Adolf Hitler and the First World War (Classroom Activity)

Adolf Hitler had refused twice to respond to letters calling him to join the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, he did attend the third call and reported to the army office in Salzburg in the summer of 1913. Hitler was bitterly upset when after being medically examined on 5th February, 1914, he was rejected as being: "Unfit for combatant and auxiliary duty - too weak. Unable to bear arms." Apparently, they found evidence of a lung ailment.

The outbreak of the First World War provided Hitler with an opportunity for a fresh start. It was a chance for him to become involved in proving that Germany was superior to other European countries. Hitler claimed that when he heard the news of war: "I was overcome with impetuous enthusiasm, and falling on my knees, wholeheartedly thanked Heaven that I had been granted the happiness to live live at this time.... What a man wants is what he hopes and believes. The overwhelming majority of the nation had long been weary of the eternally uncertain state of affairs; thus it was only too understandable that they no longer believed in a peaceful conclusion of the Austro-Serbian conflict, but hoped for the final settlement. I, too, was one of these millions."

Rejecting the idea of fighting for Austria, Hitler volunteered for the German Army. On 1st August 1914 he was a member of the cheering, singing crowd which gathered on the Odeonsplatz in Munich to listen to the proclamation of the war. Hitler recalled receiving a letter replying to his application: "I opened the document with trembling hands; no words of mine can describe the satisfaction I felt... Within a few days I was wearing that uniform which I was not to put off again for nearly six years."

Hitler joined the 1st Company of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. After initial training in Munich Hitler arrived on the Western Front on 21st October 1914, where his regiment took part in the Battle of Ypres. It has been claimed that Hitler's regiment was reduced from 3,600 to 611 men during this first period of fighting.

Hitler, like all those who survived the battle, was promoted to the rank of lance-corporal. Hitler was assigned on 9th November as an orderly (dispatch runner). His task was a runner whose job was to carry messages between the front-line and Regimental Headquarters, three kilometres away.

Primary Sources

Adolf Hitler
(Source 1) Adolf Hitler (1914)


(Source 2) Rudolf Olden, Hitler the Pawn (1936)

Hitler was from the very beginning among the regimental orderlies. He must have given satisfaction, for after being wounded he was drafted back to the same post... The work of dispatch-rider was dangerous in its way, above all in the later years of the war, when the effect of the artillery was making itself felt. But for the men in the trenches the position of the orderlies was always a "shirker's post". They felt no exaggerated respect for their more fortunate comrades, who usually had a roof over their heads, a room or a shed to sleep in, and always enough to eat.


(Source 3) Adolf Hitler, letter to Ernst Hepp (3rd November, 1914)

We swarmed out and chased across the fields to a little farm. To left and right the shrapnel were bursting, and in between the English bullets sang. But we paid no attention. For ten minutes we lay there, and then we were again ordered forward. I was way out in front, ahead of our squad.... The first of our men began to fall. The English had set up machine-guns. We threw ourselves down and crawled slowly forward through a gutter. From time to time a man was hit and couldn't go on, and the whole column was stuck... We ran fifteen or twenty yards, then we came to a big pool of water. One after another we splashed into it, took cover, and caught our breath. But it was no place to lie still. So we dashed out quick, and double-quick, to a forest that lay about a hundred yards ahead of us. There we found each other after a while.... We crawled on our bellies to the edge of the woods. Over us the shells were howling and whistling, splintered tree-trunks and branches flew around us. And then again grenades crashed into the wood, hurling up clouds of stones, earth, and stifling everything in a yellowish-green, stinking, sickening vapour. We couldn't lie there forever, and if we were going to be killed, it was better to be killed outside.

Again we went forward. I jumped up and ran, as fast as I could, across meadows and turnip-fields, jumping over ditches, over wire and living hedges.... A long trench lay before me; a moment later I had jumped into it. Before me, behind me, to the left and right others followed. Beside me were Wurttembergers, under me dead and wounded Englishmen. The Wurttembergers had stormed the trench before us. And now I knew why I had landed so soft when I jumped in. Between 240 and 280 yards to the left of us there were still English trenches; to the right, the road to Leceloire was still in their possession. An unbroken hail of iron was whistling over our trench...

Finally, at ten o'clock, our artillery opened up in the sector. One - two - three - five - and so on. Again and again a shell burst in the English trenches ahead of us. The fellows swarmed out like ants, and then we rushed them. We ran into the fields like lightning, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting in different places, we threw them out of one trench after another. Many of them raised their hands. Those who wouldn't surrender were knocked down. In this way we cleared trench after trench. For three days we fought on like this, and on the third day the Britishers were finally licked. The fourth evening we marched back to Werwick. Only then did we see what our losses had been. In four days our regiment of thirty-five hundred men had melted away to six hundred. There were only thirty officers left in the whole regiment.

(Source 4) Lieutenant-Colonel Philipp Engelhardt, letter sent to the Hamburg Provincial Court (29th February 1932)

As commander of the 16th Regiment of Bavarian Infantry at the Battle of Ypres in the period from November 10 to November 17, 1914, I came to know Adolf Hitler as an exceedingly brave, effective and conscientious soldier. I must emphasize the following: As our men were storming the wedge-shaped forest, I stepped out of the woods near Wytschaete to get a better view of developments. Hitler and the volunteer Bachmann, another battle orderly belonging to the 16th Regiment, stood before me to protect me with their bodies from the machine-gun fire to which I was exposed.

(Source 5) Thomas Weber, Hitler's First War (2011)

According to one report, in an attack that would cost the lives of 122 men, Hitler and his fellow dispatch runner Anton Bachmann saw how the List Regiment's new commander, Lieutenant Colonel Philipp Engelhardt, had foolishly stepped out of his cover on the edge of the forest. If we can believe a 1932 report by Georg Eichelsdorfer, the former regimental adjutant, Hitler and Bachmann dramatically leapt forward, covering Engelhardt's body and taking him back to safety.

(Source 6) Konrad Heiden, The Führer – Hitler's Rise to Power (1944)

It cannot be denied that Hitler was a brave soldier. Why, then, did this enthusiast remain an eternal grey private? The German Army needed leaders; the need for them became more and more acute as the war progressed; yet Hitler never became a leader. One of his superiors, Reserve-Lieutenant Horn, maintained. "If Adolf Hitler had been promoted to the rank of sergeant, he could not have remained a battle orderly and the regiment would have lost one of its best dispatch carriers". It has also been claimed that Hitler did not want to be a leader, but insisted on remaining a dispatch carrier... One of his superiors, it is true, is said to have declared that he did not want Hitler to become a non-com on account of his mental instability.

Adolf Hitler (bottom left) during the First World War.
(Source 7) Adolf Hitler (bottom left) during the First World War.

(Source 8) Fritz Wiedemann, The Man who Wanted to Command (1964)

By military standards Hitler really didn't at that time have potential for promotion. I'm disregarding the fact that he wouldn't have cut a specially good figure as an officer in peacetime; his posture was sloppy and when he was asked a question his answer would be anything but short in a soldier-like fashion. He didn't hold his head straight - it was usually sloping towards his left shoulder. Now all that doesn't matter in wartime, but ultimately a man must have leadership qualities if you're doing the right thing when you promote him to be a non-commissioned officer.

(Source 9) Egon Erwin Kisch, The Blue Issue (15th July, 1933)

He (Hitler) was a lance corporal for four years. Every old soldier knows that the rank of lance corporal is only brief and temporary, only a preliminary to more senior noncommissioned rank. Hundreds of thousands of men can be infantrymen and never make lance corporal, but a lance corporal who never makes sergeant in four years' front-line service must be a very suspect type. Either he shirks commanding a squad, or he is incompetent to do so.

(Source 10) Hans Mend, Adolf Hitler im Felde 1914-1918 (1931)

In this book, I want to give the German people true and unvarnished information about Adolf Hitler as a front-line soldier. As a comrade I had many opportunities to hear his pronouncements on the war, witness his bravery, and became acquainted with his brilliant traits of character... I aim to prove that he was just the same in the field as he is today; courageous, fearless, outstanding.... Everyone who knew him in the field had to admit that he was a model front-line soldier... who... as a combat orderly in static warfare performed super-human feats in a dangerous and responsible position.

Adolf Hitler
(Source 11) Ernst Schmidt, Adolf Hitler and Karl Lippert in 1915

(Source 12) Hans Mend, interviewed by Friedrich Alfred Schmid Noerr, a member of the German resistance (December 1939)

Because he was an Austrian and physically unfit, Hitler had been rejected when he volunteered for service in August 1914.... Hitler never had anything to do with guns from the time he joined us at the front as a regimental orderly. He was never anything other than a runner based behind the lines at regimental headquarters. Every two or three days he would have to deliver a message; the rest of the time he spent "in back," painting, talking politics, and having altercations. He was very soon nicknamed "crazy Adolf" by all the men he came into contact with. He struck me as a psychopath from the start. He often flew into a rage when contradicted, throwing himself on the ground and frothing at the mouth....

The List Regiment's battalion adjutant was Lieutenant Gutmann, a Jewish typewriter manufacturer from Nuremberg (now emigrated), whom Hitler made up to whenever he wanted preferential treatment of some kind. It was also Lieutenant Gutmann who got him his Iron Cross 2nd Class at Christmas 1914. That was at Bezaillere ... near Ypres. Colonel Engelhardt of the List Regiment was wounded in this engagement. When he was carried to the rear, Hitler and Bachmann tended him behind the lines. Hitler contrived to make a big fuss about this exploit of his, so he managed to gain Lieutenant Gutmann's backing in the aforesaid manner.

Meantime, we had gotten to know Hitler better. We noticed that he never looked at a woman. We suspected him of homosexuality right away, because he was known to be abnormal in any case. He was extremely eccentric and displayed womanish characteristics which tended in that direction. He never had a firm objective, nor any kind of firm beliefs. In 1915 we were billeted in the Le Febre brewery at Fournes. We slept in the hay. Hitler was bedded down at night with Schmidt, his male whore. We heard a rustling in the hay. Then someone switched on his electric flashlight and growled, "Take a look at those two nancy boys." I myself took no further interest in the matter.

(Source 13) Ernst Hanfstaengel, Hitler: The Missing Years (1957)

Old army comrades, who had seen him in the wash-house, had noted that his genital organs were almost freakishly underdeveloped, and he doubtless had some sense of shame about displaying himself. It seemed to me that this must all be part of the underlying complex in his physical relations, which was compensated for by the terrifying urge for domination expressed in the field of politics.

Adolf Hitler
(Source 14) Ernst Schmidt, Anton Bachmann and Adolf Hitler
with his dog Foxl at Fournes, April 1915.

(Source 15) Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler (2001)

Why did Hitler remain a lance corporal throughout the war? His toadying to higher authority, if not his efficiency, should have earned him promotion. We are told that he was offered it but refused. It would probably be more correct to say that he could not bring himself to accept. As a noncom he would sooner or later have been obliged to give up what had hitherto enabled him to tolerate war service so well: Ernst Schmidt, his other faithful partners, a relatively safe existence in the rear echelon, and possibly also, a toleration of the homosexual tendencies he could not have pursued as a noncommissioned officer.

(Source 16) Adolf Hitler, letter to Ernst Hepp (5th February, 1915)

Those of us who have the fortune to see their homeland again will find it purer and cleansed of alien influence, that through the sacrifices and suffering that so many hundred thousand of us make daily, that through the stream of blood that flows here day for day against an international world of enemies, not only will Germany's external enemies be smashed, but that our inner internationalism will also be broken. That would be worth more to me than all territorial gains.

(Source 17) Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936 (1998)

His only real affection seems to have been for his dog, Foxl, a white terrier that had strayed across from enemy lines. Hitler taught it tricks, revelling in how attached it was to him and how glad it was to see him when he returned from duty. He was distraught late in the war when his unit had to move on and Foxl could not be found... The emptiness and coldness that Hitler showed throughout his life in his dealings with human beings were absent in the feeling he had for his dog.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Adolf Hitler was appointed as an orderly (dispatch runner). How does source 2 help to explain this Hitler never mentioned he was a dispatch-runner in his autobiography Mein Kampf.

Question 2: In a letter that he wrote on 3rd November, Hitler describes the first battle he took part in. What was the main objective of his regiment? Was it achieved?

Question 3: What does source 16 tell us about Hitler's attitude towards the First World War?

Question 4: On 2nd December 1914, Hitler was presented with the Iron Cross, Second Class. Study sources 4, 5 and 12 explain what Hitler did to gain the award. Why have some historians had doubts about the reasons Hitler won the award?

Question 5: Hitler was never became an officer in the German Army. Study sources 6, 8, 9 and 15 and explain why he did not receive promotion.

Question 6: Study sources 10 and 12 contain views on Hitler provided by the same person. Can you explain why the two sources give a different impression of Hitler. It will help you to read the biography of Hans Mend before answering the question

Question 7: Read source 17. Do the photographs in this unit support the point made by the author of this source.

Question 8: Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933. He made every attempt to control the images of himself that were published in Germany. What do you think his views were on sources 1, 7, 11 and 14?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.