote: "For me it was a deliverance. I am not ashamed to say it today: I fell on my knees and thanked God.'
Ordinarily the future leader of Germany need not have been destined for the armed forces as for years he had been afflicted with tuberculosis. However on the 5th February 1914, months before war broke out, he applied for military service and was turned away as 'Unfit for the army or auxiliary corps. Too weak. Rejected.'
Passionate about his dream of the unification of Germany and Austria, the latter having been part of the 1,000-year old Habsburg Dynasty, the landlord of his Munich lodgings, Herr Popp, recalled the small plaque posted over the young Austrian’s bed. The inscription read 'Freely with open heart we are waiting for you/Full of hope and ready for action/We are expecting you with joy/Great German Fatherland, we salute you'.
AN INCREDIBLE QUIRK OF FATE
There in Munich the future fuehrer lived in obscurity, happy to spend his none labouring hours absorbed in studying, composing poetry, and of course sketching, drawing and painting. The address was 34 Schliesshimerstrasse.
One of the interesting quirks of history is that at number 106 lived the equally unknown (and unknown to each other) Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was to become the first head of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. One may wonder at fate or coincidence placing two of the world’s greatest revolutionaries in the same street during their formative years.
Doing everything in his power to overturn this rejection, on the 3rd August 1914 Hitler sent a personal letter to the King of Bavaria begging him to be allowed to enlist as a volunteer. His plea was accepted and he joined the 6th battalion of the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment.
On 20th October 1914, during the German advance on France and confrontation with the 2,000,000 strong armies of the British Empire, Hitler in a letter to Frau Popp his landlady confessed: "I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm. How many times have I wished to test my strength and prove my national faith!"
FOUR YEARS ON THE FRONT
For four years Corporal Adolf Hitler fought along the frontline trenches of the Western Front's most furiously contested battlefields. These apocalyptic conflicts included the names of places still renowned for their valour and sheer scale of lives lost. All grace the colours of many a British regiment. Yser, Ypres, Flanders, Neuve Chapelle, La Bassee, Arras, Artuis, Somme, Fromelles, Alsace Lorraine, Aillette, Montdidier, Soissons, Rheims, Oise, Marne, Champagne, Vosle, Monchy, Bapaume.
During those terrible years the young Hitler, yet to become a household name, displayed courage in a conflict that involved more than forty battles. He was wounded on 5th October 1916 and hospitalised for two months. He was back at the front until 15th October 1918 when he was hospitalised again, this time for gas poisoning.
Throughout the course of the war he was cited for valour and distinguished conduct in the field, being awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class on 2nd December 1914. He was also awarded the Bavarian Military Medal 3rd class with bar, and later the Iron Cross 1st class. He received, as did all wounded soldiers, the Cross of Military Merit.
"A MODEL OF COOLNESS AND COURAGE."
Lieutenant Colonel Godin in his official request that Hitler be awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, stated: "He was a model of coolness and courage in both trench warfare and assault combat. He was always ready to volunteer for carrying messages in the most difficult and dangerous situations."
On awarding this recognition Colonel Anton Tubeuf stated: "He was always ready to help out in any situation, always volunteered for the most difficult and most arduous, and the most dangerous missions, and to risk his life and wellbeing for the Fatherland. On a human level, I felt closer to him than to any of the other men."
Of him World War One veteran Colonel Spatny, then in command of the 16th Regiment, was equally affirmative: "Hitler inspired all his comrades. His fearless courage and devotion to duty, particularly in combat impressed them. His qualifications, modesty, and his admirable sobriety earned him the greatest respect of his comrades and superiors alike."
“CHARGED WITH A SPECIAL MISSION”
Werner Maser, former head of the Institute of Contemporary History at the University of Munich, has written a large neutral biography called Hitler, Legend, Myth and Reality (Harper and Row, 1971).
"Hitler's wartime record - campaigns, decorations, wounds, periods in hospital and on leave, is fully documented. In addition there is evidence to show that he was comradely, level headed and an unusually brave soldier, and that a number of his commanding officers singled him out for special mention“.
In 1922, at a time when Hitler was still unknown, General Friedrich Petz summarised the High Command's appreciation of the self-effacing corporal as follows: ‘Hitler was quick in mind and body and had great powers of endurance. His most remarkable qualities were his personal courage and daring which enabled him to face any combat or perilous situation whatsoever.’
Historians least favourably disposed towards Adolf Hitler, such as Joachim Fest, a life long anti-Nazi conceded that 'Hitler was a courageous and efficient soldier and was always a good comrade." The same historian noted: "The courage and the composure with which he faced the most deadly fire made him seem invulnerable to his comrades. As long as Hitler is near us, nothing will happen to us, they kept repeating. It appears that made a deep impression on Hitler and reinforced his belief that he had been charged with a special mission."
John Toland, the Pulitzer Prize winning American author wrote: "In the course of the preceding months he had escaped death on innumerable occasions. It was as though he had been wearing a good luck charm."
THE NEAR CAPTURE OF THE FRENCH PREMIER
French historian, Raymond Cartier ruefully mused that "Corporal Hitler was in all probability one of the German soldiers who got closest to Paris in 1918." In yet another of history's ironies Adolf Hitler was one of a patrol that nearly captured the future French Premier Clemenceau.
The times that Hitler cheated death became legendary and baffled historians ever since. Typically in one corner of conflict the troops of the List Regiment were held down in shell craters, among the ruins of a village called Le Barque, the trenches having already been destroyed. Of the nine regimental couriers seven had just been killed. In the command post, such as it was, there were ten officers and two couriers. Suddenly a British bomb exploded at the entrance to the refuge. There was just one survivor, Adolf Hitler.
During his years at the front, as many pictures of the period testify, Adolf Hitler, far from being a loner was very comradely. Characterised by civility he never embraced trench crudities or brothel humour, and was generous to a fault. Yet despite having a personality that usually draws disdain the young Austrian serviceman was highly respected by his comrades, which added to his allure in the street battles that were yet to come as Germany went through post war revolutionary fervour.
Even Sebastian Haffner, a Jewish writer and fanatical Hitler hater, was forced to admit "Hitler had a fierce courage unmatched by anyone at the time or since."
Another Jew by the name of Karl Hanisch, who shared lodgings with Hitler, generously recalled him as 'a pleasant and likeable man who took an interest in the welfare of all his companions.'
He late recalled that his fellow lodger "was neither proud nor arrogant, and he was always available and willing to help. If someone needed fifty hellers to pay for another night's lodging, Hitler would always give whatever he had in his pocket without another thought. On several occasions I personally saw him take the initiative and pass the hat for such a collection."
It was only when he entered politics, in a bid to stem his rising popularity, that his war record was ever questioned. Typically however detractors were forced to recant and pay damages. Historians have noted that Adolf Hitler was born poor and died poor. In fact he was the only statesman who never had a bank account. As a footnote, unlike his non-frontline adversaries such as Winston Churchill, Hitler never flaunted his medals. He wore them only on rare occasions to honour his former comrades.