Hitler’s Early Life: Failure & Homelessness to Nationalism & Nazis

Adolf Hitler’s early life was marked by many struggles that shaped the man he would become.

Feb 7, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
hitler early life

 

Adolf Hitler, the tyrant who drew Europe into a maelstrom of carnage and destruction, is remembered for his abundant crimes against humanity. Often regarded as the most evil man in history, his legacy is one of revulsion and derision.

 

However, the path that led him to be such a powerful and dangerous man was not a straight line. He suffered trials and hardships that shaped his worldview and his actions that followed.

 

From a fairly insignificant background to becoming the chief of the Nazi Party, his story is one of success and many failures.

 

This is the story of how Hitler’s early life developed and how it created the man who took the world into its darkest period in history.

 

Adolf Hitler Before the First World War

hitler at school
A school photograph from 1899 with Adolf Hitler (top center). Source: Hitler Archive / Public Domain

 

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Adolf Hitler showed a desire for the creative side of life. At a young age, he told his parents he wanted to become an artist, but this was not the direction his father, Alois, had envisioned for his son. Alois was a civil servant in the customs bureau and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Adolf was not interested at all. He loathed his school days and rebelled against his teachers and his father. He deliberately performed poorly and earned the ire of his father, who would mete out frequent beatings to the young Adolf.

 

Adolf’s mother, Klara, was much more sympathetic to Adolf’s situation, but she was powerless to help her son. In 1903, when Adolf was 13, his father died suddenly, most likely from a pleural hemorrhage. Hitler was stricken with grief, but Alois’ death did mean a change of fortune. His mother allowed her son to change schools. This change led to a marked improvement in Adolf’s results as a student, and he was allowed to explore his creative side without fear of his father or the derision of his teachers.

 

adolf hitler painting 1
A painting by Adolf Hitler. Source: Reuters via BBC

 

Adolf finished school in 1905, but it would be over a year before he took his ambitions seriously. In 1907, he moved to Vienna and attempted to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. His application was rejected, and when he tried again in 1908, his attempts met the same fate. He soon ran out of money and lived a Bohemian life with other artists on the streets of Vienna.

 

His mother died in 1907 from breast cancer at the age of 47, and this left Hitler heartbroken, for he had been very close to his mother. He sat next to her body for a long time and refused to let it be removed. He was utterly inconsolable. His mother had been the greatest source of kindness in his miserable life. The only tenderness he had ever known was gone; he would carry the grief with him for the rest of his life. Professor Brett Kahr suggests that Hitler’s relationship with his mother affected his relationship with other women, as he could never let her go.

 

During this time, however, he had a friend in August Kubizek who described Adolf as being a person who stayed up late and often slept till noon. His association with Kubizek ended abruptly in 1908 when Hitler moved out of the apartment where they both stayed and left no forwarding address.

 

adolf hitler vienna opera house
A painting by Adolf Hitler of the Vienna Opera House. Source: Hitler Archive / Public Domain

 

His financial situation was dire, and for a brief period in December 1909, he lived in a homeless shelter before finding enough money to live in a dormitory for boys. He showed little interest in women and stuck to the mores of his strictly Catholic upbringing, believing that men and women should remain celibate until marriage. He was moody and hung around men’s homes, often irritating people by making political speeches. When he was contradicted, he was prone to outbursts of anger.

 

Hitler made no effort to get a regular job and made what money he could by doing the occasional opportunistic labor job and selling his paintings on the streets and to shops where they were used as frame fillers. He also painted posters for small businesses. He was often aided by Reinhold Hanisch, a man he met at a dormitory, but the two quarreled, and Hitler accused him of theft, falsely testifying against him and getting him an 8-day jail sentence. Hanisch would later be murdered on Hitler’s orders in 1938 after Hanisch spoke to the press about Hitler.

 

mein kampf book
A copy of Mein Kampf. Source: Creative Commons / Store Norske Leksikon

 

Thereafter, Hitler found new help in the form of Josef Neumann, a Jew who helped him sell his paintings. Hitler, however, was noted for his lack of empathy, and his political interests led him towards anti-Semitism, which was a popular trend in Vienna at the time. He was particularly influenced by the mayor of Vienna, a man named Karl Lueger, who was known for his anti-Semitic tendencies.

 

In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler noted how it was around this time when he became staunchly anti-Semitic. On one occasion, he saw a Jew wearing a black caftan and sporting Hasidic locks of hair. He asked himself if this was a Jew and then asked himself, “Is this a German?”

 

At this point, he began to immerse himself more in political and anti-Semitic literature. In 1913, his financial situation improved significantly when he received his inheritance. Knowing that he was eligible for mandatory military service in Austria, Hitler left the country and moved to Munich in Germany. He loathed the idea of serving in the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when war broke out, Hitler immediately signed up to serve in the German armed forces. Despite not actually being a German citizen, his application was accepted.

 

Hitler During the First World War

group photo hitler
Hitler (4th from right) with his comrades during the First World War. Source: Hitler Archive / Public Domain

 

When war broke out, Hitler reportedly sank to his knees and thanked God for being alive. For him, it was a way out of his miserable life of barely sustaining himself with his paintings. It was a way for him to make something of his life and to prove his worth. And by all accounts, this is exactly what he did. He was a brave soldier.

 

Hitler served with the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (1st Company of the List Regiment). Compared with the undisciplined nature of his past, Hitler was the complete opposite while in the army. He was a disciplinarian and loner, showing extreme distaste for his comrades visiting French prostitutes and telling erotic stories. Despite this, he was well-liked by his fellows.

 

iron cross 2nd class
An Iron Cross Second Class from 1914. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich

 

In October 1914, he fought in the First Battle of Ypres. The scene was a massacre, and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Of Hitler’s company of 250 men, he was one of only 42 who survived. After the battle, he was promoted to lance-corporal and served as a courier, delivering messages to and from the front, winning significant respect from his peers and officers alike. He was also decorated with the Iron Cross, Second Class.

 

In 1915, Hitler adopted a stray fox terrier, which he named “Fuchsl”. He developed a great fondness for the dog, so in 1917, when Fuchsl went missing, along with Hitler’s portfolio of paintings and sketches (probably stolen), Hitler was heartbroken.

 

world war one
Photograph of a German soldier on the Western Front, 1918. Source: Deutsches Historisches Museum, Lebendiges Museum Online

 

Hitler fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the Battle of Arras in 1917, and the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. During the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded in his left thigh by artillery. He begged not to be evacuated but was taken out of combat and spent several months recovering in Brandenburg and Munich. Hitler wrote a letter to his commanding officer, begging to return to duty. He couldn’t stand being in Munich while his comrades were at the front. He was returned to the trenches in March 1917.

 

In 1918, Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class. He and many of his comrades would also be injured in a mustard gas attack. He was blinded, lost his voice, and was immediately sent to the hospital. While recovering, he heard of Germany’s surrender. It took him by surprise, and he was enraged. Like many other Germans, he was disheartened and angered by the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war and imposed severe penalties on Germany. Hitler decided that he wanted to become a politician so that he could fight against this injustice.

 

Hitler & the Nazi Party

hermann otto hoyer in the beginning was the word
In the Beginning was the Word by Hermann Otto Hoyer, 1937. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC

 

After the war, Hitler stayed in the military despite the vast majority of it being disbanded. He managed to keep his position and was assigned the duty of being an undercover agent. He infiltrated the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) and was taken in by the anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, and anti-Marxist stance of the party and its leader, Anton Drexler, who was impressed with Hitler’s oratory skills.

 

In 1920, he became the chief public speaker for the party, and shortly thereafter, he designed the party’s swastika flag and renamed the party the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) or Nazi for short.

 

hitler in 1927
Hitler in 1927. Source: Creative Commons via Nasjonal Digital Læringsarena.

 

Through the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler found his success. His army days had given him personal confidence and the respect of his peers. The Nazis gave him an avenue to pursue his personal beliefs. His personal beliefs, however, would be a disaster for the world.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.