Saturday, December 24, 2011

A private not a corporal

Although it falls on the tail end of the Progressive Era, World War I is one of my favorite historical topics. As I tell my students we are still living out the consequences of this momentous event. Today we see the effects most clearly in the Middle East where the borders were drawn when the victorious allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. The war left its lasting legacies on all the other participant nations as well. France was weakened, England confused, America disgusted, Russia communized, Germany punished, Italy betrayed, Austria-Hungary divided, Romania enlarged, Bulgaria reduced, and new states created. Tens of millions were killed, maimed, psychologically traumatized, and dehumanized. Civilians suffered atrocities and revolution followed in the wake of the war. It is hard to see how anyone of that generation was unaffected in someway.

Thomas Weber's Hitler's First War: Adolph Hitler, the Men of the LIst Regiment, and the First World War seeks to measure the impact of the First World War on the man most responsible for starting the even more terrible Second World War. I first got interested in this book when I read a summary of Weber's findings on a blog (HNN's Clio, I think). I admit I like books that spin conventional wisdom on its head. Later I heard Marshall Poe interview Weber on his excellent "New Books in History" podcast. It sounded like good historical grunt work and a window in to the life of front line soldiers. Weber chronicles the entire regiment in order to provide context for Hitler's experience. His primary theses is that the war did not make Hitler a Nazi. There was no outstanding sense of anti-semitism or proto-fascist/authoritarian sentiment in the unit. In fact, using the area the List veterans lived in (rural Bavaria), their religion (mostly Catholic), and individual accounts they were indeed less likely to become members of the Nazi party than other Germans. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, as some of Hitler's closest comrades took advantage of his rising power.

Weber finds that Hitler's ideology at the end of the war was a fuzzy fascination with the mixture of collectivism and nationalism, but few specific ideas. He first participated in the Bavarian Soviet which quickly collapsed. After the collapse of the revolutionary left, Hitler migrated to the revolutionary right. The mixture of collectivism and nationalism provided the bridge. Mein Kampf, therefore, was an attempt to cover up this left ward experience and root his ideology closely in a national experience that fit the tenets of his new party.

Weber makes many other arguments as well. Here is a sample.

*Hitler was not a frontline runner dodging machine gun bullets, but a "rear area pig" who had a comfy billet in the regimental HQ behind the lines.
*The regiment had few volunteers, it consisted mostly of reservists and high command considered it low quality unit to be used only when no other was on hand.
*His Iron Crosses owed much to this proximity to regimental officers.
*Hitler was only mildly injured from the gas attack of 1918 and that his injuries were psychosomatic, another fact of his past that Hitler wanted to conceal.
*An oddball loner from Austria with few social skills and no leadership abilities, he was promoted only one grade during the entire war. Never a corporal, he spent the whole war a private.

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