Adolf Hitler and “the luck of the devil”

Adolf Hitler and “the luck of the devil”


Figure 1 – A 1943 poster that uses a 1938 image of Hitler. Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Ian Kershaw’s masterful two volume biography of Adolf Hitler was published in 1998 and 2000. In 2002, Kershaw was knighted for “services to History.”[1] His chapter on the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government is titled “Luck of the Devil.”[2] Although Hitler in a speech that night to the German people thrice credited his survival to Providence, Kershaw says it wasn’t Providence “but luck: the luck of the devil.”[3] Is this phrase simply a colourful metaphor or is Kershaw, in a striking move for an academic, hinting at an intervention opposite that of Providence?

Hans Bernd Gisevius, a long-time member of the German resistance who was attached to the Abwehr, German military intelligence, at the start of the Second World War, provides a striking answer. His 1946 memoir, To The Bitter End, was republished in abridged form in 2008 under the title Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler. These books provided much of the basis for the 2008 movie Valkyrie.[4] In the epilogue of his original memoir, Gisevius writes: “I do literally believe in daemonic evil forces.”[5]

Hitler’s luck—or his apparent immunity to death—was on repeated display during the First World War, according to Charles Bracelen Flood. He says Hitler was on the German front lines for forty-five months and participated in three dozen major battles.[6]

Nearly all Hitler biographers maintain that the war changed his life. A homeless failure in Vienna in 1913, he moved to Munich, joined the German army,[7] and quickly found success when the war began. His superiors thought highly of him, Kershaw notes.[8] He was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, in December 1914, and, in August 1918, the Iron Cross, First Class, “an uncommon decoration for a corporal,” another biographer, Alan Bullock, writes.[9] Hitler said he “passionately loved soldiering” and in Mein Kampf, his polemical autobiography, he described his war experience as “the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence.”[10]

A more recent biography, Hitler’s First War, published in 2010 by Dr. Thomas Weber, an Aberdeen University historian, is based on new research and comes to some different conclusions. For example, as reported by The Guardian, Weber contends that the Iron Cross, First Class, “was often received by those in contact with more senior officers”; Hitler had such contact. Weber also calls into question (again in the words of The Guardian) “Hitler’s supposedly brave war record.”[11]

Hitler was promoted to corporal effective November 1, 1914, in the aftermath of what Flood terms “the bloodiest possible baptism of fire” on October 29th.[12] This took place at Ypres, in Flanders, where Hitler spent almost half the war.[13] In letters from the front, he reported on “bloody hand-to-hand fighting”[14] and remarked that after four days his regiment of 3,600 men had been reduced to 611.[15]

Flood says Hitler “experienced an eternity of combat.” In a letter, Hitler observed that he was one of only two men who remained alive in his section. Then there was only him. A bullet tore off his right sleeve “but miraculously I remained unwounded.”[16]

Owing to fog and misidentification, some of the losses sustained by Hitler’s regiment during the morning hours of October 29th were due to “friendly fire.” Hitler and another private volunteered to cross dangerous terrain and return to regimental headquarters to get their side to stop firing. They succeeded. As a result, Hitler and the other private became dispatch runners based at staff headquarters.[17]

Hitler never mentions this in Mein Kampf, leaving the impression he “spent the war in the trenches.” Kershaw adds that conditions at staff headquarters “were greatly better” than the trenches.[18] Weber agrees. The Guardian, summarizing key Weber conclusions, notes that previous “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.”[19]

Described as a combination “tent and dugout,” regimental HQ was not without its dangers, however. On November 17, 1914, Hitler had been inside, but he and three other runners departed to make room when four company commanders arrived for a meeting. He recalled in a letter eleven weeks later that they had been outside less than five minutes when a shell struck the tent, killing or wounding the remainder of the HQ staff.[20] Much later, Hitler claimed, with what Kershaw calls “characteristic embellishment,” that “an inner voice as clear as a military command [told] him to leave the trench immediately.”[21] What is indisputable, however, is that the day before this event half of the regiment’s eight runners were lost: three killed, one badly wounded.[22]

That Christmas there was talk of fraternizing with British soldiers in “no-man’s-land… during a truce.” Hitler bitterly opposed the idea. Yet when British pilots crashed behind German lines, he regularly attended their funerals.[23] In the spring of 1916, he wrote a poem, which he said was based on “a true event” in the Artois Forest. The poem describes an encounter between a German soldier and a French soldier who are both responding to the cries of “a wounded German warrior.” The soldiers join hands to carry the injured man to safety. These are “sacred hours” the German soldier says before telling the French soldier, “God be with you!”[24]

Figure 2 – Hitler (far left) and other First World War German soldiers. Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1916, Hitler was on the Somme where German regiments sent out six runners with the same message, upping the chance one would get through.[25] It was not long before he was wounded in the left thigh, but it did not happen while on dispatch duty. Rather several runners were killed or wounded when a shell hit their quarters.[26] Hitler was out of action for two months, but once recovered, he sought and received an expedited return to the front. His keenness was such that he took “only a fraction” of the leave to which he was entitled.[27]

Hitler was injured again during the last month of the war. His regiment was back at Ypres. It was evening and rations were being handed out when English shells, some with chlorine gas, started to rain down. Many, including Hitler, breathed some of the gas before they got their masks on. Later, Hitler could not talk or see.[28] Mein Kampf recalls his “eyes had turned into glowing coals.”[29] The next day, those partly or totally gas-blinded “held on to the coattails of the man ahead,” a comrade said. They made their way “single file to Linnselle,” where they received first aid.[30]

Hitler was known as “Adi” to his mates. Described as “utterly fanatical” about the German war effort, he was easily provoked by “defeatist comments, real or contrived.” Kershaw tells us Hitler’s last words on such occasions invariably were, “For us the war can’t be lost.”[31] But it was lost. The virulent antisemitism he had absorbed in Vienna before the war became “unbounded hatred … after 1918.”[32]

“And so it had all been in vain,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, recalling the time when he was recovering his sight. “The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery? … In these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible…. There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard: either-or.

“I, for my part, decided to go into politics.”[33]

Weber disputes Hitler’s reconstruction of his life and views during this period. According to The Guardian, he contends that Hitler did not become “violently nationalist and antisemitic [until] after Germany’s postwar and post-revolutionary economic and political crisis.”[34]

Germany’s postwar circumstances were made to order for the future German Chancellor. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles was, according to German historian Joachim Fest, “dictated by hypocrisy, vindictiveness, and shortsightedness.” He adds that the singular figure of Hitler, who “decisively put in motion the events that followed,” “knew like no one else, how to mobilize the nation, crossing all barriers by exploiting the widespread feeling of national humiliation growing out of the Versailles Treaty.”[35]

Hitler first gained national attention with the failed Munich beerhall putsch of November 9, 1923, which saw fourteen putschists and four policemen killed. One of the dead putschists had been arm-in-arm with Hitler when he was shot. Had the bullet that struck him “been a foot to the right,” Kershaw notes, “history would have taken a different course.”[36]

The first of Mein Kampf’s two volumes is dedicated to the Nazis who fell on November 9th, which became the most venerated day in the Nazi calendar. Hitler personally attended the celebration in Munich every November through 1943.[37] In 1939, had he followed his usual practice of speaking from 8 to 10 p.m., he would have been killed. A bomb planted by a lone assassin, George Elser, a carpenter dedicated to the elimination of the bellicose Führer, exploded at 9:20. Prepared and set in place with great care and precision, it killed eight and injured sixty-three, sixteen seriously.[38]

Despite his deadly agenda, Elser was not a newshound and was unaware that Hitler’s normally firm schedule for the November 8 celebration had become unsettled. Owing to intensive planning for the German offensive in the West, which was repeatedly postponed due to bad weather, the Führer at first withdrew from the November 8 festivities, but then reconsidered and, on the 7th, announced he would participate. What wasn’t said was that his speech would be half as long as usual, finishing at 9:07, so he could catch the 9:31 train to Berlin.[39] According to Kershaw, Elser came “within a whisker of sending Hitler into oblivion.” Germany’s leader had left the building about ten minutes before the bomb exploded.[40]

This was another occasion when Hitler declared that “an inner voice had repeatedly told him [during his speech]: ‘Get out! Get out!’”; another occasion when he believed “providence had saved him”; another occasion that illustrates, as Gisevius writes, “the obsessive ideas to which Hitler was subject.”[41] Or, as Fest observes, “Hitler’s determination to take his visions—a strange mixture of fantasy and ice-cold calculation—literally.”[42]

Less than a month before, at a meeting on October 17th, following the subjugation of Poland, Hitler spoke about “a hard ethnic struggle” and not being bound by “legal restrictions” or “our normal principles.” He referred to it as “The devil’s work.”[43]

It was because of the barbarism that resulted from this and the view that Hitler’s plans for war with the West would result in catastrophe for Germany that Elser was not the only one who wanted to assassinate the Führer in 1939. Several loosely connected opposition groups—one in the Abwehr, another in the Foreign Ministry, a third around Carl Goerdeler (former Reich Price Commissioner and former Mayor of Leipzig) and General Ludwig Beck (former Chief of the General Staff)—also wanted to depose Hitler. But his stunning military successes in 1940 and through the spring of 1941 forestalled assassination attempts until after the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943.[44]

Two such attempts occurred in March 1943. The first was on the 13th when a bomb was smuggled onto Hitler’s plane and set to go off during a flight from Smolensk to Rastenburg. While Kershaw says the “intense cold” probably prevented detonation, Gisevius remarks that “Hitler’s guardian devil… would not let the tiny percussion-cap function.”[45] The second attempt took place at the “Heroes’ Memorial Day” on the 21st in Berlin when Hitler was expected to spend thirty minutes at an exhibition of war-booty captured in the Soviet Union. Once again, however, Hitler changed his past pattern and was in and out of the exhibition “within two minutes.” Rudolph Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorf, the professional soldier who held the bomb, had activated a ten-minute fuse when Hitler entered the exhibit. Von Gersdorf, who had been prepared to die when the bomb exploded, managed to defuse it in a washroom after Hitler’s early departure.[46]

Although seven other attempts were contemplated, the final one to be acted upon, July 20, 1944, is the most famous. Gisevius maintains they left it “too late”; several members of the German resistance had been arrested and the war’s outcome was all but certain. Yet, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, now the lead conspirator, would have “Almost certainly” succeeded in killing everyone in the wooden briefing hut at Hitler’s East Prussia headquarters, Wolf’s Lair, had he been able to use both bombs he had with him. But he and his adjutant were too rushed to do so.[47]

“Death surrounded Hitler for more than a thousand days [during 1914-1918], and the ways in which he avoided it were remarkable,” writes Flood.[48] Speaking of the aborted March 21, 1943 assassination attempt, Kershaw observes, “Once again, astonishing luck had accompanied Hitler.”[49]

Once, during the First World War, when “Hitler reappeared through the smoke of a battlefield where thousands were dying,” a comrade remarked, “Man, for you there is no bullet!” The future Führer’s only reply was a grin.[50]

In the end, Hitler died by his own hand.[51] According to James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code, “Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation.”[52]

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. “Ian Kershaw,” Wikipedia – accessed April 8, 2021.
  2. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Penguin, 2000, 86 (“a conspiracy that would nearly take Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944.”).
  3. Ibid., 684.
  4. The section of the Wikipedia article “Valkyrie (film)” that deals with “Historical accuracy” states that the “filmmakers had access to much documentation” from the Gestapo’s thorough investigation of the July 20 plot – – accessed August 6, 2019 and June 26, 2021.
  5. Hans Bernd Gisevius, To The Bitter End, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947, 605. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Originally published in Germany in 1946.
  6. Charles Bracelen Flood (1985), “Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler on the Western Front, 1914-1918,” The Kentucky Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, Article 2, 9.
  7. Flood, 3, 18-19.
  8. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, Penguin, 1998, 92.
  9. Flood, 8, 13. Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Penguin, 1952, revised 1962, 52 (uncommon decoration; August 1918).
  10. Hitler quoted in Flood, 8. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (translated by Ralph Manheim), Houghton Mifflin, 1943 (copyright renewed 1971), 163.
  11. Dalya Alberge, “Adolf Hitler a war hero? Anything but, said first world war comrades,” The Guardian, August 16, 2010 – – accessed July 5, 2021.
  12. Flood, 5.
  13. Kershaw, Hubris, 91.
  14. Hitler quoted in Flood, 6.
  15. Kershaw, Hubris, 90.
  16. Hitler quoted in Flood, 6.
  17. Flood, 5, 7.
  18. Kershaw, Hubris, 91.
  19. Alberge.
  20. Flood, 7-8. Kershaw, Hubris, 91-92 (date).
  21. Hitler quoted in Kershaw, Hubris, 634, footnote 111. Flood, 10.
  22. Flood, 7.
  23. Ibid., 12.
  24. Ibid., 17-18.
  25. Ibid., 9
  26. Kershaw, Hubris, 94-95.
  27. Flood, 12. Kershaw, Hubris, 95 (two months).
  28. Flood, 20-21.
  29. Hitler, 202.
  30. Quoted in Flood, 21.
  31. Hitler quoted in Kershaw, Hubris, 92-93.
  32. Kershaw, Hubris, 94.
  33. Hitler, 204-206.
  34. Alberge.
  35. Joachim Fest, Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 37, 38, 40.
  36. Kershaw, Hubris, 211.
  37. Kershaw, Nemesis, 739,606.
  38. Ibid., 271-273.
  39. Ibid., 269-273.
  40. Ibid., 656, 273.
  41. Gisevius, 410.
  42. Fest, 40.
  43. Hitler quoted in Kershaw, Nemesis, 245-246.
  44. Kershaw, Nemesis, 19, 262, 263, 268, 660-666.
  45. Ibid., 661-662. Gisevius, 469.
  46. Kershaw, Nemesis, 659-663.
  47. Gisevius, 489. Kershaw, Nemesis, 667-684.
  48. Flood, 10.
  49. Kershaw, Nemesis, 663.
  50. Quoted in Flood, 10.
  51. Kershaw, Nemesis, 827, 828.
  52. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Warner Books, 1996, 245-246.


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