The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (7 page)

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
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Probably he left Austria to escape military service.
This was not because he was a coward but because he loathed the idea of serving in the ranks with Jews, Slavs and other minority races of the empire. In
Mein Kampf
Hitler states that he went to Munich in the spring of 1912, but this is an error. A police register lists him as living in Vienna until May 1913.

His own stated reasons for leaving Austria are quite grandiose.

My inner revulsion toward the Hapsburg State steadily grew … I was repelled by the conglomeration of races which the capital showed me, repelled by this whole mixture of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs, and Croats, and everywhere the eternal mushroom of humanity—Jews, and more Jews. To me the giant city seemed the embodiment of racial desecration … The longer I lived in this city the more my hatred grew for the foreign mixture of peoples which had begun to corrode this old site of German culture … For all these reasons a longing rose stronger and stronger in me to go at last whither since my childhood secret desires and secret love had drawn me.

His destiny in that land he loved so dearly was to be such as not even he, in his wildest dreams, could have then imagined. He was, and would remain until shortly before he became Chancellor, technically a foreigner, an Austrian, in the German Reich. It is only as an Austrian who came of age in the last decade before the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, who failed to take root in its civilized capital, who embraced all the preposterous prejudices and hates then rife among its German-speaking extremists and who failed to grasp what was decent and honest and honorable in the vast majority of his fellow citizens, were they Czechs or Jews or Germans, poor or well off, artists or artisans, that Hitler can be understood. It is doubtful if any German from the north, from the Rhineland in the west, from East Prussia or even from Bavaria in the south could have had in his blood and mind out of any possible experience exactly the mixture of ingredients which propelled Adolf Hitler to the heights he eventually reached. To be sure, there was added a liberal touch of unpredictable genius.

But in the spring of 1913 his genius had not yet shown. In Munich, as in Vienna, he remained penniless, friendless and without a regular job. And then in the summer of 1914 the war came, snatching him, like millions of others, into its grim clutches. On August 3 he petitioned King Ludwig III of Bavaria for permission to volunteer in a Bavarian regiment and it was granted.

This was the heaven-sent opportunity. Now the young vagabond could satisfy not only his passion to serve his beloved adopted country in what he says he believed was a fight for its existence—“to be or not to be”—but he could escape from all the failures and frustrations of his personal life.

“To me,” he wrote in
Mein Kampf
, “those hours came as a deliverance from the distress that had weighed upon me during the days of my youth. I am not ashamed to say that, carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, I sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live in such a time … For me, as for every German, there now began the most memorable period of my life. Compared to the events of this gigantic struggle all the past fell away into oblivion.”

For Hitler the past, with all its shabbiness, loneliness and disappointments, was to remain in the shadows, though it shaped his mind and character forever afterward. The war, which now would bring death to so many millions, brought for him, at twenty-five, a new start in life.

Hitler himself seems to have recognized this. In his youth he confided to the only boyhood friend he had that nothing had ever pleased him as much as his father’s change of names. He told August Kubizek that the name Schicklgruber “seemed to him so uncouth, so boorish, apart from being so clumsy and unpractical. He found ‘Hiedler’ … too soft; but ‘Hitler’ sounded nice and was easy to remember.” (August Kubizek,
The Young Hitler I Knew
, p. 40.)

He told this story on himself in one of his reminiscing moods on the evening of January 8–9, 1942, at Supreme Headquarters. (
Hitler’s Secret Conversations
, p. 160.

“These were the happiest days of my life and seemed to me almost a dream …” (
Mein Kampf
, p. 18.) In a letter dated August 4, 1933, six months after he became Chancellor, Hitler wrote his boyhood friend, August Kubizek: “I should be very glad … to revive once more with you those memories of the best years of my life.” (Kubizek,
The Young Hitler I Knew
, p. 273.)

Kubizek, who appears to have been the only friend Hitler ever had in his youth, has given in his book,
The Young Hitler I Knew
, an interesting picture of his companion in the last four years before, at the age of nineteen, he skidded down to the life of a vagabond in Vienna—a portrait, incidentally, that not only fills a biographical gap in the life of the German Fuehrer but corrects somewhat the hitherto prevalent impressions of his early character. Kubizek was as unlike Hitler as can be imagined. He had a happy home in Linz, learned his father’s trade as an upholsterer, worked diligently at it while studying music, was graduated with honors from the Vienna Conservatory of Music and began a promising professional career as a conductor and composer which was shattered by the First World War.

Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos
, by Josef Greiner, who was personally acquainted with Hitler during part of his Vienna days. See also
Hitler the Pawn
, by Rudolf Olden; Olden’s book includes statements from Reinhold Hanisch, a Sudeten tramp who for a time was a roommate of Hitler’s in the men’s hostel and who hawked some of his paintings. Konrad Heiden, in
Der Fuehrer
, also quotes material from Hanisch, including the court records of a lawsuit which Hitler brought against the tramp for cheating him out of a share of a painting which Hanisch allegedly sold for him.

The italics are Hitler’s.

The word was cut out in the second and all subsequent editions of
Mein Kampf
, and the noun “pestilence” substituted.

Since 1910, when he was twenty-one, he had been subject to military service. According to Heiden the Austrian authorities could not put their finger on him while he was in Vienna. They finally located him in Munich and ordered him to report for examination in Linz. Josef Greiner, in his
Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos
, publishes some of the correspondence between Hitler and the Austrian military authorities in which Hitler denies that he went to Germany to avoid Austrian military service. On the ground that he lacked funds, he requested to be allowed to take his examination in Salzburg because of its nearness to Munich. He was examined there on February 5, 1914, and found unfit for military or even auxiliary service on account of poor health—apparently he still had a lung ailment His failure to report for military service until the authorities finally located him at the age of twenty-four must have bothered Hitler when his star rose in Germany. Greiner confirms a story that was current in anti-Nazi circles when I was in Berlin that when the German troops occupied Austria in 1938 Hitler ordered the Gestapo to find the official papers relating to his military service. The records in Linz were searched in vain—to Hitler’s mounting fury. They had been removed by a member of the local government, who, after the war, showed them to Greiner.


Sunday of November 10, 1918, Adolf Hitler experienced what out of the depths of his hatred and frustration he called the greatest villainy of the century.
A pastor had come bearing unbelievable news for the wounded soldiers in the military hospital at
, a small Pomeranian town northeast of Berlin, where Hitler was recovering from temporary blindness suffered in a British gas attack a month before near

That Sunday morning, the pastor informed them, the Kaiser had abdicated and fled to Holland. The day before a republic had been proclaimed in Berlin. On the morrow, November 11, an
would be signed at Compiègne in France. The war had been lost. Germany was at the mercy of the victorious Allies. The pastor began to sob.

“I could stand it no longer,” Hitler says in recounting the scene. “Everything went black again before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the ward, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow … So it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; … in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; in vain the death of two millions who died … Had they died for this? … Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the Fatherland?”

For the first time since he had stood at his mother’s grave, he says, he broke down and wept. “I could not help it.” Like millions of his fellow countrymen then and forever after, he could not accept the blunt and shattering fact that Germany had been defeated on the battlefield and had lost the war.

Like millions of other Germans, too, Hitler had been a brave and courageous soldier. Later he would be accused by some political opponents
of having been a coward in combat, but it must be said, in fairness, that there is no shred of evidence in his record for such a charge. As a dispatch runner in the First Company of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, he arrived at the front toward the end of October 1914 after scarcely three months of training, and his unit was decimated in four days of hard fighting at the first Battle of
, where the British halted the German drive to the Channel. According to a letter Hitler wrote his Munich landlord, a tailor named Popp, his regiment was reduced in four days of combat from 3,500 to 600 men; only thirty officers survived, and four companies had to be dissolved.

During the war he was wounded twice, the first time on October 7, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, when he was hit in the leg. After hospitalization in Germany he returned to the
List Regiment
—it was named after its original commander—in March 1917 and, now promoted to corporal, fought in the Battle of Arras and the third Battle of Ypres during that summer. His regiment was in the thick of the fighting during the last all-out German offensive in the spring and summer of 1918. On the night of October 13 he was caught in a heavy British gas attack on a hill south of Werwick during the last Battle of Ypres. “I stumbled back with burning eyes,” he relates, “taking with me my last report of the war. A few hours later, my eyes had turned into glowing coals; it had grown dark around me.”

He was twice decorated for bravery. In December 1914 he was awarded the
Iron Cross
, Second Class, and in August 1918 he received the Iron Cross, First Class, which was rarely given to a common soldier in the old Imperial Army. One comrade in his unit testified that he won the coveted decoration for having captured fifteen Englishmen single-handed; another said it was Frenchmen. The official history of the List Regiment contains no word of any such exploit; it is silent about the individual feats of many members who received decorations. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Corporal Hitler earned the Iron Cross, First Class. He wore it proudly to the end of his life.

And yet, as soldiers go, he was a peculiar fellow, as more than one of his comrades remarked. No letters or presents from home came to him, as they did to the others. He never asked for leave; he had not even a combat soldier’s interest in women. He never grumbled, as did the bravest of men, about the filth, the lice, the mud, the stench, of the front line. He was the impassioned warrior, deadly serious at all times about the war’s aims and Germany’s manifest destiny.

“We all cursed him and found him intolerable,” one of the men in his company later recalled. “There was this white crow among us that didn’t go along with us when we damned the war to hell.”
Another man described him as sitting “in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands, in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up and, running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.”
Whereupon he would
launch into a vitriolic attack on these “invisible foes”—the Jews and the Marxists. Had he not learned in Vienna that they were the source of all evil?

And indeed had he not seen this for himself in the German homeland while convalescing from his leg wound in the middle of the war? After his discharge from the hospital at Beelitz, near Berlin, he had visited the capital and then gone on to Munich. Everywhere he found “scoundrels” cursing the war and wishing for its quick end. Slackers abounded, and who were they but Jews? “The offices,” he found, “were filled with Jews. Nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk … In the year 1916–17 nearly the whole production was under control of Jewish finance … The Jew robbed the whole nation and pressed it beneath his domination … I saw with horror a catastrophe approaching …”
Hitler could not bear what he saw and was glad, he says, to return to the front.

He could bear even less the disaster which befell his beloved Fatherland in November 1918. To him, as to almost all Germans, it was “monstrous” and undeserved. The German Army had not been defeated in the field. It had been stabbed in the back by the traitors at home.

Thus emerged for Hitler, as for so many Germans, a fanatical belief in the legend of the “stab in the back” which, more than anything else, was to undermine the Weimar Republic and pave the way for Hitler’s ultimate triumph. The legend was fraudulent. General Ludendorff, the actual leader of the High Command, had insisted on September 28, 1918, on an
“at once,” and his nominal superior, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, had supported him. At a meeting of the Crown Council in Berlin on October 2 presided over by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hindenburg had reiterated the High Command’s demand for an immediate truce. “The Army,” he said, “cannot wait forty-eight hours.” In a letter written on the same day Hindenburg flatly stated that the
situation made it imperative “to stop the fighting.” No mention was made of any “stab in the back.” Only later did Germany’s great war hero subscribe to the myth. In a hearing before the Committee of Inquiry of the National Assembly on November 18, 1919, a year after the war’s end, Hindenburg declared, “As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was ‘stabbed in the back.’”

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
10.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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