In the muddy, lice infested, smelly trenches of World War I, Adolf
Hitler found a new home fighting for the German Fatherland. After years
of poverty, alone and uncertain, he now had a sense of belonging and purpose.
The "war to end all wars" began after the heir to the Austrian
throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was gunned down by a young Serbian terrorist
on June 28, 1914. Events quickly escalated as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany
urged Austria to declare war on Serbia. Russia then mobilized against Austria.
Germany mobilized against Russia. France and Britain then mobilized against
All over Europe and England, young men, including Adolf Hitler, eagerly
volunteered. Like most young soldiers before them, they thought it would
be a short war, but hopefully long enough for them to see some action and
participate in the great adventure.
It would turn out to be a long war in which soldiers died by the millions.
An entire generation of young men would be wiped out. The war would also
bring the downfall of the old European culture of kings and noblemen and
their codes of honor.
New technologies such as planes, tanks, machine-guns, long-range artillery,
and deadly gas were used by the armies against each other. But a stalemate
developed along a line of entrenched fortifications stretching from the
North Sea, all the way through France to the Saar River in Germany. In
these miserable trenches, Adolf Hitler became acquainted with war.
Hitler had volunteered at age 25 by enlisting in a Bavarian Regiment. After
its first engagement against the British and Belgians near Ypres, 2,500
of the 3,000 men in the Hitler's regiment were killed, wounded or missing.
Hitler escaped without a scratch. Throughout most of the war, Hitler had
great luck avoiding life-threatening injury. More than once he moved away
from a spot where moments later a shell exploded killing or wounding everyone.
Hitler, by all accounts, was an unusual soldier
with a sloppy manner and unmilitary bearing. But he was also eager for
action and always ready to volunteer for dangerous assignments even after
many narrow escapes from death.
Corporal Hitler was a dispatch runner,
taking messages back and forth from the command staff in the rear to the
fighting units near the battlefield. During lulls in the fighting he would
take out his watercolors and paint the landscapes of war.
Hitler, unlike his fellow soldiers, never complained about bad food
and the horrible conditions or talked about women, preferring to discuss
art or history. He received a few letters but no packages from home and
never asked for leave. His fellow soldiers regarded Hitler as too eager
to please his superiors, but generally a likable loner notable for his
luck in avoiding injury as well as his bravery.
On October 7, 1916, Hitler's luck ran out when he was wounded in the
leg by a shell fragment during the Battle of the Somme. He was hospitalized
in Germany. It was his first time away from the Front after two years of
war. Following his recovery, he went sightseeing in Berlin, then was assigned
to light duty in Munich. He was appalled at the apathy and anti-war sentiment
among German civilians. He blamed the Jews for much of this and saw them
as conspiring to spread unrest and undermine the German war effort.
Hitler (seated on right) and fellow soldiers during World War I. The dog had the name Fuchsl and was actually Hitler's pet during
the war until it was stolen from him.
This idea of an anti-war conspiracy involving Jews would become an obsession
to add to other anti-Semitic notions he acquired in Vienna, leading to
an ever-growing hatred of Jews.
To get away from the apathetic civilians, Hitler asked to go back to
the Front and was sent back in March of 1917.
In August 1918, he received the Iron Cross 1st Class, a rarity for
foot soldiers. Interestingly, the lieutenant who recommended him for the
medal was a Jew, a fact Hitler would later obscure. Despite his good record
and a total of five medals, he remained a corporal. Due to his unmilitary
appearance and odd personality, his superiors felt he lacked leadership
qualities and thought he would not command enough respect as a sergeant.
As the tide of war turned against the Germans and morale collapsed along
the Front, Hitler became depressed. He would sometimes spend hours sitting
in the corner of the tent in deep contemplation then would suddenly burst
onto his feet shouting about the "invisible foes of the German people,"
namely Jews and Marxists.
In October 1918, he was temporarily blinded by a British chlorine
gas attack near Ypres. He was sent home to a starving, war weary country
full of unrest. He laid in a hospital bed consumed with dread amid a swirl
of rumors of impending disaster.
On November 10, 1918, an elderly pastor came into the hospital and announced
the news. The Kaiser and the House of Hollenzollern had fallen. Their beloved
Fatherland was now a republic. The war was over.
Hitler described his reaction in Mein Kampf: "There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that
all was lost...in these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible
for this deed."
Not the military, in his mind, but the politicians back at home in Germany
and primarily the Jews.