A hundred years ago this week, in the early morning hours of Thursday, Oct. 29, 1914, the near-death of a frontline German soldier almost changed the course of 20th century history. That morning, Adolf Hitler, along with 3,000 other recruits of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, was rousted from his bivouac and hard-marched through beet fields and larch forests toward the British lines near the Ypres salient in southern Belgium.
The 16th RIR took casualties as it advanced. When two flanking German regiments, one Saxon and one Württemberg, mistook the Bavarians’ gray-green caps for British uniforms, the 16th RIR was butchered by friendly fire.
“From our entire company only one other was left besides me,” the 26-year-old recruit wrote to a friend in Munich afterward. “Finally he fell as well. A bullet tore off my entire coat sleeve but miraculously I remained healthy and whole.” It was Hitler’s first taste of battle.
Hitler barely escaped death again three weeks later when he and three other soldiers were ordered to leave a crowded tent where Iron Crosses were being awarded.
“We were outside for barely five minutes when a shell struck the tent,” Hitler wrote, “It was the most horrifying moment of my life.” He spent the next four years at the front dodging death, once taking shrapnel in the leg, once blinded by gas. It was one death too few in a war that claimed far too many.
But what if Hitler had fallen on that Thursday morning a century ago this week, or on any other day during those next four years of frontline fighting? How different might the 20th century have looked? How different might the course of German history have been? What utility is there in such “counterfactual history,” which the eminent British historian Richard Evans recently decried as misguided and futile?
Given the perilous political circumstances in some regions of our world today, understanding what could have been, may in fact help us better understand what might be.
In 1919, Hitler found himself in a country transitioning from an oppressive but stable monarchy to a fledgling constitutional democracy, a dynamic not unfamiliar to our post-Arab Spring world where countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have edged toward Western-style democracy with dramatically uneven experiences and occasionally horrifying results.
The first German experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic, tottered similarly between promise and peril, undergirded by a well-crafted Constitution, but savaged by political extremists on the left and the right. In Munich, Bolsheviks established the short-lived and chaotic Soviet Republic of Bavaria. Right-wing putschists briefly seized power in Berlin. Local militia called Freikorps, or Free Corps, roamed the countryside, killing with impunity. Germans slaughtered Germans in the streets.
“How are such things possible in a country that was once so orderly, that belonged to the leading cultural nations of our era, and that according to its Constitution is a free and democratic republic?” Emil Gumbel, a statistician and former colleague of Albert Einstein wondered in his 1922 study “Four Years of Political Murder.”
Gumbel blamed the surge in violence on the “psychological brutalization” of the recent war, as well as on a news media that glorified political killings, and a legal system that turned a blind eye to the public slaughter.
Paul von Hindenburg, a former field marshal and irredentist monarchist who was elected president in 1925, identified a more fundamental problem. A year into his second term, he decided that democratic rule did not really correspond to “the true needs of our people.” Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor in January 1933, with the expectation that the Nazi leader would crush the Communist threat, which Hitler did, that he would dismantle the democratic multiparty system, which he did, and that he would place Germany back on the road to monarchy.
For Hindenburg, the Nazis represented little more than a fascist means to a monarchical end. The aging president died in August 1934, leaving Germany in the hands of a fascist dictator.
“The Führer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment,” Hans Frank observed shortly before he was hanged at Nuremberg for complicity in Nazi crimes. “Had he come, let us say, 10 years later, when the republic was firmly established, it would have been impossible for him. And if he had come 10 years previously, or at any time when there was still the monarchy, he would have gotten nowhere. He came at exactly this terrible transitory period when the monarchy had gone and the republic was not yet secure.”
This was history’s perfect storm. Hitler seized the moment and plunged Germany and all of Europe full steam into catastrophe.
We can never know how different history may have looked had Hitler been felled by bullets that early morning a hundred years — whether the Weimar Republic could have survived the postwar political and economic turmoil, whether President Hindenburg would have successfully navigated his country back into monarchy, or whether Europe would have been spared a sequel to the Great War.
Some Germans were already speaking of a “second world war” within a year of the armistice that was to have ended “the war to end all wars.” We can say with certainty that no other political leader of the era would have harnessed national passions or driven an anti-Semitic, pure-race agenda with such ferocity or tragic consequence, resulting in the deaths of millions of European Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the weak and disabled.
So what is the lesson of this particular counterfactual moment for us today? Beyond the fact that the Weimar Republic might well be celebrating the 95th anniversary of its Constitution this autumn, a history without Hitler underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies. It shows us that these processes require time, sometimes generations, and how different German history may have been had Hitler fallen with his regiment in Flanders fields 100 years ago this week.
Timothy W. Ryback, the deputy director general of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris and a founder of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at Leiden University, is the author, most recently, of Hitler’s First Victims: The Quest for Justice.