On Aug 9, "the black day of the German Army," as Ludendorff called it, the German lines began to give way as never before. The Germans fought a skillful rear guard action and when conditions favored them they stood and struck back hard. In most cases they could only be dislodged by vicious, close-in fighting. When withdrawing, they did their demolition work well and greatly slowed the Allied advance. Although the German line was never broken, the retreats continued. After being pushed back 20 miles from the Marne and Chateau Thierry, Hitler and his Regiment were shifted north between Arras and Bapaume.*
The failed offensive and the retreats shattered the German Armies' belief in victory as never before. Much of the fighting spirit passed out of the German troops. The leaders of the strikes in Germany, who were forcibly sent to the front, were now using their organizational abilities to rouse the men in the trenches. The new replacements were especially vulnerable to their rhetoric. Most of the new soldiers, unlike their Allied counterparts, became convinced that their position was hopeless. Disaffection grew in leaps and bounds. Many soldiers refused to risk their lives for a cause they saw as lost and took the position: "Better a coward for three minutes than dead for the rest of your life."* Old front line soldiers like Hitler were scorned as fools.
Hitler and his old comrades were devastated by the withdrawals. Four months earlier the Germans had been on the threshold of conquering Europe and had marched toward the front lines with the cry, "'Deutschland uber alles in der Welt,'" (Germany above all in the world). Now they were nearly back where they had started. Hitler believed that the army should have stood and fought to the end. He was convinced that the High Command's custom of constructing fortifications and defensive positions in the rear had an unsettling effect on fighting troops who were drawn to them like a magnet. He believed that huge withdrawals demoralized the troops as well as the civilians at home and built up the morale of the enemy. "In 1918," he would later state, "victory was as nearly in our grasp as it was in that of our adversaries. It was a battle of nerves."*
Hitler also believed that propaganda played a large role in the German failure. While he considered German propaganda "a complete failure," he considered the "propaganda of the British and the Americans" superior, highly skilled and truly inspired.
When the Germans had forced Russia out of the war and transferred their "undivided forces" to the Western Front, the Allied troops "faith in victory gave way to fear," Hitler would later write, but, he continued:
Hitler knew, as he put it, that the "munitions strike had...broke down too early to...sentence the army to doom," but he lamented about the "moral damage which now had been done."* He would never forget that it was the "Reds" and "Marxists" ("Socialists" and "Communists"), who had organized the munitions strike.
After the failed offensive he became argumentative and "talked at length of the swindle perpetrated by the Reds." He considered them "cowards," "traitors," "pacifists and shirkers," and unlike most men was not afraid to voice his feelings even though the overwhelming numbers of the new replacements disagreed with him. One day he "became furious and shouted in a terrible voice that the pacifists and shirkers were losing the war."* Hitler got into a fist fight with one of the new recruits who thought Germany should capitulate. After taking a lot of punches, Hitler finally won the fight. While the older soldiers respect of Hitler reached new heights, the new recruits despised him more than ever.* As one would later comment:
Early in September, Hitler's Regiment was once again shifted north to their old killing ground around Ypres and held in reserve. Hitler, took this time to take his second and last furlough. He and his friend Arendt traveled to Berlin together and Hitler went on to visit his family at the farm in Spital. His younger sister, Paula, who was now 21, and his stepsister Angela, found him quiet, withdrawn and incapable of small talk.
After witnessing the horrors of war for years, many soldiers had trouble dealing with their civilian relatives and friends. Those who had never experienced war at first hand could never comprehend what life was like in the front lines. Most people had a tendency to ask about the conditions "out there" and most soldiers found their curiosity stupid and distressing. What could a soldier say? Would their family ever comprehend living under a gas and artillery bombardment for weeks? Would their friends understand the overwhelming fear that makes one dirty his pants? Would they really want to hear about the heaps of torn and pitted carcasses that once were human? What about a dead, open mouth collecting rain? And, if someone changed the subject, what was there to talk about? What civilians consider important means almost nothing to a soldier who must return to the killing arena. Life behind the lines had become a foreign world to many soldiers. They belonged at the front.* Hitler spent only a few days visiting his relatives. Before returning to the front he stopped in Berlin. He found the Capital seething with unrest.
The cornucopia the Germans had expected from the conquered Russian lands had not matched expectations. The conquered territories were ravaged by war and revolution. It would take time to supply the bounty dreamed of. In Germany everything from fuel to medicine was almost nonexistent. In the hospitals, newborn babies were wrapped in rags and bandages were made of paper. But, it was the food shortages that were still the most pressing problem. Potatoes had become a luxury and turnips were now the principle ingredient of every dish from sausages to marmalade. Before the year would end the death toll caused by the blockade would surpass that of the previous year.
Because of the recent setbacks on the front and the suffering at home, the Socialists in the Reich had switched back to their previous positions and came out in ever larger numbers against the war. They were inspired, egged-on, and in many cases, financed by Russia. They began spreading rumors that the only reason the war was continuing was because rich arms producers were bribing the high command to keep the war going.
By now the war had become a "subversive operation," with the most respectable Allied and American statesmen calling for revolution in the lands of their foes.* Using Allied and American propaganda the German Socialists and Communists appealed for the overthrow of the government. "At home one quarreled," Hitler would later write. "...The people no longer had an interest in holding out any further..."*
When Hitler returned to the area of Ypres at the end of September, even the normally placid Belgians were beginning to show signs of animosity. "In 1918," Hitler would later say, "the population adopted a hostile attitude towards German troops going up into the line. I remember a Town Mayor who urged us to continue on our way when we wanted to chastise some blighters who stuck out their tongues at us."*
When Hitler rejoined his regiment in the front lines he found that the German army had abandoned all of their gains made in their great offensive and more. Hitler would write:
Except for the initial stages of the war and the recent German offensive, the Western Front had stayed much where it was during the course of the war. The Germans had held out against all comers and had never given up an inch of land without taking a greater toll on the enemy. With the renewed offensive by the Allies, and with American strength now at one and a half million, the fighting spirit of the German soldier reached a low point. They began to retreat from the positions they had held for four years.
By the end of September, Germany's loss seemed imminent and Bulgaria asked for an armistice and withdrew from the war. The incident had a great psychological effect and hastened the German breakdown. Thousands of German soldiers surrendered to the Allies at any opportunity. Many refused to follow orders which might put them in any kind of jeopardy. Where once soldiers, individually or in small groups, refused to follow orders, they now revolted in mass. There were incidents of officers being beaten, stoned, and even shot. By the beginning of October the German army was falling back slowly along its front from Verdun to the coast.
Americans, Englishmen and Frenchmen alike could not believe their newspapers as day after day they reported the capture of thousands of German prisoners with their weapons and big guns. In one week alone, 60,000 German soldiers were "captured" by the Allies. No one was more surprised than the Allied and American military experts who had all been predicting a few weeks before, in optimistic fashion, that a German collapse was unthinkable anytime sooner than the summer of 1919 when the United States would bring five million men and enormous resources into the conflict. They now saw that they had clear superiority in material, troops, and troop quality. Instead of following the custom of winding down the fighting as the weather turned foul, they pressed vigorously on. After smashing through the Hindenburg Line east of the old battlegrounds of the Somme, the Allies turned their attention northward where Hitler and his regiment were stationed. Because of the growth of American forces in France, a French army was moved north to join the British for a combined attack against the Germans around Ypres again.
On September 29, the Allies opened up with a barrage of high explosives shells intermingled with mustard gas. Short of troops, Ludendorff had been forced to take men from one part of his line to protect another and there were now only five divisions left to defend the area. The Germans had no choice but to fall back. After a few days of fighting along a twenty-mile front, the Germans were forced back in some places eight miles and another 10,000 prisoners were taken along with scores of heavy guns. The Allied soldiers advanced steadily but this time their most difficult opposition was the rain. It rained nearly as hard as it had during the Third Battle of Ypres the year before. The troops moved across an eerie, fog-shrouded wasteland.* "I remember well," Hitler would say, "that we had some very hard fighting [in] October 1918, and then...came the rain, and everything was washed out."*
The Allies paused for a few days to consolidate their positions and on the night of October 13th began lobbing high explosives and a new form of mustard gas on the German lines in preparation for a another attack the next day. Hitler was near Werwick (today's Wervik), two miles northeast of Comines, when the shelling began. He would later write:
"Yellow cross gas" (like "green cross," "blue cross" or "white cross") was a German shell-marking since the German gunners did not need to know the content of his gas shell so long as he could identify the cross.* The German soldiers soon learned the effects the different "cross" colors had on their enemies and naturally gave that name to Allied gases, though the Allies used a different name and their compounds were somewhat different. "Yellow-cross gas" represented "mustard gas" to the English and "Yperite," after Ypres where it was first used, to the French.* It was a "highly persistent type" (meaning the substance (dichlor-diethyl-sulphide) remained active for days, weather permitting, on any object it settled on).* It was capable of penetrating thick clothing, boots, and some masks,* and produced vesicant--severe shin burning and blistering--especially on the eyes and throat which put a man out of action but only irregularly produced death* (an incapacitated soldier is more of a hindrance to the enemy then a dead one). When exposed, there is no immediate effect on the eyes and throat, but within seven hours of exposure, total (though usually temporary) blindness sets in* and talking becomes almost impossible. For those exposed to "Yellow cross," the rate of death was two and a half percent* while permanent blindness, for those who lived, was about the same. Hitler's description of the effects are fairly exact except for his omission of the smell, which was something like horseradish.
Blinded, Hitler was evacuated 25 miles behind the lines to a field hospital at Oudenaarde for initial treatment* and then to Ghent.* Within a week he was loaded onto a train with hundreds of other wounded and shipped to a military hospital eighty miles north of Berlin, at Pasewalk. He would lay in a bed for weeks, his eyes swathed in bandages, fearing whether his eyesight would ever return.
The recent defeats on the battlefield and the growing unrest at home convinced Ludendorff that the war could no longer be won by military operations. He was finally able to convince a reluctant Hindenburg, and they informed William II and the Reichstag in Berlin. Ludendorff was so alarmed over conditions at the front that he suggested an immediate armistice with negotiations for peace to follow later.
The apparent reasonableness of President Wilson's Fourteen Points persuaded the German government that their only chance for a fair peace was to be found through the United States. Because of Wilson's insistence on a democratic government, William II found himself forced to sign a decree granting a parliamentary government on the British lines. A liberal, Prince Max of Baden, was appointed Chancellor and the Social Democrats entered the ministry to join the Liberals and Centrists in forming a peace cabinet. The President of the United States was informed that a government of the "people" was ready to seek a cease fire and negotiations began.
The British and French leaders, who had never accepted Wilson's Fourteen Points were outraged. They believed they were going to be cheated out of the fruits of their victory at the last moment.* The French still hoped to carry off the German Rhineland and the British were determined to "squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak."* They had no wish to negotiate. They were determined to dictate.
Because of Allied pressure, and fears that Germany might use a cease fire to rebuild its shattered forces, Wilson's terms for an armistice were stern. On October 16 he demanded that all German submarine operations cease immediately and unconditionally (which would allow the Allies to improve their war situation while offering no offsetting conditions whatever to the Germans). Ludendorff, consequently, had a change of heart and wanted to reject the proposal. Even the eminent German, Walter Rathenau (Jewish industrialist & statesman) suggested a "'levee en masse'" so as to continue the war.* The new government, on the other hand, felt that further resistance would make matters worse and on October 20, agreed to Wilson's conditions. The subs were called off. Three day later, however, it became apparent that Wilson wanted more. He was determined to destroy the German monarchy and made it plain in a note that he and his democratic Allies "do not and cannot trust the word of those ["military masters and the monarchical autocrats"]* who have hitherto been the masters of German policy."*
Wilson's note was the death knell of the German monarchy. When Ludendorff and Hindenburg were presented with the new condition they were outraged. They reevaluated their position on the battlefront and, as with their own offensive a few months before, saw that the Allied offensive was also winding down. Although the Germans had been pushed back as much as forty miles from the Hindenburg Line, the German field commanders had not panicked "even while the country behind them collapsed into chaos."* With the German line still holding on French and Belgium territory, it now appeared possible to continue with a solid defense until an "unconditional armistice," as Ludendorff wanted, could be worked out. On October 24, a telegram was sent to all army group commanders denouncing the terms demanded by Wilson and ordering the troops to stand and fight to the finish. The new German government, however, was so fearful that Wilson might call off the negotiations that they rejected the idea of further resistance. There were also those who felt that if Ludendorff was dismissed, Wilson might be satisfied and the Kaiser might survive the war. On October 27, Ludendorff was forced to resign although von Hindenburg had been more insistent on continuing the fighting and had written and signed the last "stand and fight" telegram.
By now Germany was in complete chaos and the entire country began to dissolve. Wilson's notes and speeches fed the revolutionary fervor and inspired the more radical Socialists and Communists. They saw the country as up for grabs to any party that could forcibly take it. Propaganda and revolutionary agitation reached new heights. Two days after Ludendorff resigned, Turkey withdrew from the war and the German navy, which was bottled up in the Black Sea, joined the revolutionaries. As in Russia the previous year, Communists, Independent Socialists and their sympathizers had spent months organizing secret action committees of sailors and stokers on ships. Before the mutiny was over only one ship, the Koenig, failed to raise the red flag. The mutinous sailors forced a return to Kiel, the country's largest naval port, and went ashore to join thousands of other navy personnel and shipyard workers. Organized into Workers and Soldiers Councils, "on the approved Russia lines,"* they began a takeover of the city. Officers were locked up or killed, armories were looted, and the food supply was brought under their control. Most of the troops sent to suppress the uprising, deserted or joined it. By November 3, the Reds had the city firmly under their control.
Thus was sounded the first military trumpet blast for armed revolution. Communist and Socialist deserters and workers now moved inland and used the roads and waterways to smuggle revolutionary propaganda throughout Germany. Activists and saboteurs went into action and sank cement barges in canals to block the transport of war materials to the front. Political agitators at the front and at home openly preached armed rebellion.
With the police watching closely for dissenters, the Socialists organized school boys to disrupt patriotic meetings with itching powder or stink bombs and to sabotage the collections of metal, glass and other collections that helped in the war effort. The children were taught to draw caricatures of the Kaiser hanging from the gallows. Stones and dead rats were hurled at policemen and police stations. Disrespect for law was condoned. One of the favorite songs taught to Socialist children was:
Soldiers', Sailors' and Workers' Councils were formed throughout North Germany and revolution broke out on a large scale. The naval revolt soon spread on to Wilhelmshaven, the second largest port, then to Lubeck and Bremen. In Hamburg, Germany's second largest city (and the most Red), sailors and workers were joined by army reservists. Officers were overwhelmed and murdered for almost no reason. Policemen directing traffic or trying to keep people from riding on the sides of streetcars were beaten or killed. Within a few days all the ports on the North and Baltic Seas were under the red flag. Hitler, who was still recovering in the Hospital at Pasewalk, not far from the Baltic, would write:
Revolution also swept Austria-Hungary. Vienna became a hot bed of Socialist unrest and rebellion. Street battles between the Marxists and the Catholic right were fought every day. Mutinous troops on the front with Italy blew up ammunition dumps and so disrupted military morale that when the Italians, with British help, launched an offensive it succeeded as never before. Within a few days they nearly pushed the Austrians completely out of Italy and were soon bombing Munich from the air.
Austria had also asked Wilson for a cease fire on the terms of his Fourteen Points but Wilson refused since he had already urged the Czechs, Poles, South Slavs, and Rumanians to free themselves from "monarchical autocrats" and gain independence. His refusal was the signal for all out revolt. The 635 year old Hapsburg ruling house toppled and the empire fragmented into "republics." By November 4, the former "oppressed nationalities" became Allies. Germany stood alone.
On Nov 7, one year after the Communists seized Russia, revolution swept through all parts of Germany. Using the date as inspiration, Communists and Socialists, with the help of workers and soldiers (who seldom knew whose cart they were pulling), took control as government after government collapsed throughout the cities of Germany. The "red rag," as Hitler called it, went up in Hanover, Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart.
In Hitler's adopted city of Munich, a Jew named Kurt Eisner, an Independent Socialist and a drama critic by trade (who had spent nine months in prison for his wartime strike activities), led an insurrection. By dusk his supporters had seized every major military post, hoisted their red flag and proclaimed a new Reich--a Bavarian People's Republic. It was to be, as Eisner saw it, a "Reich of light, beauty, and reason," a "communism of the spirit."* Hitler saw it a different way and wrote: "I could not imagine that the lunacy would break out in Munich also."*
With all-out civil war threatening and its southern flank nearly unprotected, the German government held that it had no other choice but to agree with any Allied and American demands. On the evening of November 7, a government Armistice Commission, deliberately lacking any military representatives who might raise difficulties and prolong the talks, crossed the fighting line to begin negotiations.
It soon became apparent that Ludendorff's dismissal was not enough and the negotiations stalled. Because of "Wilsonian propaganda"* the Kaiser was regarded as an obstacle to peace and the new German government was led to believe that they could obtain speedier and better terms if Germany became a "republic."* Socialists in the government threatened to withdraw and end the government's representative nature unless the Kaiser stepped down.* William II had no choice and his abdication was announced on November ninth. Prince Max handed over his post as Reich Chancellor to Friedrich Ebert the head of the Social Democrats.
Ebert, as head of the new Socialist Government, was immediately confronted with a major problem. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg had united with elements of the Independent Socialists and along with Soldiers and Workers Councils succeeded in capturing a few posts and buildings in Berlin. Liebknecht was about "to proclaim a German Soviet Republic on Lenin's [and Trotsky's] model."* Ebert wanted no part of Liebknecht's Red Republic and while he sat in the Reichstag building pondering what to do, one of his assistants, believing the Social Democrats had to show they were in charge, quickly stepped outside and proclaimed a "German Republic." Wilson and his supporters finally got what they wanted. So ended the Second Reich of the Hohenzollern kings which Bismarck had pulled together in 1871 and which brought Germany to the forefront of the worlds greatest powers in not only military strength but social progress. The next day, on November 10, in a special train in the Compiegne Forest in France, the triumphant "democracies" finally agreed to an armistice.(Because of formalities the slaughter at the front would not stop till 11 a.m. (French time) the following day.)
Although much of Hitler's eyesight had returned by this time, he was not able to read newspapers and was exposed to more rumors than ever. He knew however, that the end was near for, as he wrote: "Even in the hospital, people were discussing the end of the War which they hoped would come soon, but no one counted on anything immediate."*
"On November 10," he would later write, "the [local] pastor came into the hospital for a short address....In utmost excitement I, too, was present during the short speech. The dignified old gentleman seemed to tremble very much when he told us that now the house of Hohenzollern was no longer allowed to wear the German imperial crown, that the country had now become a 'Republic'....the War was lost..."*
Hitler was crushed. Although he knew the loss was coming, the news that the Kaiser had been ousted was a complete shock. The reign of William II had begun the year before Hitler was born and William signified Germany. To the small group assembled at the hospital, William's resignation brought about the "deepest depression." As Hitler would write: "I believe that not one eye was able to hold back the tears."* That the Kaiser had been replaced by Marxists, had to Hitler, no justification.* Like most people of his day who did not support Marxists ideology, Hitler saw the Social Democrats, Independent Socialists and the Communists as one and the same. He believed that this "gang of despicable and depraved criminals" had fomented revolution and sacrificed the lives of "two millions," and "the Germany of the past" for no other reason than "to lay hands on the Fatherland."* As he summed up his beliefs:
"Something clicked in the Pasewalk Hospital"* and Hitler found an outlet for his hate. To Hitler, "Marxism" became "synonymous with 'Jewry,'"* and his "deadly hate for 'the Jew'...can be dated quite precisely from his hospitalization of October-November 1918."*
Because of heavy Jewish participation in the Socialist and Communist parties of Russia, Austria and Germany, large number of Jews held leadership roles in the Marxist movements. As Heiden (who's mother was Jewish) pointed out: "The relatively high percentage of Jews in the leadership of the Socialists parties on the European continent cannot be denied."* Joachim Fest also notes: "It is characteristic of a minority outcast for generations that it will incline toward rebellion and dreaming of utopias. Thus Jewish intellectuals had indeed flung themselves into the socialist movement and became its leaders."* The heavy Jewish involvement in the revolution had a tendency to turn many Germans, who were indifferent or even benevolent to the Jewish cause, against the Jews. Anti-Jewish fervor was spreading all over Germany. "Hitler was only one among millions of other patriots who learned to fear Jews and Reds (almost as a single unity) during this period."*
Although many historians like to state that Hitler was a Jew hater during and before the war, the evidence is to the contrary. His comrades at the front, including Schmidt, never heard Hitler make any serious anti-Jewish remarks.* In discussions with his other messenger friend, Westenkirchner, about the great influence the Jews had in Vienna politics, Hitler never spoke about it with "spitefulness,"* even though Vienna was one of the first places where strikes broke out against the war and which had a large Jewish participation. As for other people, like Hans Mend, who accused Hitler of being anti-Semitic during the war, their comments came much later when they had some political advantage to gain.* The only reliable negative comment Hitler ever made to his comrades about the Jews during the war concerned a Jewish telephone operator named Stein whom Hitler considered not too bright and said: "If all Jews were no more intelligent than Stein, then there wouldn't be trouble."* Such a statement shows that Hitler was well aware of the large part that Jews played in the leadership of the Socialists and Communists parties. He, nonetheless, did not single out the Jews at that point or rail against them. As Lieutenant Wiedemann stated later: "It really seems impossible for me to believe that Hitler's hatred for Jews dated back to that time."* As Dr. Rudolph Binion wrote: "On balance, the evidence that he was not an anti-Semite until after World War I, despite his own account in Mein Kampf, is compelling."* Hitler also served side by side with Jewish soldiers and was often under Jewish officers; yet, no one of Jewish decent ever came forward to state that Hitler was "anti-Semitic" during the war. Hugo Gutmann, the officer who initiated and presented Hitler with his Iron Cross First Class was a Jew.**
Besides the ousting of William II, there were two other incidents of Jewish involvement in the revolution that also triggered Hitler's "hate."
The first, was the day Red soldiers raised their "rag" over the hospital. Hitler is literally dripping with hate as he recounts further:
That both Rosa and Karl were Jewish and were the two most visible persons behind the revolt in Berlin only heightened his hate. Hitler considered Karl to be nothing but a "shirker"* and, like those associated with Karl, "ripe for the rope."*
The second incident, and the one that Hitler would never forget, was Kurt Eisner's takeover of Hitler's adopted state of Bavaria and the setting up of the "Jew-Republic" as many Germans and Hitler called it. "The loyalty towards the honorable... [old government] seemed to me to be stronger than the will of a few Jews," he would later write.* He considered the act "high treason" and would also write: "It was the duty of a prudent government...to root out without pity the instigators....If the best were killed on the front, then one could at least destroy the vermin at home."*
To Hitler the "instigators" were the "Jews," and the vermin was: "Marxism, the ultimate aim of which was and will always be the destruction of all non-Jewish national States."* As Hitler summed up his feelings: "With the Jews there is no bargaining, but only the hard either--or."* Hitler would always "remember a Jewess who wrote" at the time in the Bayrischer Kurier:* "'What Eisner's doing now will recoil upon our heads.'" Twenty-four years later (Jan.31,1942), shortly before the first gas chambers went into operation, as Hitler repeated the women's words, he could not resist adding: "A rare case of foresight."*
Nine days after the war ended most of Hitler's eyesight had returned and he was discharged from the hospital. He was twenty-nine years old and had spent the last four years under some of the worst conditions ever known in warfare. Of the millions of German young men who had marched off so confidently to do battle for the Fatherland, nearly two million were killed in action or would later die of wounds. Germany's allies: Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria, lost an additional million and a half troops while the Allies lost nearly five million. Three million more on both sides were reported as "missing" since enough pieces of them were never found. Four million others were totally disabled either physically or mentally while another sixteen million suffered wounds of one degree or another. It was the most indiscriminate slaughter that ever occurred on the earth. Hitler, who had roamed where the bullets and shells flew the thickest, was spared. The gas would slowly vanish from his lungs and eyes, but its traces would remain. "A strange hoarseness of the voice" was "an inheritance the war...left to Adolf Hitler."*
Footnotes: (One asterisk is for a footnote, two asterisks are for additional information.)