Adolf Hitler and the First World War (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Adolf Hitler and the First World War

Q1: Adolf Hitler was appointed as an orderly (dispatch runner). How does source 2 help to explain this Hitler never mentioned he was a dispatch-runner in his autobiography Mein Kampf.

A1: According to Rudolf Olden (source 2) dispatch-riders were not respected by other soldiers and the men in the trenches saw it as a "shirker's post". Therefore, he decided not to mention it in his autobiography.

Q2: In a letter that he wrote on 3rd November, Hitler describes the first battle he took part in. What was the main objective of his regiment? Was it achieved?

A2: The regiment's main objective was to take British trenches. Hitler claims that "after bloody hand-to-hand fighting in different places, we threw them out of one trench after another". It took four days before "the Britishers were finally licked". The attack took a heavy toll on the regiment: "In four days our regiment of thirty-five hundred men had melted away to six hundred. There were only thirty officers left in the whole regiment."

Q3: What does source 16 tell us about Hitler's attitude towards the First World War?

A3: Hitler argues in the letter that he is not really interested in making "territorial gains" for Germany. His main concern to see his "homeland... purer and cleansed of alien influence" and that "our inner internationalism will also be broken". This is an indication that Hitler is already hostile to Jews (alien) and Marxists (inner internationalism).

Q4: On 2nd December 1914, Hitler was presented with the Iron Cross, Second Class. Study sources 4, 5 and 12 explain what Hitler did to gain the award. Why have some historians had doubts about the reasons Hitler won the award?

A4: Lieutenant-Colonel Philipp Engelhardt (source 4) claims that Hitler and Bachmann helped to save his life as they "stood before me to protect me with their bodies from the machine-gun fire to which I was exposed". Some historians have raised questions about the truth of this statement. At the time Hitler was head of a very powerful Nazi Party that had a reputation for extreme violence against people who attempted to resist them.

Thomas Weber, the author of Hitler's First War (2011) expresses doubts in source 5 and claims that if "we can believe a 1932 report by Georg Eichelsdorfer, the former regimental adjutant, Hitler and Bachmann dramatically leapt forward, covering Engelhardt's body and taking him back to safety". Weber seems to be unaware of Engelhardt's letter (source 4).

Hans Mend (source 10) had good things to say about Hitler in the book he wrote about him in 1931. However, in an interview he gave in December, 1939 (source 12) he had changed his mind about him and spoke in detail about the award. He claims that the "battalion adjutant was Lieutenant Gutmann, a Jewish typewriter manufacturer from Nuremberg" and that Hitler "made up to" him "whenever he wanted preferential treatment of some kind". He argues that Hitler and Bachmann just carried Colonel Engelhardt "to the rear" and "tended him behind the lines". Hitler then "contrived to make a big fuss about this exploit of his, so he managed to gain Lieutenant Gutmann's backing".

Q5: Hitler was never became an officer in the German Army. Study sources 6, 8, 9 and 15 and explain why he did not receive promotion.

A5: Konrad Heiden (source 6) suggests several reasons why Hitler did not become an officer. He quotes one of his superior officers, as saying that he could to remain a dispatch-runner, something he was very good at. Hitler also enjoyed the job and therefore did not want promotion. Heiden, a journalist who carried out detailed research into his military record, quotes another of his superior officers as saying the reason Hitler did not get promoted because he was considered to be suffering from "mental instability".

Fritz Wiedemann (source 8), the regiment's adjutant, explained that during the war Hitler did not have "potential for promotion". He argued that "ultimately a man must have leadership qualities if you're doing the right thing when you promote him to be a non-commissioned officer".

Egon Erwin Kisch (source 9) was another journalist who researched Hitler's military career. He fled Germany when Hitler came to power and in an article published in a French journal, pointed out: "Every old soldier knows that the rank of lance corporal is only brief and temporary, only a preliminary to more senior noncommissioned rank.... a lance corporal who never makes sergeant in four years' front-line service must be a very suspect type. Either he shirks commanding a squad, or he is incompetent to do so."

Lothar Machtan (source 15) believes that Hitler was offered promotion but rejected it because of his homosexual relationship with Ernst Schmidt. This provided him with "a relatively safe existence in the rear echelon, and possibly also, a toleration of the homosexual tendencies he could not have pursued as a noncommissioned officer."

Q6: Study sources 10 and 12 contain views on Hitler provided by the same person. Can you explain why the two sources give a different impression of Hitler. It will help you to read the biography of Hans Mend before answering the question

A6: Hans Mend was a dispatch-runner with Hitler. In 1931 he agreed to write a book (source 10) about Hitler's wartime experiences. The book was published by the Nazi Party and its newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, described it as "the finest Christmas gift for any supporter of Hitler." It has been dismissed as a work of propaganda and it repeats the false story that he won the Iron Cross for capturing "ten Frenchmen, heavily armed".

Mend and Hitler fell out and he began giving interviews suggesting that his book was not always accurate. In the summer of 1936 Mend was arrested and charged with "sexual offences against children". Mend claimed that it was a "trumped-up charge" and that he had been arrested so that the Gestapo could take away photographs that he had of Hitler.

On his release he gave an interview to the left-wing journalist, Friedrich Alfred Schmid Noerr (source 12) where he was highly critical of Hitler. Mend was again arrested and died in prison in 1942.

Q7: Read source 17. Do the photographs in this unit support the point made by the author of this source.

A7: Ian Kershaw (source 17) claims that Hitler "only real affection seems to have been for his dog, Foxl, a white terrier that had strayed across from enemy lines". Sources 7 and 14 show Hitler with Foxl. In themselves, the photographs do not show that Hitler's "only real affection" was for his dog.

Q8: Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933. He made every attempt to control the images of himself that were published in Germany. What do you think his views were on sources 1, 7, 11 and 14?

A8: Hitler was very reluctant to have any photographs of him in the First World War published. They would have revealed that he was not an officer. Hitler used photographs that appeared in newspapers to promote a certain image of himself. Most of these showed Hitler as a person in authority. He also liked photographs that showed him being kind to children and animals.