What Did Adolf Hitler Do in World War One?

Peter Curry

4 mins

17 Oct 2018

Hitler has the cross above his head. Image credit: Commons.

During World War One, Hitler served in the Bavarian army, despite his Austrian citizenship. His experiences in war years helped reinforce many of his attitudes that would later emerge when he became leader of the Nazi Party.

He left Vienna in order to avoid being conscripted into the Austrian army, and he would later suggest that he did not want to fight for the Habsburg Empire because of the mixture of “races” in the army.

Bavarian police actually forced him to return to Austria in order to enlist for the Habsburg Empire, but he failed a medical and was able to return to Munich.

His induction to the Bavarian Army was likely an error, and a later report by the Bavarian authorities could not determine how Hitler was allowed to enlist when he had failed a prior medical exam.

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Fighting on the front

Hitler had held nationalistic ideas from a young age, and continued to espouse them once in the army.

Hitler was an infantryman in the first battle of Ypres. Prior to the battle, the Germans enlisted nine new infantry divisions, and in the battle around 40,000 men from these divisions alone became casualties.

Consequently, the battle is referred as the Kindermord bei Ypern (Ypres Massacre of the Innocents) in Germany.

The statistics from Hitler’s division are staggering – Hitler’s regiment entered the battle with 3,600 men and ended the battle with 611, and his own company was reduced from 250 men to just 42.

It is difficult to imagine the bloodshed simply through numbers, and the traumatic nature of this decimation of the German army took its toll.

John Keegan argues that Hitler’s psyche shifted fundamentally after this experience, and he became much more aloof and withdrawn for the rest of the war.

Hitler was then assigned to be a regimental message-runner.

The rest of the war

As the telephone replaced many of his duties, Hitler’s comrades in his regiment supposedly laughed at “Adi” for his aversion to smutty stories, and traded their jam rations for his tobacco.

A postcard sent by Hitler from Munich on 19 December 1916, where he explains how he wants to participate in the battles of the First World War voluntarily. Credit: Europeana / Commons.

Hitler was twice decorated for bravery. He received the relatively common Iron Cross Second Class in 1914 and the Iron Cross First Class in 1918, an honour rarely given to a Gefreiter.

Hitler’s First Class Iron Cross was recommended by Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, a Jewish adjutant in the List Regiment.

Hitler’s medal was awarded after an attack in open warfare during which messengers were indispensable and on a day in which the depleted regiment lost 60 killed and 211 wounded.

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There is a story that a British soldier chose to save Adolf Hitler’s life in the last years of the war.

The most decorated private soldier of World War One in Britain, Henry Tandey allegedly had the chance to shoot Adolf Hitler and other members of his regiment, but could not bring himself to do it. Hitler apparently told this story to Chamberlain during negotiations in the 1930s.

On 16 August Adolf Hitler was accepted as a war volunteer. The Führer with his war comrades of the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, to which he belonged up to the end of war. Credit: German Federal Archives / Commons.

Further studies have suggested that this story is completely untrue, as it seems extremely unlikely that Hitler would have been able to recognise Private Tandey, as his biographer suggests he was “extremely dishevelled and covered in mud and blood”.

Hitler was hospitalised in Pomerania, in Prussia. While he was there, he learned of Germany’s defeat.

Hitler was also supposedly on leave on the date of the incident, 28 September 1918, and it’s almost too convenient that the most honoured British soldier happened to be the one to spare Hitler’s life. It seems much more likely that Hitler constructed the narrative, choosing the most prominent British soldier for his story.

On 15 October 1918, he and several comrades were temporarily blinded due to a British mustard-gas attack.

Hitler was hospitalised in Pomerania, in Prussia. While he was there, he learned of Germany’s defeat.

After the war

Hitler was outraged by the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, and this anger would inform many of his later policies. Hitler and other German nationalists would place the blame erroneously with civilian leaders, Jews and Marxists — a conspiracy theory known as the ‘Dolchstoßlegende’ or stab-in-the-back-myth.

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Hitler later wrote:

“When I was confined to bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great. I knew immediately that it would be realised.”

Hitler wanted to remain in the armed forces after the war, but with the widespread disarmament of the German army, this was not possible.

In July 1919, he was appointed to a role in intelligence and assigned to infiltrate the German Workers’ Party (DAP).

Whilst he was monitoring their activities, Hitler became enamoured with founder Anton Drexler’s antisemitic and nationalist ideas. Impressed with Hitler’s oratory skills, Drexler invited him to join the DAP, which Hitler did on 12 September 1919.