Military career of Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler during the First World War.
|Years of service||1914–1918|
|Unit||16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment|
The military career of Adolf Hitler can be divided into two distinct portions of Adolf Hitler's life. Mainly, the period during World War I when Hitler served as a Gefreiter (lance corporal) in the Bavarian Army, and the era of World War II when Hitler served as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) through his position as Führer of Nazi Germany.
World War I
When Hitler was 25 years old in 1914, both Austria-Hungary and the German Empire became involved in the First World War. Hitler received the final part of his father's estate in May 1913 and moved to Munich where he earned money as a painter. Historians believe he left Vienna to evade conscription into the Austrian army. Hitler later claimed that he did not wish to serve the Habsburg Empire because of the mixture of "races" in its army. After he was deemed unfit for service – he failed his physical exam in Salzburg on 5 February 1914 – he returned to Munich.
Despite the fact that Hitler was still holding Austrian citizenship, he asked for permission to serve in the Bavarian Army in August 1914. Hitler was granted the permission to join, even though he was not a German citizen.[a] During his time serving in the army, Hitler began to put forth his German nationalist ideas which he developed from a young age.
The German army at the time was a collection of regional forces organized by the various German states with the Prussian army being the dominant part. The German General Staff were mostly German nobility and, years later, Hitler expressed his distaste for the "generals with 'vons' in front of their names".
During the war, Hitler served in France and Belgium in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment (called Regiment List after its first commander); Hitler originally enlisted as a Schütze and was promoted once to the rank of Gefreiter (PFC or Lance Corporal).
Hitler's primary duty was as a message runner on the Western Front, "a relatively safe job" based at regimental headquarters, several miles from the Front. According to research by Dr Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen, earlier historians of the period had not distinguished between regimental runners, who were based away from the front "in relative comfort", and company, or battalion runners, who moved among the trenches and were often subjected to machine gun fire.
Hitler was present at a number of major battles, including the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Battle of Passchendaele. The Battle of Ypres (October 1914), which became known in Germany as the Kindermord bei Ypern (Massacre of the Innocents) saw approximately 40,000 men (between a third and a half) of the nine infantry divisions present killed in 20 days, and Hitler's own company of 250 reduced to 42 by December. Biographer John Keegan has said that this experience drove Hitler to become aloof and withdrawn for the remaining years of war.
Hitler was twice decorated for bravery. He received the relatively common Iron Cross, Second Class, in 1914 and Iron Cross, First Class, in 1918, an honour rarely given to a Gefreiter. Hitler was nonetheless not promoted above corporal; there is no evidence he desired another job, but given his eccentricities he probably would not have been recommended for one. Hitler's First Class Iron Cross was recommended by Hugo Gutmann, a Jewish List adjutant. According to Weber this rare award was commonly awarded to those posted to regimental headquarters, such as Hitler, who had more contact with more senior officers than combat soldiers.
During the Battle of the Somme in October 1916, he was wounded in the left thigh when a shell exploded in the dispatch runners' dugout. Hitler spent almost two months in hospital at Beelitz. After being discharged from the hospital, Hitler was sent to Munich. He wrote to his commanding officer, Hauptmann Fritz Wiedemann, asking that he be reinstated in his regiment because he could not tolerate Munich when he knew his comrades were at the Front. Wiedemann allowed him to return to his regiment on 5 March 1917.
On 15 October 1918, he was temporarily blinded and, according to Friedelind Wagner, also lost his voice by a mustard gas attack and was hospitalised in Pasewalk. While there, Hitler learned of Germany's defeat  from a priest, and—by his own account—on receiving this news, he suffered a second bout of blindness. Hitler was outraged by the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, which deprived Germany of various territories, demilitarised the Rhineland and imposed other economically damaging sanctions. Hitler said, "When I was confined to bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great. I knew immediately that it would be realized." It was there his ideological development began to firmly take shape.
Following a near total demilitarisation of the armed forces, Hitler attempted to remain in the army after the war. He returned to Munich. In July 1919 he was appointed Verbindungsmann (intelligence agent) of an Aufklärungskommando (reconnaissance commando) of the Reichswehr, to influence other soldiers and to infiltrate the German Workers' Party (DAP). While monitoring the activities of the DAP, Hitler became attracted to the founder Anton Drexler's antisemitic, nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Marxist ideas. Impressed with Hitler's oratory skills, Drexler invited him to join the DAP, which Hitler accepted on 12 September 1919. The army at the time had no formal discharge system in place, and so Hitler was simply left on the army rolls as an inactive Gefreiter.
After Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party, he quickly began acquiring paramilitary-like titles and using Nazi Party paramilitary uniforms to denote his position. Hitler's main title within the Nazi party was simply that of Führer and there was never any special uniform designed for Hitler's position, although a rank pin for a civilian lapel (used by Hitler until 1934) was known as the "Eagle of Sovereignty Pin". Hitler ceased wearing this pin after the Night of Long Knives due to widespread issuance of the Golden Party Badge and Hitler's preference for this decoration.
The brown Nazi Party uniform that Hitler is most often associated with was a paramilitary uniform of the SA and denoted Hitler's position as Oberste SA-Führer. In the late 1920s, Hitler occasionally wore a black uniform, but this was during a period when Hitler was emulating Benito Mussolini. Hitler's admiration for the Italian dictator later faded as Germany became more powerful than her Italian ally and Mussolini was, in the end, looked down upon by Hitler as a puppet-dictator under German control.
From 1933 to 1934, Hitler held the political position as Chancellor of Germany and it is during this period that Hitler is most often seen in newsreels and photographs as wearing civilian clothes. After the death of the President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler declared himself Führer und Reichskanzler (Leader and Reich Chancellor) by combining the offices of the President, and of that of Chancellor, and adopted a brown uniform, similar to his earlier SA uniform, but with a much cleaner cut.
Hitler was, by default as Führer, the supreme commander of every Nazi paramilitary organization but Hitler never adopted extra ranks in these organizations nor did he have special uniforms to denote his position (for instance, there was no special SS uniform or insignia for Hitler, even though he was considered SS member #1 and outranked Heinrich Himmler). Hitler also technically qualified for every Nazi political decoration, but in practice only wore his World War I Iron Cross, the Golden Nazi Party Pin, and the Wound badge in Black. During Nazi rallies at Nuremberg in the early 1930s, Hitler temporarily wore the 1929 Nuremberg Party Day Badge, but discontinued this after about 1935.
World War II
When World War II began, Hitler appointed himself to the unique title "First Soldier of the German Reich" (Erster Soldat des Deutschen Reiches) and began wearing a gray military jacket with swastika eagle sewn on the upper left sleeve (contrary to anachronistic depictions in movies and popular culture, Hitler did not wear a brown Nazi party uniform at any point during World War II). Throughout the war, the only military decorations Hitler displayed were his Wound Badge and Iron Cross from World War I and the Nazi Golden Party Badge.
Hitler's position in World War II was essentially supreme commander of the German Armed Forces (Oberbefehlshaber der Deutschen Wehrmacht). In 1941, Hitler further appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the German Army (Heer), thus taking a direct operational posting usually held by a full German general.
Awards and decorations of Adolf Hitler
Decorations from World War I
- Iron Cross, First Class - 4 August 1918
- Iron Cross, Second Class - 12 February 1915
- Bavarian Cross of Military Merit, Third Class with Swords - 17 September 1917
- Bavarian Medal of Military Service, Third Class - 25 August 1918
- Regimental Diploma (Regiment "List") - 5 May 1918
- Wound Badge in Black - 18 May 1918
After the end of the war, the only decorations Hitler regularly wore were the Wound Badge and First Class Iron Cross.
Nazi Party Political Badges
The party badges listed below are those Hitler had received and sometimes wore on his various party uniforms. By 1938, the Golden Party Badge was the only one he wore on a regular basis.
The Eagle of Sovereignty Pin was a civilian lapel pin which denoted Hitler's rank of Führer; Hitler appears to have worn this lapel pin for social occasions between 1933 and 1935.
Political Awards bestowed but not worn
Hitler was technically entitled to several additional Nazi Party political decorations and had the right to wear such awards on his uniform. The decorations listed below were technically awarded to Hitler, but were never displayed on his uniforms.
- Nazi Party Long Service Award (25 years)
- Nazi Gau Badges[b]
- Golden Hitler Youth Badge (with oak-leaves)[c]
- Honour Chevron for the Old Guard
Civilian decorations of Nazi Germany
Hitler never wore any German civil decorations, and indeed did not qualify for most of them. Technically, Hitler was awarded the Olympic Games Decoration for serving as host at the 1936 Olympics, but he never wore or even acknowledged having received this award.
Military decorations of World War II
Hitler's stance on Second World War military decorations was that the Nazi leadership was the "fount" from which awards were granted. The leading Nazis did not need to bestow high ranking medals and awards on themselves, but should rather reserve such decorations for the younger generation of the movement. This was a point of contention between Hitler and Hermann Göring, the latter of whom attempted during the War to amass every conceivable German military, civil, and political decoration to wear on his Luftwaffe uniform. Reichsmarschall Göring's passion for collecting medals reached its climax in 1944, when Hitler denied him the Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross, which Göring had attempted to obtain for himself as a reward for his various government and military services.
Hitler himself never received a high level World War II military decoration, such as the 1939 Iron Cross, the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, the German Cross, or the War Merit Cross. However, by his appointment as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Hitler automatically qualified for some military service decorations, although he never wore such awards or even acknowledged his right to wear them.
In all, the following were World War II military decorations Hitler was automatically awarded by default:
- Cross of Honor
- Anschluss Medal
- Sudetenland Medal (w/Prague Castle bar)
- Memel Medal
- West Wall Medal (w/1944 bar)
Hitler was not qualified to receive the Eastern Front Medal since, although he had planned the campaign, he did not spend enough time on the front lines to earn it. Due to the July 20 Plot, Hitler automatically qualified for the "Wound Badge of 20 July 1944" although he never wore this medal, choosing instead to wear his Wound Badge in Black dating from the First World War.
- Ian Kershaw concludes it is almost certain that the Bavarian army was in error in allowing him to enlist.
- Hitler was automatically entitled to the highest degree of every Nazi Party Gau (District) Badge. Some Gauleiters ordered "special degrees" of Gau Badges, specifically for Hitler, some of which were gold encrusted with diamonds. Hitler was formally presented many of these badges, but wore none of them (in all, there were eleven Gau badges to which Hitler was entitled).
- Some reports indicate that Hitler did indeed wear this pin at various Hitler Youth functions.
- Shirer 1960, p. 27.
- Weber 2010, p. 16.
- Kershaw 2001, p. 99.
- Evans 2003, pp. 163–164.
- "Adolf Hitler a war hero? Anything but, said first world war comrades: Unpublished letters and diaries from List regiment soldiers portray Hitler as a loner, an object of ridicule and 'a rear area pig'", The Guardian, 16 August 2010
- Shirer 1960, p. 30.
- Keegan 1987, p. 239.
- Bullock 1962, pp. 52–53.
- Kershaw 2008, p. 59.
- Kershaw 2008, p. 57.
- Langer 1972, p. 135-136.
- Kershaw 2008, p. 58.
- Langer 1972, p. 136.
- Kershaw 2008, pp. 59-60.
- Kershaw 1999, p. 97.
- Kershaw 1999, p. 102.
- Langer 1972, p. 37.
- Kershaw 2008, pp. 61-62.
- Kershaw 1999, p. 109.
- Kershaw 2008, p. 82.
- Stackelberg 2007, p. 9.
- Speer 1970.
- Bullock, Alan (1962) . Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-013564-0.
- Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-14-303469-8.
- Keegan, John (1987). The Mask of Command: A Study of Generalship. London: Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-6526-1.
- Kershaw, Ian (1999) . Hitler: 1889–1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-04671-7.
- Kershaw, Ian (2001). Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-0-14-192579-0.
- Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-06757-6.
- Langer, Walter C. (1972) . The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-04620-1.
- Shirer, William L. (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-62420-0.
- Speer, Albert (1970). Inside the Third Reich. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-297-00015-2.
- Stackelberg, Roderick (2007). The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-30860-1.
- Weber, Thomas (2010). Hitler's First War. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923320-5.
- Zentner, Christian Ed; Bedürftig, Friedemann Ed (1991), The Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-897502-2.