Despite the chaos, destruction and shame Hitler left as his legacy, his time as ‘Der Fuhrer’ of the German Reich lasted a mere 12 years of his life. An unquestionably talented politician and captivating orator, as well as a genocidal megalomaniac who presided over a racist totalitarian state, Hitler is a complex and fascinating study of how an otherwise unremarkable individual exploited the shifting political and social dynamics of his time to re-invent himself from a destitute dreamer to one of history’s (in)famous and pivotal characters.
Hitler was born on the Austrian side of the River Inn – the border between the respective German and Austro-Hungarian (both ‘German’ states) empires of the period. Hitler saw no distinction between the fate of being under control of Vienna or Berlin – to him all Germans should be united in a Pan-German superstate – and from an early age was imbued with ideals and beliefs centred on German nationalism and the innate superiority of the Germanic people. His father, Alois Hitler, was a gruff and hard-headed man who had forged a successful career in the Austrian customs service despite his very humble beginnings. His mother, Klara – 23 years younger than Alois – suffered mental and physical abuse in a marriage which seemed more for convenience sake than love itself. Hitler snr. was a very strict and over-bearing father to all his children (he had children from a previous marriage) and frequently administered beatings, which alienated his children, Adolf included. Accordingly, Hitler became very close to his mother and increasingly disposed to do the exact opposite of what his father’s expectation were.
Hitler’s academic performance at school was also increasingly shaped by his tempestuous and hateful relationship with his father; from the top of his class at his local elementary (primary) school, Hitler resented the role and influence of his father in plotting a future career path for him and failed badly when stepping up to the Realschule in Linz. His teachers remember a talented but lazy and argumentative student who responded badly to advice and was full of his own self-importance. Hitler himself explained this drop in academic and behavioural standards through the prism of conflict with his hated father, hoping that continued failure at the (relatively prestigious) realschule would persuade his father to relent in trying to get Hitler to follow in his own footsteps and enter the Austrian Imperial Civil Service and instead allow Hitler to pursue his true passion and dream of becoming an artist and transfer him to a classical arts school. Whatever chance there was of such an occurrence happening – given how pugnacious and antagonistic both father and son were highly unlikely – was rendered irrelevant by the sudden death of Alois in 1903. After going through the motions for the following 2 years, Hitler finally graduated school but without a clear direction or path to a career beyond his love for art. At this early stage it was clear Hitler was ‘different’ and would challenge authority whenever he could.
In contrast to his explosive and destructive relationship with his father, Hitler was doted on by his mother and they were extremely close. His mother could see no wrong in her soon and encouraged him to follow his artistic dreams, indulging him in his passion and supporting him in his attempts to enter the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Whilst Hitler was by no means a ‘bad’ artist he was nowhere near the level required to enter one of Europe’s top art schools, and his failure to complete the equivalent of high school left him unable to enter other universities in Vienna. His frustration was soon compounded by the agony and heartache of the news his mother had developed breast cancer with a terminal diagnosis. Hitler genuinely loved his mother and the feeling was reciprocated thus the news – and her death soon after – hit him hard. Emotionally broken, he was soon to find himself financially broken as his financial support died along with his mother and he found himself living the life of a bohemian drifter in the multi-ethnic capital of a multi-ethnic Empire, eeking out a meagre living selling his artwork and picking up menial labouring jobs whilst alternating between living on the streets and in homeless hostels. In short, it was a pretty desperate and directionless existence for the young Hitler, one which most probably laid the foundations to position him to be ripe to be turned / converted towards extremism.
Vienna was a melting pot of cultures, ideals and rhetoric and one in which German nationalism and anti-Semitism had a strong foothold. Given Hitler’s lowly status and place on the ladder he found solace and a sense of belonging in being able to feel part of something whilst blaming the ‘other’ (Vienna had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe). Hitler felt particularly resentful when placed the lowly status of his own existence in the context of what he had experienced when cleaning snow from the paths and driveways of the affluent Jewish neighbourhoods of Vienna (worth noting that the overwhelming majority of Viennese Jews lived in poverty similar to Hitler, particularly the ‘ghetto’ district of Leopoldstadt – a fact conveniently overlooked by Hitler). In Hitlers eyes, ‘true’ Germans should not be suffering whilst the ‘alien’ Jewish lived in wealth and comfort, planting a seed of burning resentment and jealousy which would manifest destructively and tragically 30 years later.
Hitler did receive incremental payments from his fathers ‘estate’ which intermittently punctuated the life of poverty and squalor he operated in. In 1913 he resolved to leave Vienna and move to Munich in Germany having failed at almost everything he had aimed to do. Even his conscription (not voluntary but mandatory) into the Austro-Hungarian army for his national service was ‘failed’ due to him being deemed unfit for service. However fate would soon align in Hitler’s favour and give him a sense of purpose and being like he had never experienced. The outbreak of European-wide conflict in August 1914 was met with patriotic and nationalistic fervour across the continent and militaries were not as discerning as to signing up cannon fodder for the meat grinder of war as they would have been in peace time. Hitler was enlisted in the German Army and served with – it has to be said – distinction in his time as a soldier. He won medals for bravery including the most prestigious of all in the German Army, the Iron Cross, and was generally regarded well by his fellow soldiers and superiors. His German nationalism fulled further by the horrors and misguided pride of war, Hitler took the defeat of Germany in 1918 particularly badly and his bitterness and angst over the peace terms agreed at Versailles, combined with his existing anti-semitic views, meant he was an ardent believer in the ‘stabbed in the back myth.’ Hitler felt the pain and sense of injustice acutely, something he was to skillfully exploit in later years once he had a national platform to speak from.
We wrap up this insight into Hitlers formative years – he’s now a not so young 30 year old right enough! – by exploring his journey in the years immediately following WW1. Given his sketchy educational and employment history, and the general chaos and upheaval of Germany at the time, Hitler’s only real option was to remain in the German Army whereupon he was given the assignment of spying on the myriad political parties springing up and staking their claim to righteousness. Munich is known as a city of Bier Halles which is where these political parties campaigned and spoke in the hope of attracting support and new members. Hitler was assigned one such (small) party – the German Worker’s Party – and quickly ingratiated himself with it small membership and support base. So much so that he quickly crossed the line between observer and full on member as he found common ground with the core beliefs of the small party, which were nationalistic, anti-semitic, anti-Marxist and anti-capitalist. Hitler quickly became the party’s ‘keynote’ star speaker and attracted large crowds to his sessions in the beer halls which swelled support and membership of the party. Eager to exploit their growing status, the party renamed themselves the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi for short) and created a new logo of the swastika, which was designed by Hitler himself. He quickly superseded the existing hierarchy within the party and gravitated from star speaker to party leader by 1921.
Hitler’s energy, enthusiasm and ability to control an audience meant that he was able to deliver his vitriolic and antagonistic rhetoric to an ever growing – and appreciative – audience. Focusing strongly on what he perceived as ‘traditional’ German values, scapegoating the Jews and the Weimar government as the ‘November Criminals’ who had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ and sold her future away, his position and rhetoric appealed to many of the German people, who were in a desperate position themselves and looking for convenient and simplistic answers to a complex and multi-layered problem facing post-WW1 Germany. Naturally, Hitler’s message found a ready-made audience amongst the disaffected – and unemployed – young men who had so recently returned from war and felt their efforts and sacrifices were being ignored. Hitler moulded these tough and mentally scarred young men into what would act as the Nazi party’s own paramilitary force – the SA (brownshirts). Emboldened by his rapid political ascent within Munich, Hitler already had a taste for something greater, which we will explore in the next post!