World War I Centennial: Hitler Arrested for Dodging Austrian Draft
The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 99th installment in the series.
January 18, 1914: Hitler Arrested for Dodging Austrian Draft
On the cold afternoon of January 18, 1914, a German police detective paid a visit to a dingy, poorly heated apartment in Munich, where he surprised and apprehended one Adolf Hietler—Austrian, artist, age 24—who had fled the Hapsburg realm in May 1913 to avoid military service. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an agreement to repatriate draft dodgers, so Hitler (as he chose to spell his name) was arrested and taken to the Austrian consulate, where he was ordered to report to his hometown of Linz, Austria, for a fitness exam.
A moody, mercurial young man with a fanatical opposition to regular work habits, Hitler was determined to avoid the tedium of military drill and barracks life at all costs, and quite willing to lie if that’s what it took. Taking up pen and paper, he turned his rhetorical powers loose in a persuasive (if not entirely consistent) letter to the Austrian officials in charge of his fate, pleading poverty, ignorance, and extenuating circumstances.
Poverty was front and center: “The main reason making it impossible for me to honor your summons is that it has not been possible for me to muster the sum necessary for such a journey at such short notice…” With an eye on his audience, Hitler cleverly played on the economic grievances of middle class bureaucrats: “While it is true that I am earning my keep as a painter, I do so only since I am entirely without assets (my father was a government official)… Therefore my earnings are extremely modest, just sufficient for subsistence purposes.” Hitler also noted that he had been unaware that he was supposed to register for military service in 1909.
Beyond the obvious self-contradiction—he didn’t register because he was too poor, and also didn’t know he had to—Hitler’s letter was one long lie from top to bottom. First of all he wasn’t actually poor, having inherited legacies from both his parents as well as an aunt; he just chose to live in a dingy apartment because he was cheap and didn’t want to waste his time on a steady job. He also knew he was required to register for service—it would have been impossible not to know.
Most importantly, the real reason he wanted to avoid conscription (in addition to his general dislike of boring responsibility) was the multiethnic character of the Hapsburg army: Hitler despised Slavs and Jews and wasn’t too fond of Hungarians, Italians, or Romanians, all of whom were to be found in the armed forces of the patchwork empire. Indeed, Hitler embraced the radical “Pan-German” ideology espoused by anti-Semitic demagogues like Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who called for the German-speaking part of Austria to secede and join the German Reich of Wilhelm II.
In the end it was all moot anyway: In February 1914, he was finally judged unfit for military service due to his gaunt physique (a legacy of his real days of poverty in Vienna) which rendered him “incapable of bearing arms.” Thus the aspiring artist was free to go back to his old, irregular habits—whiling away the days painting Munich street scenes, sketching plans for buildings, perusing secondhand newspapers in cafes, daydreaming, reading late into the night by a kerosene lamp, searching for a purpose.