Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hitler's (non) Great War

In Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War, Thomas Weber uncovers some lost history -- and advances a controversial interpretation of German history

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Early on in reading this book, I showed it to a colleague who teaches a course in Nazi Germany, offering to pass along the galleys when I was through. "No thanks," she said. "I'm kinda Hitlered out." It's an understandable reaction, even among those with a professional stake in the topic. Like his virtual antithesis, Abraham Lincoln, Hitler can be historiographically exhausting.

Yet this study is worth some attention for two reasons. The first is that it reconstructs, in a tour de force of scholarly research, an oft-noted, but dimly documented, chapter in Adolf Hitler's career. The second is that it uses this account of what happened -- or, more accurately, didn't happen -- in Hitler's wartime experiences of 1914-18 as a means of making a larger point not only about his political trajectory, but that of Germany generally. It's this second point that may result in some serious controversy.

Though it's a fixture of virtually all accounts of his life, including his own, situating Private (later Corporal) Hitler in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment -- sometimes referred to the "List Regiment," after its first commanding officer, Julius von List -- is in fact quite difficult. Partly that's because much of the documentary record has been lost, whether by design or in the destructive final days of the Second World War, when much of Germany was reduced to rubble. It's also because Hitler's wartime record has been the subject of a series of conflicting aims by friend and foe alike, both of whom have distorted it. In some cases, Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen, whose own grandfather volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1943, is actually able to disprove minor points of conflict through extrapolation. He begins the book, for example, with a close reading of a famous crowd photograph taken on the first day of the war in which Hitler appears, a photograph which would seem to show both popular enthusiasm for the war and the future Fuhrer's place at the heart of the demonstration. But Weber documents the way it is in fact deceptive and that Hitler's position in the frame may have been doctored.

The core approach of the book is to provide a collective profile of the men who served in the List regiment along with Hitler during the war by sifting through previously unsorted and unanalyzed documents, and in so doing to create a collective portrait of the men (probably about 15,000 or so) who served in it over the course of the war.  This methodology is reminiscent of that of Christopher Browning in his now-classic Ordinary Men (1992), which attempted to understand the motivations for the Holocaust on the part of those who actually executed it. (It's worth noting that both Browning's 101st Police Battalion and the List Regiment consisted of reservists, not crack troops.) The difference here is that the demographic and anecdotal evidence is being used to determine to what degree Hitler was typical of the men with whom he served. Weber's answer: for the most part, no.

There are a series of reasons why. The most basic, of course, is that Hitler could not be a typical German recruit because he wasn't German, having left Austria to volunteer in Bavaria instead. The fact that Hitler served in the regiment for the entire war is also unusual -- and, given casualty rates that could go well over 50% in engagements like the First Battle of Ypres and the Somme  -- fortunate for him. Hitler was injured twice in his service, including a temporary blindness after a poison gas attack at the end of the war that may have been psychosomatic. But that he was twice decorated, and committed to the cause for which he fought, appears to be beyond dispute.

That said, there may be less to this than meets the eye. Hitler's job for most of the war was that of a regimental dispatch carrier, running messages between headquarters and the front. There's no doubt that this exposed him to danger -- and that he experienced considerably less than comrades who spent weeks at a time in rat-infested trenches. As Weber says flatly, "The popular claim that Hitler [in the words of one scholar] 'knew what it meant to live in the mud and the slime of the Western Front' is quite wrong."

Although this is of course difficult to establish conclusively, Weber believes that Hitler was considerably more ardent about the German cause than most in his adoptive country, particularly as the war dragged on. He carefully traces the role of the List Regiment in the famed Christmas Truce of 1914, an episode of fraternization by the rank and file that was frowned upon by the officers with whom Hitler identified. (That said, Hitler developed a durable respect for British and colonial fighting ability, and visited a Canadian war memorial during the interwar years.) For at least the first half of the war, German troops got along reasonably well with civilians in Belgium and France where Hitler was based, and resisted a late-war scorched-earth strategy formulated in Berlin. Contrary to frequent claims that the First World War was a brutalizing experience for the soldiers that fought in it, Weber asserts that the experience of total war was no more permanently scarring than that of the American Civil War, for example -- a searing ordeal, certainly, but not one that sowed irreparable hatred of former enemies.

Moreover, even while Hitler himself would insist that the morale of his regiment and that of the army was considerably higher than that of civilians and the nation's political leadership -- key ingredients for ideologically crucial Nazi legend of "the stab in the back" -- Weber asserts that not even Hitler came out of the war with the obvious, permanent hatreds that would mark his later political career. It's only one of many telling indications of this that it was a Jew, Hugo Gutmann, who proposed that Hitler be awarded his second Iron Cross in 1918.  (Weber notes that this decoration was "less as sign of bravery than of his position and long service within regimental headquarters").

So if it wasn't the war that curdled Hitler -- or Germany -- what did? Weber's answer is the brief revolutionary upheaval of 1918-19 in which radical leftist elements seized control of Bavaria and established the Munich Soviet Republic -- in which, ironically, Hitler actually briefly served as a guard. This murky episode has been understood in a series of ways, including those that assert Hitler was actually a double agent. In any case, Weber asserts that Hitler came out of the Great War "unsure about his future and his identity. He was a man who even now could have been swayed in different directions." That he would find a home on the radical right German Worker's Party and eventually as a Founding Father of the Nazis is a tragic contingency of history -- not, as Lucy Dawidowicz has asserted, part of a fully crystallized vision on Hitler's part that had taken shape by 1918, or, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would have us believe, a viral eruption of specifically German hatred of Jews.

Emphasizing the lack of deep electoral support Hitler prior to 1932, Weber argues that "most Germans did not take Mein Kampf seriously, at any rate not his anti-Semistism. Hitler was to come to power not because of, but in spite of his crude and virulent anti-Semitism." Hitler was disappointed that so few of his compatriots of the List Regiment -- who, Weber is at some pains to demonstrate, were a reasonable microcosm of German society at large -- rallied to his cause, and in that frustration both rewrote its history and destroyed anyone who would challenge his fictionalization of it. So it is, for example, that when Weber mentions Kristallnacht, what he sees is less a populist pogrom than a top-down murderous rage unleashed by a Nazi regime frustrated that ordinary Germans were not anti-Semitic enough.

Dismissing historic anti-Semitism or the cataclysm of world war as direct causes of the Nazi triumph of course begs the question as to how an epiphenomenal event like the Munich Soviet Republic would be more decisive. Weber's answer is that Germany's Bolshevik moment spooked an essentially moderate German people whose basic political instincts remained more or less intact from 1890 through 1920. The frightening destabilization caused by radical left opened a tear in the social fabric in which the radical right could opportunistically incubate and remain latent long enough to break through a political immune system badly weakened by Versailles, the Great Depression, and totalitarian microbes coursing through the world at large.

Yet if one assumes this to be true, one might well wonder why such an explanation has been largely overlooked until now. Weber's answer, essentially, is (generational) political correctness. In a key sentence about two-thirds of the way through the book, he writes: "There has long been a taboo against discussing the degree to which the attitude of Germans toward National Socialism and other radical right-wing movements was centrally driven by anti-Bolshevism and the experience of radical Socialist revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe, lest historians were seeking to exculpate 'ordinary' Germans for their support of the Third Reich and trying to provide an apologia for the crimes of National Socialist Germany." He goes on to say that "to explain is not to excuse; to empathize is not to sympathize." Let's face it, he's saying: Communism was something one could be legitimately scared of, even if the "cure" proved worse than the disease. Now that the people who lived with the shame of that cure are dying off, and now that the failure of the Soviet way is unambiguously clear, we can begin (again) to grapple with that truth.

By this point, we've come a long way from the wartime service of Private Hitler. With each analytic brick Weber stacks on top of it, the structure he builds grows steadily less solid. But it's an edifice worth regarding with some attention, because the implications are so vast. As my colleague, who about a year from now will be teaching her course on Nazi Germany again, well knows, we can't long remain"Hitlered out" while explanations for the disaster remain so vivid and contested.