October 30, 2010

WHO'D HAVE DREAMT YOU COULD THINK EVEN LESS OF HIM?:

The Führer in the Making (NORMAN STONE , 10/29/10, WSJ)

How did the young Hitler—diffident, gauche, without solid political convictions—turn into the fascist demagogue of 1922? There is no simple answer to this question, but "Hitler's First War" debunks some of the standard responses. Biographers have long assumed that the war marked a turning point: the comradeship of the trenches, the common soldier's hatred of the profiteers in the rear and the sense of betrayal with the peace made in 1918. Yet there was the nagging question of why the brave, decorated soldier of "Mein Kampf" was not promoted. Hitler served more or less for the whole of the war and never rose above the rank of corporal, which, given that he undoubtedly had leadership qualities, comes as a considerable surprise.

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. There were indeed two Iron Crosses, but his regimental runner's job was not necessarily dangerous, and he lived in relative comfort at the regimental headquarters away from the front lines. Ordinary soldiers referred to such men as Etappenschweine ("rear pigs") —all armies have such a word: "cushy number" and "base wallah" are British examples. Officers had to dish out a quota of medals, and if you did not offend them they would just put your name on the list. Hitler was not, it appears, particularly courageous. He was just there. And, as it happens, a Jewish superior officer, Hugo Gutmann, recommended Hitler for his first Iron Cross. He was not thanked for this act in later life—though his fate, emigration to the United States, was greatly preferable to that of the old couple in Vienna.

There also wasn't much comradeship. When Hitler broke surface in politics, he asked his old comrades in the regiment for support and discovered that on the whole they had not liked him one bit. Men who had fought at the front in World War I were, moreover, not at all keen on staging a second war, and extraordinarily few of Hitler's old comrades went along with Nazism. Most supported the Weimar Republic. Mr. Weber's research shows that it's not really possible to connect the brutalization of men in the trenches to the birth of National Socialism.

It is very much to Mr. Weber's credit that he has managed to dig out the details, and we can place his book together with Ms. Hamann's as a triumph of original research in a very stony field. The conclusion that might be drawn is that Hitler was far more of the opportunist than is generally supposed. He made things up as he went along, including his own past.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2010 6:57 AM
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