The Great War was a defining experience for Hitler. He later said this period was “the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence”. His experiences as a soldier shaped his political views, his abilities and ultimately propelled him into the political arena. His undoubted bravery and exemplary war record gave him the status of a war hero that was to be so useful when seeking votes.
The years in the trenches were Hitler’s only real experience of soldiering before he became commander of the armed forces of the Third Reich. As such, these experiences had a decisive impact on his later career as a military commander. Although fighting conditions changed greatly between 1918 and 1939, Hitler frequently justified the decisions he took in the Second World War by referring back to his experiences of fighting in the trenches. Nor was this mere bluster. Fritz Wiedemann was a junior officer in Hitler’s regiment during much of the first war and then served for four years on Hitler’s staff when he became Führer. “His memory of the war was excellent,” recorded Wiedemann later, “I never heard him lying or exaggerating when he told of his war experiences”. If anyone is to understand Hitler as a commander, they must look to Hitler as the commanded.
When war broke out in August 1914, Hitler was enthusiastic. He had recovered from some years of destitution in his native Austria and was earning a living as a freelance artist in Munich. He was already holding forth on political subjects at meetings, but had no burning interests beyond keeping up to date with current affairs. Hitler, at this time, had no intention of becoming a politician, though he was deeply interested in politics, rather he aimed to be an artist or architect.
The declaration of war overwhelmed Hitler. “I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time,” he wrote later. On 5 August Hitler sat down and wrote to the Bavarian King Ludwig III asking permission to serve in the regiment of his adopted city, Munich, rather than the forces of his own nation, Austria. This request was never actually answered, but Hitler was summoned to report to the Bavarian 16th Infantry Regiment on 16 August.
HITLER - MILITARY COMMANDER
This is an extract from Hitler - Military Commander by Rupert Matthews.