Hitler's heroism in Great War exaggerated

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The Independent Online

Adolf Hitler's claims to have been a heroic First World War soldier who "looked death in the eye" have been debunked in a new book which reveals that the Nazi leader's alleged military bravery was largely a product of party propaganda designed to win over the masses to his cause.

Hitler served as a messenger on the western front during the war and was awarded the Iron Cross for carrying dispatches. He wrote in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, that the time in the trenches "was the happiest in my life" and claimed that he risked death "probably every day".

However, in a new book entitled Hitler's First War, the historian Thomas Weber has found evidence which shows that Private Hitler was often stationed outside the most dangerous areas of battle and was hardly ever in the "midst of bombardment", as he claimed.

Mr Weber, who also shows that the Iron Cross was routinely awarded to dispatch runners, reached his conclusion after examining pages of hitherto unstudied military documents and letters detailing the history of Hitler's Great War regiment, the 16th List Bavarian reserve infantry. Nazi propaganda has described the regiment as a unit teeming with student and graduate volunteers who would later go on to form the Nazi party. However, Mr Weber also reveals that a disproportionately high number of its recruits were Jewish.

The military documents confirm that Hitler's regiment underwent its baptism of fire in late October 1914 in a battle for the Belgian village of Gheluvelt. In his account of the conflict, Hitler claimed to have been the only survivor of his platoon. However, regimental records show that only 13 men in his company were killed in the battle.

Mr Weber argues that the myths about Hitler's First World War bravery were further exaggerated by his former regimental comrades who published fawning accounts of the tyrant's alleged heroism in popular books such as With Adolf Hitler in the Bavarian Infantry. Many children's book described him as "always one of the bravest soldiers in every battle".

Hitler's First War concludes that the heroism which was held to have characterised Hitler's war years was deliberately fabricated from 1925 onwards in the run-up to the Nazi leader's so-called "seizure of power" in 1933. "It was really then that the myth of the List regiment took centre stage in Hitler's rhetoric," he writes.

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