No human in history comes close to the societal revulsion that Adolf Hitler elicits. His crimes against humanity were legion, and through his actions, he is responsible for the deaths of up to 80 million people.
It is easy to see him as a two-dimensional character representing evil, but the truth is that he was not a fictional villain. He was a human being, and he led a human life, complete with all the emotions that other human beings feel. It is in this context that he becomes even scarier as we realize he is closer to us than we like to believe.
His life was a perfect storm of personality and situations that took the entire world to the depths of the most brutal time in its entire history.
Adolf Hitler’s Childhood
On April 20, 1889, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, a town in Austria-Hungary. The fourth of six children, three of his siblings died in infancy. His father, Alois, was a civil servant with a furious temper. Young Adolf would often be on the receiving end of his father’s rage. Hitler’s mother, Klara Pölzl, was Alois’ third wife and was of old peasant stock. She was hard-working and conscientious. The family physician, Dr. Eduard Bloch, stated that she was a quiet, sweet, and affectionate woman.
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Adolf attended a state-funded primary school but was considered a difficult child as he refused to conform to the school’s codes of conduct. This brought him into conflict with his father, who frequently beat the young Adolf. His mother tried to protect him but to no avail. In 1900, Adolf’s younger brother Edmund died of measles. This tragedy deeply affected Adolf, and he transformed from being bold and confident to being sullen and morose. His life at this point became characterized by conflict with his teachers and with his father.
Alois wanted his son to follow in his footsteps in the civil service, but Adolf was set against this idea and wanted to become an artist. Alois sent his son to a technical school where Adolf purposefully rebelled and performed poorly.
In 1903, Alois died suddenly of a pleural hemorrhage. Adolf’s childhood friend, August Kubizek, recalled that when Adolf heard the news, he burst into uncontrollable weeping. His schoolwork suffered even further in the following months, and his mother allowed him to change schools. He enrolled in Realschule in Steyr in 1904, where his attitude and performance greatly improved. After graduating in 1905, he left school with no clear plans of what he wanted to do with his life.
In 1907, however, he moved to Vienna, where he decided he was going to study fine art at the Academy of Fine Arts. He was rejected twice, and the director suggested that Adolf study architecture instead. Adolf did not have the qualifications to do this and slumped into despair.
On December 21, his mother died of breast cancer at the age of 47. Adolf was 18 at the time. Emotionally distraught, he made little effort to improve his lot in life. Turning to alcohol and frequently sleeping on the streets, Adolf sustained himself with piecemeal labor jobs and selling watercolor paintings on the streets of Vienna. His passion for the arts lifted him out of his depression, and he discovered a particular love for the music of Wagner.
During these years, he was also exposed to German nationalism, and although an Austrian, Adolf Hitler was an ethnic German and identified with Germany. Along with nationalism, he was also exposed to racism and, in particular, anti-Semitism.
World War I
At the outbreak of the First World War, Hitler immediately enlisted to fight. He was living in Bavaria at the time, and he ended up being assigned to a Bavarian unit. This was likely a clerical error, as he was an Austrian national and should have been returned to Austria-Hungary. Nevertheless, he fought for Germany and served as a dispatch runner on the Western Front.
He received a medal for bravery (Iron Cross Second Class) at the Battle of Ypres in 1914 and was wounded in his arm at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was at the Battle of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917, and in 1918, he received the Iron Cross First Class for his actions.
In October 1918, he was blinded by a mustard gas attack and sent to hospital. While there, he learned of Germany’s surrender on November 11 and was overcome with grief and anger.
The Nazi Party
After the war, Hitler had no prospects other than in the military, and that’s where he stayed. In 1919, he was tasked with infiltrating the German Worker’s Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei/DAP), the forerunner of the Nazi Party. His participation in the DAP meetings was noticed by the chairman of the party, Anton Drexler, who was impressed with Hitler’s oratorial skills. Through the DAP, Hitler was introduced to more anti-Semitic ideology and practice, as well as strong anti-Marxist ideology.
He was also introduced to the occult Thule Society via Dietrich Eckhart. This group was dedicated to studying the mythological and esoteric origins of the Aryan race. This dynamic would be a feature in Nazi governance in the future, especially within the SS and the guidance of Heinrich Himmler, who sought evidence from all over the world to support the beliefs embedded in the Thule Society. Meanwhile, Hitler became a prominent party member, and he designed the Nazi flag of a black swastika in a white circle on a red background.
In 1920, Hitler left the army and began working full-time for the party, which by then had been rebranded as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei / NSDAP). While the party initially had anti-capitalist sentiment, this changed quickly as the party grew and needed capital. Thus, what started as a movement containing socialist elements quickly transformed into an undeniable fascist organization. It would also create a problem, as there were those in the party who would continue with the revolutionary sentiment and pose a threat to Hitler and the direction he took.
Hitler’s popularity saw him elected chairman of the Nazi Party, and in an attempt to emulate Mussolini’s coup in Rome in 1922, Hitler launched a coup against the German government. The Beer Hall Putsch was a failure, and Hitler was arrested.
He was sentenced to just five years in prison, of which he served only one. During his time in prison, he was treated well and was afforded luxuries generally denied to other prisoners. This was likely due to the political sympathies held by his guards. He used his time to write Mein Kampf, in which he explored and wrote down his own ideas of governance and racial policy, among other things.
Pardoned and released on December 20, 1924, Hitler began rebuilding the Nazi Party, hiring several men, including Joseph Goebbels, to spread the party in northern Germany. Fearing a complete ban on the party, Hitler agreed for the party to follow democratic processes in the future.
The Nazis Become a Force in Government
In the following years, the Nazi Party struggled to gain support as the German economy recovered and the German people regained trust in their system. However, the stock market crash in the United States in 1929 changed everything and threw Germany back into an economic crisis.
The Nazi Party surged in support, and in 1932, the Nazi Party came in second with 33.1% of the vote. After this election, and with the Reichstag (parliament) failing to form an effective governing coalition, Hitler was elected Chancellor as a means to bring unity to the political body. Along with this position, Hermann Goering was elected to the position of Minister of the Interior for Prussia.
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire. Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was found inside the building in incriminating circumstances and was blamed for the fire. It has been believed by many scholars, such as American journalist & war correspondent William L. Shirer, that the Nazi Party staged the fire, as it directly benefited from the emergency decrees thereafter, but the modern consensus is that Der Lubbe was solely to blame. By the late 1990s, historian Ian Kershaw made the claim that within the academic community, the consensus had completely changed. Nevertheless, there is still academic debate surrounding the subject.
Through the chaos, the Communist Party was suppressed, and another election was held, one in which the Nazi Party emerged as the most powerful party with 43.9% of the vote. Despite this victory, Hitler still didn’t have a total majority and was again forced into a coalition.
In March 1933, Hitler passed the Enabling Act, which effectively turned Germany into a dictatorship under his complete control.
The Years Before the War
As soon as Hitler became dictator, he consolidated his power by banning opposition and purging the Nazi Party of revolutionary individuals who would threaten Hitler’s position. On June 29, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives saw many prominent Nazi leaders assassinated. Among them was Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA). The SA, an effective tool in Hitler’s rise to power, was now a paramilitary threat, and after the assassination of Röhm, it was absorbed into the Wehrmacht.
With the death of the aging president Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, the last obstacle to complete control was removed. Hitler merged the office of the chancellor and the president to completely secure his position and the position of the Nazi Party.
Hitler left the running of Germany’s internal affairs to his ministers, who had substantial power within their ministerial portfolios. Overlapping positions of power meant that no minister could gain enough power to challenge Hitler’s position.
Hitler focused his attention on foreign policy and rebuilding Germany’s military. Because of its fascist government, Italy was a natural ally. Britain was a possible ally, but France was an enemy that needed to be neutralized. In the east, Hitler laid out plans to expand the Reich into Poland, Russia, and other lands inhabited by Slavs, whom he saw as inferior. His overarching and immediate concern, however, was the reunification of ethnic Germans in central Europe. It was this policy that led Germany to expand its borders to encompass areas that were inhabited by ethnic Germans.
The first target was the Saarland in the southwest, governed and administered by France after World War I. After a plebiscite, the territory was returned to Germany in 1935. In 1936, Hitler entered into a pact with Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy and, the following year, joined Japan in an anti-communist alliance.
The year 1936 would also be Germany’s first taste of war since 1918, as Hitler sent German air and armored units to help Francisco Franco’s Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. This was a testing ground for new German weapons and strategies, which proved highly effective.
In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria and was warmly welcomed by the majority of Austrian people. The next target was Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by these developments, the British sought assurances from Hitler, and the Führer agreed that these were Germany’s last territorial demands. Czechoslovakia was fully annexed in March 1939, and Hitler immediately turned his attention to Poland.
On September 1, the German army entered Poland, triggering the Second World War.
Hitler During the War
The first months of the war were characterized by German successes on the battlefield, although victory in Poland failed to achieve the peace Hitler desired with Britain. To mitigate the British threat, Germany invaded Norway. Hitler took great personal interest in this campaign and set a precedent for his involvement in military movements, which would increase as the war progressed.
In May 1940, the Germans invaded France and won a stunning victory. By June 22, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands had all capitulated, and the British expeditionary force had been forced to flee Europe. Still, the British were not interested in peace with Germany, and so Hitler, along with his generals, began planning the invasion of Britain. The Battle of Britain, however, was a complete defeat for the German Luftwaffe, and the British continued to fight, along with all its imperial possessions, dominions, and allies. Despite the setback, Hitler was confident that Germany would prevail, as the biggest theater of the war was yet to open.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR. Initial gains were immense. The Wehrmacht’s advance stunned the Soviets, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were captured. Josef Stalin, too, was stunned and shut himself in his room for several days before emerging to address the Soviet people.
Despite the setbacks, the Soviets managed to stop the Germans from capturing Moscow and Leningrad. The Russian winter set in, and Germany’s advance came to a halt. Winning valuable time, the Soviets rebuilt and reorganized their forces, managing to slow the German advance as the winter snow melted.
Germany began to struggle with logistical problems in 1942, and Hitler’s demeanor shifted from overwhelming confidence to anger at the situation. He increasingly meddled in the operations of his generals, firing and appointing authorities at will. With the failure of Rommel in North Africa and the disaster at Stalingrad and Kursk, the German war effort suffered severe setbacks and was forced to go on the defensive as the Soviets began to push back successfully.
The brutality of German policies increased further. Prisoners were simply shot or sent to camps where they would perish, and the mass killing of Jews began on an industrial scale as the Holocaust took on an even more violent nature. After the opening of the western front after the D-Day landings and the successful Soviet offensive in Operation Bagration, the writing was on the wall for Nazi Germany. Concentration and extermination camps increased their quotas and put their effort into killing as many Jews as possible before the Allies arrived.
To many Germans in the military, the situation was clear. Hitler was leading them on a path to ruin. Germany’s loss was inevitable. On July 20, an assassination attempt was made on Adolf Hitler. A bomb exploded in the military headquarters on the Eastern Front, but Hitler escaped with minor injuries. Claus von Stauffenberg, who headed the plot, was captured and executed. Erwin Rommel was also implicated in the plot and took his own life with poison.
Hitler descended into madness and denial and was intent on fighting to the bitter end, believing that fate would miraculously grant Germany final victory. Many Germans faithful to Hitler believed these ideas too, which were promulgated by Joseph Goebbels, the Reichsminister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed, describes how Hitler’s mental state was affected by a series of drugs he was taking, including opiates. As the war progressed in favor of Hitler’s enemies, his need for drugs increased, and his doctor, Theo Morell, used him as a testbed for a whole concoction of medication. This raises the question of to what degree his actions were the result of drug abuse and withdrawal.
From January 1945, Hitler isolated himself in the Chancellery in Berlin and the nearby bunker. As the Allies closed in, Hitler was overcome with nervous exhaustion, and his mental state deteriorated even further. At midnight on April 28-29, he married Eva Braun, and the following day, he retired to his room and shot himself. Braun ended her life at the same time by taking poison. As per his orders, his body was taken outside and incinerated. He was 56.
On May 7, the German army surrendered, and the following day the entire country capitulated.
Hitler’s legacy was one of violence and madness. It represented the very worst of what human beings are capable of. As a historical figure, he serves as an example and a lesson for future generations and a symbol of the dangerous power of greed and prejudice.