There is no more obscure period of Adolf Hitler's life than his first 30 years of 1889-1919, starting with his birth in Austria until his first dabblings in German internal politics following the First World War. His "German" period began in 1913, when he first left Austria and moved across the frontier to Munich, later the spiritual home of Nazism after his largely unreported service in the Great War that we now call World War I.
Having recently published extensive articles in both the United States and the United Kingdom on this exact same time-frame, I naturally viewed this spectacular film---Hitler: The Unknown Soldier, 1914-1918---with great interest. First released in 2004, I suspect that the film version is based on the same sources that I also used, mainly Hitler's own 1924 autobiographical work Mein Kampf/My Battle and Hitler's Letters and Notes edited by the late German historian Werner Maser.
Explains the liner notes of this marvelous audiovisual presentation, "Adolf Hitler the fighting man is the subject of this engrossing feature, chronicling the future dictator's combat experience as a foot soldier in World War I. Excerpts from Hitler's letters from the front, recollections of regimental comrades, and evaluations by his officers offer a revealing portrait of a brooding, fearless loner who preferred battlefields to brothels, frontline service to home leave, and kept the men he frequently risked his life to protect at arm's length.
"Original German, British, and American wartime footage presents a graphic visual impression of life in the trenches. In a world of death, hardship, and discipline, Hitler sought comfort in the companionship of his English terrier" Foxl, stolen in 1917 by a railway man, he felt), "and in sketches and watercolors he rendered during lulls."
Many of these are depicted in this excellent film, and can also be seen in the comprehensive book by Texas author Billy F. Price, Hitler: The Unknown Artist.
"This candid, meticulously researched program provides an intimate, well-rounded, and unique picture of the most controversial figure of the 20th Century. It speculates on the influence wartime service exercised on his personal and political development, filling a critical gap for any sincere appraisal of Hitler's psyche, motives, and subsequent actions."
Indeed, enlisted man A. Hitler---as he signed himself---left the Army in 1920 after six years with a healthy respect for the German officer corps that led it that was only shattered by his defeat and betrayal by them in the failed Beer Hall Putsch/Revolt of Nov. 8-9, 1923. Thereafter, he respected only two from among their ranks: The "Wooden Titan" of the Great War---Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (who appointed him Reich Chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933) and Hindenburg's wartime Quartermaster General, Erich Ludendorff.
Another offshoot of his Great War experiences was his September 1942 confrontation with the then Chief of the Great German General Staff, Col. Gen. Franz Halder, when he contrasted the latter's Great War role as a staff officer with his own frontline tour of duty.
Having taken over the overall command of the Army the previous December, Hitler now broke the back of the General Staff by firing the argumentative Halder.
Aside from this basic combat infantry story being well told, the video has a number of other extraordinary featurettes that add immensely to the overall presentation. One is an in-depth interview with noted British historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw. Another is a marvelous slide show of period German Army postcards backed up by a splendid selection of contemporary music.
Also shown are locales actually connected with Hitler's wartime service and early postwar political involvement: Frommeles on the Western Front, Landsberg Prison (where convict Hitler wrote Mein Kampf with fellow wartime veteran Rudolf Hess), Pasewalk Military Hospital in Pomerania (where the gassed patient heard of Imperial Germany's armistice with the Allies in November 1918); the Feldhernahalle/Field Lord's Hall in Munich where he enlisted on Aug. 20, 1914; the National Memorial on the Rhine where train-bound Hitler passed on his way to northern France that same year, and many others as well.
The main portion of the package opens with Hitler's first speech in the Berlin Sports Palace on Feb. 2, 1933 after being named German Reich Chancellor, and then it flashes back to 19 years before, as Hitler the enlistee ships out for France. His early wartime letters to his first Munich landlord---tailor Josef Popp---are juxtaposed skillfully with background film footage and stills of the war itself, including skeletons in the rat-infested trenches that stalled the early German advances by the fall of 1914.
The viewer witnesses cheering German soldiers in their famous pickelhaube/spiked helmets marching off to war through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, as well as an excited Hitler hearing the Kaiser's declaration of war being read on Munich's Odeonsplatz, both of which still stand now virtually as they were then.
Hitler joined his second regimental choice, the famous List Regiment, where one of his wartime comrades later recalled, "We all liked him so much." Basic trainee Hitler later wrote that, "The first five days were the hardest of my life," a sentiment shared by soldiers universal both then and today. Then it was off by rail to the Niederwald Memorial, past which the riders sang The Watch on the Rhine, as remembered with emotion by him two decades later in Mein Kampf.
On Oct. 26, 1914---after a forced march---Hitler and his comrades experienced their babtism of fire against the sturdy British Tommies of Lord Douglas Haig, and in the heavy combat that followed, the Regimental commander---Col. Julius List---was killed, torn to pieces by shrapnel, a loss that affected them all deeply. "I am corporal," a voiceover states, backed up by a previously unpublished period photograph of what we Americans know as a Private First Class (PFC) Hitler.
From Nov. 9, 1914 until the end of the war four years later, Hitler served in the hazardous post of regimental runner, along with many others. One of the late runners' sons---Max Wund---is interviewed on-screen several times concerning his father's recollections of dispatch runner A. Hitler. Another whose memories are featured is Balthasar Brandmayer: "He was always ready" to carry messages to forward areas from headquarters and back, often under the most dangerous fire and other combat conditions, they all avowed, and these personal testimonies of Hitler's peers and their offspring lend a powerful authenticity to this superbly crafted epic.
"Let the others sleep," PFC Hitler asserted. "It doesn't bother me," and off he went, message safely in his dispatch pouch. Indeed, so memorable were Hitler's wartime exploits considered, that during the Third Reich they were included in an Army training manual entitled Adolf Hitler in the World War.
After the war---when he was a rising Nazi politician---his enemies among the liberals, Socialists, and Communists publicly questioned the veracity of his much-ballyhooed exploits by Nazi propaganda. To counter this, several memoirs were published by his trench mates, among them Corporal and Comrade: Adolf Hitler in the Field by Adolf Meyer, and another by his Regimental adjutant, Capt. Fritz Wiedemann, The Man Who Wanted to be a Commander. As Fuhrer, Hitler made Wiedemann his own adjutant, liaising with the NSKK/Nazi Motor Corps.
These volumes are discussed, as well as the official regimental history, Four Years on the Western Front. The film details how Hitler spent half of the war years at Fromelles (where many of his color paintings and black and white line drawings were done), and then served on the Somme River Front in some of the conflict's fiercest battles.
In another previously unpublished still, we see German Cpl. Hitler relaxing in white shirt and trouser suspenders, hands in pockets. Also discussed is Werner Maser's later claim that Hitler fathered an illegitimate son while stationed at Messines, one whom he may actually have met when he returned to France as a conqueror in 1940. Both Kershaw and German Hitlerian author Anton Joachimsthaler have disputed this scenario, however. I believe that it's possible and also plausible.
Hitler himself is quoted as telling his comrades toward the end of the war, "You'll hear a lot from me! Just wait until my time comes," thus presaging his later rise to power as Nazi Fuhrer. His anti-Jewish views are also shown to have been voiced during the Great War, but in fact these hearkened back even earlier, to his days as a flophouse painter of picture postcards in Vienna before the war. Overall, 120,000 Jews served in the German Army during World War I, as the film, to its credit, points out.
In 1916, Hitler was wounded for the first time, the documentary attests, hit in the left thigh, and the List Regiment overall suffered 50% combat losses. In August 1918, Hitler was awarded the much-coveted Iron Cross First Class---a "Highly above average" occurrence in the words of runner Max Wund. In addition, dispatch runner Hitler received the black Wound Badge and the Regimental diploma for bravery.
Near the town of Comines on Oct. 13, 1918---the actual site being shown---Hitler was gassed, and temporarily lost his sight as a result. The film asserts that---ever after---he was unable to stand the smell or the eating of meat because of the gassing, and it was for this reason that he became history's most famous vegetarian, and not over the murder-suicide of his niece, Geli Raubal, as hitherto has been given as the cause.
When blind patient Hitler heard the news of the war's loss at Pasewalk---shown in a later Nazi era postcard---he asserted, "I could stand it no longer," and vowed, if he survived, "That I would enter politics."
This steely resolution resonates still among us. In summation, no student of the period will want to miss this truly exceptionally fine celluloid treatise made by Stuart Russell. It is excellent, indeed!
Hitler: The Unknown Soldier, 1914-1918