Hitler participated in several of the major battles along the Western Front, including Ypres. Ypres saw 40,000 men killed in 20 days. Hitler was decorated for bravery twice, winning both the iron cross second class and the iron cross first class - very unusual for such a low-ranking soldier. However, he was never promoted to full corporal because regimental command thought he lacked leadership skills.
Let me repeat that. Hitler was about 27 years old now, and he had not exhibited leadership skills.
Later in this series of posts I will contend that Hitler became a charismatic people magnet almost overnight. I believe I can show evidence to support that unlikely statement. But for now, remember that during the war, he didn't exhibit any of these talents.
Some have said he wasn't promoted simply because he wasn't (yet) a German citizen. I don't believe that. You can, if you want.
Although Hitler's job was dangerous, at least it brought him often to regimental headquarters. In between runs he worked on his artwork, drawing cartoons and illustrations for an army newspaper.
Eventually, Hitler's luck ran out and he was shot. This was in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, but he returned to the front in 1917. He was shot in the left thigh (some say "thigh" was a euphemism and that he was really shot in the groin, which might lend some credence as to why he never married until the end, or had children, and why he was never a ladies man. Just speculation. He was never a ladies man before the war either.) He received his wound badge later that year. His time at the front at least gave him some understanding of the military.
As the war was coming to a close, in October of 1918, Hitler was gassed. He was admitted to a field hospital, temporarily blinded by mustard gas. For the life of me, I can't make the connection, but Hitler was to say later it was during this time in the hospital waiting for his sight to return that he first became convinced that his life purpose was to "save Germany." Maybe YOU can figure out what the two things have to do with one another. I am more concerned that his gassing gave him the seed of an idea; in his book Mein Kampf there is a short passage that goes by quickly but makes me blink:
"At the beginning of the Great War, or even during the War, if twelve or fifteen thousand of these Jews who were corrupting the nation had been forced to submit to poison gas... then the millions of sacrifices made at the front would not have been in vain."
Historians say that Hitler's decision to mass exterminate Jews and other "undesireables" didn't happen until 1941, maybe even 1942. But Mein Kampf was written in 1925. You tell me.
When Germany surrendered in November of 1918, many Germans, including Hitler, felt betrayed by what they considered a backstabbing government, marxists and socialists and general traitors to Germany (they called these people who surrendered Germany before defeat the "November Criminals".) who caved in even though the army was not defeated, while they still held foreign territory, in fact. I think it is important to consider a great number of Germans were not loyal to this "government of betrayal" following the war; there was always an undercurrent of revolution, I think, with "underground" resistance groups and opposition political parties. I think history bears this out.
The Treaty of Versailles was brutal to Germany. They lost much of their territory. They lived under humiliating restrictions. The size of their army could not be more than 100,000 and their navy restricted to just a handful of ships. In other words, they couldn't fight back, no matter what the victors decided to do to them. They were levied an oppressive amount of war reparations, and when they could no longer pay, the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr (Germany's most productive industrial region) and, when strikes and protests ensued, France began killing the protestors. The treaty "re-created" Poland, which outraged even moderate Germans.
When the government began printing money to cover debts, hyper-inflation occurred and German money became worthless. At one time, they were printing 50-million mark notes. These were worth about $1 American for a while and then nothing. People used to write grocery lists on the backs of million mark notes - ironically, since they couldn't buy groceries. Soon it cost too much to print money.
In the above description, I am touching only on the highlights to give an overview of the German despair following WWI, and, admittedly, I am giving the point of view of the Germans who believed in the "stabbed-in-the-back" theory: Hitler and his friends, for example. Obviously the victors had a different point of view. The allies felt the German army was defeated (and it was, according to Western history books). France had suffered great damage and had lost 1.5 million dead, so they NEEDED reparations to rebuild.
As an American, I do not share the "stabbed-in-the-back" theory; I think Germany started the war and that its Empire and aristocracy got almost what it deserved. I say "almost" because the Kaiser spent his last days in comfort at his country estate in the Netherlands. But I write the account so you can see the way Hitler and thousands of other Germans felt.
Next: We learn a new word: Putsch.