Hitler’s early life has long been an inscrutable mystery. Read any book about him and you will discover how little can be pinned down as fact. What does stand out is the paradox that he was clearly an unremarkable drifter who somehow managed to garner significant popular support in the early 1930s and ultimately became Reich Chancellor. All books to date struggle to offer a convincing explanation for this, posing more questions than they answer.

The origin of this problemFind this in our libraries stems from the highly distorted and selective historical record Hitler left us. His book Mein Kampf is his largely invented heroic account of his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and how that crucible forged his world view and ‘calling’ to lead Germany back to greatness. At this time he was becoming a prominent public figure taking pains to suppress, destroy or distort any evidence or any one threatening to contradict his own version of his life. Historians have had to rely unsatisfactorily on Mein Kampf along with the few surviving crumbs of credible historical evidence.

However not all of the credible evidence has been lost to us. Recently the German historian Thomas Weber got lucky when the Bavarian State archives recovered the dusty, previously lost war diary of the regiment Hitler served in during the First World War. It proved a valuable mine of information which contradicts many of the assertions Hitler made about his war service and the war generally. The diary also provided Weber with leads to other previously unknown sources such as descendants of the men who served with Hitler. His book Hitler’s First War at last opens up a window on Hitler’s early life.

Weber has revealed a young Hitler
more fascinating and intriguing than
any work of fiction could ever provide

What emerges is a fleshed out picture of what Hitler was really doing during the war and after, including one real bombshell about his political activities during a brief period in the early 1920s which was once a total blank to historians. Weber describes what Hitler’s fellow soldiers thought of him but, equally crucially, he reveals the impact the war had on them in comparison to the impact it had on Hitler.

It is well known that Hitler blamed Germany’s defeat in 1918 on ‘spineless civilians and politicians’ who stopped supporting the war effort – the infamous ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy. The ‘lessons’ Hitler drew from this would later be applied in fighting a new war – with devastating consequences. Thanks to this book, it is now clear why Hitler came to this conclusion. Hitler’s fellow soldiers increasingly came to see the war as a lost cause. On the other hand, as Weber has discovered, Hitler’s experience of the war was such an unusual one it gave him a very distorted perception of what was going on. A perception so at odds with that of his compatriots as to be delusional.

So what was it about Hitler’s experience of the war that was so unusual? And what sort of man was he at this time? You’ll have to read this book to find out – be ready for some surprises! Weber has revealed a young Hitler more fascinating and intriguing than any work of fiction could ever provide. Future accounts of Hitler will owe a huge debt to Weber.

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Find this in our librariesLaurence Rees is a must-read writer of all things to do with World War 2. He is a master at explaining complicated matters in a clear but easy style which is why most of his books have been made into documentaries for television. He first came to prominence with his excellent book and TV series The Nazis: a warning from history. Recently his website WW2History.com became freely accessible and is highly recommended. His new book The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (also to be made into a television documentary) endeavours to answer two big intertwined questions: how did Hitler, an obscure drifter, ascend to power and why did so many Germans support him?

Hitler’s rise to power, rather than being the incomprehensible and insane aberration we tend to see it as, was actually a very plausible and logical sequence of events and circumstances

Hindsight shows us how insane Hitler and the Third Reich increasingly became. But Rees sweeps hindsight aside to analyse what qualities made Hitler charismatic and how these qualities appealed to Germans, whether a high-ranking general or a man in the street. Crucially, Rees also turns his attention to the many who were initially sceptical of Hitler’s claims and promises or were resistant to his charisma. This is where Rees persuasively cracks the big paradox of Hitler: how he evolved from being a lowly drifter to final mastery at winning the sceptics over and why, once defeat was clearly inevitable, he retained the support (enthusiastic or otherwise) of most Germans.

In helping us understand these facets Rees shows how Hitler’s rise to power, rather than being the incomprehensible and insane aberration we tend to see it as, was actually a very plausible and logical sequence of events and circumstances. Reading it is a sobering but informative reminder of who we are, what we think and how we react in difficult times.

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