As the leading Nazi before his expulsion from the party in 1930, Otto Strasser remarked:
“To know Hitler, means to know him before he came to power.”
The Second World War was not just one of conquest but also a campaign of murder. Some 62 million people were to become victims of the carnage of whom some 37 million were non-combatants. Of these civilian deaths more than 25 million can be considered the victims of genocide.
One man, above all others, can be held responsible for this Charnel House – Adolf Hitler. But what made this young aspiring artist a mass-murderer? Was it anger at thwarted ambition, bitterness towards those who thought themselves his superior, frustration at not being taken seriously, or simply a cold indifference towards the world he saw around him? Like the angry worker who guns down his fellow employees or the misunderstood schoolboy who shoots down those classmates who held him up to ridicule we can only speculate.
Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau-Am-Inn on 20 April 1889, a subject of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire.
His elderly father, Alois Schickelgruber was a Civil Servant, and an illegitimate child most probably the issue of a liaison between his mother, a housekeeper, and the nineteen year old son of her Jewish employer, Leopold Frankenberger, who continued to pay maintenance for the child long after she had left his employ.
In 1876, Alois applied to change his surname by deed poll to that of his step-father Johann Georg Hiedler. On the deed poll document the name was written down incorrectly as Hitler, which he apparently quite liked. The likelihood is that he had been pressurised into changing his surname by the Schicklegruber’s who did not want knowledge of his illegitimacy to stain the family name. It has also been suggested that he was paid to do so.
Alois, an unsympathetic and ill-tempered man was employed as a minor customs official, a job he took very seriously and had a great pride in. He was rarely seen out of uniform and liked to be addressed formally with reference to his rank.
In 1873, he married Anna Glasl-Horer, an independently wealthy but sickly woman. It was hardly a love-match and Alois was to have numerous affairs including fathering a child, also named Alois, by their nineteen year old maid, Franziscka Matzelsberger who was soon after ordered to leave the household.
In 1876, he invited his seventeen year old niece Klara Polzl to be their housekeeper and to take care of Anna.
Alois and Anna were forbidden from divorcing by the Catholic Church but had been living separate lives for many years before she died in April, 1883. Alois was now free to marry Franziscka with whom he was to have another child they named Angela, before she too died just over a year later of lung disease.
On 7 January, 1885, at the age of forty eight, Alois married his cousin Klara Polzl, half his age.
As his niece, Alois had to get special dispensation from the Catholic Church to marry Klara which was granted on humanitarian grounds, though it was in effect a fait-accompli as Klara was already pregnant with his child.
On the day of their wedding Alois wore his uniform, held a short reception for a few friends, then returned to work. It was an insight into the man Klara had married and even she expressed shock at his behaviour; but then few, if any, terms of endearment were ever exchanged between them. Indeed, Klara rarely referred to her husband by name but rather as uncle.
Klara was to have six children by Alois one of whom, Otto, died soon after birth, and Gustav and Ida, who died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1888. On 20 April, 1889, she gave birth to a son, Adolf.
Klara adored young Addy, as he was known, and showered all her affections upon him but his relationship with his father became increasingly fraught. He had dreams of becoming an artist something his father thought ridiculous. He expected him to follow in his footsteps as a Civil Servant but the young Adolf had no intention of wasting his life in the application of other people’s petty rules. They often rowed and Klara would always take her sons side, hugging him, patting down his hair, and encouraging him in his dreams.
His sister Paula was to write that:
“Adolf challenged my father to extreme harshness and got his sound thrashing every day.”
She also remembered how her older brother would bully her, often slapping her face if she dared to disagree with him.
Although Adolf was more often than not the subject of his father’s wrath, Alois regularly beat all his children and they were relieved when following his retirement he spent his days tending to his bees and his nights at the local tavern.
When on 3 January 1903, Alois died of a stroke the period of mourning was brief and though he shed a tear for his father for Adolf in particular, his passing was a release. Now he would have his way.
As a child Adolf attended a local monastery where he sang in the choir and was praised for having a fine voice. He also attended Church regularly and later admitted that he found Latin Mass intoxicating and that Catholic ceremony had made a lasting impression on him.
His favourite game was Cowboys and Indians which he would play with his friends and always insist upon being the leader of the Indians.
He had always been a voracious reader though he would not waste his time on books he thought he might disagree with for he could not tolerate views that were diametrically opposed to his own. He was a great admirer of Jonathan Swift, in particular the books Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, but his favourite author was always the low-brow Karl May, who wrote dime novel westerns.
Later in life he would indulge his passion for the movies sharing with his fellow dictator Josef Stalin, a love of light comedies and musicals.
In 1896, Klara gave birth to a baby boy she named Edmund. Adolf adored his younger brother and when he died on 2 February 1902, he was utterly devastated. Indeed, people remarked upon how greatly it had affected him.
He was always greatly disturbed by death, particularly the death of those close to him. He did not like to witness it and he always feared emotional pain more than he ever did physical injury, and as the Holocaust he had engineered continued apace, he refused mention of it in his presence, or for it to be referred to in any correspondence. He didn’t wish to be associated with the horrors that were being committed in his name no doubt, but to believe this was solely to appear an innocent bystander to events is not to understand the man.
Adolf, whose bedroom overlooked the grave of his younger brother, was sullen and depressed following his death, and he could often be found sitting alone by his grave quite late into the night just staring up at the stars. His depression wasn’t lifted until the death of his father which created a release that he had previously thought unimaginable. He would now be able to be the great artist he undoubtedly thought he was.
He soon lost all interest in school considering his teachers fools and not worthy of his attention, and the only class he bothered to attend was history taught by Leopold Potsch who imbued him with stories of German heroes and the destiny of the German people.
In 1905, he left school without passing his final exams informing his mother that he was leaving home to go and live in Linz, a place that to the young Adolf seemed the centre of the world. Klara was distraught at his leaving but oppose her beloved Addy’s wishes, and so he left home, aged just sixteen, with his mother’s blessing.
In Linz, he lived off the generosity of his mother who regularly sent him money and food parcels which allowed him to do as he pleased wandering the streets sketch pad in hand, visiting museums, and reading libraries. With time to dream he developed grandiose schemes for the architectural redevelopment of the city which he still hoped to see implemented until the end of his life.
It was also while in Linz that he met the only man he would ever call a friend, the aspiring musician, Auguste Kubizek.
In 1907, he applied to enrol at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts but failed the entrance exam. Still, encouraged by his mother he remained undeterred but Klara was by this time seriously ill with breast cancer and by the winter of 1907, her condition had worsened to such an extent that her death appeared likely.
Hitler returned home to care for his mother doing the cooking and tending to the household chores but was soon informed by the family’s Jewish doctor Eduard Bloch that there was no prospect that Klara would recover; and referencing Hitler was to later say that he had never witnessed a closer attachment or seen anyone so sad.
A distraught Adolf later admitted that it was the only time he had ever prayed.
His prayers went unanswered and on 21 December 1907, Klara Hitler, died, aged 47.
Adolf was inconsolable weeping profusely at her funeral and again many times thereafter – it was to be the worst moment of his life.
Visiting Dr Bloch to pay the medical bill he told him “I shall be grateful to you forever” and he was to prove as good as his word. Following the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and the subsequent persecution of the Jewish community Hitler ordered that the Bloch family be left alone, and they were later permitted to leave for the United States taking their property and personal fortune with them.
In February 1908, Hitler went to live in Vienna where he hoped to at last fulfill his ambition to be an artist.
Vienna was a very different city to Linz being the centre of a multi-ethnic Empire with a large Jewish population and where ethnic Germans were in a minority. Adolf was initially shocked by what he found and later wrote in Mein Kampf about when he first became an anti-Semite:
“Once I was strolling through the inner-city when I suddenly encountered an apparition in a black kaftan with long black hair locks. Is this a Jew was my first thought. For, to be sure, they had not looked like that in Linz. I observed the man furtively and cautiously, but the longer I stared at his foreign face, scrutinising every feature, the more my question assumed a new form, is this a German? The more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity.”
His friend Kubizek would later contradict this stating that Hitler was already a convinced anti-Semite when they had been together in Linz but his comments make sense in respect of Vienna being a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Its popular Mayor Karl Lueger had based his electoral campaigns upon anti-Jewish rhetoric even though, in a population of 2,031,420 only 175,294 were classified as Jews. However, their representation among the professional classes was disproportionate to their overall number. For example, 75% of Viennese bankers were Jewish, 63% of artists and academics were Jewish, 51% of doctors, and 49% of lawyers. This caused a great deal of resentment but it was too easily forgotten that the majority of those who lived in the Jewish Leopoldstadt district of Vienna were unemployed and homeless. This was the world that the young Adolf Hitler now lived in, but for all the bitterness and hatred he later expressed towards the city his time in Vienna defined his life.
People who knew him around this time remember a quiet, reserved, and polite, if slightly odd, young man who women found attractive though he rarely showed any interest in them. Instead, he always had his head in some book, magazine, or other roaming the streets of the city dressed as he thought an artist would, visiting galleries, museums, and attending musical recitals. His nights he spent at the opera, dreaming dreams of what would be.
A few weeks after Hitler had established his home in the city his friend Kubizek arrived, and Hitler went to meet him at the Station. In his memoir of their friendship Kubizek recalls how a clearly delighted Hitler took his hand and kissed him full on the lips leading some to suggest that their relationship was deeper than at first thought but he does not elaborate further and little evidence exists this may have been the case.
Kubizek later described that wearing his best dark overcoat, a broad-brimmed felt hat, and carrying an ivory handled cane the slim, pale-skinned Hitler looked every inch the gentleman and together they strolled to his new apartment on the Stumpe Gasse.
Kubizek explained how Hitler would sleep until noon and always stay up late into the night. He would be willing to discuss his views on any topic to anyone who showed an interest in listening and was always brimming with ideas talking excitedly of projects he had in mind but despite the earnestness with which he spoke his behaviour would be mostly temperate and polite unless anyone dared to contradict him or doubt the absolute truth of what he was saying. Then he would shout and rave and refuse to listen.
Kubizek described him as unstable.
Even so, Hitler and Kubizek enjoyed each other’s company, though their relationship soured somewhat when Kubizek was accepted into the Vienna Academy of Music where Hitler’s application to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts was once again rejected. Indeed, this time he wasn’t even permitted to sit the entrance exam. He was jealous of his friend but this soon passed, at least Kubizek thought it had but while he was he was away doing his National Service, Hitler moved out of their shared apartment without telling him or leaving any forwarding address.
Auguste Kubizek was to continue to follow his friend’s career with interest though he did not attempt to contact him again for another twenty five years, when he wrote to Hitler to congratulate him on becoming German Chancellor.
To his great surprise Hitler wrote back saying
“I should be very glad to revive again once more with you those memories of the best years of my life.”/em>
They were reunited on 9 April, 1938, when they chatted for more than an hour and Hitler offered to fulfill Kubizek’s dream of becoming the conductor of an orchestra, an offer he politely declined. So instead Hitler insisted upon paying for his children’s education.
They were to meet again on two further occasions, the last in 1944 when he was to send Kubizek’s mother a basket of food on the occasion of her 80th birthday.
Interestingly in 1940, Hitler had told Kubizek:
“This war will set us back many years. It is a tragedy. I did not become the Chancellor of the Greater German Reich to wage wars.”
Asked to write an account of their time together Kubizek recalled the story of how Adolf Hitler had fallen in love with a mutual friend of theirs, a young woman named Stefanie, and how he would write poetry and love letters to her but never had the courage to send them. Later told of this fact the woman concerned feinted with astonishment.
For much of his time in Vienna, Hitler lived off the proceeds of a small inheritance. He also sold drawings he had made of the local architecture and landscape, some of which he had printed as postcards to sell in local shops and to tourists. He never looked to get a proper job or find regular employment. Instead he immersed himself in the works of Hegel, Nietzsche, and the anti-Semitic writings of the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
He loved the Operas of Wagner and his stories of the Nordic Gods and was to spend much of his life making them a reality with all the consequences that doing so entailed.
By the end of 1909 however, his inheritance had run out and he found himself both penniless and homeless. He was to all intents and purposes an inconsequential drifter. Yet few who met him during this period ever seem to have forgotten the experience.
In early 1910, he entered a Homeless Shelter on the Meldemenstrasse that was mostly populated by poor Jews and was eating at soup kitchens. By this time he had pawned all his belongings and seen shivering one cold night he was provided with an overcoat by an elderly Jew.
Still, he continued to draw and another of the residents at the Shelter, Reinhard Hanish, agreed to act as his agent hawking his art to mostly Jewish owned shops. Hanish, remembered Hitler as being emotionally unstable and prone to rages. They were eventually to fall out when Hitler accused Hanish of selling his art and pocketing the money for himself. He went to the police and in the ensuing Court Case Hanish was sentenced to eight days in prison. Twenty eight years later in 1938, Hitler ordered Hanish’s execution for going public about their relationship.
Following his fall out with Hanish, Hitler befriended a Jew, Josef Neumann, who continued to sell his art to local Jewish retailers to cover their wall space. This was a tough time for Hitler when he was frequently cold and hungry but he later said of the experience:
“During that period I grew hard and am still capable of being hard.”
Such were Hitler’s reduced circumstances that even he was forced to work and he did two days shovelling snow and the odd day here and there carrying bags at Vienna Station. In May 1913, he fled Austria for Bavaria to avoid conscription into the army of the multi-ethnic Empire he had now come to despise. In Munich he continued to sell his drawings. When he was asked how he expected to survive for any amount of time without regular employment he replied that it did not matter as war would come soon.
On 1 August 1914, he joined an enthusiastic crowd crammed into the centre of Munich to celebrate the proclamation of war. Upon hearing of the news he later said that he fell to his knees and thanked heaven. Two days later he enlisted in a Bavarian Infantry Regiment.
Despite a natural desire on our parts to wish otherwise, Hitler had a good war serving as a runner to carry communications between command posts, one of the most dangerous and unenviable of duties; he was twice decorated for bravery, receiving the Iron Cross First Class in 1918 on the recommendation of his Jewish Commanding Officer.
If Hitler was a coward it was of the moral kind. Undoubtedly what he had witnessed during the war affected him greatly as indeed it did all the combatants. But not in the way that one might expect. He was not horrified by the slaughter but by the defeat. Germany lost the war because she did not fight hard enough, did not sacrifice enough, and because she was betrayed by those at home, communists, socialists, and by the Jews.
He returned from the war even more distant, more aloof, and found it impossible to form relationships.
By the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, he had risen to the rank of Corporal. He may have been awarded the Iron Cross but no subsequent promotion followed. He was recuperating from a mustard gas attack that had left him temporarily blind in a Military Field Hospital about which he wrote:
“If twelve or fifteen thousand of those Jews who were corrupting the nation had been made to submit to poison gas then the millions of the sacrifices made at the Front would not have been in vain.”
When he heard the news of the surrender he could not believe it, tore the bandages from his eyes and wept later claiming: “It was now I decided to enter politics.”
Adolf Hitler, the man directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people was a tee-total, vegetarian, non-smoker and a late riser, lazy, ill-disciplined and arrogant. Yet he inspired devotion despite having little empathy with his fellow man. A purveyor of death he was capable of tears. man of blood of violence he shrank from the sight of blood. He had an insatiable desire for tea and cake but ate only sparingly. He enjoyed the company of children and loved to play with his pet dog. He enjoyed the adoration of women but had an aversion to physical contact. In other words, he had all the eccentricities, insecurities, and neuroses of a human being. In any study of Hitler we should remember this. It does a disservice to history to make monsters of men.
For as Albert Speer, his confidante and favourite architect said:
“To say that Hitler was a madman is to make a very serious mistake.”