Everyone knows Adolph Hitler became a murderous and evil dictator. Until recently, however, it was generally believed that his service during World War I was quite courageous. Now, drawing on recently published letters, a short biography, simply titled, “Hitler,” further debunks any romantic notions that might linger regarding Adolph Hitler’s early years.
It turns out much of what we think we know about Hitler’s youth is actually revisionist propaganda. “Hitler very much cultivated a bogus picture of himself,” says “Hitler” author A.N. Wilson.
Wilson also paints Hitler as a sort of lazy, Generation X-type figure. Had his father Alois (who had, himself known struggle) lived to see the publication of “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle), Wilson writes, “he might well have asked, ‘What Struggle?'”
“The boy preferred to lounge about, to wear dandified clothes, to attend the opera and to imagine that one day he would become a famous artist, or maybe a composer of operas, like his hero Richard Wagner,” he writes.
In a recent conversation, Wilson described the young Hitler as having spent time, “hanging around in cafes and doing these very undistinguished little architectural drawings … he turned into a bum, basically.”
Regarding Hitler’s supposed war heroism, Wilson tells me: “He was a draft dodger. He was an Austrian and he fled across the border into Germany to escape the draft.”
Ultimately, Hitler got swept up in the pro-war fervor, and did join the German army. But his service was much less distinguished than previously believed.
So what explains the confusion? It turns out, Hitler’s rather mundane duties were confused with more heroic duties. As Wilson explains,
It used to be believed — because he was given the iron cross decoration the end of the first world war — that this was a decoration for bravery.
… But there were in fact two sorts of people doing this running job. There was the people who were doing something which was completely dangerous — namely running between the staff officer (who was two or three miles behind the line and the front line) — right into the line of battle.
There were other people who were sitting behind desks, miles away from the battle.
One of Hitler’s colleagues said that this was nothing more dangerous than working in the post office back home. And Hitler was in that job. He was just a pen pusher. And that’s only recently been discovered. … Everybody got the decoration at the end of the first world war — everybody who hadn’t been shot in the Austrian and German armies.