This Day in Jewish History / Adolf Hitler’s Jewish Commander Is Born

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Adolf Hitler during the First World WarCredit: Wikipedia

November 19, 1880, is the birthdate of Hugo Gutmann, the German Jew who served as a lieutenant in the Bavarian army during World War I, and as such was the direct superior office to Adolf Hitler. It was Gutmann who recommended Hitler, in 1918, for the Iron Cross, First Class.

Hugo Gutmann was born in Nuremberg to Salomon and Emilie Gutmann. Salomon was a seller of furniture. Hugo himself served in the Bavarian army until 1902, reaching the rank of Feldwebel – sergeant major, the highest rank attainable by a noncommissioned officer. After the start of World War I, he was recalled to the reserves, and it was between January and August of 1918 that he led Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, called the “List Regiment” after its first commander, Colonel Julius List.

In his 2010 book, “Hitler’s First War,” historian Thomas Weber, who uncovered previously unknown archival material, demonstrated that Hitler’s four years in the Bavarian army, for which he volunteered in August 1914 after apparently avoiding the draft in his native Austria, were far more prosaic than he presented it once he entered public life. He served as a regimental runner (referred to as an “Etappenschwein,” or “rear area pig,” by fellow recruits) for messages behind Western Front lines in France. It was a relatively safe and comfortable job, as compared with a battalion runner for instance, who had to move between trenches.

Position in the rear

A young Hitler (farthest left at bottom row) posing with other German soldiers.Credit: Wikipedia

Hitler received his Iron Cross, Second Class, in 1914, a standard decoration for someone of his rank, lance corporal, to be awarded. Far less typical was the first-class Iron Cross he received on August 4, 1918 – which he was wearing when he shot himself to death, on April 30, 1945 – as this was usually reserved for commissioned officers. But whereas the Nazi propaganda machine created a story about special bravery on Hitler’s part being the explanation for the decoration, Weber suggests that it can probably be attributed to the fact that his position in the rear brought him into regular contact with senior officers at regimental headquarters.

Gutmann was demobilized in February 1919, and married a short time later. In the 1920s he took over his father’s office-furniture store in Nuremberg. In 1933 he applied for, and was granted, a war-veteran’s pension, which he continued receiving even after passage of the Nuremberg Laws, in September 1935, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and removed them from the rolls of veterans. There has been speculation that Hitler intervened on Gutmann’s behalf.

A young Hitler (farthest left at bottom row) posing with other German soldiers.Credit: Wikipedia

Mainly, though, according to Weber, Gutmann was in fact fearful that his direct connection with Hitler years earlier would endanger him. He was in fact interrogated by the Gestapo, which was charged with neutralizing any potential threats to the Fuehrer’s image.

Although Gutmann was nervous enough to change his name once he arrived in the United States, hoping this would prevent German agents from tracking him down, he waited until the start of World War II to flee Nazi Germany with his family. First stop was Belgium, followed, on May 14, 1940, by France, on the last train out of Brussels, on which the Gutmanns narrowly avoided being bombed by invading German forces.

World War I Photograph of Hugo GutmannCredit: Wikipedia - Bavarian State Archives

Through the help of a distant but well-connected relative in the U.S., and the payment of generous bribes, the were able to get visas to allow them passage to Portugal. They sailed on the S.S. Excalibur from Lisbon to New York on August 28, 1940.

Under his new name – Henry Grant, which was inspired by a W.T. Grant dime store he walked by shortly after his arrival – Gutmann lived for the next 20 years in St. Louis, where he sold typewriters and furniture. He never spoke of his previous life, not even with his family.

Gutmann/Grant retired in 1961, when he and his wife moved to San Diego. He died there of cancer on June 22, 1962. Shortly beforehand, he wrote to his son Heinz, who had changed his name to Howard when he immigrated and joined the U.S. Army: “I enjoyed a wonderful life and [at] 81, you have to know that you cannot live for ever.”

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