The sounds of battle and scenes of death were muted and shut out momentarily as he entered the bunker’s chamber and confronted Major Rolf. Unlike the ordinary soldiers and noncoms sitting in the open trenches, the officers of the Second Reich had cozy dugouts burrowed deeply into the ground, making their headquarters nearly bombproof and watertight. Even so, the courier thought as he handed the major his dispatch, the chamber, which had only a ladder to climb down and no other air vents but the opening on top, was dreary, stifling and filled with bad air. He gave the major a belated salute and mumbled his name. Two young lieutenants sat at the table with Colonel Rolf, casting the courier haunted, despairing looks as he stood their waiting for the major to respond. Rolf, despite the battering his regiment was taking, seemed utterly exhausted and beyond caring about the affairs of the war. Wondering if the major ha simply not heard his name, the courier, snapped to attention smartly, gave his best salute this time and announced in a loud voice: “Corporal Adolph Hitler, First Battalion of the Bavarian Regiment.”
“You don’t have to shout corporal,” snorted major Rolf, motioning for the courier to sit down.
As the major sat there staring at the unread dispatch, a mug of coffee clutched in his trembling hand, Corporal Hitler, his uniform and boots caked with mud, remained at attention. A lock of sweat-drenched chestnut hair was plastered on his forehead. Two piercing brown eyes blinked with confusion through his grimy, haggard face. The Chaplinesque moustache over his lip, the only part of his face not covered with grime, quivered as he looked, with silent disapproval, down at the other men. In the distance, beyond the walls of the dugout, came the familiar racket of machine gun fire and occasional cannon fire indicating that German or Allied troops were on the move. When Rolf looked up from the dispatch, he seemed to study the corporal. A snarl played on his bristly face, as if he did not seem to like what he saw.
“Hitler, did you say? I knew a Hitler,” he muttered to himself, “but that’s an Austrian name, isn’t it? You’re awfully dark for a German and much too short. Why would an Austrian be mixed up in that Bavarian bunch?”
“Austrian the name, German the heart,” chirped Adolph, unshaken by his disdain.
“How glib, how very glib,” sneered Rolf. “Did I not tell you to sit down?”
Uncomfortable with this lack of military decorum, Adolph sat down on the chair across from the major after one of the two young lieutenants relinquished his chair. The young lieutenant walked dejectedly across the room and fell heavily into his bunk.
“Do you have any idea what your regiment is asking me to do?” Rolf growled miserably, as he scanned the dispatch.
“No, I don’t sir,” Adolph replied stiffly, looking off into space.
“Look at me!” Rolf slammed his mug down, the coffee spilling all over the dispatch. “What is the matter with you Corporal Hitler? Are you addled? Certainly you have an opinion about this damn war!”
“.... Sir, I think this is a glorious war,” Adolf confessed shakily but with great passion. “I-I’m honored to serve the Fatherland. Germany has a great destiny to fulfill!”
“Glorious war?… Honored to serve the Fatherland?... What drivel!” spat Rolf, looking around at his lieutenants. “Is this dirty little corporal stupid or just plain mad?”
The lieutenant still sitting at the table gave him a deadpan look. The lieutenant suffering from battle fatigue lie in his bunk, staring up at the bottom of the bunk above.
“Listen Herr Hitler,” Rolf reached over and tapped Adolph’s helmet. “Haven’t you heard? We’re losing this war!”
“Sir, I’ve heard no such thing!” Adolph was becoming irritated with major Rolf.
“Yes, it’s true,” Rolf nodded, “and let me tell you why.”
Whether Corporal Hitler liked it or not, he was given a lecture by Rolf on where Germany had gone wrong, which included a concise outline of the evils of trench warfare as well as the causes of this unfortunate war.
According to Major Rolf, General Moltke was a moron for entrenching his army so close to the Marne. The commanding general had placed his troops in a hopeless situation. Corporal Hitler found the major’s disrespect for a superior officer disconcerting. By now, however, he was not surprised with the attitude he found in the bunker. He would never learn the details of the dispatch, and, at this point, he didn’t care. With his satchel slung over his arm with Rolf’s crude response crammed inside, Corporal Hitler saluted the major and mumbled something only he could hear: “Goodbye, good riddance” He felt only contempt for the major and his weak-kneed lieutenants, but he would not dare report the treasonous talk he had heard this hour. There was enough defeatism on the Western Front without adding to it now.
On the way back to headquarters, to avoid running the gauntlet of fire, Hitler made a fateful decision. Using the German trench as cover until it ended at the forest’s edge, he slipped over the wall, skirted the Marne River, and then crept into the nearby woods. The trail he had used earlier through a farmer’s field was too dangerous. With his sachel now empty and his spirits low, he had but one concern: survive this day. As a courier constantly in the line of fire, his life could be ended any moment. He really wasn’t surprised with Major Rolf’s attitude. In his own headquarters he seen similar despair. Rolf was typical of many officers joining the war effort—men who left their jobs as bankers, lawyers, and businessmen to serve the Fatherland. When the sheen of glory faded, they gave up, wishing to return to their civilian lives. The true professionals such as Moltke were seasoned veterans and life long soldiers, who had no misconceptions about war. Instead of belaboring a few defeats, they looked ahead to the final victory; there could be no room for doubt. Like Rolf and the other defeatists, he wasn’t sure of the outcome, himself. Just this morning, as he entered Major Rolf’s bunker, his spirits had been high. A few words from that beaten down fellow and his confidence plunged. This hour, after hearing such defeatism again and this time from a front line officer, the cold fingers of doubt crept into his mind. If the current battle was lost, what would be the outcome of this war? In a split second a snipers bullet could end his life, and he would never know. His belief in the Second Reich and Kaiser Wilhelm had been his strength. This had kept him going. Had he been in denial all this time? Had his optimism been based on blind faith, not logic or reason. Germany was fighting two fronts now against four countries: England, France, Russia, and the United States. Miraculously, against overwhelming odds, they were winning in the East against the Bolsheviks, but here on their Western front in their own backyard, if the rumors were true, they were losing…. How was this possible after such a glorious start? Adolf thought, as negotiated the path. Such victorious beginning was being marred by poor leadership—the Rolfs in the army but also by the spirit of men…Men who wanted to be home with their wives, family, parents, and jobs. Men who had given up hope in Germany’s future…Men like Major Rolf!
He was exhausted and ready to drop, but if he lie down on the ground this moment he would sleep for hours. It was all he could do to move his feet—the thought of the warm interior of headquarters egging him on. Suddenly, he heard voices ahead. To his horror he realized was no longer in the woods. He was out in the open. Directly ahead was a bridge, much smaller than the one he crossed near the farmer’s field. Normally, at this leg of journey, he would make a dash across the planks to reach the forest on the other side, but he had stumbled through the woods like blind man this time. Somewhere back on the trail, he lost his concentration. He had been careless. Fatigue had dulled his senses. It was as if he had been sleepwalking. Now, after a short nap, he had stumbled into a nightmare. Down a ways, on the other side of the stream, men were busily smashing planks to make the bridge impassable. The rushing water would make it difficult to cross. Unlike the river in back of him, it was but a small tributary, easily sabotaged. Dynamite was out of the question this close to the enemy lines. For such a small enterprise, they risked exposure, capture or death. These were bold fellows to be so close to German lines. Busy with their work, they hadn’t spotted him yet. So far, the thought raced through his head, his luck held. Frozen momentarily on the path, he looked around, looking for an avenue of escape. If he ran back toward the woods, one of them might look up and shoot him dead or chase him down, and bayonet him to death. All he could think of doing was duck into the bush on the embankment and wait it out. Hopefully, after they finished their task, they would just leave, leaving him stranded on the other side. Unless he found another bridge, he would have to forge the stream. At that moment, the thought carried from Major’s Rolf’s bunker consumed him: All that mattered was to stay alive.
During his ordeal, he felt like a fugitive. How long would he have to wait? What if they strolled down the stream’s edge and saw him hiding in the brush? As he hunkered down, using his sachel as pillow against the brambles, the throes of sleep reach out to him. Blinking fiercely, he sat up, rubbed mud into his eyes, silently cursed his fate, and tried to pray. His catholic upbringing in Bavaria couldn’t help him nor the pious words of his mother that sounded like rubbish to him now. Hitler’s God was providence. His faith was in his own blind luck. Hearing a snap of twigs, that moment, he heard words he couldn’t understand. Rising up, with his hands in the air, it seemed his luck had run out.
The British soldier was saying in a low voice, “Eh, you’re a sorry sight. You been hiding in there long? Ho-ho, you look like one of me grandmother’s hogs.” “Here,” he snorted, pointing at his holster, “give me that pistol.” “Now lemme see that sachel,” he growled, snatching it from his hands. “Empty. Lucky for you it is. What was it, eh? You blokes planning on breaking out.” “What does it matter,” he scoffed tossing it back. “We got you blokes surrounded. We’re gonna hand your Kaiser on the nearest tree.”
Hitler had no knowledge of English. Knowing full well he wouldn’t understand him either, he replied in German, “Go ahead shoot me. I don’t care. You fools are behind enemy line—all for one puny bridge.”
Belying his words was the fearful certainty that he had of his future. Not believing this could have anything but a disastrous outcome, he lapsed into silence as the man turned and walked away. Surely, he would call his comrades, thought Hitler. He wouldn’t just let him go. This, however, is how it appeared, as he departed. It was too good to believe. The sound of his footsteps crushing the gravel were deafening to Hitler’s ears. Any moment, he expected him to report him to his comrades. They were, after all, the enemy and behind their lines. Why would he let him go?
“Get back in your hole,” the man called back irritably, “I killed me enough Germans today!”
Recognizing, in the wave of his hand, the signal of dismal, Hitler sighed deeply. Settling back into his nest, he waited for nearly an hour. Looking at his father’s watch, he counted the minutes. What just happened would strengthen his resolve. Right now he was just glad to be alive. Not believing in God or religion, in general, he believed in a shadowy providence. For him, every man had a destiny. For many, it would mean working and making money, raising a family, or becoming a criminal or parasite in society. Some, like himself, were luckier than others, for they had a purpose in the world. Luck had carried the corporal through the war so far. As quickly as it seemed his luck had ran out, it had returned. This time it saved his life.
While most men alter history by good or evil deeds, the British soldier changed its course not by what he did but by what he didn’t do. He didn’t put a bullet in the enemy soldier, stab him with his bayonet, or march him off as a prisoner back to his lines. He let him go, as if it was but a trifling event: the greatest monster in human history. Because of his charitable act, fifty million people would die. The entire world would be torn for six years by a devastating war.
For Corporal Adolf Hitler, of course, it was a fortuitous event—more of his good luck, and yet it was so much more. He regretted being tongue-tied and not properly thanking the man. Had the situation been reversed and he caught him hiding in a bush, he might have shot him dead. He had cheated death. Too weary to ponder heavily on his good fortune, he continued down the trail, unaware of its significance, and yet recording it later in his diary and one day toting it to his minions as proof that providence was on his side. The long, destructive path of his future remained unrealized in his soldier’s mind, and yet he was certain, because of those moments by the stream, he had a role in this world. The stream of history was with him. Germany would win, he told himself. He would live…. Someday he would make his mark on the world!