Article abstract: As leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany and as dictator of the Third Reich, Hitler was responsible for many of the events that led to World War II. His belief in Teutonic racial superiority and his anti-Semitism also resulted in the Holocaust.
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, at Braunau am Inn, which is near Linz, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Alois, was a customs agent whose primary concerns were his work, his status, and himself. When he was forty-seven, Alois married Klara Pölzl, his third wife. Even though eight children were born of his marriages, he took little interest in his family, preferring to devote his time to his work. He was a rigid and taciturn man who was especially severe to his sons. Klara, on the other hand, was an indulgent and loving mother, whose children and stepchildren loved and respected her deeply. Alois’s position in the petite bourgeoisie provided the family with a good income and a secure standard of living. Even after his retirement in 1895, the family was able to live comfortably on his pension and inheritances.
Young Adolf was a sickly child who was overprotected by his mother. His father became a direct influence in his son’s life only after he retired, for he then determined to impose his ideals on his children. When Adolf finished the Volksschule in 1900, Alois decided that the boy should attend the Realschule and prepare for a career in the civil service. The son rebelled at this treatment, for he considered himself to be an artist, not a member of the bourgeoisie. His father forced him to attend the Realschule, and Adolf’s grades, which had been excellent, became quite poor. The boy became sullen, resentful, uncooperative, and withdrawn, both at home and at school.
During this period, the boy became enamored of Germanic myths, especially those presented in Wagnerian opera and in historical romance. It was not an unusual interest for boys of that era, as Austria-Hungary was greatly divided over various issues of nationality. German nationalists believed fervently that all German people should be bonded together in a single German Reich. The schools of the time were a place where Teutonic national superiority and an emphasis on social Darwinist views of the “survival of the fittest” were constantly taught. By the age of sixteen, Hitler had become what he was to be until his death—a fanatical German nationalist.
In 1903, Alois died, leaving an adequate income for his family. His son did complete the Realschule in 1905, although he did not receive a certificate of graduation. In 1906, he moved to Vienna but twice failed to gain entry into the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. For several years he eked out a precarious, solitary existence in Vienna by painting postcards or advertisements, drifting from one men’s home to another.
The Vienna in which he lived was a veritable hotbed of anti-Semitism. Hitler read widely, but shallowly, preferring to read that which buttressed his own opinions about life. During this time he manifested many of his later characteristics: a quick temper that erupted when he was contradicted, an inability to form ordinary relationships with others, a passionate hatred of non-Germans and Jews, the use of violent rhetoric to express himself, and a tendency to live in a world of fantasy in an effort to escape his own poverty and failure. In 1913, he left Vienna for Munich, hoping to gain admission to the art academy there. Again he met with failure. He was twenty-four, with no marketable skills and little prospect for the future.
With the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, Hitler immediately volunteered for and was accepted into the Sixteenth Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He served on the Western Front as a dispatch runner in the frontline throughout the war. That he served courageously is evidenced by his decorations for bravery. He received the Iron Cross, Second Class, in December, 1914, and he was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class (a rare distinction for a mere corporal), in August, 1918. He was wounded in October, 1916, and was gassed in October, 1918. The war was critical for his development, for it gave to him a sense of purpose, of comradeship, and of discipline. It also confirmed in him his belief in the heroic nature and necessity of war as well as his belief in the need for an authoritarian form of government.
War’s end found him convalescing from his gassing. As there were few jobs available in postwar Germany for a young man of thirty with few skills, Hitler remained in the army. Serving in the army’s political department, his primary job was the political education of soldiers. Hitler quickly learned that he could control large audiences with his oratorical skills. His other job was that of spying on various Bavarian political groups that the army wanted controlled. In September, 1919, he visited one such group, the German Workers Party, a violently anti-Semitic group. Finding that his ideas closely matched those of the group, he resigned from the army and began working with the party. Within a year, he had become its chief propagandist and, soon thereafter, its leader. In 1920, the renamed National Socialist German Workers’ (or Nazi, a shortened form of the German name) Party issued its program: the union of all Germans in a greater German state, the expulsion of Jews from Germany, the revocation of the Treaty of Versailles, and “the creation of a strong central power of the State.” Hitler introduced the swastika as the symbol of the party and created a private army of brown-shirted storm troopers. Force and violence quickly became a trait of the new party.
The double shock of military defeat and economic humiliation had left many Germans prepared to listen to anyone who promised a better national future. To be sure, Hitler’s earliest adherents were the poor and dispossessed, but his message was also appealing to many middle-class Germans. In 1923, during the French occupation of the Ruhr Valley, which had resulted in the collapse of the German economy, Hitler attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government. This Beer Hall Putsch was a fiasco, for the army remained loyal to the government. Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, of which he served nine months. While in prison, he dictated Mein Kampf (1925-1927; English translation, 1933), an autobiographical account of his life and his political philosophy.
Mein Kampf is a rambling, turgid statement of Hitler’s biases, of which there were many. To Hitler, the goal of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was to create a highly centralized state of and for the master race, that is, the Germans. The raison d’être for this state was the rectification of the injustices perpetrated upon the German people by the decadent Western powers at Versailles. Only through war, Hitler believed, could the illegalities of that imposed settlement be erased. In this state, his racial policies would result in the rooting out of those who were not of Aryan blood. His most venomous statements were reserved for the Jews. To them he ascribed the blame for all of Germany’s misfortunes, especially the loss of World War I. Jews, and their underlings, the Bolsheviks,...
(The entire section is 3038 words.)