Adolf Hitler

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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.

Early Life

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 The boy became sullen, resentful, uncooperative, and withdrawn, both at home and at school.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...

(This entire section contains 3038 words.)

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marketable skills and little prospect for the future.

Life’s Work

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, were internationalists bent on destroying the purity of the German race. These “malignant tumors” had to be eradicated.

By the time Hitler was released from prison, economic and political conditions in Germany had improved dramatically. Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar Republic’s chancellor, made the government more respectable, both at home and internationally. The Dawes Plan and currency reform resulted in German economic stability. Moreover, without Hitler’s leadership, the Nazi Party had virtually disintegrated. Hitler himself was forbidden to speak publicly in Bavaria until 1929. As a result, the Nazi Party played an insignificant role in German politics until the Depression caused German economic and political instability once again.

Between 1929 and 1933, the Nazi Party grew from one of the smallest to the largest single party in Germany. Hitler made alliances with the army, with the magnates of business and industry, and with other conservative elements in German society. Still, the Nazis would not have been victorious had not Hitler’s speeches regarding the future of Germany struck a responsive chord in the German electorate. Hitler’s demagogic tactics and the failure of the Weimar government to mount effective opposition resulted in his being named Chancellor of Germany in January, 1933.

The Reichstag fire of February, 1933, led to the destruction of the German Communist Party and to decrees that limited personal freedom in Germany. Hitler was given virtually unlimited power. Hitler’s rearmament program quickly stimulated the German economy and put Germans back to work. Hitler and his minions thus restored German confidence and power at the expense of the democratic liberalism of the Weimar Republic. Those who opposed him were ruthlessly eliminated. Concentration camps were established to incarcerate enemies of state, especially Bolsheviks and Jews.

Hitler himself was not as interested in creating a totalitarian state as he was in establishing German hegemony in Europe. In October, 1933, Germany walked out of the international disarmament conference in Geneva as well as left the League of Nations. Two years later, Hitler proclaimed Germany’s repudiation of the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and began rearming. In 1936, he further repudiated Versailles by remilitarizing the Rhineland. In 1938, after witnessing Italian successes in Ethiopia, Japanese successes in China, and Francisco Franco’s success in Spain, Hitler ordered an Anschluss with Austria. This too was successful. In September, 1938, at Munich, further appeasement by the Western democracies left Czechoslovakia truncated, with the Sudetenland being given to Hitler.

Hitler had now achieved, through bluff and diplomacy, part of the program set forth in Mein Kampf. In March, 1939, Germany dismembered the rest of Czechoslovakia, thereby shattering the myth of appeasement. Hitler then shrewdly maneuvered a Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which neutralized the threat of a two-front war. On September 1, 1939, the war that Hitler had wanted and for which he had planned erupted. Success quickly followed success as Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and France were defeated by the German juggernaut. The Blitzkrieg resulted in German domination of Central and Western Europe. When German forces were unsuccessful in swiftly conquering Great Britain, Hitler’s attention quickly turned to the East. First Yugoslavia, then Greece were annexed. Finally, it was the turn of the Soviet Union. In June, 1941, in a massive surprise attack, Hitler launched his attack on Bolshevism. Despite enormous early victories, the size and weather of the Soviet Union prevented an outright German victory.

While the war was being waged, Hitler concerned himself primarily with military matters, leaving domestic policies to his subordinates. These henchmen continued implementing the Nazi totalitarian program as well as creating for themselves powerful bases. To many Nazis, the domestic issue that was of greatest concern was the so-called final solution of the Jewish question. Before the war, Jews had been allowed to emigrate or had been expelled; war ended this option. The next stage was concentration, and numerous concentration camps and ghettos were established to hold the Jews of occupied Europe. This, however, was viewed as only a temporary measure; extermination was to be the final solution. Some six million Jews were systematically eliminated during the Holocaust. In addition, millions of others perished in concentration camps or labor camps, or as the result of Nazi activities or atrocities.

Hitler himself became ever more preoccupied with the running of a war that was quickly becoming unwinnable. As the Allies could outproduce Germany six to one, Germany could make do only by relying upon slave labor and total mobilization of the German population for war. Hitler became increasingly irrational during 1943 and early 1944, as Allied armies in North Africa, Italy, and the Soviet Union pushed German armies backward. Hitler’s vegetarian diet and his living conditions led to a precipitous decline in his health. His personal physician, Theo Morell, prescribed huge doses of medication that resulted in a marked deterioration of Hitler’s nervous system. The assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, merely accelerated the physical decline of the Führer.

As the Allies closed in from Italy, France, and the East, Hitler completely lost touch with reality. He sincerely believed that secret weapons would save Germany and that a rupture of the Grand Alliance was merely a matter of time. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which was merely a recapitulation of the 1940 offensive against France, resulted in the shattering of the German forces on the Western Front. Early 1945 found Hitler maneuvering nonexistent armies on maps in his bunker and issuing orders that could not be carried out. Finally, when the Russian guns were within firing distance of the Reichs-Chancellery in Berlin, Hitler realized the finality of the situation. On April 30, 1945, he and Eva Braun, his mistress whom he finally married, committed suicide. It was ten days after his fifty-sixth birthday. Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich survived him by only eight days. It had lasted for only twelve years and four months.


The appalling statistics from the end of World War II can only begin to itemize the legacy of Adolf Hitler. To Germany he bequeathed more than 6.5 million dead and more than twice that number as refugees. Germany itself was in ruins, partitioned, and occupied. The European balance sheet was similar. The total number of civilian and military dead from World War II probably exceeded fifty million. Direct and indirect costs from the war are virtually impossible to calculate. Europe was prostrate, both economically and politically. War damage was in the trillions of dollars, and most governments were either unstable or nonexistent because of the dislocations of war. While Germany in particular and Europe in general rebuilt themselves with the aid of the Marshall Plan and through the European Community, the scars of war and fears of Nazism/Fascism remain. Despite denazification, fear of a strong Germany continues to temper the attitudes of European neighbors toward a revitalized Germany. Germans fear that they will never be forgiven for the nightmare that was Hitler.

The destruction of Germany and the impact of the war on other European powers left a weak Western and Central Europe overshadowed by the military power of the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War that emerged from the ashes of World War II stemmed from two sources. The memory of Munich in 1938 left a fear of appeasement of the Soviet dictator by the West and resulted in a hard-line policy of containment of communism. The Cold War was also a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union over control of the Europe that had been devastated by Hitler’s war. The artificial barrier, the so-called Iron Curtain, that separated Eastern and Western Europe resulted in dislocation and scarcity as well as political instability. Hostile alliances and competition between the superpowers along the line of 1945 continue to exist.

One final significance of Hitler would be an understanding of totalitarianism. The totality of defeat for the Third Reich in 1945 meant that the state documents of the Third Reich fell into the hands of the victors. This documentation was used initially to prosecute war criminals at Nürnberg and elsewhere. It has since been used to study the megalomania of the Nazi leaders. No other dictator has ever been so well documented or studied. An understanding of the situation that brought Hitler to power as well as an understanding of the forces that drove the man could help in dealing with future threats of his type. Although Hitler was, perhaps, the greatest megalomaniac in history, it does not mean that he was or will be the only one.


Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism. Translated by Jean Steinberg. New York: Praeger, 1970. This is the best introduction to the theory and practice of National Socialism.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. This biography is a solid account of the life of Hitler that combines excellent research with lucid writing. With an emphasis on political narrative, it remains one of the best single-volume accounts of Hitler’s life.

Carr, William. Hitler: A Study in Personality and Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. This study of Hitler focuses upon the interrelationship between Hitler and the social forces that existed in Germany between World War I and World War II.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. This German biography is considered by many to be the standard biography of Hitler from the German point of view.

Langer, Walter C. The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report. New York: Basic Books, 1972. In 1943 psychoanalyst Langer wrote a psychological profile of Hitler for the Office of Strategic Services. This long-classified work was finally released in 1972 and is considered to be the best psychohistory of Hitler.

Marrus, Michael Robert. The Holocaust in History. Boston: University Press of New England, 1987. As literature pertaining to the Holocaust is considerable, this work provides a broad survey of the causes and events of the Holocaust as well as a bibliography of literature about the Holocaust.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Written by a journalist who covered the Third Reich during the 1930’s, this single-volume account of the period is one of the best and most readable introductions to the many issues and personalities of National Socialism.

Smith, Bradley F. Adolf Hitler: His Family, Childhood, and Youth. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 1967. There is little primary material extant that pertains to Hitler’s formative years, but Smith attempts to provide a background for Hitler’s development prior to World War I. It is primarily a chronological narrative.

Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. While there is little new in this biography of Hitler, Toland achieves an intensity lacking in other biographies, perhaps because of the 250 oral interviews with personalities closely associated with Hitler, which gives a new perspective to the personal nature of the dictator.


Critical Essays