World War Two, Adolf Hitler

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi

Date 2001


The rise of Adolf Hitler to the position of dictator of Germany is the story of a frenzied ambition that plunged the world into the worst war in history. Only an army corporal in World War I, Hitler became Germany's chancellor 15 years later.

He was born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau-am-Inn, Austria, of German descent. His father Alois was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schicklgruber. In middle age Alois took the name Hitler from his paternal grandfather. After two wives had died Alois married his foster daughter, Klara Poelzl, a Bavarian, 23 years younger than he. She became Adolf's mother.

Hitler's rambling, emotional autobiography 'Mein Kampf' (My Struggle) reveals his unstable early life. His father, a petty customs official, wanted the boy to study for a government position. But as young Hitler wrote later, "the thought of slaving in an office made me ill . . . not to be master of my own time." Passively defying his father, the self-willed boy filled most of his school hours with daydreams of becoming a painter. His one school interest was history, especially that of the Germans. When his teacher glorified Germany's role, "we would sit there enraptured and often on the verge of tears." From boyhood he was devoted to Wagner's operas that glorified the Teutons' dark and furious mythology.

Failure dogged him. After his father's death, when Adolf was 13, he studied watercolor painting, but accomplished little. After his mother's death, when he was 19, he went to Vienna. There the Academy of Arts rejected him as untalented. Lacking business training, Hitler eked out a living as a laborer in the building trades and by painting cheap postcards. He often slept in parks and ate in free soup kitchens.

These humbling experiences inflamed his discontent. He hated Austria as "a patchwork nation" and looked longingly across the border at energetic, powerful Germany. He wrote, "I was convinced that the State [Austria] was sure to obstruct every really great German and to support . . . everything un-German. . . . I hated the motley collection [in Austria] of Czechs, Ruthenians, Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, and above all that ever-present fungoid growth--Jews . . . I became a fanatical anti-Semite."

Hitler's hatred of poverty, his rabid devotion to his German heritage, and his loathing of Jews combined to form the seeds of his later political doctrine. He studied the political skill of Vienna's mayor and took special note of that leader's practice of "using all instruments of existing power, and of gaining the favor of influential institutions . . . so he could draw the greatest possible advantages for his own movement from such old-established sources of power." Hitler later applied this technique in Germany.

In 1912 Hitler left "wretched" Vienna for Munich, a "true German town." There he drifted from job to job as carpenter, architect's draftsman, and watercolorist. Always he ranted about his political ideas.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he gave up his Austrian citizenship to enlist in the 16th Bavarian infantry regiment. He would not fight for Austria, "but I was ready to die at any time for my people [Germans]." In his first battle, the Ypres offensive of 1914, he shouted the song 'Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles.' On the Somme in 1916 he was a "front fighter" against British tanks, rose to lance corporal, won the Iron Cross as dispatch runner, and was wounded. In 1917 he fought in the third battle of Ypres.

The armistice found him in a hospital, temporarily blinded by mustard gas and suffering from shock. The news of Germany's defeat agonized him. He believed defeat had been caused by "enemies within," chiefly Jews and Communists.

Now no longer an Austrian citizen and not yet a German citizen, Hitler at the war's end was a man without a country. Bewildered, he remained in the army, stationed in Munich. In the political and economic tempest that swept defeated Germany, Munich became a storm center. Officers of the beaten Reichswehr (German army) conspired to win control of Germany. They maintained "informers," one of whom was Adolf Hitler. He was assigned to report on "subversive activities" in Munich's political parties.

This political spying was the turning point of Hitler's life. One night in 1919 he threaded his way through the Herrenstrasse to a bleak little restaurant where a handful of young people sat around a half-broken gas lamp. This little band was the German Workers' party. Guided by "intuition," Hitler joined as its seventh member. He soon took the lead. Then a Reichswehr officer, Capt. Ernest Roehm, saw the party as a possible means of overthrowing the liberal Bavarian republic. Like other officers, Roehm had built one of the private "volunteer" armies, which grew up as arms of the Reichswehr in defiance of the Versailles Treaty. Roehm assigned his arrogant, iron-hard Brown Shirt army to aid the Workers' party. Bulwarked by these armed ruffians, Hitler became the orator of the group.

Creates the Nazi Party

In 1920 he changed its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' party), abbreviated to Nazi. Sneering at the liberal generalities of the various bourgeois parties and hating the Communists, Hitler shouted accusations against the Jews and cried out to the Germans to form an all-powerful national state. His voice, torn and hoarsened by mustard gas, was a hypnotic one. His speeches kindled the anger of rivals, especially the Communists, and they tried to break up his meetings. They were prevented from doing so by the brutal Nazis.

The flamboyant spirit of the growing Nazi party now began to attract the varied restless men who were to become its core. They included chiefly Alfred Rosenberg, Russian-born engineer and "philosopher," anti-Jew, and anti-Christian; Rudolf Hess, Egyptian-born mathematician and geographer; Hermann Goering, Bavarian combat pilot; Gen. Erich von Ludendorff, war hero; and Maj. Gen. Franz von Epp, Bavarian infantry commander. All helped to persuade Communist-fearing German industrialists to give money to the party, for Hitler assured them that "we combat only Jewish international capital."

An established Munich journal, Volkischer Beobachter (National Observer) was bought to spread Nazi influence. For his followers Hitler adopted the ancient swastika (hooked cross) as the party emblem and designed the Nazi red banner with the black swastika. He saluted his comrades with raised stiff arm and was greeted by the word Heil!

From "Beer Hall Putsch" to Prison

By 1923 the Nazis had grown strong enough in Munich to try to seize the government. They started the "Beer Hall Putsch," so-called because Hitler and his henchmen tried to take over the reins of government at a meeting that was held in a beer hall. The attempt failed. Hitler was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison. The Bavarian government commuted the term to eight months. While in prison Hitler, aided by the loyal Rudolf Hess, began 'Mein Kampf'.

Emerging from prison in 1924, Hitler once again seemed destined to failure. The government had banned the Nazi party, and only a handful of the members clung together. For months Hitler took little interest. At length Roehm, Hess, and a newcomer--a small, lame enthusiast named Joseph Paul Goebbels--spurred him back to leadership. Accepting, Hitler said, "I shall need seven years before the movement is on top again."

Industrialists Help Rebuild Nazi Party

He was right. The years 1924-28 were prosperous for Germany, and revolutions do not flourish on prosperity. From 1925 to 1927 Hitler was even forbidden to speak publicly in either Bavaria or Saxony. Then a world-wide depression plunged Germany again into poverty and unemployment, and the Nazis began to gain votes. By 1930 Hitler had the support of many industrialists and the military caste. In 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor. The history section in the article Germany traces the steps by which Hitler became dictator and instigator of World War II.

Believing himself on the road to world conquest, in 1941 Hitler made himself Personal Commander of the Army and, in 1942, Supreme War Lord. However, on July 20, 1944, a group of officers, dismayed by his "intuitive" military failures, set off a bomb in his office. He escaped with only a nervous shock.

The Legend of "Hitler the Superman"

Nazi propaganda had made of Hitler a symbol of strength and national virtue. He had won German citizenship in 1930 only by the scheming of Nazi henchmen, yet he was hailed as the ideal German leader. His indecisions were cloaked as "intuition." Despite his hours and even days of brooding inertia, he was pictured as a man of intense action. He became idolized by young Germans, whom he had betrayed by his creed, "the entire work of education is branding the race feeling into the hearts and brains of youth."

Covering his unsavory and cruel character, propaganda built a legend of his ascetic habits and selfless devotion to Germany. Some of this legend vanished when his long, secret association with Eva Braun was revealed. He married her in April 1945, just before he committed suicide in the ruined Reichschancellery. Hitler was declared dead officially Oct. 25, 1956, after his remains had been definitely identified.

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