by Thomas Weber
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 450.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 978-0-1992-3320-5
Prof. Weber (Aberdeen), takes a hard look at the military experiences of Adolf Hitler and the men of the Bavarian 16th Reserve Infantry. Pointing out that much of what is “known” about Hitler’s wartime service is based on the man’s own writings or those of former comrades wishing to curry favor, or to put him down, not to mention deliberate fabrication by Nazi propagandists, Weber uses official reports, letters, and other documents, to provide a fuller picture. He notes, for example, that while Hitler did serve under fire, his duties as a regimental runner were less dangerous than those of battalion or company runners or of the ordinary Frontsoldat; of Hitler's ten or so fellow regimental runners, all but one survived.
In doing this Weber explores various aspects of the “Hitler Myth”. So, for example, he rejects the idea that the war “radicalized” Hitler and his comrades, or that the German Army retained its cohesion to the end, and so forth. This is not to say that the book is a hostile assault on Hitler. Weber credits Hitler for doing his duty, and rejects many bogus tales of his life during the war where they fail to stand up to rigid analysis (e.g., that Hitler was gay, that he lost a testicle in action, etc.).
Primarily a Holocaust specialist, Weber makes occasional errors in military terminology (e.g., translating “granate” as “grenade” rather than "shell" when referring to artillery fire), but this is a small objection. Hitler’s First War is an essential read for anyone trying to understand Hitler, and for any serious student of the Great War and the German military experience in the twentieth century, particularly because as Weber examines Hitler’s wartime experiences, he also takes a deep look at the inner life of his regiment from its formation and training, through long service at the front, throwing considerable light on the life and experiences of the Frontsoldat.