Despite 75 years of historical research following his death by suicide on April 30, 1945, in Berlin, certain things about Hitler remain far from understood. Not only was he of secretive nature, but he was also an inveterate liar, a constant actor and professional deceiver.
He wrote a book – “Mein Kampf” – a sort of mixture of autobiography and political manifesto – which was published in two volumes 1925 and 1926. Literally thousands of articles and have been written about it, and the gist of the analysis is that while it is full of half-truths and some outright lies in personal matters, his thoughts are fairly well represented – no one could say he beat around the bush. Literature concerning “Mein Kampf” is liberally and freely available on the internet and it shall not be the subject of this selection of Hitler’s own documents. We shall concentrate – as best as we may – on documents of what we believe may be of illuminating importance or depicting decisive events.
Source-wise, the two classic collections of Hitler documents, handwriting and speeches are:
Theodosius I [AD 379 – 395] had been the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the western and eastern parts of the Empire. His sole daughter, Galla Placidia – a younger, paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius – we have met earlier as the wife of Athaulf, brother-in-law to Alaric, King of the Visigoths, and his eventual successor. When Honorius required the services of the magister militum Constantius III to put down a nasty revolt undertaken by co-emperor Constantine III, who had raised his standard in Britain AD 407, he gave him his widowed sister [ † AthaulfAD 415] as wife in the bargain, who proceeded to give birth to Valentinian III in AD 419, (Latin: Flavius Placidius Valentinianus Augustus; 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) who was Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 and one of the chief engineers of the Imperial collapse.
At that time, the “men” behind Emperor Valentinian III, who was six years of age in the year of his installation, AD 425, were his mother Placidia and the generals Aetius and Boniface. These two officers might have been able to protect the West had they cooperated; as they intrigued against each other, they largely failed, with one glorious exception, to keep the sinking ship afloat. As Edward Gibbon delineates, the designs of Aetius precipitated at length the losses of Spain and Africa:
The abilities of Aetius and Boniface might have been usefully employed against the public enemies, in separate and important commands. … But Aetius possessed an advantage of singular moment in a female reign; he was present; he besieged, with artful and assiduous flattery, the palace of Ravenna; disguised his dark designs with the mask of loyalty and friendship; and at length deceived both his mistress and his absent rival by a subtle conspiracy which a weak woman and a brave man could not easily suspect. He had secretly persuaded Placidia to recall Boniface from the government of Africa; he secretly advised Boniface to disobey the Imperial summons: to the one he represented the order as a sentence of death; to the other he stated the refusal as a sign of revolt; and when the credulous and unsuspectful count [Boniface, ¶] had armed the province [Spain] in his defence, Aetius applauded his sagacity in foreseeing the rebellion which his own perfidy had exited [AD 427]. A temperate inquiry into the real motives of Boniface would have restored a faithful servant to his duty and to the republic; but the arts of Aetius still continued to betray and to inflame, and the count was urged by persecution to embrace the most desperate counsels. The success with which he eluded or repelled the first attacks could not inspire a vain confidence that at the head of some loose, disorderly Africans he should be able to withstand the regular forces of the West, commanded by a rival whose military character was impossible for him to despise. After some hesitation, the last struggles of prudence and loyalty, Boniface despatched a trusty friend to the court, or rather to the camp, of Gonderic, king of the Vandals, with the proposal of a strict alliance and the offer of an advantageous and perpetual settlement. (23)
Boniface played a Spanish Gambit, so to say, based upon the momentary situation in Spain. The north-eastern parts of the land were controlled by the Visigoths; technically in the name of Honorius respectively Valentinian III, but as a matter of fact, control over the important parts lay in the hands of Athaulf’s successors. The north-western parts of the Iberian Chersonnese, however, known as Gallicia, had been the stage of a protracted tug-of-war between the two German tribes of the Suebi and the Vandals, who for an ancient feud were perpetual enemies. The Vandals had only recently defeated a large band of Suebi when Boniface’s solicitation arrived. The missive invited them to turn their desires of settlement on the far richer provinces of Africa, which Boniface offered to share. There were, as he explained, no further Roman forces to be concerned with than the two legions routinely stationed in Numidia, which, however, were of low quality, and whose marginally better cohorts were in the process to be redeployed to Germania.
The offer seemed to promise the Vandals [FN1] a chance for permanent settlement, and a fortuitous occasion improved the chances of its acceptance: King Gonderic had had the decency to expire at the proper moment and had been succeeded by his half-brother Genseric [r.AD 428-477, ¶], who, with Alaric and Attila, was to become the third member of the barbarian troika which scourged the Empire in the fifth century AD. The native Celtiberians felt so elated by the Vandals’ intention to leave their soil that they assisted the Germans, who were not a seafaring nation, in the construction of the vessels necessary to get across the Pillars of Hercules, as Gibraltar and its opposite African promontory were called at that time.
[FN1] The bad reputation of the Vandals results from the entirety of their history having been written by their enemies. The Vandals were Arians, thus, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, heretics. But other Germanic tribes that were Arians, like the Goths, did not attempt to convert Catholics to Arianism, but the Vandals did. Chris Wickham observed: “Only the Vandals assumed that their version of Christianity should be the universal one, and that others should be uprooted, as the Romans themselves did: hence also the negative tone of contemporary accounts, which are all written by Catholics.” (25)
The size of the journeying multitude was augmented by the Alani, who had been faithful companions of the Vandals on the long trek from the eastern bank of the Danube to the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently onmipresent, a band of Goths joined as well. Yet the number of travellers, which is usually given at about 50,000 warriors plus families and slaves, seems lower than it could reasonably be expected from the gathering of two complete tribes plus some Goths. Apparently, more than a few Vandals and Alans liked what they had found in Spain and detested further adventures.
The journey succeeded, and two lucky circumstances soon increased the number of Genseric’s followers in Africa. The indigenous and indigent inhabitants of Mauritania and Numidia had never been assigned a different role by the Romans than that of a feeder race for the slave markets, but when the Moors carefully approached the recent invaders, they could see at first glance that the new arrivées were different from their former oppressors. It took little diplomacy to convince the Moors that the enemy of their enemies was their friend, and “a crowd of naked savages rushed from the woods and valleys of Mount Atlas to satiate their revenge on the polished tyrants who had injuriously expelled them from the native sovereignty of the land.” (24) The second beneficial opportunity Genseric was able to exploit was the support of the Donatists, a Christian congregation that had settled in Africa Provincia just after AD 300. They found themselves objecting to the authority of the local metropolitan, Bishop Caecilian of Carthage, whom they labelled improperly consecrated, and after Emperor Constantine judged in favour of Caecilian, a schism occurred, for the Donatists did not give in. (26) Enmity ruled the next century until, after a formal debate in Carthage AD 411, the Catholic Church demanded their persecution, and seventeen years before the Vandals’ arrival, Emperor Honorius authorized the extinction of Donatism and supported the orthodox belief with the strongest of incentives. Edward Gibbon could barely hide his disgust:
Three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches, stripped of their ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, and proscribed by the laws if they presumed to conceal themselves in the provinces of Africa. Their numerous congregations, both in cities and in the country, were deprived of the rights of citizens and of the exercise of religious worship. … By these severities, which obtained the warmest approbation of St. Augustine, great numbers of the Donatists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, but the fanatics who still persevered in their opposition were provoked to madness and despair; the distracted country was filled with tumult and bloodshed; the armed troops of “Circumcellions” alternately pointed their rage against themselves or against their adversaries; and the calendar of martyrs received on both sides a considerable augmentation. Under these circumstances, Genseric, a Christian but an enemy of the Orthodox communion [being an Arian, ¶), showed himself to the Donatists as a powerful deliverer, from whom they might reasonably expect the repeal of the odious and oppressive edicts of the Roman emperors. The conquest of Africa was facilitated by the active zeal, or the secret favour, of a domestic faction; the wanton outrages against the churches and the clergy of which the Vandals are accused may be fairly imputed to the fanaticism of their allies; and the intolerable spirit which disgraced the triumph of Christianity contributed to the loss of the most important province of the West. (27)
The news of Genseric’s invasion and its success astonished the Emperor, the Senate, the bishop and the people of Rome. The opinion was pronounced by a number of Count Boniface’s supporters that it was hard to believe that a tried and trusted servant of the realm had indeed handled the pearl of the Empire to the uncouth chieftain of a barbarian mob and left the province he was supposed to protect to the doubtful benefactions of vengeful heretics or the savage tribes of the desert. An embassy was dispatched to Carthage post-haste, to investigate and report.
In Ravenna, meanwhile, the correspondence between Boniface, Aetius and Placidia was inspected, compared, and Aetius’ deception easily discovered: but the hastily enacted new resolutions turned out to change too little, and too late, to prevent the loss or to enable the recapture of the key province. Boniface was hastily reinstated to the graces of the court and the command of the African legions: he was able to hold, for a while, the important cities of Carthage, Cirta and Hippo Regius, but the vast domain of Africa and her fertile pastures were lost. Worse, perhaps, it also made the Vandals perpetual enemies of the Empire, as it happened with the Visigoths twenty years later, and Chris Wickham points out that “the conquest of the grain heartland of Africa by the Vandals in 439, which the Romans mistakenly did not anticipate and resist, seems to be the turning point, the moment after which these potential [Germanic] supports might turn into dangers.” (28)
But for the moment, Boniface, who had returned from Hippo Regius to Ravenna, faced civil war when Aetius led a force of German mercenaries from Gaul into the field in Gallia Cisalpina in an effort to overthrow him. Aetius lost the ensuing battle which, however, claimed Boniface’s life and left the Empire vulnerable. But in the following years, it was Aetius who showed the military knack that perhaps saved Italy from both Huns and Goths, by playing them against each other. In AD 451, the principal Hunnish invasion of Gaul by the united tribes under Attila commenced. It would appear that Attila had received an embassy from Genseric just earlier, which described the mutual benefits that could be achieved by a strategic coordination against the Empire: if, say, the Huns were to invade the north-east while the Vandals attacked Sicily, and then Italy proper, the Empire, its protector Boniface dead, would be caught in a vise. [FN2] Attila may have pondered a similar scenario and his cavalry was in place at the eastern border at the right time: within days of the signal to attack the East was overwhelmed by his rapacious hordes and Theodosius II, successor of Arcadius and last of his line, had to accept a harsh peace treaty which made him, the Augustus of the East, a subaltern of the King of the Huns, and the debtor of an annual payment of twelve thousand pieces of gold.
[FN2] Chris Wickham explains the military and geostrategic factors that much differentiated the fate of the two parts of the Empire as follows: “It probably did derive in part from the greater exposure of heartland areas in the West, Italy and especially central and southern Gaul, to frontier invasion; attacks on the Balkans in the East rarely got past Constantinople into the rest of the empire, but attacks on the western military regions, northern Gaul and the Danube provinces, could get further much more easily. Accepting invading groups into the western empire and settling them as federates was a perfectly sensible response to this, as long as those federate areas did not become so unruly that Roman armies had to be held back to fight them, or so large that they threatened the tax base of the empire, and thus the resources for the regular armies themselves. Unfortunately for the West, however, this did happen.” (29)
He was not more of a military man than his uncles Honorius and Arcadius had been, and for all practical purposes, the state of the realm was only improved when his horse, on the Lycus River, threw off its rider who broke his spine and promptly expired. His sister Pulcheria was proclaimed Empress of the East by the courtiers, officers and plebs, and, aware of the sensible position a female reign might be exposed to in the time of war, she married, only a few days later, the senator Mercian, who, at the festive occasion, was invested with the Imperial title, purple and regalia. The former senator was of solemn nature and an experienced administrator but unused and hostile to the arts of flattery and duplicity which are second nature to courtiers in the palaces of the East, then and now. He dared to send a reply more independent than servile in nature to the envoys of the King of the Huns, who arrived in Constantinople to demand the delivery of the annual tribute [AD 450]. Yet as much as Attila was enraged by the rebuke, his recent designs had centred on the West, on Gaul and Italy, and the attention of civilization soon centred on Aetius, who seemed to vacillate between being the hope or the dread of the Empire.
After Boniface’s death, Aetius had undertaken a trip to Attila, to borrow a horde of Hunnish cavalry for aiding him to return to Rome with impunity, and “he solicited his pardon at the head of sixty thousand barbarians.” (30) Aetius was also promoted to generalissimo of the Western Empire: it speaks for his caution that he allowed Valentinian to wear the purple and his mother Placidia to sign the documents he supplied. But at AD 450, the balance of powers in the west had changed to the detriment of the Romans: most of Spain now belonged to the Suebi, the rest to the Visigoths, who also filled the south of Gaul. The northern and central parts of the region were held by the Franks, and Africa, alas, had been lost to the Vandals. Notwithstanding his volatile loyalties, Aetius was well aware that a Hunnish conquest of Gaul and Italy would result in the collapse of the West: the Huns, being nomads, did not know any forms of positive laws or continuous government but the license of their chieftains, whose tyranny, caprice and ignorance could not support the complicated economical interdependencies of the Mediterranean nations nor sustain the regularities of commerce. That a decision, at length, had to be sought with military means became a foregone conclusion for both Huns and Romans, and both sides began to court Gothic mercenaries.
Attila was able to exploit yet another occasion of internal strife among the dukes of the Franks as a pretext for the invasion of Gaul he launched in AD 451, where he was met in the field by his former ally Aetius. The new commander-general of the West had collected a conglomerate of regular legions, mercenaries, and Gaul and German volunteers who had settled in Gallia and were esteemed to fight for their possessions with zeal perhaps superior to that of a common mercenary. In addition to this motivational advantage, Aetius was intimately familiar with Hunnish cavalry tactics and hence able to prepare his troops on what to expect. The typical moments of surprise and confusion, which accompanied Hunnish attacks and often resulted in their breaking the enemy’s lines, failed to materialize at the Battle of Chalons [AD 451]. Aetius’ troops were able to maintain their cohesion and inflicted on the Huns the first defeat they suffered in generations. The loss at Chalons confused but did not diminish the Huns’ lust for conquest, or, rather, pillage and plunder, for notwithstanding their many military victories, the thought of becoming a settled people never entered their heads. In the spring of the following year, a substantial Hunnish army was discovered marching into lower Italy, but the Gauls and Germans who had defended their possessions in Gallia Provincia had no interest to spill their blood in the preservation of their titular Roman overlords, and no aid against Attila issued from Gaul.
The Huns’ eventual appearance in the Po valley, hardly threescore leagues from Ravenna [AD 452], finally alerted the Imperial person. Valentinian’s life would have been safe in the fortress, but his timidity found expression in an urgent embassy to Rome, where he hoped to confiscate sufficiently luxurious and expensive items as might be suitable to deflect Attila’s attention from the conquest of the Italian heartland. In the old capital, he collected not only such valuable things as the owners would freely contribute to the Imperial cause, but resorted to expropriation as well, in the alleviation of his own generosity. The senator Avienus was chosen, with his colleague Trigetus and Leo, bishop of Rome, to undertake an expedition to the King of the Huns, who reposed at the famous Lago di Garda, the Garda Lake in the Southern Alps, only a few miles west of Verona, the town made immortal by Dietrich von Bern and Romeo and Julia. The deputation was not only carrying goods of secular value: with a huge dowry, a painting of the princess Honoria was delivered, whose hand was promised to the King of the Huns for his moderation. While those financial and amorous offerings may have belonged to diplomacy as usual, it was the keen mind of Leo who had thought of a different approach.
The respect that the Huns extended to matters of superstition and divination was well known in the Empire, and Leo recognized their potential usefulness: he guided the attention of the king and his nobles to the recognition of the horrible fates that destiny had imposed on the enemies of the eternal city. Romulus’s bane lay over the town, the priest explained: no conqueror would live to reign over her but for a year. King Brennus, Leo pointed out, after seizing Rome in 387 BC, had died soon later [nobody had an idea when], and had not Alaric himself, the great king of the Visigoths, failed to survive the end of the year that saw his entry into Rome? Hannibal, Leo further elucidated, the greatest general Rome ever faced, had never even tried to actually take the city, well aware of the curse. Even Gaius Marius had not survived his own conquest of the city in the civil war more than a few weeks; if history punished Rome’s own sons so harshly, what could a stranger expect?
The priest’s arguments were well-chosen, but there was an additional factor which mitigated the Huns’ resolves to destroy the Empire; the fact that the barbarians had begun to cherish the temptations of civilization. The rough sons of the steppe, whose diet had been, for centuries, raw flesh and, perhaps, some fermented goat’s milk, were introduced to the Imperial Roman cuisine; to the taste of condiments and spices; the tender meat of suckling pigs and calves; the multitudes of vegetables and the sweet sensation of honey: they could not resist. Their tents did not favourably compare to Roman buildings, whose heated floors and concrete foundations were able to withstand the winter’s frost or the whims of floods. But it was wine in particular that tended to undermine their earlier resolves and replaced thoughts of the ravages of war with the contemplation of a sunset drink with friends on the terrace of a villa, perhaps in the company of a few light-skirted nymphs. Attila eventually granted peace but reminded the Roman delegation that the delivery of the annual financial contribution and the royal bride Honoria was to occur the very same year, to prevent his army’s return to Italy in a more adversarial mood. Thus spoken, the king retired to his eastern possessions and prepared for the royal encounter with Honoria.
Yet, in the meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with Barbaric pomp and festivity at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired at a late hour from the banquet to the nuptial bed. His attendants continued to respect his pleasures, or his repose, the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment.
They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil and lamenting her own danger as well as the death of the king, who had expired during the night [AD 453]. An artery had suddenly burst; and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood which, instead of finding a passage through the nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach. (31)
The simple social order of the Huns ensured that Attila’s realm fell apart the very minute that the news of the king’s death reached the various hordes. The aspirations of a dozen subaltern leaders and the hopes of numerous bastard sons converged in one great conflagration, which removed the traces of the realm of the Huns from the continent, and history in general, in a matter of days. The tribes returned to their homelands in the Asian steppe, and neighbouring tribes found the fields north and east of the Danube empty. The Avares were the first people to inundate the former Hunnish plains and mountains, whence they soon came into contact with the Empire. The disappearance of the Huns, however, also undermined Aetius’ design to provoke enmity between them and the Goths in Gaul, by which he hoped to have the menaces destroy each other. But now little military power remained available to him in the case of a Gothic invasion, and if the situation had not been bad enough to start with, the emperor himself partook in the acceleration of the realm’s demise by the murder of his general. “From the instinct of a base and jealous mind, he [Valentinian] hated the man who was universally celebrated as the terror of the Barbarians and the support of the republic.” (32)
Constant insinuations of eunuchs and courtiers urged the emperor to be aware of the danger a virtuous man might pose to the throne. The general’s presence was requested for some court business in Ravenna, and in perhaps the sole action history can reliably ascribe to the emperor’s person, the monarch drew his sword and buried it in Aetius’ breast; the breast that had, whatever the general’s moral shortcomings, at various occasions preserved the Empire and the West. The elite of the court assisted the emperor with their own daggers, and as soon as the general had expired, counselled the monarch that the victim’s friends must share his fate, for the good of the realm and to deter revenge. The cabal attracted Aetius’ friends, foremost Boethius, the praetorian prefect, to visit the Imperial Palace on the fabrication of some urgent business, where they were murdered wholesale [AD 454].
The court issued an edict that a conspiracy against the Empire and the monarch had been unveiled and, luckily, averted. Not a single of the emperor’s subjects, who were well aware of Aetius’ mistakes but also his merits, believed the gospel, and what had been public contempt for the feeble emperor was replaced, in Edward Gibbon’s phrase, by “universal abhorrence“. (33)
Consequently, the people were not surprised when Valentinian, after adding to the number and quality of his misdeeds a variety of illicit erotic affairs, which peaked at his rape of the wife of senator Maximus, was assassinated by two officers on the occasion of a military parade on the Field of Mars, outside the city [March 16, AD 455]. Valentinian had barely expired when Maximus, having observed his revenge fulfilled, was hailed as the new emperor by the express consent and salutations of the attending officers and domestics. The murders of Aetius and Valentinian mark the beginning of the final disintegration of the Western Empire. What might have transpired had Maximus managed to exert any effective governance over his titular possessions no one can say: the sudden appearance of a Vandal war fleet under Geiseric’s command at the port of Ostia, only a dozen miles from Rome swiftly concluded the reign of Maximus: when he appeared in public, flight on his mind, a furious multitude stoned him to death.
Three days after the emperor’s demise, Genseric led his troops upon the former capital of the known world, and the patience, wisdom and diplomacy of Bishop Leo became the instruments of a second negotiation. At length, Genseric promised to direct certain limitations upon the enthusiasm and the liberties of his army, but the rapacious reality of the second sack of the town within forty-five years broke the city’s vitality, and the catastrophe inflicted upon the eternal city a millennium of political insignificance and economic pauperism.
It took over 1,200 years until the mayor of Rome could again tally the same number of inhabitants as had dwelled there in the early fifth century AD. The Vandals’ vessels not only transported away everything of material value, copper and bronze being pilfered just as silver and gold: the empress Eudonia and her two daughters were compelled to share the ride, accompanied by thousands of Romans that were designated to the slave markets of Africa.
The decline of the geostrategic importance of Italy had long since become obvious by the labours of the generals and legions from Gaul, for this was where the action was: the Franks and Alemanni that had crossed the Rhine a century earlier had by now advanced deeply into Gaul, until they encountered the dominions of the Visigoths, who, for the moment, blocked further expansion south- and westward. The south-eastern corner of Gaul was settled by Burgundians, who had been placed there by Aetius himself, but it was the Franks and the Goths that played the main roles in the wake of Maximus’ death. Before his ignominious demise, the emperor had promoted a local Gallic nobleman named Avitus to the post of master-general of Gaul. The promotee considered himself, unlike his military colleagues, an educated man; the embassy sent by the emperor reached him while he was reposing in a precious villa near Clermont. Accepting the lofty rank, Avitus assumed the command of the local troops, which consisted mainly of Visigoths, with a sprinkle of other Germans thrown in. In deference to the factual holder of power, Avitus embarked on a journey to Theodoric II, the king of the Visigoths [r.AD 453-466]. He had barely reached his host when the sudden news of Genseric’s assault on Rome and Maximus’ death was delivered.
Whatever his original designs may have been, on the occasion of the unexpected message Theodoric convinced him to “claim the imperial office” [AD 455]. (34) The new emperor soon appeared in Rome, where, for the sincerity of his motives, he accepted the consulship; yet in a time when the office of the Augustus meant predominantly “toil and danger, [Avitus] indulged himself in the pleasantries of Italian luxury: age had not extinguished his amorous inclinations; and he is accused of insulting, with indiscreet and ungenerous raillery, the husbands whose wives he had seduced or violated.” (35) The new emperor’s principal armoured support, the Visigoths, was temporarily unable to stabilize Avitus’ tenuous regency, because of their urgent business of fighting the Suebi, the former adversaries of the Vandals, for the dominion of northern Spain. When Count Ricimer, one of the captains of Rome’s few remaining battle-worthy legions, succeeded in annihilating a Vandal war fleet of sixty ships that had felt too secure in its harbour, he was applauded as the deliverer of the nation; and was able to convince Avitus to abdicate after a reign of fourteen months and many seductions of cooks and chambermaids.
After an interregnum of half a year, Ricimer installed his own favourite, Majorian, in the highest office of the West, who arrived in the capital with the news of a great victory he had inflicted upon the Alemanni and was subsequently installed as Augustus in Ravenna [AD 457]. The Alemanni had never heard of him. But it appeared that Majorian showed too much independence for Ricimer’s taste, and thus the magister militum had the emperor quickly assassinated and then ruled “until his death in 472, through a succession of mostly puppet emperors ….” (36) The successor of Majorian was one Livius Severus, of whom history has recorded no worthwhile activities; Ricimer managed the government: declining the purple and the diadem, he organized the treasury, trained the military and performed diplomacy. Now Genseric reappeared on the radar. The Vandals had been busy rebuilding the fleet they had lost to Ricimer, and southern Italy quickly suffered the renewed and repeated visitations of his hordes. Of an advanced age, the king still commanded the raids. His rapines he explained with the failure of the Imperial court to respectfully entrust him with those parts of the realm that he was entitled to by the rights of inheritance and possession. This right the king claimed on behalf of the recent marriage of his elder son Hunneric to Eudocia, the dowager empress Eudonia’s daughter. The proud father-in-law accordingly considered himself qualified to pre-inherit a substantial portion of the Empire, for his family now represented the last bough of Theodosius’s family tree.
Before long, the Eastern Emperor Leo condescended to bestow an annual financial donation upon the Vandal’s treasury, to ensure the inviolability of his shores. As a consequence of Leo’s liberality, Genseric and his men concentrated their efforts upon the Italian coastline. Confronted with the easy manoeuvrability the enemy enjoyed by its ships, Ricimer, having none, was at a loss how to counter the raids, and saw no other remedy than to apply to Constantinople in a quest for naval assistance. He addressed the Eastern Augustus Leo with the request to install a person of the emperor’s choice upon the throne of the West, which, luckily, was vacant, for Libius Severus had had the decency to expire at the most appropriate moment. The successful candidate should then be supported with men and ships and sent against the Vandals. Leo selected Anthemius, a court favourite, to fill the vacancy, and announced in a message to the world that after the destruction of the Vandal plague and the recovery of Africa Provincia, he and Anthemius were to govern the realm in philadelphial dedication. An earnest attempt was made to raise and train a new army, and, more important, a new navy: the treasury was considerably depleted and two corps of troops, on two separate fleets, were dispatched to invade Africa in a two-pronged invasion, in the hope to catch the enemy between the pincers and thus end the barbarian affront and Genseric’s hubris [AD 468].
Alas, the operation “was not only a failure but an extremely expensive one.” (37) A good part of the Roman fleet was attacked while still on the open sea, before they could unload their precious cargo, the legions, on the beaches: with the sinking ships much of the infantry found a watery grave. The rest of the force was blown by the winds all over the Syrte and lost contact. The Vandals had no big problem to eliminate the survivors piecemeal wherever they made landfall. The sorry outcome of the campaign resulted in a fall-out between Anthemius and Ricimer; the latter left Africa, gave up Rome and Ravenna, and re-established himself in Milan. He had devised a plan to invest another puppet on the Imperial throne, that is, as soon as Anthemius was gone, and to this end, collected an army of chiefly Burgundian and Suebian mercenaries, which he subsequently led upon Rome. He camped on the Field of Mars outside the town and waited for the arrival of his new Imperial candidate, a fellow named Olybrius. Nobody had ever accused Olybrius of valour or other virtues, but what he did possess, and represent, in a way, was a most impressive pedigree: he had married Placidia, the younger daughter of Eudonia, the dowager empress still detained in Africa, and thus was able to present, as his qualification for the office of Augustus of the West, an “illustrious name and a royal alliance.” (38) With the exception of a year’s service as (honorary) consul, the candidate did not profess to possess any education or experience in the business of administering an empire, but, with Leo’s consent, accepted the honours and set out to Italy to enjoy his new possessions.
A protracted siege followed Olybrius’ arrival near the eternal town, which was defended by a troop of Gothic mercenaries in Anthemius’ employment. In due time an assault on the Castle and Bridge of Hadrian found a weak spot in the defence, whose exploitation resulted in the subsequent slaughter of the defenders, including their leader Gilimer [July 11, AD 472]. The town was sacked again; Anthemius summarily executed and whatever the Vandals might have overlooked seventeen years ago was now picked up by Ricimer’s acquisitive mercenaries. Before long, however, the mysterious curse of Romulus struck again: the year AD 472, which had observed the town’s third sack in sixty-two years also beheld the demise of the main creators of the present calamity: Ricimer died only forty days after his success, and his Imperial marionette Olybrius followed him in October of the same year. Any semblance of order in Italy disintegrated.
In Constantinople, Leo needed to find a successor to the husband of Placidia, and after a few extended name-dropping sessions, it was remembered, fortunately, that the empress Verina had recently given the hand of one of her nieces to one Julius Nepos, who was, at the moment, the administrator of Dalmatia. This man, the court divined, might be persuaded to accept the glorious promotion.
The wheels of the court, alas, moved so ponderously that before a proper embassy, with a military guard, could be sent to Dalmatia, the Burgundian prince Gundobald – who had inherited the command of Ricimer’s mercenaries in Rome – had already elevated a minor official named Glycerius to the Imperial dignity. Advised of the error, Gundobald corrected his prematurity swiftly and Glycerius found himself demoted to the bishopric of Salona, on the Dalmatian coast. Italy saluted Julius Nepos.
Nepos was quite unaware of the condition of his empire, and, as Edward Gibbon observed, “the treaty of peace which ceded Auvergne to the Visigoths is the only event of his short and inglorious reign.” (39) It did not take very long until the new emperor was confronted by a mutiny of the legions of Gaul under a general Orestes, and thought it safest to return to Dalmatia, where, five years later, he was “assassinated at Salona by the ungrateful Glycerius, who was translated, perhaps as the reward of his crime, to the archbishopric of Milan.” (40) It was a post apparently suited to Glycerius’ modest talents. The new strong man was aforementioned Orestes, who had been born in Pannonia and learned the trade of a soldier in the service of Attila. His faculties had propelled him to the lofty position of secretary to the great king, and Attila had not only sought his military opinions but also entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Ravenna. His oath of fealty had expired with his master’s death, and he translated himself to the Imperial service in Italy. He advanced rapidly through the ranks until, at the occasion of Julius Nepos’s investiture, he was promoted to master-general of the Western Empire, that is, of whatever was left of it.
Orestes was a bona fide hero, a soldiers’ soldier, in contrast to the Imperial domestics and retainers, who were acquainted with the use of daggers solely from banquets. It is reported that he was able to confer, or at least to make himself understood, with the Goths, Suebis and Burgundians who constituted the main part of his troops, but also with those tribes that had only recently presented themselves at the Imperial frontiers: the Heruli, Seyri, Alani, Rugi and Turcilinghi. After Nepos’s retreat to Dalmatia, Orestes found himself essentially the only figure left in the game and wondered why he not might as well govern himself. Yet in remembrance of his predecessor Ricimer’s modus operandi, he chose to remain the power behind the throne and presented to the gathering of his subalterns as his choice of emperor his son Romulus, who was called “Augustulus” [diminutive of Augustus, i.e. “little Augustus”, ¶]. The young man was installed on the throne of the Occident and supplied with a number of concubines and a monthly allowance to occupy his time, while his father conducted the business of the Empire of the West.
Orestes had barely reigned a year when he faced another sedition of the legions. It seems that the Italian units demanded benefits equal to those which their colleagues in Gaul and Spain enjoyed, that is, the provision of land at the conclusion of their service. They felt defrauded of this reasonable reward and petitioned Orestes with the proposition to immediately reserve, and swiftly allocate, one-third of Italy’s fertile soil to the use of his supporters. Sometimes a man is allowed but a single mistake, and so it came to pass in the case of Orestes. His refusal of the modest suggestion immediately effected the ascension of a new favourite of the legions, who promised that should the men unite under his banner, the delivery of their desires was to occur immediately.
Odovacar, or Od0acer. which was the officer’s name, had been a military tribune and perceived clearly that the demands of the mob could not be gainsaid without provoking an instant mutiny. What he privately thought of the land deal is not known, but the word of his affirmative message spread like the wind and from all duty stations prospective heroes flocked to his standard. The expanse and speed of the insurrection surprised Orestes outside of Ravenna and forced him to retreat to the closest fortified town, Pavia, which was, unfortunately, neither equipped for war nor for a siege. The town was besieged at once and duly taken; Orestes executed for treason, and Romulus arrested [AD 476]. But then Odovacar deviated from the examples of Aetius and Ricimer, as Chris Wickham relates:
Odovacar, the next effective military supremo in Italy (476-93), did not bother to appoint any emperor of the West, but instead got the Roman senate to petition the eastern emperor Zeno that only one emperor was by now needed; Odovacar then governed Italy in Zeno’s name, as “patricius”, i.e. patrician, a title used by both Aetius and Ricimer, although inside Italy Odovacar called himself “rex“, king. (41)
After some hesitation, Zeno granted the supplication and Odovacar, now invested with legal authority, could afford to show leniency toward Romulus. Edward Gibbon applauds:
The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement. (42)
It is this year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.
The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too. It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. … Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)
The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial Reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theoderic’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.
Emperor Theodosius [AD 379 – 395] had been able to keep the lid on the boiling kettle of barbarians for a decade; to a large extent by his personality, his knowledge of battle, moderation in judgement and practical hand in the administration of the state. These were qualities that impressed the Goths much more than being literate or educated in Christian hypocrisy, and as long as Theodosius lived the Goths refrained from major transgressions. It should, however, not have come as too big a surprise that, after Theodosius’s sudden demise in January 395, it took the Visigoths less than three months to take up arms and reclaim their independence. The pretext was some complaint about annual subsidies that had arrived too late or not at all, and the Goths stormed into the renewed campaign led by their duke Alaric.
Alaric [ca. AD 370-410, ¶] had served in the legions and risen to command, but had, uncommonly for an officer, sought education in politics and statecraft as well. He was aware that his people had exploited the meagre lands of Thrace for all it was worth, but that the remaining morsel in the vicinity – Constantinople – was too cumbersome to be swallowed, due to its fortifications. He resolved to seek fame and riches in southern Greece, which, as Edward Gibbon remarked, had hitherto escaped the ravages of war. (13)
The nation consequently packed its belongings and set foot upon a trek that was to last more than a hundred years. The first victims of their plunderlust were the famous towns of Mycenae, Corinth, Thebes and Argos, whence Ajax and Agamemnon, Menelaus and Achilles had sailed for Troy. The West sent philadelphial support, if too late to save the towns: in AD 397 the master-general of the West, Stilicho, arrived with the greater part of the western legions. Of Vandal origin, he was, perhaps, a military match for Alaric, but not, as it turned out, in his league as a diplomat. But when he arrived in Arcadia, the mythical home of Pan, he was able to force the Goths to retreat into a fortified camp, which he promptly besieged. Sieges are vexatious affairs, and after a few weeks, Stilicho left for some well-deserved rest and recreation. He had barely spent a month on the beach when he was informed of the fact that the war was over – Alaric had succeeded in concluding a treaty with Arcadius, son of Theodosius and new emperor of the East. The contract not only reinstated the most amicably relations between Goths and Romans but also promoted Alaric to the rank of master-general for the Illyrian provinces. Thus, the memorable and profane event occurred in a few Greek cities that the barbarian chieftain who had only weeks earlier besieged them was greeted as the new and legitimate general of the commonwealth, and among his new subjects were “the fathers whose sons he had massacred [and] the husbands whose wives he had violated.” (14) He already had a plan to secure the armed superiority of his people. Edward Gibbon relates what followed:
The use to which Alaric applied his new command distinguishes the firm and judicious character of his policy. He issued his orders to the four magazines and manufacturers of offensive and defensive arms, Margus, Rataria, Naissus, and Thessalonica, to provide his troops with an extraordinary supply of shields, helmets, swords and spears; the unhappy provincials were compelled to forge the instruments of their own destruction; and the Barbarians removed the only defect which had sometimes disappointed the efforts of their courage.
The birth of Alaric, the glory of his past exploits, and the confidence in his future designs insensibly united the body of the nation under his victorious standard; and with the unanimous consent of the Barbarian chieftains, the master-general of Illyricum was elevated, according to ancient custom, on a shield and solemnly proclaimed king of the Visigoths. Armed with this double power, seated on the verge of two empires, he alternately sold his deceitful promises to the courts of Arcadius and Honorius; till he declared and executed his resolution of invading the dominions of the West. (15)
In the first years of Alaric’s western campaign [AD 401-402, ¶], the geographical distance of his arms caused no immediate alarm at the court of Honorius, brother of Arcadius. But when the Goths finally arrived in Italy, the Emperor absented himself to the safety of Gallia, on the yonder side of the Alps. Stilicho, who had returned to his ordinary station in the West, collected the available intelligence and calculated numbers. He decided that he needed the support of the legions deployed on the border to Germany as reinforcement and also recalled the two African legions. The dubious value of some of these troops reflects even stronger on the quality of Stilicho’s generalship when he, with the assorted leftovers of the formerly proud Roman legions, obtained the better end of Alaric at the Battle of Polentia in March 403. The initial success enabled Stilicho to follow Alaric’s subsequent retreat and to defeat him twice again: in Verona and in the mountains of Illyria whither the Goths had withdrawn. The Gothic danger apparently averted, Emperor Honorius declared to celebrate his victory over the barbarians and the delivery of the realm with a triumph unprecedented in the history of the capital. It was to last for several months: for the last time, cruel games were presented in the Flavian Amphitheatre, known as Coliseum, and the populace fed on free grain from Africa.
That the Emperor’s dear life should not be threatened again in the future, the administrative capital of the West was moved a second time in AD 402, from Trier to Ravenna, an ancient Roman colony south of the estuary of the Po. The town was formidably fortified, and a secure port facility established at a distance of three miles from the citadel. The stronghold was surrounded by morass and swamps at all sides which prevented the employment of heavy siege engines and rendered military conquest of the fortress nigh impossible. The person of the Emperor was now reliably protected. The defence of the western provinces, however, became a perpetually bleeding wound upon the Imperial resources, for continuous migration pushed German tribes without end over the frontiers. An especially large troop of Goths, with an admixture of Burgundians, Suevians, Alans and Vandals, under the leadership of one Radagaisus [also known as Rhodogast, ¶] crossed the Alps and appeared in the Po valley in AD 405. The throng consisted of perhaps half a million warriors, families and slaves.
It was too big to be handled by the Italian legions alone, and Stilicho had to recall troops from the German frontier a second time, [FN1] which was to have negative consequences later. This time, Stilicho borrowed a page from Julius Caesar’s famous siege of Alesia, the strategy of circumvallation. Like Fabius Maximus, Stilicho closed in on the Germanic throng cautiously, shadowing, but avoiding battle. Once Radagaisus’ undisciplined mass of freebooters and adventurers had to settle down near Florence, tired from the quest, the legions began to construct ramparts, surrounding the enemy camp with a double wall: an inner wall to keep the adversary immobile and inflicting, sooner or later, the horrors of famine and thirst upon them, and a second, outer ring that frustrated any hope of relief from the outside. The method had worked for Caesar and it did not fail against the multitude of Radagaisus’ barbarians. Famine at length reduced them to ignominious surrender: their capitulation was solemnly accepted but their dignity was violated: Radagaisus was ignobly beheaded and those of his community who had survived hunger sold into slavery. Their health was so poor that each head fetched no more than a single gold piece; yet the numbers made it up for Stilicho, who was praised as the deliverer of the Fatherland [AD 406].
[FN1] Chris Wickham reflects: “This was probably a mistake, for it was followed by an invasion of central European tribes led by the Vandals, over the Rhine on New Year’s Eve 406, an eruption into western Gaul and then (in 409) into Spain which was almost unresisted; and also in 407 another invasion of Gaul, this time by a usurper, Constantine III (406-11), at the head of the army of Roman Britain.” (16)
But before the news of Stilicho’s success arrived at Ravenna, Emperor Honorius had already contacted Alaric with a financially attractive proposition to aid the Empire against Radagaisus’ hordes. By Stilicho’s miraculous removal of the menace, however, the basis of Honorius’s proposal had suddenly evaporated, and Stilicho’s and Alaric’s armies eyed each other nervously in Lower Italy: Honorius had discovered that jinni is easier summoned than disposed of. A sort of three-man chess game developed around AD 407: two armies and their respective generals were vying for the legitimacy that could be conferred on only one of them. Honorius, safely hiding in the fortress of Ravenna, bewailed his fate, but avoided a decision as to whom of the two formidable generals to support, while maintaining, by evenly distributing his pecuniary assistances, his interest in coming out, whichever the end might be, on the side of the winner. At length, Stilicho was ordered to deliver to the king of the Goths a subsidy in the amount of four thousand pounds of gold, with Honorius’s best regards, perhaps, for the Gothic king’s moderation in squeezing out Italy. But in Stilicho’s absence Ravenna’s court politics entered into a cascade of envy and suspicion of the successful general. Honorius, twenty-five years of age and ignorant of the virtues of a statesman or general, was impressed by the flatteries and suspicions conveyed by his two principal ministers Olympius and Heraclian, and at length convinced of Stilicho’s guilt. The Imperial ire awoke and a warrant for the present and immediate execution of the hero was issued, which Heraclian personally effected, on August 23, AD 408. The last great Roman general fell victim to the whims of a knave on the throne of the Occident.
Four months after the deed, Honorius presented his subjects with a proclamation that explained the imminent dangers to the Empire that were luckily averted by the timely execution of the traitor: Stilicho, the document divulged, had planned to sell Italy to the Goths [whom he had defeated three times, at Pollentia, Verona and Florence, ¶], or, perhaps, to the Ostrogoths [who had not moved an inch from their Pannonian pastures, ¶], or to some other folks. In addition, he had schemed to invest his son Eucherius with the royal regalia. As soon as the conspiracy had conferred the Imperial purple on his juvenile shoulders, the obedient son had intended to restore idolatry and paganism to the Empire and effect a renewed prosecution of Christianity as a whole and the Catholic Church in particular. By his interception of the unholy design and the fiend’s timely demise, Honorius had not only saved the lives and properties of his subjects but their eternal souls as well.
It is not known what his subjects thought of the story, but the military aspects were soon obvious enough, for the murder of Stilicho had cleared the last obstacle in Alaric’s way. Following Stilicho’s execution, it seems that Honorius instigated a conspiracy to slaughter the families of the barbarian legionaries and to kill any Gothic hostages remaining from earlier occasions, that is, chiefly children of the Gothic nobility. How exactly the intended massacre should have endeared the Goths to the Imperial cause was unclear. The homicidal mob, however, that took upon the encouragement of their monarch appeared surprised when the about 30,000 legionaries of Germanic origin immediately transferred their allegiance to Alaric and the Goths. The Goths’ renewed offensive passed the Alps, marched with little difficulty through Gallia Cisalpina, crossed the Po and descended, upon the Via Salaria, the ancient road traversing the Apennines, in the direction of Rome. The town had not been threatened by foreign military forces since Hannibal, 690 years ago, and it would seem that diplomacy could have halted the Gothic king in his progression, but “the Romans would not consistently make peace with him, even though he blockaded Rome three times.” (17) By the fourth time, the patience of the king had worn out, and the Goths laid siege upon the former capital of the Empire.
By a skilful disposition of his numerous forces, who impatiently watched the moment of the assault, Alaric encompassed the walls, commanded the twelve principal gates, intercepted all communication with the adjacent country, and vigilantly guarded the navigation of the Tiber, from which the Romans derived the surest and most plentiful supply of provisions [AD 408]. The first emotions of the nobles and of the people were those of surprise and indignation that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim.
Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated or overawed by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of her guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitudes were astonished to find that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately procure the retreat of the Barbarians and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity and at length the horrid calamities of famine. (18)
The fighting abilities of the Goths and the strategic abilities of their king and general were little challenged during the siege. After the terrified town had received notice from Ravenna that the Emperor had abandoned their cause, the defenders despaired and the town was eventually sacked, 797 years after King Brennus and his Celts, and 1163 years after her mythical foundation. The quills of the contemporary observers composed divergent tales regarding the exact frightfulness of the subsequent events. It appears that Alaric had ordered churches exempted from the general pillage, but while this command may have had some effect on the Christian Goths, it was an outlandish directive to the Hunnish mercenaries, who formed the greater part of his cavalry and widely disobeyed. In general, the historical observations report par for the course of a successful siege, that the men were slaughtered, the women raped and gold and glitter stolen. Yet it has been found that only one (1) Roman senator lost his life in the melee, and that the Goths, thank God, left the town within seven days while, for example, the pious Catholic troops of the French King Charles V, in the sixteenth century, stayed for nine months and left smouldering ruins in their wake.
Yet the sack of Rome was something of an accident, in part a result of Honorius’s refusal to work on any reasonable solution, and, as Chris Wickham points out, the sack was “without other repercussions, and was only one step in the long Visigoth road to settlement.” (19) The Goths now headed for Sicily, but a tempest sunk the ships they had procured to take them to Africa and a sudden, rapidly progressing illness struck down the king himself [AD 410]. He was buried, the story goes, in the bed of a temporarily diverted river, a place where no man could disturb his perpetual rest. Alaric was followed in the royal dignity by Athaulf, or Adolphus, whom history, perhaps unjustly, treats much like an afterthought to Alaric. He was an educated man, and his credo was reported to the historian Orosius as it follows here:
“In the full confidence of valour and victory, I once aspired (said Adolphus) to change the face of the universe; to obliterate the name of Rome; to erect on its ruins the domination of the Goths; and to acquire, like Augustus, the immortal fame of the founder of a new empire. By repeated experiments, I was gradually convinced that laws are essentially necessary to maintain and regulate a well-constituted state; and that the fierce, intractable humour of the Goths was incapable of bearing the salutary yoke of laws and civil government. From that moment I proposed to myself a different object of glory and ambition; and it is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger who employed the sword of the Goths not to subvert but to restore and maintain the prosperity of the Roman Empire.” (20)
Athaulf eventually found a way to bargain with Honorius, and, after marrying his daughter Galla Placidia, and in possession of the Emperor’s license, led the Visigoths to Gaul. That did not work, for the province was mired in the civil wars of up to four different usurpers in AD 411, and after a detour to Spain, fighting the Vandals in the name of Rome, they settled in Gallia Narbonensis, today’s Languedoc and Provence in AD 418. The magister militum of Gaul, Constantius, was able to unite Gaul in this decade and, by marrying Athaulf’s widow Galla Placidia, became a short-lived emperor in his own right, before his and Placidia’s son Valentinian III enjoyed a relatively long, if passive, reign [AD 425-455], with his mother as regent. (21)
For the moment not only the East, ignored for half a century by barbarian invaders, but the West “had achieved, after a decade of turmoil, substantial stability as well. Most of the frontier was still manned by Roman troops. There were barbarian’ groups settled in the empire, it is true, separate from the Roman military hierarchy, the Visigoths between Bordeaux and Toulouse and the remnants of the Vandal confederacy in western Spain, Suevi in the north and Hasding Vandals in the south; but all these had been defeated, and the Visigoths at least were in a formal federate alliance with Rome.” (22) Yet before long, fresh trouble approached from the East.
(13) (14) (15) (18) (20) Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library 2003-5, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, pp. 644 , 649 , 649 , 666 , 675 
(16) (17) (19) (21) (22) Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 80, 80, 80, 85, 82
On May 12, 1967, the British record label DERAM released the first song by a completely unknown band called Procol Harum, as its single number 126. The band did not yet exist as a permanent ensemble, and a studio musician (Bill Eyden) was hired to play the drums. The line-up consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ M-102), Ray Royer (guitar), David Knights (bass) and Bill Eyden (drums), Keith Grant was the sound engineer and Denny Cordell produced the piece.
In the – officially still unpublished – original the song was around nine minutes long – we can’t really say, for the original 4-track master tape was unfortunately lost at some point. For the release of the single, the song was cut to just over four minutes in length, leaving only two of the original four stanzas intact. The lyrics were, and remain, on the strange side:
We skipped the light fandango Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor I was feeling kinda seasick But the crowd called out for more The room was humming harder As the ceiling flew away When we called out for another drink The waiter brought a tray
[Chorus] And so it was that later As the miller told his tale That her face, at first just ghostly Turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, there is no reason And the truth is plain to see But I wandered through my playing cards And would not let her be One of sixteen vestal virgins Who were leaving for the coast And although my eyes were open They might have just as well’ve been closed
She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’ Though in truth we were at sea So I took her by the looking glass And forced her to agree Saying, ‘You must be the mermaid Who took Neptune for a ride.’ But she smiled at me so sadly That my anger straight way died
If music be the food of love * Then laughter is its queen And likewise if behind is in front Then dirt in truth is clean My mouth by then like cardboard Seemed to slip straight through my head So we crash-dived straight way quickly And attacked the ocean bed
This was the psychedelic phase of pop music, and no one expected a text to necessarily make sense, but unlike much textual humbug of the time, the song remains in popular consciousness – due to its obscene sales figures, and many – which the author hereby joins – have found themselves triggered to prolonged speculation and interpretations.
Two unofficial but complete versions may be found, for example, on YouTube:
The first video was posted by Luana Wolf, who explains:
It seems that many have their own interpretations to the meaning of this song. Anywhere from drugs, death, lost love and some just plain comical But according to Keith Reid who wrote the lyrics He explained… “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room.” Together with the music written by Gary Brooker this song turned out to be one of the greatest of that era..,. So… while putting this video together I followed the journey, and made my own story. Setting the stage as a fantasy love story. Maybe you can smell the ocean air? …..I claim no rights to the music nor the photos. All belong to their respective owners…
What all interpretations more or less agree on is that it is a story about love, or at least sex, rather of the unfortunate kind, and that the sea has special connotations to it. The German wiki page contributes some basic interpretations, which we like to quote here:
In September 1994, Tim de Lisle received the following explanation from Keith Reid [the lyricist]: A nervous wannabe seducer drinks to his courage at a party. The increasing amount of alcohol affects his perception through wandering thoughts: fragments from childhood experiences and his faint-hearted goals. The recurring metaphor in the song is about a ship disaster that draws a parallel between a romantic conquest and the dangers of the sea. …
The confusion about the meaning is also due to the fact that half of the text was removed before the recording session. Originally it consisted of four stanzas, the second and third were deleted when the music was recorded. The meaning becomes more obvious if one adds the missing stanzas. Then it becomes obvious that the narrator is on a ship at sea. There are also surrealistic word games and bizarre word cascades, which can also be found in later works by the group. The – also in English-speaking countries – mysterious, mystical, if not impenetrable text also takes on sound functions, which is underlined by Brooker’s expressive voice.
At the beginning is the riddle of the title, which lost the originally intended subtitle “(The Miller’s Tale)” * and whose wording Keith Reid accidentally claims to have picked up during a conversation: “My God, you’ve just turned a whiter shade of pale. “Procol Harum biographer Johansen compares the wordplay of the song with that of the earlier rhythm and blues, which metaphorically treats the relationship between men and women (especially sexuality). In A Whiter Shade of Pale, the couple’s eroticism begins with the flamenco-like fandango, which is considered particularly seductive and is accompanied here by exuberant dance wheels (“cartwheels”) and an encouraging audience (“the crowd called out for more”). The beginning of the chorus also indirectly and repeatedly emphasizes the topic of sexual seduction with the reference “as the miller told his tale” by alluding to Boccaccio’s cycle of novels “Decameron” or Chaucer’s rather saucy “The Miller’s Tale”.
There is more or less agreement that the story takes place on a ship, with dance and alcohol involved, and love falling as it does, comparing its violence and dangers to that of the sea. Ms Wolf’s video shows this very imaginatively.
The most instructive article on the song known to the author is by Mike Butler from the book “Lives of the Great Songs” and may be found here. One section:
The song explores what it means to be wrecked, in more than one sense of the word. A nervous seducer sustains his courage with alcohol. As he becomes more drunk, his impressions of his unfamiliar partner become confused by stray thoughts, fragments of childhood reading and his own faint-hearted aspirations. The song’s recurring metaphor is of maritime disaster, and a parallel is drawn between romantic conquest and the allure and peril of the sea. The hero is a callow juvenile, far happier with a book than risking the emotional bruising of relationships. This ambivalence is underscored by frequent allusions to nausea.
As befits a night of excess, there are gaps in the telling. The evasive ‘And so it was that later …’ is given weight by repetition and its positioning just before the hook (‘Her face at first just ghostly / Turned a whiter shade of pale’). The listener is invited to fill the gaps with his or her own (prurient) imagination. An entire verse was dropped early in the song’s gestation. Another is optional (‘She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’ / Though in truth we were at sea’) and was excised from the recorded version at the insistence of producer Denny Cordell, to make the record conform to standard single length.
For a pop song, A Whiter Shade of Pale carries an unprecedented amount of literary baggage. Although, Reid reveals, the reference to Chaucer is a red herring. ‘One thing people always get wrong is that line about the Miller’s Tale. I’ve never read Chaucer in my life. They’re right off the track there.’ Why did he put it in then? (In mild dismay at the peremptory demolition of this intellectual prop.) ‘I can’t remember now.’ The analogy with Canterbury Tales, whether welcomed by Reid or not, holds good. Both are quintessentially English works, the one established in the canon of literature, and the other a pop standard. Both have associations of piety and decorum. (The song has become a regular fixture of the wedding ritual, supplanting Handel’s Wedding March as the tune to walk down the aisle to after the ceremony: it was played, indeed, at the wedding of Gary Brooker and Françoise, known as Frankie, with Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher in the organ loft.) Both, beneath their respectable surface, are puerile and sex-obsessed works.
Those, however, wanting to immerse themselves as deeply as possible in the speculations of humanity in general about the lyrics, you will find all this and more in a second article – on “Beyond The Pale” (the big Procol Harum fan site) – under this link… Would you like, perhaps, an explanation from Luz Laulo?
Well, quite simply I think this is a tale of a man who met a mermaid (or some sort of Siren) who took “shore leave” in a pub or perhaps a dance hall … they danced and he ended up falling in love with her and making love to her that night … I think they ended up in on the ocean in a boat and it seems her secret was revealed then … they both plunged into the sea together. Her face turning a whiter shade of pale may have been another way of saying she had died along with the fellow. I don’t quite understand the allusion to the miller; that may have been a reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and may have just been poetic license. This is one of the most beautiful rock songs I have ever heard.
On the etymology of the band name: It was or is claimed that the band name is of Latin origin and means something like “Behind the things”, which the author – unfortunately – (after eight years of Latin in high school) has to denude as fake news. The second theory is that the name is based on the name of a cat in the former extended band family. Who knows? Who knows anything?
The following is a collection of three articles on a matter of popular and continuing discussion in the realm of military history – the German plans for the Great War, developed between 1889 and 1914 by the two chiefs of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen and his successor, Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger).
These are some of the first articles in English that incorporate the results of the most recent German MGFA study of 2007.
In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”
The real problem that men like Dietrich Eckart, as well as other nationalists, anti-Semitists and Pan-Germanists in Munich and Germany, shared in 1918 was the fact that the right-wing was hopelessly atomized in a multitude of little parties, clubs and fraternities; the lack of someone able to address the broad masses was felt most critically. One of these tiny political groups in Munich was a fellowship formed by a man called Anton Drexler.
Anton Drexler was one of those rather simple-minded workmen who believe that the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed will always be vindicated in the end. His father was a Social Democrat, and he remembered vividly being taken on May Day to a Social Democrat outing in the woods near Munich when he was a child.
In those days the names of Ferdinand Lassalle and August Bebel were still revered by German workingmen, who remembered that it was the Social Democrats who had wrested from Bismarck the highly developed social legislation that was the envy of workingmen all over the world. Drexler came out of the soil of Social Democracy as a plant grows out of the earth. He belonged to the working class, and it would never have occurred to him that there was any other class worth belonging to.
After his journeyman years, he returned to Munich and was employed in October 1902 by the Royal Bavarian Central Railway Repair Works as a blacksmith and toolmaker. He volunteered for the Bavarian army in August 1914, but the railroad office refused to release him for service. The war awakened his political conscience, and on March 7, 1918, he founded the “WORKER’S COUNCIL FOR A GOOD PEACE”. In the fall of the same year, Drexler met Karl Harrer, a sports reporter of the MÜNCHEN-AUGSBURGER ABENDZEITUNG, a local newspaper. The two decided on the foundation of another little club, the “POLITICAL WORKERS’ CIRCLE”, which met once or twice a week to discuss solutions for the world’s major issues. Harrer, politically better connected than Drexler through his membership in the Thule Society, insisted that the topics of their weekly discussions were duly recorded for posterity, including the names of the attendees. The protocol for December 1918 to January 1919 read:
Meeting on 12/05/1918, Topic: “Newspapers as the Tools of Politics”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/11/1918, Topic: “The Jew, Germany’s greatest Enemy”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/17/1918, Topic: “Why the War Happened”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Lotter, v.Heimburg, Girisch, Kufner). 12/30/1918, Topic: “Who Bears the Guilt for the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner, Sauer, Kufner). 01/16/1919, Topic: “Why we had to Win the War”, Speaker Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner, Brunner). 01/22/1919, Topic: “Were we able to Win the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner). 01/30/1919, Topic: “Why was the War Lost?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner).
Drexler quickly realized that Harrer’s omnipresence, so to say, and his penchant for intimate audiences was not very likely to awaken the workers’ interest in the circle’s political agenda. He resolved that a regular party must be founded.
“One week before Christmas 1918, I explained during a circle meeting that the salvation of Germany was unlikely to be found within such a small circle as we were; that we needed a new party, a ‘German Socialist Workers’ Party,’ without Jews Thus it came to the decision to go public and form a new party (German Socialist Workers’ Party). The word ‘socialist’ was then dropped. The by-laws and guidelines of the ‘German Workers Party’ were written by me.”
Thus, it came to pass that on Sunday, January 5, 1919, Drexler and Michael Lotter, the circle’s record keeper, founded the “GERMAN WORKERS’ PARTY” in a room of the Munich tavern “Fürstenfelder Hof”. Drexler brought twenty-four prospective members, chiefly colleagues from the railway repair shop to the constitutive session and was elected steward of the new party’s Munich chapter. Karl Harrer was appointed – perhaps in his absence, the sources contradict each other – national chairman of the fledgeling organization, and the assembly unanimously voted for the adoption of the party statutes as composed by Drexler. The same then gave the new party’s inaugural address, which showed his humanitarian impulses: the party should strive to end the divisive class warfare and internationalism promoted by the Bolsheviks in favour of a national and patriotic socialism. Details were to follow.
There had been a bit of a problem regarding the christening of the new party; the original proposal of “German National Socialist Party” was popular, but another party with similar teachings had chosen exactly this name a few months earlier in Bohemia, and, incidentally, the Bohemians’ emblem featured a swastika. Hence, the epithets “national” and “socialist” were dropped, and the name “Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei” (DAP, German Workers’ Party, ¶) adopted. Drexler explained his liking for the name as an integrative statement: himself a slightly higher educated member of the working class, he proposed that skilled workers should not be considered simple workmen any more but should have a legal right to be counted among the aspiring middle classes. The middle classes themselves should be enlarged, at the cost of the “capitalists”. Drexler was an incurable romantic.
Although Drexler and many of his work colleagues were anti-Semitic, the only reference in the statutes and by-laws that pointed in this direction was a declaration that “religious teachings contrary to the moral and ethical laws of Germany should not be supported by the state.” This was, comparatively, rather tame. In the wake of the foundation, Drexler wrote a small pamphlet summarizing his political thought, called MEIN POLITISCHES ERWACHEN – My Political Awakening – which he distributed at party meetings and among his colleagues in the railway repair shop.
For a time, Harrer’s original circle remained in existence, although an executive council was established which acted simultaneously as the new party’s praesidium. Still, the attractiveness of the party to Munich’s workers remained modest — a report of the general meeting of July 12, 1919, lists twenty-one persons present, the one of August 14 thirty- eight. The meetings of the circle continued in the intimacy of the usual five or six participants.
It is not entirely clear, however, how Captain Mayr’s military intelligence unit I b/P came into the possession of a typewritten invitation, dating of September 3, to a meeting of the DAP on September 12, 1919, 7:30 pm, to be held at the “Sterneckerbräu” tavern near the Isartor, one of Munich’s old town landmarks. The flyer announced that the Engineer Gottfried Feder would speak on his favourite theme of the breaking of the interest slavery, in particular of “How and by which means can we eliminate Capitalism?”
On the evening of September 12, 1919, Adolf Hitler set out to visit a meeting of the recently formed DAP. What turn would history have taken had Hitler visited, on this day, a different group on Mayr’s list, perhaps the “Society of Communist Socialists” or the “Block of Revolutionary Students”? No one knows. But it was to the Sterneckerbräu that Hitler directed his steps. The tavern was one of the smaller beer halls in Munich, and the side room, in which the meeting took place, the “Leiberzimmer”, could seat perhaps fifty or sixty people. The protocol of September 12 lists twenty-five party members and eighteen guests present, one of them Adolf Hitler.
It is generally little known that Flora was one of the fifteen principal deities of Rome – she had her own priest, the Flamen floralis – and the Floralia in her honour were one of the principal festivals and special games, the “Ludi Florae” were sponsored in her honour by the plebeian aediles – because the Floralia derived from the plebeian, not the patrician roots of the people.
The Temple of Flora was built in Rome upon consultation with the Sibylline Books shortly after a drought that occurred around 241–238 BCE. The temple was located near the Circus Maximus on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill, a site associated with the plebeians of Rome. Games were instituted for the founding day of the temple (April 28), and were held only occasionally until continued crop damage led to their annual celebration beginning in 173
Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, p. 110
In general, it was a rather licentious affair …
In 238 BC, at the direction of an oracle in the Sibylline books, a temple was built to honour Flora, an ancient goddess of flowers and blossoming plants. It was dedicated on April 28 and the Floralia instituted to solicit her protection (Pliny, Natural History, XVIII.286, cf. Velleius Paterculus, I.14.8, who says 241/240 BC). Sometime later, the festival was discontinued, only to be revived in 173 BC, when the blossoms again that year suffered from winds, hail, and rain (Ovid, Fasti, V.329ff). It was celebrated annually with games (ludi Florales) from April 28 until May 3. These farces and mimes, which received official recognition, were known for their licentiousness. The prostitutes of Rome, who regarded the day as their own, performed naked in the theatre and, suggests Juvenal (Satire VI), fought in the gladiatorial arena. In the Circus Maximus, deer and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honour of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields (but not of woods and wild animals) and, instead of the customary white, colourful garments were worn during the festivities, some of which were celebrated at night (Ovid, Fasti, IV.946, V.189-190, 331ff.). Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus (Persius, Satires, V.177ff).
Valerius Maximus (II.10.8) relates that it was the custom at theatrical presentations during the Floralia for the spectators to demand that the actresses perform naked on stage. Rather than interfere with the festivities, Cato (the Younger), who was in attendance, walked out. The audience followed him, applauding the fact that, although disgusted and embarrassed, Cato choose to leave rather than have his presence inhibit the performance. They then went back inside. Certainly, the bawdy celebration offended Cato, who is quoted by Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, X.13) as saying that a participant acted like a harlot, going from the banquet straight to the couch, where she disported herself with others. Martial is not so forgiving of such hypocritical morality, declaring in the preface to his first book of epigrams that they are written for those who are accustomed to watching the Floralia, not for the likes of Cato, who cannot be so naive as not to have known what to expect when he choose to attend “sprightly Flora’s ritual fun, the festal jests and license of the rout.” The fourth-century poet, Ausonius, is equally impatient with such behaviour when he chides those who go to the theatre during the Floralia—”the rites which they long to see who declare they never longed to see them” (Eclogues, XXIII.25).
Until recently, say, the last twenty years, the subject of this series of articles had been somewhat buried below the historical hagiography of the Third Reich, which idolized Hitler as a war hero and destroyed everything that did not fit the bill – and the subsequent loss of many documents due to the Allied bomber campaign.
We owe it mostly to the efforts of Anton Joachimsthaler and Thomas Weber that we have improved our knowledge in the last years. Their books are of principal value for research and build the foundation for the following articles:
In the grey area between historical military analysis and political and historical exegesis, one is frequently confronted with the somewhat dubious thesis, that the existence of Germany’s war plan – created in 1905 by then Chief Of Staff Field Marshal Schlieffen and executed in August 1914 under the direction by the Younger Moltke – proves the aggressive character of German policy and therefore constitutes the “prima facie” evidence of German War Guilt – as notarized in the famous Section 231 of the Treaty of Versailles and, most likely, one of the reasons for the Second War.
The question at hand is the thesis – or proposition – that the existence of the plan proves war guilt, i.e., that preparations for war are (1) inherently a sign of aggressive, and therefore criminal intentions, and that (2) Germany, as proven by the plan, is guilty of the charge as stated.
This case has not only recently been made, a.o., by Annika Mombauer and has come up again in the recent discussion of the Schlieffen Plan, which was instigated by the articles of Terence Zuber from 1999 on, which disputed the traditional interpretation of the matter and are introduced in the author’s articles above.
As the attentive reader of the above-mentioned articles will have recognized, there is blame for the outbreak of the war easily found in both camps and all the participants, but what was the factual, respectively historical situation in 1914? If the charge were true, the following conditions had to apply:
(1) Germany had an aggressive war plan, planning to attack, defeat and possibly conquer its enemies, and other nations had no such plans.
(2) Germany did in fact prepare for war, and subsequently mobilized, unprovoked and in an aggressive manner and
(3) Germany did in fact attack other countries first, therefore compelling them to defence and subsequent counterattack.
Terence Zuber, as the creator of the brouhaha, has come – not surprisingly – under a concerted attack by the guardians of the historical truth and has attempted, in an abstract from 2014, to summarize his critique, and therein discusses the case of the Schlieffen Plan as being used as evidence of war guilt. It is presented here as a PDF file, the original is on his website.
Even in elementary analysis, the claim of a war plan being exemplary evidence of aggressive, indeed criminal intentions – thus constituting a case of war guilt – appears asinine when confronted with the basic facts of the plan at hand.
(A) After the end of Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, France and Russia entered – since the mid-1890s – into a Military Convention, i.e., a formal military, if not a political treaty, with the express intent of attacking Germany (and Austria) – under given circumstances – with certain numbers of troops in a given time. See the post “The Entente Cordiale“. Subsequently, France developed its own – aggressive military plans against Germany, of which Number 17 (Plan XVII) was in effect in 1914. It envisioned a classic two-pronged attack into the Lorraine on both sides of Metz.
More interesting is a look at the state of the existing strongholds of 1914, for it allows to reiterate the basic assumptions behind the strategy.
The respective Russian plan in 1914 was called Plan 19 and envisioned separate deployments against Germany – with two armies – and Austria-Hungary – with another two armies, with the Fifth Army to be deployed where it was to be most useful – in the event itself in the south, near Kowel and Lublin. Both army groups were to attack the respective enemy on his own ground.
Condition Two: Mobilization
There is much confusion over the actual dates and proceedings as far as the actual orders of mobilization in the belligerents are concerned, although the study of the respective documents in Albertini [Albertini, Luigi, The Origins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1-292631-26-X] and especially the recent work of Sean McMeekin [McMeekin, Sean, The Russian Origins of the First World War, Belknap Press Harvard 2011, ISBN 978-0-674-06210-8] allows a close approximation.
All parties – Russia, Germany, France and Austria had plans for preparative military measures short of actual mobilization. Hence, in Russia, the following occurred in the night between July 24 and 25, 1914, when the war department, the foreign department and the Tsar kicked around some unimplemented, plain impossible, and all together dangerous ideas about how to react to the Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia:
Strangely enough, the story goes that Sazonov [the Foreign Minister] was alerted of the Austrian ultimatum around 9 p.m. on the evening of July 23, at Tsarskoe Selo 36 not via Strandmann, his man in Belgrade, nor via Spalaikovic, the Serbian ambassador at St. Petersburg, but via Marquis Carlotti, the Italian envoy, who had allegedly alerted a lower-level Russian diplomat at Chorister’s Bridge, who in turn sent a cable to Sazonov at Tsarskoe Selo. (159) Yet the Foreign Minister did not return to the capital until 10 a.m. or so on the 24th, but, reportedly, exclaimed immediately after only cursory examination of the Austrian note, “C’est la guerre européenne!” (160)
He then proceeded to receive the Austrian Ambassador Count Szapary, who officially delivered the Austrian notification to the Russian government of the note to Serbia plus a few other documents and informed Sazonov that a dossier with evidence of Serbian guilt would be forwarded to the ministry soon. 37 A few hours later, Sazonov received a telegram from the Serbian Prince-Regent, Alexandar, directed to the Tsar, in which he indicated Serbia’s preparedness to submit to those parts of the Austrian démarche “whose acceptance shall be advised by Your Majesty.” (161) Hence the burden was squarely put on Sazonov’s shoulders, who immediately, that is about 11 a.m., met with the Chief of the General Staff Yanushkevich, whom he advised to make “all arrangements for putting the army on a war footing”; it might become necessary to “proclaim only partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary,” in which case Yanushkevich was to take care that “nothing must give Germany occasion to perceive in it any hostile intentions against herself.” (162)
As Sean McMeekin points out, the order as well the concept underlying it was – quoting General Dobrorolski, the Chief of the Army’s Mobilization Section – a “folly”: “impossible both in the general sense, in that [the Russian Mobilization] Plan 19 required mobilization against Germany and Austria simultaneously with no variant separating the two, and in the more specific sense that it was physically impossible to mobilize against the Austrian border without extensively using the Warsaw railway hub, which would inevitably alarm the Germans.” (163) Originally, the plan to mobilize against Austria only but not Germany had been an idea of War Minister Sukhomlinov that had been kicked around during the Council of Ministers’ meeting of November 23, 1912 – during the First Balkan War – when it had almost been attempted, as far as a non-existent plan could have been implemented. The problem on this July 24, however, was that Yanushkevich – promoted to Chief of Staff only five months earlier, unfamiliar with the mobilization plan and hence a disaster waiting to happen – had already promised Sazonov that the imaginary option was indeed viable and would be implemented forthwith.
As Luigi Albertini has pointed out, the absurdity to insist on a non-existing mobilization plan, which to implement immediately Yanushkevich ordered Dobrorolski despite the latter’s protestations around noon of July 24, was to have the most lethal consequences. “Had Yanushkevich from the beginning warned Sazonov of the mistake he would be making in proclaiming partial mobilization, Sazonov would never have got the Council of Ministers on 24 July and the Tsar on 25 July to approve it in principle, nor would he have proclaimed it on the evening of 28 July with incalculable consequences. If he had been asked to choose between no mobilization and general mobilization against the Central Powers, Sazonov would have hesitated to plunge headlong into the venture, whereas, believing he could threaten Austria without provoking Germany, he found out too late that this could not be done.” (164)
Yet since Yanushkevich was eager to please but unprepared to admit his lack of knowledge of the true mobilization plan, the catastrophe ran its course. [FN2] At the emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers that convened at 3 p.m. of the same day, the following resolutions were approved, and signed into law by Tsar Nicholas II on the next morning, July 25 (165):
That (1) Austria would be asked to extend the 48-hour deadline, (2) that Serbia pull back her army into the inner country without attempting to resist an eventual Austrian invasion, (3) to inaugurate the “Period Preparatory to War” [FN3] in the military districts of Kiev, Moscow, Odessa and Kazan, (4) to authorize the War Minister “without delay to speed up the stockpiling of war materials for the army”, (166) and (5) the Finance Minister to immediately retransfer liquid Russian assets in Germany and Austria-Hungary to the Russian Central Bank.
Thus, only twenty-two hours after the presentation of the Austrian note in Belgrade, Sazonov had his arrangements approved and, save for a miracle, committed Russia, France and – most likely – Great Britain to war; given the flanking measures, it seems likely that he did so in full awareness of the consequences.
[FN2] There is some disagreement over Sazonov’s cognizance of the implications of his scheme. L.C.F. Turner believed that Sazonov “did not understand that a partial mobilization involving thirteen Russian army corps along her northern border would compel Austria to order general mobilization, which in turn would invoke the Austro-German alliance and require general mobilization by Germany.” (168) Sean McMeekin, however, points out that “there is good reason to believe that Sazonov himself knew perfectly well what he was doing when he proposed Sukhomlinov’s “partial mobilization” plan to the government – that is, that he was knowingly plunging Russia into war. Sazonov, after all, had been present [unlike Yanushkevich] at the emergency ministerial council held at Tsarskoe Selo on 23 November 1912, when [Prime Minister and] Chairman Kokovtsov had warned everyone that the “partial mobilization” plan, by forcing Austria to order general mobilization, could not but lead to a European war. As Kokovtsov had concluded his winning argument, then, ‘no matter what we chose to call the projected measures, a mobilization remained a mobilization, to be countered by our adversaries with actual war.” Emphasis in Original But this July 24 was the day after which the French President and Prime Minister had just left St. Petersburg – in the wake of the summit – and it is unlikely that the Austrian ultimatum of which, we know, Sazonov was warned as early as the 16th, or at least its eventuality had not been discussed at this meeting and a strategy developed how to respond to it. If nothing else, probability speaks for the theory that Sazonov had indeed asked for, and received, a “Blank Cheque” of his own, drawn on the Bank of Paris.
[FN3] The “Period Preparatory to War” meant “the period of diplomatic complications preceding the opening of hostilities, in the course of which all Boards must take the necessary measures of preparation for security and success at the Mobilization of the Army, the Fleet, and the Fortresses, as well as for the march of the Army to the threatened frontier.” The military commission upon whose work the official “Regulation Concerning the Period Preparatory to War” was based, had explained that ‘it will be advantageous to complete concentration without beginning hostilities, in order not to deprive the enemy irrevocably of the hope that war can still be avoided. Our measures for this must be masked by clever diplomatic negotiations, in order to lull to sleep as much as possible the enemy’s fears.” Emphases in original
Whatever the Russian intentions, German travellers notified Berlin as soon as the afternoon of July 26 about a suspicious increase in Russian railway traffic and military movements in the western military districts. How did Berlin react?
Around 7 p.m. Sazonov received the German Ambassador Count Pourtales, whom Bethmann Hollweg had already on the 22nd instructed to express “the view that the present question is purely a matter for settlement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and that to confine it to the parties directly concerned must be the earnest endeavour of the Powers. We urgently desire the localization of the conflict, because any intervention by another Power might in consequence of the various alliances bring incalculable consequences in its train.” (171) How the German Chancellor could hope to get away with this impertinence remains a mystery – in essence, he demanded liberty for Austria to beat Serbia to a pulp, yet warned everybody that Germany would be on Austria’s side should anyone complain. Luigi Albertini rested on this utter and undisputed blunder the following indictment of the German government:
Let us … turn our attention to the fact that Germany demanded a free hand for Austria against her small Slav neighbour under threat otherwise of going to the help of her ally. This thesis was summarized in the expression “localization of the conflict” which has remained notorious…. Let us pause a moment to analyse this thesis, bearing in mind that it formed the basis of German diplomatic action from 24 July onward and that the European conflagration broke out precisely because at the opportune moment the German Government refused to renounce it, and in order to ensure its success, urged the Austrian Government to make haste and declare war on Serbia. “Localization of the conflict” meant that: 1. no one else was to have a say in the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia (not that this would have been possible in the brief time limit set for the reply), [and] 2. unless Belgrade played the dirty trick on Austria of submitting for the time being to all her demands, the invasion of Serbia would take place, and if it took place no one was to interfere on pain of war. It is sufficient to define the terms of this injunction to measure the immensity of the miscalculation it contained. It was universally admitted that Russia, for reasons of kinship and because of her own designs on Constantinople and the Straits, had a special interest in the autonomy and evolution of the small Balkan States. The history of Europe in the previous half-century was shot through and through with disputes between Russia and Austria over their rival claims for hegemony in the Balkans. War had been just round the corner in 1908-9 and 1912-13 over the struggle between Austria and Serbia in which Russia had always taken her stand with Serbia. And now the rulers in Berlin thrust themselves forward and thought they could solve the knotty problem once and for all by confronting Russia, her ally France, her all-but-ally England and indirectly Italy as well, with a blustering “aut-aut” – the misguided notion that they would all bow to the German fiat. But this was tantamount to willing war, the war of which, when it did break out, they declared that their hands were clean. We have in fact already seen that they were prepared to have a war, while at the same time thinking it on the whole improbable and counting above all on England’s standing aside and letting them have an easy victory. The reasoning was absurd, almost unbelievable, all the more as the German rulers were on the point of violating Belgian neutrality to make a speedy end of France. (172)
Yet the mutual Russian and German diplomatic imbecilities had not yet reached the German military, which remained on a peace footing for the time being, while Russia was, in actuality, already preparing for war. For the time being, at least. But what did Sazonov suspect?
Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Sazonov informed Pourtales that Russia considered Austria’s accusations of Serbia as groundless and that he thought she was only seeking a pretext to “swallow” the smaller country. “In that case, however,” Sazonov blurted out, “Russia will go to war with Austria.” (173) Pourtales replied — quite truthfully, as far as we know, that…
“… in the most extreme case it would only be a matter of an Austrian punitive expedition against Serbia and that Austria was far from contemplating territorial acquisitions. At this M. Sazonov shook his head incredulously and spoke of far-reaching plans of Austria’s. First Serbia was to be devoured, then it would be Bulgaria’s turn and then ‘we shall have them at the Black Sea’. I answered that such fantastic exaggerations did not seem to me worthy of serious discussion.” (174)
Did Pourtales have a hearing problem? What he reported to Berlin from this communication was his opinion that …
“that Russia will not take up arms except in the case that Austria were to want to make territorial acquisitions at Serbia’s expense. Even the wish for a Europeanization of the question seems to indicate that an immediate Russian intervention is not to be anticipated.” (175) 42
Pourtales’ report was thus a quite erroneous and tragically optimistic assessment in the light that Sazonov had already ordered preparative measures for Russia’s mobilization. The country’s inner situation may have contributed to the idea that the immediacy of war and an ensuing wave of patriotic fervour would disengage the people’s attention from the extensive strikes momentarily petrifying St. Petersburg – thus providing “a desperate way of escape from domestic difficulties.” (176) On the next morning, Saturday, July 25, the Council of Ministers met again, in the presence of the Tsar, Grand Duke Nicholas, prospective C-in-C of the Russian forces, and General Yanushkevich. The measures agreed upon the previous day were formally enacted, and Sazonov informed the attentive luminaries of Germany’s far-reaching designs. Austria he deemed but a “stalking horse for a malevolent German policy,” whose “ultimate objectives,” however, “beyond the acquisition of ‘hegemony in the Near East,'” remained, alas, “unclear”. (177) If we subscribe to the view that Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow viewed Sazonov’s handling of the Sarajevo crisis as a litmus test for Russia’s peaceful or warlike intentions, we must note that the difference between the German option of “accepting a war, should Russia choose to start one”, (178) which could not – and was not – used to justify pre-emptive military preparations against Russia (before the latter began her general mobilization) and the Russian measures enacted on July 25 was exactly that the latter, explicitly effected policies that were “proactive in nature, did not arise from a direct threat to Russia, and were highly likely (if not certain) to further escalate the crisis.” (179) Did Berlin understand Russia threatened war? And what exactly were these Russian measures? Following the Council of Ministers, the Russian General Staff held its own meeting, late on July 25, resolving that…
… not only Moscow but also St. Petersburg, a city nearly a thousand miles from the Austro-Hungarian border (and still farther from Serbia) was placed under martial law. Everywhere in Russia, training manoeuvres were broken off and troops recalled to quarters. Cadets enrolled in Russia’s military academies were immediately promoted officers, thus not only filling gaps in the army’s command structure with new subalterns but also “freeing for active service in the field many mature officers who had hitherto been detailed on educational work.” Yanushkevitch emphasized that all of these tasks should be carried out “energetically” and stipulated crucially that, if necessary, mobilization officers “would be permitted … to overstep the boundaries laid down in the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ regulations.” Taking the hint, General Dobrorolski had already wired Zhilinsky in Warsaw, instructing him to recall all troops in his districts to quarters. At 1 am the night of 25-26 July, the Warsaw district (that is, Russian Poland) was placed under martial law. Later that night – at 3:26 am – Yanushkevitch wired Warsaw that the morrow (26 July 1914) would mark “the beginning of the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ in the entire region of European Russia,” covering all six of the main military districts – Warsaw, Vilna (Vilnius, i.e., the Baltic area), Kazan, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa. What this meant in practice was that “all fortresses in the Warsaw, Vilna, and St. Petersburg districts were placed ‘in a state of war,’ frontier guards were brought up to strength and the frontier posts were fully manned, censorship and security measures were tightened, harbours were mined, horses and wagons were assembled for army baggage trains, depots were prepared for the reception of reservists, and all steps were taken to facilitate the impending mobilization.” The Period Preparatory to War inaugurated on 26 July further allowed for the “call-up of the three youngest classes of reserves in areas threatened by enemy action,” including, significantly, Russian Poland west of the Vistula. Expanding the net of Russia’s “intended partial mobilization” still further, on 27 July 1914 Yanushkevitch wired Tiflis command that the Period Preparatory to War was now also in force for the military districts of Omsk, Irkutsk, Turkestan, and the Caucasus.
Russia may have begun mobilizing in Omsk and Tiflis even earlier than this, as Norman Stone, drawing on Austrian sources, concluded: “There is also certain evidence to suggest that the Russians began to mobilize considerably earlier than they made out: at a comparably early stage in the Lemberg campaign, Austro-Hungarian units took prisoners from Siberian and Caucasus units, which could scarcely, in view of Russia’s great transportation problems, have reached the West if mobilized only at the end of July.”
Manfred Rauchensteiner, a leading Austrian historian of the eastern front, went still further than this, arguing that the unexpected speed of Russia’s mobilization against Austrian Galicia in August 1914 suggests that “the Russians began mobilizing towards the beginning of July and systematically prepared for war.” An early, secret mobilization of this kind was entirely consistent with the understanding of the Period Preparatory to War by the members of Russia’s General Staff – and by Tsar Nicholas II. (182)
The partial mobilization of Austria-Hungary against Serbia was more or less expected to be ordered following the Ultimatum and was published on July 26. Latest at that point Berlin should have either made up its mind or started some diplomatic initiatives to stop the war, for the situation became rapidly clear:
At any rate, the Journal of the Russian General Staff Committee reported in its June 25 edition that “according to information received, certain preparatory measures for mobilization were being taken in Austria-Hungary and Italy. Therefore, H.M. the Tsar has been graciously pleased to confirm the order of the Council of Ministers that in the night of 25/26 July the pre-mobilization period shall begin.” (185) Whatever hopes on the secrecy of the measures the Russian staff may have hedged were, however, in vain, for already on 3:25 pm on the 26th, the German military attaché in St. Petersburg, Major Eggeling, wired to Berlin that “mobilization had been ordered in Kiev and Odessa.” Habsburg consuls in Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa sent in reports of Russian mobilization measures on 27 July 1914.”(186)
In some way the Russians were in a dilemma – exactly because everything went slower and took much longer due to the lack of infrastructure, their mobilization had to start as early as possible, and there remains a debate whether or not, as in other countries, the order of mobilization necessarily comprised – once the units had arrived at the frontier – the order to open hostilities according to whichever plan was momentarily in force. Yet in the strategic aspect, the acute Serbian crisis delivered the suitable inception scenario – result of the Balkanization of the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1913 — to provide Russia with “the optimal casus belli,” (187) and it was thus only logical for Sazonov to instruct Belgrade “not to accept a British offer of mediation,” should one be received. (188) One must keep in mind that St. Petersburg – different from the other parties – saw the Serbian crisis necessarily in the context how it could best be exploited to serve the overriding strategic issue, that is, Constantinople and the Straits; the Serbian affair, even the European war – which, for her vastness alone, Russia believed she could not truly lose – were only a theatre secondary to the true battleground. General Dobrorolski put it in simple terms by observing that, after the Council of Minister meetings of July 24 and 25, “the war was already a decided thing, and all the flood of telegrams between the governments of Russia and Germany were nothing but the staging for an historical drama.” (189) 44
Naturally, the further history of the mutual mobilizations was clouded under a lot of deliberate obfuscation in the various White books the belligerents subsequently published and Luigi Albertini had to write a whole chapter on “THE LEGEND THAT THE AUSTRIAN GENERAL MOBILIZATION PRECEDED THAT OF RUSSIA” (Volume 3, pages 112 – 165), but as far as the Schlieffen Plan is concerned, it remains ineligible to prove a particular German aggressiveness.
Condition Three: Attack
Now we may address the third condition of the quandary; Where and when did the actual fighting begin – one would assume, naturally, with the great German offensive against Belgium?
Actual fighting in the south started on August 7, when Joffre, apparently to “arouse the nation’s passion for war by an early coup de théâtre in Alsace,” (11) ordered VII Corps [Louis Bonneau], stationed in Belfort, to advance to and conquer Mulhouse, which it did on August 8 without meeting initial opposition. The town was, however, given up just as quick on August 10 in the face of German counterattacks.
The grand ambition of Joffre’s Plan XVII, however, had not changed. Its design was still the encirclement of the fortified German positions at Metz and Thionville with two pincers, Dubail’s First and Castelnau’s Second Armies from the south, and Ruffy’s Third and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army from the north. They were to meet, eventually, near the Saar and Moselle rivers; the German defenders would be trapped; and the way to the Rhine would be free.
An unintentional effect of Bonneau’s visit to Mulhouse and retour was that the German deployment in the south was upended: Heeringen had sent far too much of 7th Army after the single French corps, and the arriving Bavarians of Rupprecht’s 6th Army found it hard to establish contact and flank protection with Heeringen’s troops.
Worse: since the expected Italian reinforcements had to be written off, the Bavarians found themselves fairly extended. They had only about 3,000 men per kilometre of front line available compared with, say, 1st Army’s 11,000 men per kilometre. Slowly, the Bavarians occupied their quarters in the Lorraine between Metz and Dieuze and amused themselves with liberating the local wine cellars. Duty, however, called soon.
Joffre detailed the Armée Alsacée to provide defence the French border from the Swiss frontier up to Mulhouse, and to cover Dubail’s flank. The latter task meant that it had to move north-eastwards and contradicted the first assignment. At any rate, Dubail’s and Castelnau’s forces were to break out just south of the German forts of Metz and Thionville, attacking from the Trouée de Charmes between Toul and Epinal. Dubail’s general direction would be to proceed to and conquer Sarrebourg, followed by moving to Donon (slightly north-eastward) and Strasbourg (slightly south- eastward); Castelnau was to aim for Morhange, making sure to cover Dubail’s left flank against an eventual German sortie from Metz.
They would thus avoid to meet German strong points or known troop concentrations, but “the farther French forces advanced … the broader their fronts became: eventually, eighty kilometres for First Army and seventy for Second Army. Dubail’s dual objectives of Sarrebourg and Donon necessitated splitting his forces and thus exposing his flanks to German counterattack.” (12)
Joffre discounted intelligence reports that indicated that the Schwerpunkt, the main concentration, of the German deployment was directed against Belgium. In addition, he expected no more than six German corps defending Alsace-Lorraine, and so advised a sceptical Castelnau, while, in reality, 6th and 7th Armies were composed of eight corps. In Joffre’s opinion, the mass of the German troops was in the Moselstellung, the fortified position between Metz and Thionville along the Moselle River, on the defensive, and the rest in East Prussia facing the Russians, who would, as the news from St. Petersburg informed him, begin their attack on August 14.
Dubail’s and Castelnau’s German opponents, Rupprecht and Heeringen were as unhappy as was Castelnau, but for the opposite reason: their role was far too defensive for their taste, and they began to stir at Moltke’s reins. Their more offensive plans were rejected, but when Krafft von Delmensingen, Rupprecht’s chief of staff, devised an option to “sack” any French forces that would be bold enough to follow if 6th Array pretended to retreat, the plan won preliminary approval, and 6th Army was withdrawn behind the Saar, as a lure.
On the morning of the fourteenth, he [Joffre, ¶] sent the armies of the right wing – roughly four hundred battalions and sixteen hundred guns, almost one-third of the chief of staff’s entire strength — into Germany.
… Overall, the French force formed a gigantic wedge aimed straight at Sarrebourg and the left wing of Rupprecht’s Sixth Army. Progress was good. (13)
Joffre was aware of the danger of encirclement and took precautions. He demanded that Dubail and Castelnau’s units always maintained close contact, for mutual flank protection. That they did, until after Dieuze and Sarrebourg had been occupied without resistance, Joffre ordered Castelnau north-eastwards to Morhange, into the Saar valley. Consequently, First and Second Army lost touch, since Dubail was still progressing eastward to Strasbourg.
“For four days the Germans fell back, contesting but not firmly opposing the French advance, which in places reached twenty-five miles into Reich territory. A German regimental colour was captured and sent for presentation to Joffre at Vitry-le-François, where he had established General Headquarters (GQG).
Chateau-Salins was taken, then Dieuze, finally on 18 August, Sarrebourg, all places that had been French since Louis XIV’s war against the Habsburgs in the seventeenth century. [They had been German, however, the many centuries before Louis XIV, ¶] Then the front lost its sponginess. The French infantry found German resistance stiffening. The small Army of Alsace, advancing continuously on the First’s right, recaptured Mulhouse next day, but its success lent no support, for a wide gap yawned between it and Dubail’s positions. It was not the only gap.
First Army was not firmly in contact with Second; west of the Saar Valley, Dubail and Castelnau were not in operational touch at all. Dubail was conscious of the weakness and intended on 20 August to mend it by launching an attack that would both restore contact and open a way through for Bonneau’s Cavalry Corps (2nd, 6th and 10th Divisions) to debouch into the enemy’s rear and roll up his flank; but even as he set the attack in motion on the night of 19/20 August, the Germans were preparing to unleash their planned counter-offensive.
Rupprecht’s and Heeringen’s Armies had been temporarily subordinated to a single staff, headed by General Krafft von Delmensingen. Thus, while the French Second and First Armies co-ordinated their actions only as well as sporadic telephoning could arrange, the German Sixth and Seventh fought as a single entity. Here was the anticipation of a new trend in command, which would bring into being formations as large as existing communication systems could control.
On 20 August its worth was swiftly demonstrated. Dubail’s night attack was checked as soon as begun. The setback was followed by a simultaneous offensive along the whole line of battle by the eight German corps against the French six. The French VIII Corps, which had reached the Saar at Sarrebourg, was overwhelmed; its artillery was out metalled by the heavier German guns, under the fire of which the German infantry drove the French from one position after another.
Heavy artillery did even worse damage to Second Army, which was struck by a concentrated bombardment along its whole front as day broke on August 20. The XV and XVI Corps abandoned their positions under the infantry attacks that followed. Only the XX, on the extreme left, held firm. It was fighting on home ground and was commanded by General Ferdinand Foch, of exceptional talent and determination.
While his soldiers clung on, the rest of the Army was ordered by Castelnau to break contact and retreat behind the River Meurthe, the line from which it had begun its advance six days earlier. It had very nearly been enveloped on both flanks, which would have resulted in irretrievable disaster to the whole French army, and had completely lost touch with the First Army, which Dubail was therefore obliged to disengage from battle also.” (14)
Armies make plans, and that is what all belligerents in the Great War did. As we have noted in various posts: the “offensive” was believed to serve as the panacea of contemporary strategic thinking and subsequently all the greater continental armies subscribed to the theory and all of them developed suitable plans. We must keep in mind that the idea of a “war of aggression” – as it was later defined in the Nuremberg Trials – and its odium did not exist then.
Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review what happened.
I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, a part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war”, as Clausewitz famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.
II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic option of a government, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.
III. Due to false lessons drawn after the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.
IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”1. Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.
The existence of the Schlieffen Plan was thus not an aberration of warfare, but an integral part of a national military plan, as was existent in every major nation. It did not cause, much less provoke, an early German mobilization, and the initial attacks of the war were not its result. German War Guilt may exist and be apportioned in and through other, mostly diplomatical and political failures, neglect, miscalculations and some real stupidity, but it cannot be blamed on a war plan by itself.
In the first week of August, everywhere in Europe trains had begun to devour young men, their gear and rifles, and spit them out on the railway heads of their destinations, as per the schedules developed and pigeonholed years earlier. The Railway Department of the German General Staff coordinated the movements of over 11,000 trains during mobilization, each one of them consisting of 54 wagons. The Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine at Cologne, for example, was crossed by 2148 trains between August 2 and 18; about 134 trains a day, respectively, one every eleven minutes, day or night. The French Railway Department scheduled over 7,000 trains, on a slightly smaller network. It was about 3 am on September 21, that Adolf Hitler and his fellow recruits of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 and their gear were loaded upon three trains and sent off westward. The first stop was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, whence Hitler sent a postcard to his landlords, the Popps. (16) On the next day, the train reached the Rhine, and Hitler saw the great German stream for the first time, as well as the Niederwald-Monument, the gigantic statue of Germania protecting the river and the country. He never forgot the day – as late as 1944 he recalled that:
“I saw the Rhine for the first time when I travelled to the Western Front with my regiment in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that abounded in me when I saw, for the first time, this river of German destiny. Just as moving were the sympathy and the hearty encouragement of the people living there, who surprised us with a completely unanticipated welcome. We were supplied with everything we could imagine. When we came to Aachen in the evening, I promised myself never to forget this day as long as I lived.”
In the night to Thursday, October 22, the trains crossed the Belgian border, and arrived, via Liège and Brussels, at Lille in France by October 24. Private Hitler narrated the events of the last part of this journey and his first days at war in a letter to an acquaintance of his, Munich law student Erich Hepp, in so typical a frame of mind that it may appear here unabridged:
“Dear Herr Assessor Hepp, I am glad that my last postcard reached you. Also, many warm thanks for your welcome letter. I should have written at greater length before, but shall now try to make up for it. First of all, let me tell you at once, Herr Assessor, that on December 2nd I had the opportunity to acquire, thank God, more than enough experience. Our regiment was not, as we expected, held back in the reserve, but early in the morning of October 29 was thrown into battle, and ever since we have been in those fellows’ hairs with some interruptions, first as attackers and then as defenders. After a really lovely journey down the Rhine we reached Lille on October 23. We could already see the effects of the war as we travelled through Belgium. We saw the conflagrations of war and heard its ferocious winds. As far as Douai our journey was reasonably safe and quiet. Then came shock after shock. In some places the base artillery had been destroyed in spite of the strongest defence. We were now frequently coming upon blown up bridges and wrecked locomotives. Although the train kept going at a snail’s pace, we encountered more and more horrors – graves. Then in the distance we heard our heavy guns. Towards evening we arrived at Lille, which was knocked about rather a lot in the suburbs. We got off the train and hung about around our stacked rifles, and shortly before midnight we were on the march, and at last we entered the town. It was an endless monotonous road left and right with miserable workmens’ dwellings and the countryside blackened with smoke. The pavements were poor and bad and dirty. There were no signs of any inhabitants, and there was no one in the streets after 9 pm except the military. We were almost in danger of our lives because the place was so full of guns and ammunition carts, and through them we eventually reached the Citadel, and this part of Lille is a bit better. We spent the night in the courtyard of the stock exchange building. This pretentious building was not yet completed. We had to lie down with full packs, and were kept at the ready. It was very cold on the stone pavement and we could not sleep. The next day we changed our quarters, and this time we were in a very large glass building. There was no lack of fresh air, the iron framework was still standing, and the panes of glass had been smashed into millions of fragments in the German bombardment. During the day something more was attempted. We inspected the town and most of all we admired the tremendous military equipment, and all of Lille lay open, the gigantic shapes of the town rolling before our astonished eyes. At night, there was singing, and for me it was the last time. On the third night, about 2 am, there was a sudden alarm, and about 3 am we marched away in full marching order from the assembly point. No one knew for certain why we were marching, but in any case we regarded it as an exercise. It was rather a dark night, and we had hardly been marching for twenty minutes when we turned left and met two columns of cavalry and other troops, and the road was so blocked there was no room for us. Then morning came. We were now a long way from Lille. The thunder of gunfire had grown a bit stronger. Our column moved forward like a giant snake. At 9 am we halted in the park of a country house. We had two hours’ rest and then moved on again, marching until 8 pm. We no longer moved as a regiment, but split up in companies, each man taking cover against enemy airplanes. At 9 pm we pitched camp, I couldn’t sleep. Four paces from my bundle of straw lay a dead horse. The animal was already half decayed. Finally, a German howitzer battery immediately behind us kept sending two shells flying over our heads into the darkness of the night every quarter of an hour. They came whistling and hissing through the air, and then far in the distance there came two dull thuds. We all listened. None of us had ever heard that sound before. While we were huddled close together, whispering softly and looking up at the stars in the heavens, a terrible racket broke out in the distance. At first it was a long way off and then the crackling came closer and closer, and the sound of single shells grew to a multitude, finally becoming a continuous roar. All of us felt the blood quickening in our veins. The English were making one of their night attacks. We waited a long time, uncertain what was happening. Then it grew quieter and at last the sound ceased altogether, except for our own batteries, which sent out their iron greetings to the night every quarter of an hour. In the morning we found a big shell hole. We had to brush ourselves up a bit, and about 10 am there was another alarm, and a quarter of an hour later we were on the march. After a long period of wandering about we reached a farm that had been shot to pieces and we camped there. I was on watch duty that night, and at about one o’clock we suddenly had another alarm, and we marched off at three o’clock in the morning. We had just taken a bit of food, and we were waiting for our marching orders, when Major Count Zech rode up: “Tomorrow we are attacking the English!” he said. So it had come at last! We were all overjoyed, and after making the announcement, the Major went on foot to the head of the column. Early, around 6 am, we came to an inn. We were with another company and it was not till 7 am that we went to join the dance. We followed the road into a wood, and then we came out in correct marching order on a large meadow. In front of us were guns in partially dug trenches and behind these we took up our positions in big hollows scooped out of the earth and waited. Soon the first lots of shrapnel came over, bursting in the woods and smashing up the trees as though they were brushwood. We looked on interestedly, without any real idea of danger. No one was afraid. Every man waited impatiently for the command: “Forward!” The whole thing was getting hotter and hotter. We heard that some of us had been wounded. Five or six men brown as clay were being led along from the left, and we all broke into a cheer: six Englishmen with a machine—gun! We shouted to our men marching proudly behind their prisoners. The rest of us just waited. We could scarcely see into the streaming, seething witches’ cauldron, which lay in front of us. At last there came the ringing command: “Forward!” We swarmed out of our positions and raced across the fields to a small farm. Shrapnel was bursting left and right of us, and the English bullets came whistling through the shrapnel, but we paid no attention to them. For ten minutes we lay there, and then once again we were ordered to advance. I was right out in front, ahead of everyone in my platoon. Platoon leader Stöver was hit. Good God, I had barely any time to think, the fighting was beginning in earnest! Because we were out in the open, we had to advance quickly. The captain was at the head. The first of our men had begun to fall. The English had set up machine guns. We threw ourselves down and crawled slowly along a ditch. From time to time someone was hit, we could not go on, and the whole company was stuck there. We had to lift the men out of the ditch. We kept on crawling until the ditch came to an end, and then we were out in the open field again. We ran fifteen or twenty yards, and then we found a big pool of water. One after another we splashed through it, took cover, and caught our breath. But it was no place for lying low. We dashed out again at full speed into a forest that lay about a hundred yards ahead of us. There, after a while, we all found each other. But the forest was beginning to look terribly thin. At this time there was only a second sergeant in command, a big tall splendid fellow called Schmidt. We crawled on our bellies to the edge of the forest, while the shells came whistling and whining above us, tearing tree trunks and branches to shreds. Then the shells came down again on the edge of the forest, flinging up clouds of earth, stones, and roots, and enveloping everything in a disgusting, sickening yellow-green vapour. We can’t possibly lie here forever, we thought, and if we are going to be killed, it is better to die in the open. Then the Major came up. Once more we advanced. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could across meadows and beet fields, jumping over trenches, hedgerows, and barbed-wire entanglements, and then I heard someone shouting ahead of me: “In here! Everyone in here!” There was a long trench in front of me, and in an instant I had jumped into it, and there were others in front of me, behind me, and left and right of me. Next to me were Württembergers, and under me were dead and wounded Englishmen. The Württembergers had stormed the trench before us. Now I knew why I had landed so softly when I jumped in. About 250 yards to the left there were more English trenches; to the right, the road to Leceloire was still in our possession. An unending storm of iron came screaming over our trench. At last, at ten o’clock, our artillery opened up in this sector. One – two – three – five – and so it went on. Time and again a shell burst in the English trenches in front of us, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting in some places; we threw them out of one trench after another. Most of them raised their hands above their heads. Anyone who refused to surrender was mown down. In this way we cleared trench after trench. At last we reached the main highway. To the right and left of us there was a small forest, and we drove right into it. We threw them all out of this forest, and then we reached the place where the forest came to an end and the open road continued. On the left lay several farms, all occupied, and there was withering fire. Right in front of us men were falling. Our Major came up, quite fearless and smoking calmly, with his adjutant, Lieutenant Piloty. The Major saw the situation at a glance and ordered us to assemble on both sides of the highway for an assault. We had lost our officers, and there were hardly any non-commissioned officers. So all of us, everyone who was still walking, went running back to get reinforcements. When I returned the second time with a handful of stray Württembergers, the Major was lying on the ground with his chest torn open, and there was a heap of corpses around him. By this time the only remaining officer was his adjutant. We were absolutely furious. “Herr Leutnant, lead us against them!” we all shouted. So we advanced straight into the forest, fanning out to the left, because there was no way of advancing along the road. Four times we went forward and each time we were forced to retreat. In my company only one other man was left besides myself, and then he also fell. A shot tore off the entire left sleeve of my tunic, but by a miracle I remained unharmed. Finally at 2 pm we advanced for the fifth time, and this time we were able to occupy the farm and the edge of the forest. At 5 pm we assembled and dug in a hundred yards from the road. So we went fighting for three days in the same way, and on the third day the British were finally defeated. On the fourth evening we marched back to Werwick. Only then did we know how many men we had lost. In four days our regiment consisting of thirty-five hundred men was reduced to six hundred. In the entire regiment there remained only thirty officers. Four companies had to be disbanded. But we were all so proud of having defeated the British! Since that time we have been continually in the front line. I was proposed for the Iron Cross, the first time in Messines, then again at Wytschaete by Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt, who was our regimental commander. [FN1] Four other soldiers were proposed for the Iron Cross at the same time. Finally, on December 2, I received the medal. My job now is to carry dispatches for the staff. As for the mud, things are a bit better here, but also more dangerous. In Wytschaete during the first day of attack three of us eight dispatch riders were killed, and one was badly wounded. The four survivors and the man who was wounded were cited for their distinguished conduct. While they were deciding which of us should be awarded the Iron Cross, four company commanders came to the dugout. That means that the four of us had to step out. We were standing some distance away about five minutes later when a shell slammed into the dugout, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt and killing or wounding the rest of his staff. This was the most terrible moment of my life. We worshiped Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt. I am sorry; I will have to close now. The really important thing for me is to keep thinking about Germany. From eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, day after day, we are under heavy artillery fire. In time even the strongest nerves are shattered by it. I kept thinking about Munich, and there is not one man here who isn’t hoping that we shall soon finish off this rabble once and for all, make mincemeat of them, at whatever the cost.
The hope is that those of us who have the good fortune to see our homeland again will find it purer and less corrupted by foreign influence. The sacrifices and misery extracted daily from hundreds of thousands of peoples, the rivers of blood flowing every day against an international world of enemies will, we hope, result in smashing Germany’s external enemies and bring the destruction of our internal internationalism. That would be better than any territorial gains. As for Austria, the matter will come about as I already told you. Once more I express my heartfelt gratitude and remain your devoted and grateful
There is a second, slightly different translation of the letter here as a PDF if the reader likes to compare.
[FN1] Colonel List was killed on October 31st at Gheluvelt Castle. (19) Lieutenant Colonel Philip Engelhardt took over the regiment on November 12, for five days, before being wounded on November 17 in the accident narrated by Hitler above. (20)
Given that Hitler’s war record and decorations played a huge part in later Nazi propaganda – giving the Austrian a sort of supernatural German identity – we should be looking at the matter right away. There was little literature available that specifically and critically examined the history of RIR 16 and Hitler’s role in it, which results to a degree from the paucity of the record, and the fact that post-1933 it was purged of everything that disagreed with the gospel of war hero Adolf Hitler.
Most of the attention, pre-1933 and now, centred around Hitler’s decoration with prestigious Iron Cross First Class, which he was awarded on August 4, 1918. The properness of the Second Class decoration that he earned in December 1914 is not generally doubted, for it was awarded in the aftermath of the great battle of First Ypres, during which Hitler and his company were in the forward trenches. Likewise, neither is much cognizance allotted nor critique directed at his other citations – the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918. (21) What did cause much ado about Hitler’s Iron Cross First Class in the early 1930s was not only that it figured prominently in the Nazi apotheoses of the Führer as a war hero, which of course awarded his critics opportunities for counterclaims, but that the decoration seemed to have been proposed and effected by the highest-ranking Jewish officer of the regiment, adjutant Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, and, in the light of Hitler’s post-1919 anti-Semitism, that was, of course, most embarrassing.
We shall address the merits issue first. In the German presidential election campaign of 1932, in which Hitler challenged the incumbent Hindenburg – and lost – a direct advantage for Hindenburg was that his war record could not be doubted – except for the fact, naturally, that Germany had lost, but, as both Nazis and reactionaries agreed, this defeat had not been the aged field marshal’s fault nor of anyone else in the army but that of socialist and liberal politicians, the “November Criminals”. Since the Hindenburg campaign was in this enviable position, they started to direct their artillery, so to say, on the challenger’s military merits. Josef Stettner, a veteran of RIR 16, wrote in a 1932 article in the VOLKSFREUND (the “People’s Friend”), a Social Democratic newspaper in Braunschweig, that…
” … Hitler had worked out for himself how to get out of the line of fire on time. He had already managed to get a small post as regimental dispatch runner behind the front at the end of 1914. At first, he lay with the regimental staff in the underground vaults and basements of Fromelles. For months, the infantry companies that lay in reserve behind the front and pioneers [i.e. engineers respectively sappers] that had specially deployed for this task had to make the shelters of the regimental staff bomb-proof. While we had to lie in the wet trenches at the front line for seven or ten days without a break or while we stood up to our stomachs in the mud, Hitler lay on a warm, lice-free stretcher and had several metres of protective stone above his hero’s body. But it did not take very long before the entire regimental staff set itself up even more comfortably in Fournes, approximately 10 kilometres behind the first line. There for more than a year the dispatch runners had a room of their own in a former Estaminet (small pub or café). Every one of us in the trench would have given his eye teeth to swap with the hero Hitler even just for eight days. … The front experience of Private Hitler consisted more in the consumption of artificial honey and tea than of the participation in any combat. He was separated from the actual combat zone by a zone some 10 kilometres deep. Thousands of family fathers would have filled Hitler’s post behind the front just as well as him: however, at the time Hitler did not display any sign that he felt driven towards military front-line action, as he is trying to tell the blinded German youth today. He did, as we front-line soldiers used to say at the time, ‘keep his position.'”
The essence of Stettner’s argument was that Hitler was a dispatch runner at the regimental level, as opposed to the battalion or company level, and his duties rarely brought him face to face with actual enemy fire.
“Some worshippers of Hitler have pointed out now that the job of a dispatch runner was more dangerous than that of a soldier in the trenches. While the troops in the first line could calmly lie under cover, it is said in Hitler’s defence, the dispatch runners would have been much more exposed to enemy fire while on duty. However, I can accept that only for dispatch runners of companies or maybe also of battalions. In the worst-case scenario, the regimental dispatch runner had to go to the dugout of a battalion which still lay far behind the first line. And even in those cases, it was for the most part the dispatch runners of the battalion themselves who had to pick up the messages at the regimental headquarters, particularly when things were getting dangerous. All the duties of a regimental dispatch runner lay outside the dangerous zone of machine-gun fire.”
A bigger dent into the gospel of front-line hero Adolf Hitler than that caused by the relatively obscure Braunschweig newspaper might have ensued from an article in the weekend edition of the Hamburg Social Democratic newspaper ECHO DER WOCHE (“The Weekly Echo”) of March 1932, which resulted in Hitler’s bringing of a libel action against the paper. At court, the “great obstacle for the defence team of the ECHO DER WOCHE was that the paper had decided that in order to protect his safety it would not disclose the identity of the veteran who was the author of the bitter attack on Hitler’s war record.” (24) The article in question essentially argued, like Stettner had, that a regimental dispatch runner’s duty was not particularly hazardous and that Hitler had received his Iron Cross First Class for other reasons than bravery. Since the newspaper could not produce the writer, Hitler won the lawsuit by default and set out to establish the identity of the author. His thugs had no problem in identifying the writer as the former RIR 16 member Korbinian Rutz. Herr Rutz had entered the ranks of RIR 16 as a battalion dispatch runner with the 2nd Company on November 12, 1914, where he soon made the acquaintance of Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Rutz was steadily promoted and became a Lieutenant and commander of 1st Company on April 23, 1916. (25) In an open letter to the press on April 8, 1932, Rutz wrote:
“I entered the RIR 16 (List) as a private on November 12, 1914 with the 1st Reserve Detachment, and eventually became an officer and company leader. At that time Hitler was already an attendant with the regimental staff, and remained one until the end of the war. Regimental orderlies had to fetch orders at the brigade post and return with the replies of the regimental staff. To transfer the regimental orders down to the battalion post was the job of the battalion attendants. The job of a regimental orderly demanded an apt and proper person, but particular courage was not required. … The regimental staff always lived behind the front. In our position at Fromelles, for instance, our foremost lines were about 20 or 30 minutes west of the village, while the regimental staff resided at Fournes, a good hour east of it. They lived thus at least 11 hours distant from the front line. The regimental staff always resided in the best buildings, which had concrete basements and coverings. While the front line soldiers and officers had to hold out in the trenches under the most primitive of conditions, without even straw to lie on, the regimental orderlies slept on mattresses, had pillows and woollen blankets, and sleep galore. … Attendants had an easier time to earn decorations than trench troops, for the officers were familiar with their faces, while the name or face of a simple front line fighter, who stoically endured toil and danger, was, at best, known to the company commander, but not the higher-ups. And while attendants and orderlies had a regular life and three square meals a day, the John Does of the front lines got warm food perhaps at midnight, or even later, if at all, amidst utter filth, live fire and the such. We often received our midday meals an hour or so past midnight. Then Hitler was seriously wounded. I can tell you the truth about this. He lay in the palatial gardens of Fromelles, where the regimental staff was at that time. With a few comrades, he was taking a sun bath when a grenade exploded close by and wounded him. Not in action, mind, not on his post, he was hit, but on his having a siesta. … So Hitler has the Iron Cross, First Class. At the end, every regimental attendant received one. But a brave company comrade of mine, a simple man who spent four years at the front and was wounded twice, did not get it.”
But Rutz did not do himself a favour with the inaccuracies of his report – the sunbathing story, for example, was easily proved false, as was the promotion of the public notary’s simple house in Fournes to a concrete citadel – and the Nazis had easy revenge by retiring him from teaching after 1933. Rutz’ and Stettner’s criticism was later shared by the medical scribe Alexander Frey, who argued that Hitler remained a dispatch runner and avoided promotion for reasons of safety:
“Without a doubt Hitler could have re-enlisted with a company and done trench duty with the goal of promotion. But he did not seem to have wanted that; there were certain positions, so treasured that if troops got hold of them, they would not want to give them up, as they had certain automatic advantages. In this case, there were better quarters and better food than infantrymen in the trenches had. I had to resist the urging of my company commander that I leave my post in the medical service (since I was not a doctor, I couldn’t go much farther in this particular field) and take part in an officer training course. I did not want to leave my field of work – probably for the same reasons that Hitler did not want to leave his. Measured against the dreadful hardship of trench duty, our posting was a small alleviation, combined with small comforts.”
Yet there were other opinions, and since several of them came from officers, history has – everything else being equal – tended to reflect their views of Adolf Hitler as a soldier. At the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the last commander of RIR 16, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian von Baligand, testified as follows:
“It is not true that Hitler’s post with the regimental staff was a safe job. If all the purveyors of safe jobs in the army had evidenced Hitler’s courage, the trenches would not have developed a disliking of their superiors.”
First Lieutenant Friedrich Wiedemann, between January 1, 1916, and August 16, 1917, staff adjutant of RIR 16, wrote in his memoirs, published in 1964:
“One of the dispatch runners attached to the regimental staff was Adolf Hitler. I cannot remember the exact time I first noticed him, a private first class, which he was at that time, but he came under my direct command and hence I thought a good deal about him when attempting to determine on whom one could truly rely on. Between Hitler and me, organization-wise, was only the regimental scribe and First Sergeant Max Amann, who later became General Manager of the NSDAP and Director of the Franz Eher Publishing House. … When I was dispatched to RIR 16 [on January 1, 1916] as the new regimental adjutant, the war of movement, in whose final phase the regiment had partaken in late 1914, had already been replaced by trench warfare. The regiment had its trenches south of Lille while the regimental staff resided in Fournes, in the house of the local notary public. When the army communiqués reported “All Quiet on the Western Front”, our dispatch runners, together with the whole staff, had a relatively placid life. They were used for petty jobs or accompanied the commander or me on the regular inspections of the rampart. I well remembered Hitler from such occasions as a quiet man of somewhat unmilitary appearance, who, at first sight, was not different from his comrades. Only slowly did we get the impression that his interests were somewhat deeper than those of his comrades, most of whom came from Bavaria south of the Danube. But that by itself was not exceptional in our regiment. … While our attendants had a quiet life in quiet times, this changed rapidly as soon as combat resumed. The telephone lines to the battalion posts and company leaders were usually shot up quickly, and the regimental commander’s orders could then only be transmitted via messenger. There was no choice – the enemy’s fire might be heavy or light – the runners had to leave the bunker and make it, through the fire, to the front line. Losses, and thus the rate of replacements among the runners, were therefore high. On the other side, one found out quickly whom one could rely on. … Thus, we kept three or four of the most dependable men at the regimental post, whom we saved for the important jobs, under difficult circumstances. One of the men we could depend on was Hitler. His later enemies have accused him of avoiding – shirking – front duty by being a dispatch runner and never having received the EK 1. Both charges are incorrect. As long as he was with the staff – that is, from the beginning until the end of the war — he has proven himself brave and reliable, and fully earned his EK I. I recall quite well how we discussed, in the aftermath of a bigger action, together with regimental scribe Max Amann whom to propose for the EK I. I opined that Hitler had earned this decoration since a long time already, and thus we put him on the list, albeit not in the top spot but at the bottom. This we did because the companies complained that we always put people on the regimental staff up front. At this occasion Hitler did not receive the EK I. We had proposed ten soldiers, but were allowed only five medals. When I was transferred to another post, my successor as regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant (Reserve) Hugo Gutmann renewed the proposal, and this time Hitler received the Iron Cross First Class.”
The circumstances of the decoration are relatively clear. Eugen Tannhäuser, who had spoken with Gutmann about the matter, testified on August 4, 1961:
“Herr Gutmann was regimental adjutant of the List Regiment, wore the Iron Cross First Class himself, as well as the Bavarian Order of Military Merit, and I have seen with my own eyes the promotion diplomas, on account of exemplary courage, to Master Sergeant and later to Lieutenant, when he was especially mentioned in the army’s order of the day. He told me that Hitler was a soldier like any other soldier and rewarded himself neither through particular exploits nor attracted any negative attention. One time there was an important message to be forwarded to the front. The telephone lines had been shot up, and, to be on the safe side, Gutmann called upon two runners and gave them the message, hoping that at least one would make it to the trenches. He promised both the Iron Cross First Class as the reward of success. They both came through, but, as Gutmann told me, keeping the promise proved harder than making it. It took him two months to convince the division commander of the properness of decorating these two messengers, for it had been a deed that happened daily in battle.”
Lieutenant Colonel Emmerich von Godin, first Deputy and later Commander of RIR 16, wrote to the Commander of the 12th Brigade on July 31, 1918:
“Hitler is with the regiment since its inception and has made the best of impressions in all battles. As dispatch runner he was a paragon of composure and courage in static as well as mobile warfare and was always willing to transport messages no matter the difficulties or the danger to his life. After a complete blackout of communications in a difficult situation it was Hitler’s untiring and selfless dedication to duty that ensured the delivery of important messages despite all adversities. Hitler has received the EK II for bravery in the Battle of Wytschaete on December 2, 1914. I consider Hitler completely deserving of the decoration of the EK I.”
Johann Raab, assigned to the regimental staff since December 1915 as a telephone operator, reported:
“I was with the regimental staff of RIR 16 (List) at the same time when Hitler was a dispatch runner there. I well remember that he very often volunteered for missions that, except for him, would have gone to colleagues who were married. I can also remember how he got the EK I, since I received the EK II at the same time. Hitler delivered a message to the front when all other connections were broken or extinguished by enemy fire. His deed was particularly mentioned in a Regimental Order.”
In the discussion of the sensitive matter of Hitler in the First World War – given the prominence of the subject and the ongoing historical discussion – we may pause for a moment of reflection. As the author pointed out in the introduction of “The Little Drummer Boy”, we deal here with a young Hitler between his 25th and 30th year, at a time when he has not committed – as far as we know – any crimes. We shall not judge in hindsight when reporting the facts and the reasonable assumptions we make of the time and the deeds at hand.
In 2010, Thomas Weber – with whom the author has been in contact – published his major work “Hitler’s First War” [Oxford University Press 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-923320-5]. For the longest of times, little has been truly known about the military service of Adolf Hitler in the war except for the hagiography of Third Reich historians, his own (sparse) account in “Mein Kampf” and the publications of critical newspapers during the Weimar Republic, mostly by left-wing magazines, during the years of his ascendancy 1925 to 1933. After 1933, these stopped – naturally.
Before Weber, it has been more or less only Anton Joachimsthaler, who unearthed in his books “Korrektur einer Biographie”, Langen Müller 1989, 3-7766-1575-3 and the extended reissue “Hitler’s Weg begann in München 1913 -1923”, F.A. Herbig, München 2000, 3-7766-2155-9, valuable details on the subject.
Thomas Weber’s ample study took as its main angles a few of the exaggerations, hyperbole, even legends of Hitler in the field, which had largely been the result of the Nazi hagiography mentioned above; and concentrated on the military details and duties of the field as well as the subjects personality as it then displayed itself.
He has identified many points of interest very well – as the legend of Hitler being called – in most general histories – a corporal (or lance-corporal), implying he had men under his command. He never did. All his life he held the rank of “Gefreiter”, i.e. Private First Class, a sort of “Senior Soldier”.
While in his early days at the front he was undoubtedly used in the front-line but was soon moved to the dispatch runners. Most of his service he spent as a regimental dispatch runner, i.e. delivering messages usually not to the front line but to the battalion or sometimes company staff, who generally enjoyed somewhat safer conditions in their quarters than the trench soldiers.
In essence, this meant that he was not – as he claimed – a front line soldier but had a relatively safe job at (relatively) cosy regimental quarters; that he was much less in physical danger than he (and later propaganda) asserted, and that, consequently, this job required much less courage and/or sacrifice than suggested.
Weber describes at length the begrudging feelings, hate and envy the trench-line troops felt for such “Etappenschweine” – the fellow soldiers in rear areas. There is no actual evidence, he finds, that Hitler ever displayed unusual bravery, and it was perhaps the close and persisting contact he had with the regimental officers that led to his awards.
That may all well be and true – but the question is, what did it matter post-war in Hitler’s career respectively the criticism of his enemies? By nature, criticism by fellow soldiers comes in the form of gossip, personal arguments, and the like – and there is a long line of negative statements on Hitler or rear-area-pigs in general that Weber brings to our attention, some of which were widely reported in Weimar-Era newspapers and even were at times the matter of legal proceedings.
But these were all essentially of a gossipy nature – no actual misconduct was alleged, far less proven – and after all the dust had settled, Hitler could point to six decorations – Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918 – and the opposition could point to nothing, as far as facts were concerned. This was, for political, respectively propaganda reasons, enough to settle the score, and the critics fell by the wayside.
In general, the written record thus appears more or less positive, and many later accusations were made in the heat of the political battle. The present author has discussed the subject with military men, and in the context of the Great War, they tend to regard dispatch runners as front-line soldiers. The author’s late father, who survived Stalingrad as an artillery officer with a Nebelwerfer regiment, concurred. As always, questions remain.
To be continued: From mid-September 1914 on, Hitler’s unit was dispatched to what became known as the First Battle of Ypres …