Unpublished letters and a diary written by veterans of Hitler's wartime regiment are among newly unearthed documents that challenge previous notions about how the conflict shaped the future dictator's views.
The documents overturn Hitler's subsequent portrayal of his unit, the List regiment, as united in its intolerance and antisemitism, with Hitler "a hero at its heart". They challenge long-held views on Hitler's supposedly brave war record, revealing that frontline soldiers shunned him as a "rear area pig" based several miles from danger. The papers also disclose that List men saw Hitler as an object of ridicule, joking about him starving in a canned food factory, unable to open a tin with a bayonet. He was viewed by his comrades in regimental HQ as a loner, neither popular nor unpopular.
They noticed that he did not indulge in their favourite pastimes – letter-writing or drinking – but was instead often seen reading a political book or painting, earning him the sobriquet the "painter" or the "artist". He was also viewed as particularly submissive to his superiors.
Perhaps no other individual has been more scrutinised than Hitler, but research on the List regiment by Dr Thomas Weber, lecturer in modern history at Aberdeen University, has unearthed new evidence.
Within the Bavarian War Archives, Weber discovered papers undisturbed for almost nine decades. Elsewhere, he found unpublished letters and Nazi party membership files, and traced Jewish veterans of the List.
Hitler served as a runner but, armed with new evidence, Weber realised that historians had not distinguished between regimental runners, a relatively safe job, and battalion or company runners, who had to brave machine-gun fire between trenches. Hitler was the former, a runner at regimental HQ, several miles from the front, and living in relative comfort.
Weber concludes that Hitler, who worked for a leftist government after the war, became violently nationalist and antisemitic after Germany's postwar and post-revolutionary economic and political crisis.
His research will be published next month in Hitler's First War, by Oxford University Press.