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New Books in History
Here's something interesting. If you search Google Books for "Hitler," you'll get 3,090,000 results. What's that mean? Well, it means that more scholarly attention has probably been paid to Hitler than any other figure in modern history. Napoleon, Lincoln, Lenin and a few others might give him a run for his money, but I'd bet on Hitler. The fact that so much effort has been expended on Hitler presents modern German historians with a problem: it's hard to say anything new about him.
Surely Thomas Weber knew this when he began to work on Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (Oxford UP, 2010). After all, a new book on Hitler's wartime experience had come out in 2005. What more is there to say? It turns out that there is quite a lot if you know where to look. And Weber does. He uses an interesting approach to uncover novel information about Hitler. Weber acknowledges that the documentary record relating directly to Hitler's personal wartime experience is thin (a few letters, some military reports) and, when it is thicker, biased (more than a few axe-grinding memoirs from a much later time). These documents, all of which have been pored over by historians, will not shed any new light on Hitler. So Weber turns to a much larger and more trustworthy body of sources: that produced by the officers and soldiers in Hitler's unit, the List Regiment. Though these papers usually do not mention Hitler by name, they enable Weber to reconstruct what he must have experienced, to see what was typical and what was not in Hitler's service record, and, on the basis of this information, judge the veracity of claims made by Hitler, Nazi propagandists, and historians about the impact of World War I on the the Nazi dictator.
The result is a serious revision. Hitler (et al.) said that World War one "made" him the person he became. Weber shows in detail that this claim is false. Fundamental elements of Hitler's worldview either pre-date the war (his German nationalism) or seem to post-date it (his radical anti-semitism). In fact, the war did two things for Hitler: it gave him credibility he could use as he entered politics and it convinced him that he was an expert in military affairs. He ran for office as a humble Gefreiter (private), a holder of the Iron Cross First Class; and he ran the war as a dilettantish know-it-all, often with disastrous consequences.
The only revelation Hitler had in the trenches was a common one, namely, that war is a very nasty business. That he went on to start another, even bloodier one has less to do with his experience of World War One than the ideas he brought to the conflict and absorbed after it.
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