“If we are engaged in war,
we shall suffer but little more
than we shall suffer
even if we stand aside.”
Sir Edward Grey,
In the House of Commons, August 1914
All delays are dangerous in war.
John Dryden “Tyrannic Love”, Act 1, Sc. 1
One of the enduring legends of the Great War is that its outbreak was hailed, on either side, by a wave of popular support. This perception is largely a result of propaganda – contrived chiefly a posteriori – by the rosy memory of those who had survived what they saw as a well-earned victory over the German menace, and others who suggested that so great a patriotic endeavour could only be lost to treason.
It is true that some protagonists of these days greeted the dawn of war with enthusiasm. In London, Winston Churchill wrote his wife – “My darling One & Beautiful” – on July 28 that while “everything tends towards catastrophe, &
collapse,” he was “interested, geared-up & happy”. (1) In Munich, a protagonist of temporarily lesser prominence, the unemployed freelance painter Adolf Hitler, agreed wholeheartedly. He had learned of the German declaration of war on Russia on the evening of August 1, and on the next day, a Sunday, walked the two miles from his room at Schleissheimer Strasse 34 to the Odeonsplatz Square, where, in front of the Feldherrnhalle, the Hall of Generals, a crowd of pro-war enthusiasts had congregated. Adolf’s mood was jubilant.
“Even today,” he wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’ (1924), “I am not ashamed to say that, overcome with rapturous enthusiasm, I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being allowed to live at this time.” (2)the little drummer boy, page 535
A photograph – subsequently acquiring fame – taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, who was soon to become Hitler’s court photographer, shows twenty-five-year-old Adolf Hitler in front of the square’s fountain, in the eight row or so of the assembly, ecstatically applauding patriotic speeches delivered by ad-hoc orators from the steps of the great hall. How he successfully exploited in his later days this fortunate accident is a good early example of Hitler’s knack for framing and arranging realities. Thomas Weber relates the story behind the legendary photograph:
It is true that in the days prior to the outbreak of war, brass bands had played patriotic songs in the streets and cafés of Munich. Students and a rowdy crowd had smashed up a café that was perceived as insufficiently patriotic. Yet it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which these cases of patriotic outbursts were representative of the general population, as the loudest and most visible responses to the outbreak of war do not necessarily equate to the most widespread responses to war.THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 535 – 536
In fact, only a minority of Germans were initially genuinely enthusiastic about the war. Anxiety, fear, and grief were the initial responses. A young Heinrich Himmler, who experienced the outbreak of the First World War in Landshut in Lower Bavaria, complained on 27 August of the lack of popular enthusiasm for the war in Lower Bavaria. He noted with disdain in his diary that Landshut had been full of sobbing and weeping people.
There is, in fact, a vast discrepancy between immediate responses to the war as the one described by Himmler and accounts that were published later on in an attempt to give the war meaning retrospectively. This is why we need to treat post-war recollections of August 1914 with a huge grain of salt. The same is true of the photograph of Hitler amidst crowds in Odeonsplatz from 2 August.
The photograph, in actuality, does not in any way support Hitler’s claim that he was representative of the population of Munich, or of the would-be members of the List Regiment, or of the German population at large. The photo tells us more about why its photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, would later become Hitler’s personal photographer than anything about the mindset of the German people at the outbreak of war.
During the Third Reich, it would be his masterful photographs and Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent propaganda movies that would create the public image of Hitler and of a young, energetic, and forward-looking Germany.
On 2 August, only a tiny fraction of Munich’s near 600,000 residents attended the patriotic assembly Hoffmann depicted. On Hoffmann’s photo, the entire square appears filled with cheering people. However, a film clip that has survived of the scene and that, unlike Hoffmann’s photo, did not zoom in onto the crowd immediately in front of the Feldherrnhalle gives us a very different impression. Parts of the square are not filled with people. There is even enough space for a tram to move at normal speed across the square. When the film camera started filming the crowd, we see restless people. Only when they become aware that the camera is filming do they start to cheer and to raise their hats. At that very moment, Heinrich Hoffmann, standing close to the camera crew, took his photo. And thus the myth of central Munich overflowing with cheering and warmongering crowds was born.
There is even some indication that Hoffmann might have “doctored” his photograph to place Hitler in a more
prominent position, for in the film clip Hitler stands in a less central position than in the photo. And where there are crowds of people in front of Theatiner Church in the background of the photo, there are far fewer people at the same spot in the film clip. (3)
Just as the photograph aided subsequent Nazi propaganda, Hitler was busy creating his own legend in “Mein Kampf”. Nobody then knew about the embarrassing affair with the Austrian consulate and military commission that had taken place earlier in the year, and we shall now investigate how it happened that Hitler, whose intense dislike of the Austrian army we have encountered above, made it, as a foreigner, into the ranks of the Royal Bavarian Army. In “Mein Kampf”, he wrote:
“I presented myself on August 4, 1914, through an immediate petition to His Majesty the King of Bavaria, for consideration and voluntary entry into the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment, thus to join the Bavarian, i.e. German army. The petition was granted the next day, August 5, and a few days later I was transferred to the 2nd Regiment. I then joined, on August 16, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, which was in completion at that time.” (4)THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 536
The reality was more prosaic. Not only has no trace of Hitler’s petition to King Ludwig III or its sanction ever materialized, Hitler’s army rolls do not mention anything taking place before August 16, 1914. They report:
“Am 16.8.1914 eingetreten als Kriegsfreiwilliger b. R.D.VI, 2.I.R. u. a. 1.9.14 anher versetzt.” (5)
[Roll # 166/148:] [‘Entered on August 16, 1914, as war volunteer at Recruiting Depot VI, 2nd Infantry Regiment and transferred here September 1, 1914’] [Recorded by the Replacement Battalion of the 2nd
“16.8.14 beim Ers. Batl. 2 Inf. Reg. Dep. VI eingetreten. 1.9.14 z. 1.Komp. Res. Inf. Reg. Nr. 16 vers.” (7)
[Roll II 1062:] [‘16.8.14 entered Replacement Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (Recruiting) Depot VI. 1.9.14. transferred to 1st Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 16’] [Recorded by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16]
Hitler’s claims of petitioning the King and immediately being awarded a place in the prestigious 1st, the King’s Own Regiment, are hereby revealed as bogus – his military career began on Sunday, August 16, when he reported to the School on Elisabeth Square, which was used, as many schools were, as temporary barracks. The first two weeks he spent learning basic infantry skills at the exercise areas Oberwiesenfeld and Freimann. It was an arduous business for the not very athletic Hitler and Frau Popp remembered that “he frequently came by, happy to rest from the exertions of the drill.” (8) On September 1, 1914, he was transferred as Private # 148 to 1st Company, Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, called, after its commander Colonel Julius von List, the “List Regiment”.
The question remains how it came that he – being a foreigner – was accepted in the first place. Only the War Ministry, not some company or regimental officer, had the legal authority, under certain conditions, to accept foreign volunteers. During the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior directed an inquiry at the War Ministry regarding the circumstances of Hitler’s enlistment. Yet it would seem that the venerable archivists were unable to find a satisfactory explanation, for their answer was of highly speculative nature:
“At the breakout of war, Hitler lived at Schleißheimerstraße 34 in Munich. Apparently he went, in August 1914, to the closest troop’s office, which was that of the 2nd Infantry Regiment and offered himself there. …THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 537
In the general war fever, he has probably acted on an instinct by applying at the nearest office. The more so as Germany, of course, had according to her treaty obligations announced her support for Austria. …
It cannot surprise anyone that an enthusiastic young man forgets the borders of the Inn and Salzach [which form the Bavarian-Austrian frontier) and only joins the forces to help in the common defence of the endangered homeland. … It is quite possible that Hitler, as many others did, presented himself in the earliest days of mobilization. Since he could not be processed right away, he was probably told to wait and come back later – as so many others.” (9)
It would seem that nobody checked Hitler’s nationality: not a single document in the very extensive and thorough files of the Bavarian War Ministry mentions the fact of Hitler’s Austrian citizenship. That the creation of the reserve regiments – incongruous mixtures of young volunteers and Landsturm seniors – occurred under somewhat haphazard circumstances had its main reason in the horrendous losses that were incurred from the very beginning of this first mechanized European war. By mid-August, OHL [“Oberste Heeresleitung”, Army High Command) demanded the immediate creation of one complete ersatz army of four corps respectively eight divisions, for the normal reservists had already been called up at mobilization. Bavaria had to supply one division of this new army, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, which was composed of the 12th and 14th Reserve Infantry Brigades. The 12th Reserve Brigade itself, commanded by Major General Kiefhaber, was formed by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (München, Colonel List) and 17 (Augsburg, Colonel Grossmann). About the former, Anton Joachimsthaler reports:
The mustering of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 [=”RIR 16″, ¶] was finished by September 1, 1914; it was composed of three battalions, each one about 1,000 men strong, and each battalion was divided into four companies (thus 1st to 12th Company). The RIR 16, which had been composed of the Recruiting Depots of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, was quite a chequered collection; mostly volunteers and persons without prior service experience, a mixture of the young and the elderly. The majority of RIR 16’s soldiers were students, artists, engineers and artisans from Munich and many rural men from Upper and Lower Bavaria. …THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 537 – 538
The volunteers which had been collected in the various Recruitment Depots (I-VIII), among them Hitler, had all been transferred to the new RIR 16 on September 1, 1914. Hitler ended up in 1st Company, I. Battalion (under Battalion Commander Major of the Reserve Count Zech auf Neuhofen and Company Commander of 1st Company, Captain Pflaumer).
It was only with the greatest of labour that weapons, uniforms and other necessary equipment could be provided. Supplies of the Pickel helmets, for example, were insufficiently low, and the regiment was equipped with the same black caps worn by the Landsturm, draped over with green cloth. Yet this came at the expense of a fatal misunderstanding at the front, where Bavarian volunteers were mistaken for Englishmen [some of whom wore similar green caps, ¶], and hundreds of RIR 16’s men were killed by friendly fire. (10)
Because OHL expected to use the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division at the Franco-Belgian border by the end of October, less than two months remained for the regiment’s initial training and subsequent transport. The first five weeks of their military life Hitler and his new comrades spent in Munich’s boot camps, being taught essential skills like digging holes while being yelled at by sergeants. Since RIR 16 was not composed of normal reservists, who could be trusted to remember much of their former service after a bit of a refresher, instruction was passed out rather summarily and could in no way prepare the men for the reality of the trenches.
Adolf Hitler – and subsequent Nazi propaganda creating another myth of the Great War – asserted post-1918 that the List Regiment was a volunteer unit, which was, at its best, intentional misrepresentation of the truth. It is correct that there were some volunteers, like Hitler, but overall about eighty-five per cent or so of the men were “not volunteers at all,” but “had been members of the Ersatzreserve or supplementary reserve… Recruits assigned to the supplementary reserve were generally men who were deemed insufficiently fit to serve in the army at peacetime but still sufficiently fit to be called up in the event of war.” (11)
On October 8 the regiment was sworn in, in the presence of King Ludwig III, and greeted by its commanding officer, Colonel Julius von List, with the following words:
“Comrades! I welcome with all my heart and full of confidence all officers, doctors, and officials, all petty officers, NCOs, and troops. The Regiment, whose men for the most part are untrained, is expected to be ready for mobile deployment within a few weeks. This is a difficult task, but with the admirable spirit which animates all members of this regiment, not an impossible one. … With God’s blessing, let’s begin our work for Kaiser, King, and Fatherland.” (12)THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 538
RIR 16 was scheduled to be sent, on October 10, on a march of seventy miles to the Lechfeld training ground in Swabia. On the day before, Hitler visited the Popps to say goodbye. Frau Anna later recalled:
“He took my husband’s hand and said, ‘If I were to die, please let my sister know, perhaps she wants to take care of my few possessions; if not, please do keep them. I am sorry if I should cause you any trouble.’ He then shook my hand, too, while I stood there and wept. We all liked him so very much. He embraced Peppi and Liesl, whom he loved, turned around, and vanished.” (13)THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 538
We must, however, be aware that Frau Popp told her recollections to a Nazi reporter in the Third Reich, so we should not be surprised about her devotion to the former lodger. Yet, be that as it may, on Saturday, October 10, RIR 16 marched off to Lechfeld. Due to the urgency of the situation at the front, the regiment was allowed only about ten days of manoeuvre, from October 10 to 21, at the exercise area, in which it was to train not only its own deployment but also to practice, as much as possible in the short time, coordination with other units. On Sunday, October 18, i.e., a week later, an exercise of the complete 12th Brigade was scheduled, both regiments, artillery and all, including a field mass and consecration of the regimental standards. (14) Opinions on the quality of the training were divided: while Hitler wrote Frau Popp that “the first five days in the Lech valley were the most tiring of my whole life,” an officer of the List Regiment, Count Bassenheim, complained that “discipline has grown very bad due to [the] marches and over-exertion.” (15) On October 20, Hitler informed the Popps that, this very evening, the regiment was to embark on a railway journey – to Belgium or England, he hoped, and expressed his exultation that the great game was about to begin.
He had to wait a few more hours. Everywhere in Europe, trains had begun in the first week of August 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 October 21, that the men of RIR 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 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-Denkmal, 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.” (17)THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 539
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 Adolf Hitler was to see his first war.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)