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THE GERMAN PARTY SYSTEM

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GLOSSARY OF GERMAN TERMS

Ahnenpass (“racial passport”)

Bürgfrieden (political truce)

Deutschlandflug (flight over Germany)

Einzelaktionen (individual/independent actions)

Gauleiter (district leader)

Hofoper (Court Opera House–Vienna)

Landespolizei (State Police)

Lebensraum (living space)

Mischling (mix/hybrid)

Ortsgruppen (local party chapters)

Realschule (technical school)

Salonfähig (respectable)

Schaffenden (productive)

Stimmungsbericht (morale report)

Völkisch (populist)

Volksbewegung (people’s movement)

Volksempfänger (people’s radio)

Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community)

Volksgenossen (people’s comrades)

Volkskörper (body of the people)

Wählerei (choice/vote)

1


THE SERPENT’S EGG

Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn on the German-Austrian border. His father, Alois Hitler, was a provincial customs official of liberal views who had risen from an unpromising background to the respectable status of middle-grade civil servant of the Habsburg Empire. Alois’s patrimony was a source of controversy and rumor. He was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schicklgruber and an unknown father. In 1842 Maria Anna married Johann Georg Hiedler, and in 1876 Alois adopted the name of his stepfather, later changing the spelling to Hitler. As the Nazis came to prominence and Adolf Hitler emerged a national political figure, there was some speculation that Adolf’s unknown grandfather was Jewish, but no credible evidence to support such rumors has ever surfaced.

The family moved several times, from Braunau to Passau to Linz, where Adolf spent most of his unexceptional youth. There was nothing notable about him in his early life, nothing to suggest potential of any sort. He read, he daydreamed—he was a great artist, a great architect, the builder of monumental buildings and grand cities, a Wagnerian hero. None of these dreams translated into serious work or training. He loved music, especially the operas of Richard Wagner, but had only a rudimentary knowledge of music. He liked to sketch, to paint in watercolors, but he had neither the talent nor the work ethic to achieve the grandiose successes he envisioned.

Hitler’s father provided a comfortable existence for the family. He hoped that young Adolf would follow him into government service, and he had little patience with his son’s dreaminess. He was a gruff, authoritarian paterfamilias, a strict disciplinarian who terrorized his indolent son. Beatings were not infrequent. Adolf took refuge with his mother, Klara, who doted on him. Alois had three children from an earlier marriage but three of his children with Klara died, two brothers and a sister, before Adolf was born, and Klara was determined to protect this son spared by providence. Sickly as a baby, he grew to be very much a mamma’s boy, lazy, self-indulgent, and coddled. His father died in 1903, when Adolf was fourteen, easing some of the tension in the Hitler household.

Young Adolf was a loner, a perpetual outsider. He had few friends, in fact, only one to speak of. He showed little interest in girls, had no sweethearts or even friendly relationships with the opposite sex. He shied away from physical contact, only reluctantly shaking hands; he was “almost pathologically sensitive about anything concerning the body,” according to his one genuine friend, the son of an upholsterer in Linz, August Kubizek, who aspired to be a musician. Together the boys roamed the Danubian countryside, strolled the streets of Linz, and attended the opera, Adolf expounding all the while on his many enthusiasms. Kubizek’s essential qualification for Hitler’s friendship was that he was a good listener. Impressionable and unassertive, he hung on Adolf’s every word. In return he was granted visiting rights into Hitler’s intense fantasy world, a world of grand illusions in which Adolf Hitler would be recognized as an artistic giant, an architectural genius, a shaper of worlds.

Hitler was, to put it generously, an indifferent student. His grades were so poor at the technical school (Realschule)—he failed math; he failed German!—that he was held back a year and forced to take qualifying exams to avoid being held back a second time. Misunderstood and unappreciated, by his lights, he had had enough, and at age sixteen he left school without a degree. He set his sights on a career in art and hoped to gain admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In July 1907 he convinced his mother that he should go to Vienna to prepare for the entrance exam, which was held every year in October. Initially he was captivated by the city, especially its magisterial buildings—the Opera, the Parliament, all the grand structures along the Ringstrasse. It was the great world, far from provincial Linz.

Supremely confident in his own talents, he did little in the way of preparation for the exam. He submitted a portfolio of his drawings and sat for the exam, but to his utter astonishment he failed. “I was so convinced that I would be successful that when I received my rejection, it struck me as a bolt from the blue.” It is telling that while Hitler was a passable draftsman—he could draw buildings, street scenes, structures of all kinds—he was unable to render the human form. He was hopelessly unqualified for painting, one examiner told him. Perhaps he was better suited for architecture. Hitler liked the idea, but the academy’s School of Architecture required a high school degree or at least some previous technical training, which thanks to his own negligence he could not provide. There was, he realized, no chance that he could study painting or architecture. Hitler kept this humiliating rejection a secret, never telling his gravely ill mother and waiting months before confessing it to his loyal friend Kubizek. In December 1907, his mother died after a painful and protracted battle with cancer. Adolf rushed back to Linz to care for her in her final days and was devastated when she finally succumbed. His mother’s death shook Hitler to the core. The family doctor, a Jewish physician from Linz, later recalled that he had never seen anyone so overcome with grief as eighteen-year-old Adolf.

After settling his mother’s affairs and arranging for his orphan’s pension to be forwarded, he returned to Vienna in January 1908, still hoping to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. He settled back into his dingy room in the Stumpergasse, located in a derelict section of the city near the West Train Station. When he learned that Kubizek was preparing for the entrance exam at the Conservatory for Music, Hitler convinced him to share his quarters. The two young men, neither yet twenty, lived together for five intense months, from February to the end of July in 1908. Kubizek provided the perfect audience for his friend’s endless lectures. Adolf had opinions, passionate opinions, about everything—art, opera, architecture, politics, morality, even diet. When Kubizek meekly ventured to offer his own opinion, Hitler would burst into a rage, storming around their shabby room, shouting imprecations, pounding on the door, the walls, and Kubizek’s rented piano. He would tolerate no dissent. He was determined to retake the academy’s admission exam, but he could not be moved to prepare. While Kubizek studied diligently and passed his entrance exam to the conservatory, Hitler spent his time developing fantastical schemes of all kinds—he would write an opera, a play, reform workers’ housing in Vienna, rebuild the city of Linz; he would establish a traveling symphony orchestra and even develop a new soft drink. His feverish imagination lurched from one grandiose project to the next without missing a beat. When a new inspiration seized him, he would talk obsessively about it for days, sometimes weeks; he would make notes, write scenes, draw sketches, only to drop the whole thing from one day to the next, never to mention it again. He could never complete a project.

As long as the money from home lasted, Adolf led a life of idleness. He dallied in cafés, read the free newspapers available there; he went to the opera; he visited the museums and art galleries. It was a bohemian existence, staying up to all hours, sleeping late, bound by no fixed schedule—a routine that he would maintain throughout the Third Reich, even into the darkest days of the Second World War. He had few physical needs. He neither smoked nor drank and rarely ate meat. There were no women in his life during the Vienna years. He was fascinated but frightened by sex, afraid of women, and he remained terrified of syphilis until the end of his life. The two young men lived frugally, eating spartan meals, buying little but the bare necessities. They subsisted in their cheap, dimly lit room, with its “crumbling walls, bug infested furniture and constant smell of kerosene,” and considered themselves in solidarity with the long-suffering lower classes they found all around them—a solidarity, however, that did not include mingling or interacting with them. All the while Hitler was receiving his monthly orphan’s pension and a portion of his father’s estate, the remainder to be paid when he turned twenty-four. He lived frugally, but he was not, as he would later imply, on the brink of starvation or in desperate straits.

His one extravagance was the opera. Hitler and Kubizek were regulars at the magnificent Hofoper, standing in line for hours hoping to buy tickets for the cheap seats or standing room for several nights of the week. For Hitler it was money well spent. He appreciated Verdi and Puccini, but he strongly preferred German composers and was utterly enthralled by Wagner. He was a keen analyst of the productions, paying particular attention to all the elements of stagecraft—lighting, scenery, special effects, the placement of the actors, and their dramatic entrances and exits from the stage—all of which he later employed to great effect in Nazi propaganda. His nights at the opera were far more than a musical experience for him; they were his spiritual sustenance, his inspiration, and his escape. Listening to Lohengrin, his favorite, or Parsifal or the Ring, he would be mesmerized for hours, transported into Wagner’s mythical world of fog-shrouded mountains and doomed Nordic heroes. These were the only occasions, Kubizek realized, that Hitler seemed calm and at peace. Yet, he was an angry man. His moods alternated between frenzied elation and the darkest depression. His friend worried that Adolf “had become unbalanced. He would fly into a temper at the slightest thing,” Kubizek recalled. “He was at odds with the world. Wherever he looked, he saw injustice, hate and enmity. Nothing was free from his criticism; nothing found favor in his eyes.” At the slightest provocation, he railed against “the times, against the whole world; choking with his catalogue of hates, he would pour his fury over everything, against mankind in general who did not understand him, who did not appreciate him and by whom he was persecuted.”

In July 1908, while Kubizek was away in Linz for his summer break, Hitler was once again turned down by the academy. This second rejection came as an even more devastating blow than the first, for after reviewing his drawings the admissions committee dismissed them as being without merit and pronounced young Hitler unqualified even to sit for the entrance exam. This time he was not so much shocked as enraged. Who were these pompous professors to reject him? How could these pedants have failed to appreciate his work, his potential, his genius! They were nothing but “a lot of old-fashioned fossilized civil servants, bureaucrats, devoid of understanding, stupid lumps of officials. The whole Academy,” he thundered, “ought to be blown up.” In the fall of 1908, with no career training, no position, and no prospects, he promised himself that he would continue his “studies” on his own; he would show all those who had scorned him and conspired against him.

In spite of these setbacks, Hitler remained supremely confident, possessed of a stunning amalgam of arrogance, anger, and self-pity that would remain the core of his personality for the rest of his life. His failure at the academy did not motivate him to undertake any systematic study. He remained a hopeless dilettante, dabbling, fantisizing, and sliding ever deeper into a world of illusion, where he would yet emerge, like Wagner, as the triumphant artist hero who would stun the world with his ascent from obscurity to greatness.

Almost out of money and embarrassed by his second humiliating failure at the academy, he did not want to face Kubizek again. He gave notice, paid his portion of the rent, and, while his friend was still away in Linz, simply vanished, leaving no forwarding address. Kubizek would not see him again for thirty years. After slipping his moorings in the Stumpergasse, Hitler drifted from squalid room to squalid room, beginning a gradual descent into the dismal netherworld of Vienna. He had squandered most of his father’s legacy, and his orphan’s pension was hardly enough to live on. He lost contact with his family—his Aunt Johanna, his half-sister Angela, and little sister Paula had no idea where he was. For months he lived on the streets; he slept in parks and all-night cafés, under bridges, on doorsteps, finding occasional refuge in flophouses and homeless shelters. He ate in charity kitchens. He had no overcoat; his once neat clothes were tattered and stained from the disinfectant used in the homeless shelters, and his dilapidated shoes were falling apart, their soles worn paper thin. In winter he was forced to take shelter during the day in a series of “warming rooms” provided by churches and other charitable organizations. He slept, when he could, in the Shelter for Homeless Men at Meidling, which provided a warm, cavernous dormitory, a meal of bread and soup, a shower, and a simple cot for the night. Every morning he was turned out for the day, and every evening found him once again standing in line with other wretched souls, the down-and-out flotsam of Vienna, hoping to be admitted to the shelter for the night. He had hit rock bottom.

In later years Hitler, without the slightest corroboration, maintained that during this gloomy period he found occasional work as a day laborer in construction, sometimes carrying bags at the railway station and shoveling snow. For much of 1909 he subsisted on a meager diet of milk, bread, and thin soup and was so blade thin, so obviously frail that he might easily have passed for a consumptive. He certainly did not work “for years in the building trade,” and it is unlikely that any construction foreman in 1908 would have hired this sallow, unkempt young man when he had so many healthy jobless candidates to choose from. Carrying luggage and shoveling snow seem just as improbable.

In January 1910 with the aid of a small-time operator and habitué of the Meidling shelter, Reinhold Hanisch, he landed a spot in a well-appointed home for the laboring poor. Administered by the government and funded by contributions from prominent Jewish families, the Home for Men in the Meldemannstrasse was no cheap flophouse. Along with the usual derelicts and desperate cases, its inhabitants also included veterans, workers, respectable, educated men temporarily down on their luck, trying to keep their nose above water until times improved. It provided a simple meal in the evening, a communal kitchen where the men could cook their own meals, a cubicle for each inhabitant that allowed the men a modicum of privacy, and maintained a library and reading room. Ensconced in the library of the home, Hitler read voraciously with all the scattershot miscellany of the autodidact, supplementing the pamphlets and penny press of the cafés with bits and pieces of philosophy, history, art, and music. He later claimed to have read five hundred books while living in the Meldemannstrasse home, but this was a typical exaggeration. His reading appears to have been concentrated primarily on newspapers, pamphlets, and condensations of serious works found on the library shelves.

During his time in the men’s home between 1909 and 1913, he survived by painting postcards of Viennese landmarks. In order to purchase his art supplies, he broke his silence and, at the prompting of Hanisch, contacted his Aunt Johanna. Fighting back his shame, he asked for a loan, probably implying that it was to help him with his studies. She responded not with a loan but with a generous gift, and possibly sent occasional funds to him thereafter. Thus equipped, he worked from photographs and prints, copying them mechanically in the home’s reading room. He rarely ventured forth to sell them—too much direct contact with the public. Instead, he made an arrangement with Hanisch, who hawked them in the cafés and pubs and to small-time, mostly Jewish art dealers. Hanisch also sold some slightly larger paintings to frame shops and furniture dealers, who attached them as a sales decoration to the backs of sofas—a common practice in showrooms. Hitler and his partners—later a Hungarian Jew named Jacob Neubauer and others took over for Hanisch—split the meager proceeds fifty-fifty. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but it was stable, and it offered more than a modicum of comfort.

While at the Men’s Home, Hitler engaged in almost daily disputations, sometimes about art, sometimes about music, but often about politics and the miserable state of affairs in Vienna, the city he had come to loathe. He lectured; he argued; he harangued. At the first hint of a political discussion he would spring from his chair, leaving his postcards unfinished, to thunder at his fellow patrons. He fulminated against the Slavs, the Socialists, the labor unions. His favorite targets were “the Jesuits and the Reds,” but, oddly enough considering the violent anti-Semitic obsession that would later come to dominate his life, not the Jews. Sometimes the men fired back at him; sometimes they just laughed at his earnest, overheated rhetoric, a reaction that sent a chagrined Hitler back to his cubicle to be consoled by Hanisch. Hitler in this period was an ardent German nationalist, a champion of all things German and contemptuous of the moldering multinational Habsburg Empire, with its polyglot population of Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians, Italians, and Jews. Nowhere was that exotic brew of ethnicities, languages, and national cultures more in evidence than in Vienna. Hitler sometimes attended the sessions of the Austrian Parliament where he watched from the gallery as representatives of the various nationalities spewed venom at one another in a cacophony of languages, and the sessions disintegrated into chaos. The delegates rang cowbells, sang competing national songs, chanted party slogans, and sometimes even fought in the aisles. These rancorous displays of ethnic and class conflict filled Hitler with disgust, revealing to him the depths of Habsburg impotence and the chaos and dysfunction at the core of parliamentary democracy.

During Hitler’s years in Vienna an air of decay, of impending crisis hung in its narrow streets and its broad sunlit boulevards. The city was experiencing a fin de siècle cultural flowering—it was the center of the European avant-garde, home to composers Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler, to literary figures Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and to painters such as Gustav Klimt; it was the cradle of psychotherapy, the home of Sigmund Freud. Hitler had no interest in any of these manifestations of the Modern. His Vienna was a city of slums and squalor, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. It was a cold, pitiless dog-eat-dog world where the strong prevailed and the weak fell by the wayside, a dynamic that permanently shaped his view of the world and its most elemental principles.

Vienna was also a city bristling with class and ethnic hatreds. In 1908 it was the sixth largest city in the world, and its population was growing by thirty thousand each month. Although the Germans had long enjoyed a position of power and privilege in the city (and in the empire), that predominance was increasingly threatened, especially after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1907. Like many Germans appalled by the specter of being overwhelmed by the “inferior peoples” of the empire, Hitler was an ardent admirer of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, the leader of the Austrian Pan-German movement. Schönerer rose to political prominence in the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, when he appeared on the scene as a rabid German nationalist, deploring Austria’s exclusion from the Bismarckian Reich and lamenting the dilution of German preeminence in the Habsburg Empire. In the last decades of the nineteenth century Schönerer’s Pan-German movement gained a prominence far beyond its numbers, as its leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers carried Schönerer’s words into every German corner of the empire.

Above all else, he protested the influx of Eastern European Jews into Vienna, and in 1884 introduced a bill to block Jewish immigration into the capital. Schönerer’s brand of anti-Semitism was a new phenomenon in Austria; it was not only religious and socioeconomic but racial in nature. The motto of his Pan-German movement was “Through Purity to Unity,” and Schönerer famously declared that “a Jew remains a Jew, whether he is baptized or not.” He favored a strict separation of the races, arguing that whoever refused to embrace anti-Semitism was a “traitor to the German Volk” and “a slave of the Jews.” The Jews were “like vampires” who derived their strength by “sucking the blood of the Aryan peoples.” Hence, “every German had the duty to help . . . eliminate Jewry.”

He also launched an “Away from Rome” campaign against the Catholic Church and engaged in a running battle with the liberal “Jewish press.” He inveighed against big business and liberal economic policies that hurt tradesmen and small farmers. In addition to its anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic stance, the Pan-German movement called on its followers to adhere to a strict dietary regimen—“Aryans” should be vegetarians and should abstain from tobacco and alcohol. As the movement gained momentum, it produced a full-blown Schönerer cult, generating songs and poems devoted to its self-styled “Führer” and introduced the phrase Heil dem Führer (Hail to the Leader!) into the country’s political lexicon.

Hitler admired Schönerer and his Pan-German movement, but when he arrived in Vienna, it was the city’s rabble-rousing populist mayor, Karl Lueger, who most impressed him. Lueger, who had been mayor since 1897, had once been an admirer of Schönerer, but Lueger was not a German nationalist but a devout Catholic and a loyal subject of the Habsburg monarchy. He did, however, share Schönerer’s rabid anti-Semitism, becoming, even more than Schönerer, the very embodiment of the anti-Semitic movement in Austria. In contrast to Schönerer, Lueger’s anti-Semitism was not racial but religious, though for many the distinction was moot. A master politician who was, even an opponent acknowledged, “the uncrowned king” of the city, he understood how to tap the anti-Semitic paranoia stirred up by Schönerer to mobilize support among his largely lower-middle-class following.

The influx of Eastern European Jews into the empire in the late nineteenth century was an incandescent issue, and Lueger vigorously exploited it. “Greater Vienna,” he warned, “must not become greater Jerusalem.” In Vienna, he complained, Jews had become as plentiful as “sand on the beach.” The Jews dominated the city, controlling the press, the banks, big capital, and even the Social Democrats were nothing more than “the protection squad of the Jews.” So inflammatory was his rhetoric, so demagogic his public appearances that despite Lueger’s electoral victories in 1895 and 1896 the aged Emperor Franz Joseph refused to recognize him as mayor for two years.

It was not so much Lueger’s ideological views that most impressed Hitler but his unrivaled ability to mobilize popular support. In an emerging age of mass politics Lueger presented himself as the “tribune of the people.” Always image conscious, he paid great attention to the theatrics of politics, and his numerous public appearances were carefully staged for maximum impact. Lueger was an exemplar of a new kind of politician. A charismatic speaker, he did not appeal to the educated, cultured Vienna. He spoke in a populist idiom, often lapsing into dialect, and his ability to move crowds, to agitate, and to mobilize the only recently enfranchised lower middle class made a deep impression on Hitler.

While Schönerer relentlessly linked the Jews with big capital and liberals, Lueger was determined to associate Jews with the Social Democratic movement as well. Just as in Germany, the Social Democrats and the labor unions were making steady, sometimes spectacular gains in Austria, and the reaction to the threat they posed was swift and shrill. Typical was the headline in Lueger’s Deutsches Volksblatt: “Who leads Social Democracy? The Jews. . . . Who aids them with the public? The entire Jewish press. And who gives them money: Jewish high finance. Just as in Russia, the Jews are the agitators and instigators [of disorder].” When the Socialists held a rally for an expanded suffrage in 1908, the Lueger press countered with the slogan: “Down with the Terrorism of Jewry.”

Hitler’s fear and loathing of Marxism, embodied in the Social Democratic movement and the labor unions, certainly had its origins in Vienna. He was frightened by the militant Social Democrats but also impressed by their mastery of propaganda and mass mobilization. He later wrote that after watching a Social Democratic demonstration, for the first time he “understood the infamous spiritual terror which this movement exerts, particularly on the bourgeoisie, which is neither morally nor mentally equal to such attacks.” At a given signal, the Socialists could unleash “a veritable barrage of lies and slanders against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down. . . . This is a tactic based on precise calculation of all human weaknesses, and its result will lead to success with almost mathematical certainty.” The Social Democrats also taught Hitler another important lesson, one he would employ to great effect during his rise to power and, most terrifyingly, in the Third Reich: “an understanding of the importance of physical terror toward the individual and the masses.”

Given the torrent of anti-Semitic influences churning around him during his Vienna years, it seems reasonable to locate the origins of Hitler’s pathological hatred of the Jews at that time and place. And yet, firsthand testimony about Hitler’s attitudes toward Jews in those years is both sparse and contradictory. Kubizek maintained that Hitler arrived in Vienna already an anti-Semite, and that these feelings only intensified in the charged atmosphere of the city. Writing a decade later, Hitler, too, claimed that he “left Vienna as an absolute Anti-Semite, as a mortal enemy of the entire Marxist world view.” He was no doubt influenced by Schönerer and Lueger and the powerful current of vicious anti-Semitism that coursed through Austrian and especially Viennese political culture in the early years of the twentieth century. He certainly read the anti-Semitic newspapers and broadsheets that could easily be found in the cafés and newsstands and on the benches of the shelters.

And yet Hanisch, his close associate in the homeless shelters, claimed never to have heard him utter an anti-Semitic remark. “In those days,” Hanisch declared, “Hitler was by no means a Jew hater.” Hitler, he reports, was on friendly terms with Jews in the shelter, had good relations with Jewish art dealers, and his closest associate in the Meldemannstrasse home, Jacob Neubauer, was a Hungarian Jew. Neubauer helped obtain a winter coat for Hitler, and the two even planned a trip to Munich together. Of course, it could be that anti-Semitism was such a commonplace in his surroundings that his anti-Jewish views were simply too unexceptional to be noticed or remembered. Never open with his feelings, Hitler might also have kept his views to himself for quite pragmatic reasons—he needed the assistance of Jewish associates in the men’s home and the goodwill of the Jewish art dealers who bought his paintings. Both are quite possible, but the fact remains that there is no documented evidence of Hitler making anti-Semitic remarks or displaying anti-Semitic attitudes while in Vienna.

Still, whatever can be surmised from his personal relations with individual Jews, there can be no doubt that during his years in Vienna Hitler absorbed the rampant anti-Semitism of the city—possibly the most odious in Europe—reading from the scurrilous Jew-baiting gutter press available in the downtrodden neighborhoods he haunted. He clearly internalized the anti-Semitic language of Lueger and Schönerer, their slogans, their clichés, their appeals, their hatreds. “Vienna,” he later wrote, “was and remained for me the hardest, though most thorough, school of my life. I had set foot in this town while still half a boy and I left it a man grown quiet and grave. In it I obtained the foundations for a philosophy in general and a political view in particular which later I only needed to supplement in detail, but which never left me.” Yet when he left Vienna in 1913, his anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist attitudes amounted to little more than a jumble of inchoate ideas, personal prejudices, resentments, and fears that had not yet crystallized into a systematic worldview or ideology. That would come only in the aftermath of the First World War, in the turbulent crucible of revolutionary Munich.

What Hitler did learn in Vienna was hate, distrust, suspicion, a Darwinian view of human relations, and a lifelong resentment against comfortable bourgeois convention and the establishment that had crushed his ambitions, humiliated him, and reduced him to the pitiless life of homeless shelters, warming rooms, and soup kitchens. This was the deeply ingrained view of the world that would not change. In those prewar years, he did not have friends and did not want or need them. This was not simple shyness or social awkwardness. For all his maudlin statements later about loneliness, a friend, even a close associate, was unwelcome. Anyone who might intrude into his private world where his views, his enthusiasms, his hatreds, his delusions held sway was a threat. In spite of the fact that he was an utter failure in Vienna, a nobody, in the interior world of his colossal narcissism, he was neither shy nor awkward nor diffident. There he reigned supreme. There he was the maker of worlds.


Hitler left Vienna in May 1913. His destination was Munich. He had long dreamed of living in Germany, and Munich, whose many museums and galleries he had once visited as a boy, exerted an almost magnetic attraction for him. There he would continue his “studies” and finally achieve the artistic recognition that had been so cruelly denied him in Vienna. Two more immediate events triggered his move. On April 20, 1913, his twenty-fourth birthday, he received the balance of his father’s legacy, and for the first time had the resources to fulfill his dream. He could buy suitable clothes, look presentable; he could purchase a railway ticket; he could afford a modest room. More pressing was a far less pleasant incentive. In 1909 he had failed to register for the Austrian draft as required by law. Nor had he done so in subsequent years. He had no intention of serving in the army of the empire he detested. Although he later claimed to have left Austria “for primarily political reasons,” implying some sort of principled political protest, he left to avoid military service. Having passed safely into Germany, he believed that the Austrian authorities had forgotten him and that he was at any rate beyond their reach. But that was not the case. Far from forgetting him, the Linz police were on his trail, and unbeknownst to him, they were closing in. Failing to register for military service was a serious offense, but leaving the country under these circumstances amounted to desertion, which carried a severe prison sentence. By 1913 he was officially classified a draft dodger.

For months Hitler lived undisturbed in Munich. He was painting postcards again, now of Munich landmarks, and selling them in the cafés and beer halls that dotted the city. He took a room in the home of a respectable family and continued to live the life bohemian, sleeping late, lounging in cafés, reading deep into the night. He had no friends. His landlady would later recall that in the year that young Herr Hitler was her boarder, he had no visitors. Still, reminiscing nostalgically about his time in Munich, he would write that these fifteen months were “the happiest and by far the most contented of my life.”

Then in January 1914, a shock. Answering a knock at his door, he opened it to find an officer of the Munich criminal police waiting for him. He was taken into custody and delivered to the Austrian consulate, where he would be formally charged and returned to Linz. In a series of frantic telegrams and letters between Hitler and the Linz police, he pled his case. In a three-and-a-half-page letter he accepted responsibility but claimed it had all been a misunderstanding. He had, indeed, failed to register in 1909 when he was down and out in Vienna but had done so in 1910; then he had heard nothing further from the Linz authorities, and he had let the matter slide. He made such an abjectly humble impression that the consul took pity on him and agreed to allow him to report to nearby Salzburg rather than returning to Linz for his induction. In Salzburg, frail and visibly weak, he was declared physically unfit for military service.

Shaken but relieved, he returned to Munich, where he continued to drift along. He would later claim that during this period in Munich he made a study of Marxism, but he participated in no organized political activity; he joined no party or political association, and there is scant evidence that he actually read Marx. At any rate, as he later acknowledged, he read to confirm his views, not to learn. He was apparently content to live the life of a beer hall intellectual, a café radical, haranguing anyone who would listen to his views on the mounting threats to Germany. Still directionless, he was living day to day, treading water, with no plan, no career, and no future. In Munich, as in Vienna, he remained a nonentity, a mere shadow.

Then came the war.

August 2, 1914, the day after war was declared, found a twenty-five-year-old Hitler in the cheering throng gathered on the Odeonsplatz, waving his hat in jubilation, singing “Deutschland über Alles” and “Die Wacht am Rhein.” It was, he later wrote, the happiest day of his life. “To me, those hours seemed like a release from the painful feelings of my youth. . . . Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” The country was swept up in a typhoon of patriotic enthusiasm. Schoolboys rushed to the colors; married men enlisted; jubilant civilians reveled in the streets, as if suddenly released from years of pent-up tension. The Kaiser issued a dramatic call for national unity, a Burgfrieden or political truce, summoning all Germans to put aside their deep social and political differences while the enemy was at the gates. From this day forward, he declared, he would no longer recognize parties; he would recognize only Germans. Even the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a party with an ostensibly radical Marxist platform and an implacable critic of the government, overcame its pacifist scruples and joined the war effort. This was a major victory for the regime, which viewed the Social Democrats as dangerous subversives determined to undermine the capitalist system and the conservative political order with it. Between 1890 and the outbreak of war, the SPD had become the largest, most energetic party in the Reich, relentlessly pressing for fundamental political and social reforms. Like all socialist parties in Europe, it was also officially pacifist. But in the “spirit of 1914,” the bitterly divisive social and political issues that had rent the country for decades seemed swept beneath the surface as the nation girded for war.

Although he was an Austrian citizen, Hitler immediately enlisted in the German army (no questions were asked) and he was assigned to the 16th Reserve Regiment of the 1st Bavarian Infantry Division, called the List Regiment after its commander Julius von List. The unit received rudimentary training in Munich and was promptly dispatched to Flanders, where it was thrown into the heavy fighting near Ypres. It was a disaster. In the regiment’s first few months of combat, it suffered roughly 70 percent casualties, including the death of its commanding officer. For four brutal years, Hitler served on the Western Front as a dispatch runner, carrying messages from regimental headquarters to the front lines. Although he was never a soldier in the trenches, as he subsequently implied, his was a dangerous job, and he performed it with distinction. Twice wounded, he was awarded the Iron Cross second class in 1916, and two years later the Iron Cross first class for bravery, a rare achievement for an enlisted man, especially a dispatch runner. Later the Nazi propaganda machine would greatly embellish Hitler’s war record, claiming among other fictions that he had won his Iron Cross first class by singlehandedly capturing seven French soldiers. Still, his war was dangerous enough. In September 1916 he was hit in the thigh by a shard of English shrapnel when an artillery shell slammed into regimental messengers’ dugout two kilometers behind the front, killing and severely wounding almost everyone there.

Hitler spent nearly two months recuperating in Germany, where he was allowed a brief visit to Berlin before being transferred to a replacement battalion in Munich. He had not been in Germany since the outbreak of the war, and he found the mood drastically changed. He was appalled by the widespread disaffection and defeatism he found among both the soldiers and the hard-strapped civilian population. In Berlin “there was dire misery everywhere. The big city was suffering from hunger. Discontent was great.” Defeatism was rampant among the troops he encountered in the hospital and elsewhere, as “shirkers” ridiculed the army and bragged about their ruses to avoid combat. “But,” he added, “Munich was much worse.” He hardly recognized the city. There he found “anger, discontent, cursing” wherever he went. “The general mood was miserable: to be a slacker passed almost as a sign of higher wisdom, while loyal steadfastness was considered a symptom of inner weakness and narrow-mindedness.”

The patriotic unity of 1914 had long since dissolved, worn away by the remorselessly mounting casualties and the dreary hardships on the home front. For roughly two years the political truce had held, but by 1916 domestic solidarity, already frayed by mounting labor unrest, began to unravel. Frustrated by its party’s continued support of “an imperialist war,” the SPD’s left wing bolted to form a new party (the USPD or Independent Social Democratic Party). In an effort to avert a further radicalization of the left, the Kaiser announced his intention of granting universal suffrage and other electoral changes long demanded by the Social Democrats, but, he added, any democratizing reforms would come only after the successful conclusion of hostilities.

The Kaiser’s Easter message of 1917 satisfied no one, either on the right or the left. That was underscored in July when a disillusioned Reichstag, almost forgotten since 1914, passed a resolution calling for a negotiated end to the war and rejecting the expansionist war aims demanded by the government and the right. Inspired by Matthias Erzberger of the Catholic Zentrum Party, the resolution was supported by a broad coalition of Social Democrats, Zentrum, and the left-liberal Progressives. After the patriotic summer of 1914 the Reichstag and even the Kaiser had faded from view, and since 1916 army commanders Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff ruled the country from behind the scenes in a “silent dictatorship.” The army simply ignored the resolution, removed the presiding chancellor from office, installed a pliant figurehead, and tightened its grip on the state. The Reichstag Peace Resolution, as it came to be called, infuriated the right, which accused the Reichstag of being under the thumb of the “internationalist” Social Democrats and their fellow travelers in the Zentrum and among the democratic liberals.

In response, the Fatherland Party, founded by a coalition of right-wing organizations in December 1916, howled against the left, the liberals, and the Jews, all of whom, they claimed, were undermining the war effort. The Fatherland Party was particularly savage in its attacks on Jews. Jewish financial interests, they insisted, dominated the German war economy, reaping enormous profits while true Germans were fighting and dying for the fatherland. Amid a growing mood of fear and mounting paranoia, a tidal wave of anti-Semitic agitation washed over the country. Right-wing groups such as the Pan-German League, the Colonial Society, and the small but aggressively anti-Semitic Thule Society—in fact, all those groups that vigorously supported Germany’s expansionist war aims—shared these anti-Jewish views and aggressively pressed them on the public.

Before the war, anti-Semitism had not played a major role in German political life. In the early 1890s a number of small regional parties had made anti-Semitism the central focus of their appeal, and in 1893 the German Conservative Party, in an effort to revive its sagging popularity, drafted an anti-Semitic plank in its Tivoli Program. By 1914 these small anti-Semitic parties had evaporated into well-deserved oblivion, and the Tivoli Program signally failed to boost the electoral fortunes of the Conservatives, whose vote continued to plummet. And yet, while it was not enough to rally any significant popular support, anti-Semitism percolated through German political culture during the prewar years. By 1914, though hardly mainstream, it had become respectable, an undeniable element of political discourse.

In 1916–17, amid signs of deepening social and economic tensions, groups on the right charged that Jews controlled the war economy and were dodging military service. Even those Jews who were in the army, they claimed, were not serving on the front lines. These spurious charges became so intense that in 1916 the Reichstag launched an investigation into the role of Jews in Germany’s war industries, and the Ministry of War undertook a survey to determine the number of Jews serving in the army, and especially in frontline outfits. These investigations indicated that Jews were neither overrepresented in the war economy nor underrepresented in the armed forces—not at the front or in the casualty reports. One hundred thousand Jews served in the military during the war; 12,000 were killed in action; and 35,000 were decorated for bravery. But the results of the army’s Judenzählung were never made public, and the vicious accusations from the right continued unabated.

Contributing to the atmosphere of mounting suspicion and discord, Germany was beginning to experience the full force of the very effective English blockade, leading to severe shortages of food and fuel for heating. The country was slowly starving—a condition that would reach catastrophic proportions in the frigid “Turnip Winter” of 1916–17 when 250,000 civilians died of starvation or maladies resulting from malnutrition. Food riots broke out in several cities, and the first signs of labor unrest burst onto the surface. In 1915 Germany had experienced 137 strikes; in 1916, 240; in 1917, the number soared to 561. Then in January 1918, 400,000 strikers appeared on the streets of Berlin, and similar, though smaller, strikes followed in Düsseldorf, Kiel, Cologne, and Hamburg. By the end of the year, revolution would engulf the country.

The dramatic surge of labor unrest, especially in the vital munitions industry, spiked Hitler’s loathing of the Social Democrats and labor unions. A comrade recalled, “Hitler became furious and shouted in a terrible voice that the pacifists and shirkers were losing the war.” “What was the army fighting for if the homeland itself no longer wanted victory?” Hitler fumed. “For whom the immense sacrifices and privations? The soldier is expected to fight for victory and the homeland goes on strike against it.” Hitler, one fellow soldier remembered, would sit “in a corner of our mess holding his head between his hands, in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up, and, running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.” Already in 1915 he had written to an acquaintance in Munich that at war’s end he hoped to find the German homeland “purer and cleansed from foreign influence,” so that “not only will Germany’s enemies from the outside be smashed but also our domestic internationalism will be broken up.” His hatred of the Reds steadily escalated during the last two years of the war, and on his rare visits back to Germany he felt himself adrift in alien territory, surrounded by cynics, shirkers, socialists, and Jews. He was always eager to return to the front.

Hitler had found a home in the army. The war gave his life discipline and direction, and the army offered the perpetual outsider a sense of belonging that he had never before experienced. And yet, even among his closest comrades, he remained something of an oddity, “a white crow,” as one put it, “that didn’t go along with us when we damned the war to hell.” While other soldiers had families or lovers or jobs waiting for them at home, Hitler did not. He received few letters or packages, even at Christmas, and he chose not to visit his family in Austria on any of his rare leaves. The men respected his bravery and reliability but found him peculiar—too quiet, too humorless, too much the prude. He didn’t drink or smoke and would not join their banter about their sexual exploits and fantasies. He refused to visit the French prostitutes with his comrades—that was a betrayal of Germany’s honor, he piously intoned, and besides, he was obsessed by a morbid fear of syphilis. The other men also found him a bit too zealous in his duties, too much devoted to the army, too much the idealist, the single-minded nationalist. He never indulged in the usual bellyaching about the tedious demands and discomforts of army life, and he grew irate at any stray remark that smacked of war weariness.

As the war dragged on, Hitler’s identification with his adopted country became complete. Germany had to win the war; defeat—failure—was terrifying, a calamity too appalling, too shameful, to contemplate. Except for a few offhand comments, politics were off-limits in the early years of the war. “I was a soldier then,” Hitler later explained, “and I didn’t want to talk about politics. And really it was not the time for it.” That began to change as Germany’s military position deteriorated in 1917–18 and demoralization spread like a contagion through the troops. During those final years of the war the men close to him were startled at Hitler’s furious outbursts against the Reds and the slackers, a theme that would soon grow into a pathological obsession by war’s end. The Social Democrats and labor unions remained the primary targets of Hitler’s vitriol, and, ironically given later developments, his comrades could not recall Hitler expressing anything other than mild, commonplace comments about Jews. One recalled that even when Hitler spoke of his bitter Vienna period and the strong Jewish presence there, it was “without spitefulness.” Citing Hitler’s good relations with the Jewish officers and men of the regiment, Captain Fritz Wiedemann, his immediate superior, simply could not believe that Hitler’s “hatred of Jews dated back to that time.” It was a Jewish officer, Hugo Gutmann, who had recommended Hitler for the Iron Cross first class. Even after Hitler rose to political prominence and they were badgered by the press and the party for their recollections of the Führer, his wartime comrades were hard-pressed to remember anything notable about his views on Jews or anti-Semitism—or about him at all.

There was, however, one striking feature of his military experience that deserves comment. Despite his lengthy service at the front and his two Iron Crosses, Hitler was repeatedly passed over for promotion and remained a lance corporal for the duration of the war. It could be that he was not eager for promotion since that would most likely have meant leaving his comfortable home in the regiment, but there were other, more troubling concerns. One of his superiors believed that Hitler was unsuited for command on account of “his mental instability,” and, as Captain Wiedemann later reported, it was felt that Corporal Hitler simply lacked “the capacity for leadership.”

In early October 1918, Hitler was blinded by mustard gas in a British attack near Ypres. After initial treatment in Flanders, he was transferred to a military hospital in Pasewalk, northeast of Berlin. The initial blindness passed, as was common in mild mustard gas cases, and Hitler’s condition was not considered serious. The doctors concluded that his lingering blindness was largely psychosomatic, a psychological reaction to shock. He was being treated not in the ophthalmic but in the psychiatric section of the hospital. It was there, on November 10, that he heard the stunning news that the war was over, that Germany had signed an armistice—in effect, surrendered—the Kaiser had abdicated, and revolutionaries were on the streets of Berlin. On hearing this devastating report, Hitler suffered a sudden and highly unusual second onset of blindness, which the doctors were convinced was not the result of mustard gas poisoning but of hysteria. One examining psychiatrist is reported to have diagnosed Hitler as a “psychopath suffering from hysteria.”

Hitler’s deep shock at this shattering turn of events was shared by most Germans. Ignorant of the true military situation and misled by relentlessly upbeat bulletins from the Supreme Military Command that confidently announced that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that victory lay just around the bend, after the next offensive or the next or the next, the public was wholly unprepared for this utterly devastating news. It was simply inconceivable. After all, no enemy troops stood on German soil; German forces were still inside France and occupied virtually all of Belgium; Russia was defeated and in the throes of revolution; mutinies threatened the French army; and England was at the breaking point. But the position of the German army, the High Command understood, was desperate. Ludendorff’s much vaunted spring offensive had failed, though the full extent of the catastrophe had been withheld not only from the people but also from the civilian government, such as it was. The final straw came in September when the Western Allies, buoyed by the arrival of American troops, launched a major offensive that threatened to break through German lines at any moment. If such a breach occurred, and the High Command feared that it was inevitable, Allied troops would steamroll into Germany. The situation was hopeless. To the great surprise of the parties in the Reichstag, Ludendorff, who operated virtually as a military dictator during the last two years of the war, demanded that the German government seek an immediate armistice. He now desperately sought not only to prevent an Allied breakthrough, which would reveal the utter failure of the army’s High Command, but, equally important, to shift the responsibility for the defeat—and defeat it certainly was—onto the Reichstag.

News that Germany was seeking an armistice sent shockwaves across the country. The war-weary public, which had endured four years of suffering and sacrifice, desperately wanted peace, and the exhausted troops were in a state of near rebellion. Discipline broke down; soldiers defied their commanders, and many simply disappeared, deserting their units to make their way home. No one wanted to die in the last days of a lost war. Matters came to a head on November 4 at the naval station in Kiel when rebellious sailors mutinied, refusing orders to steam out of port to engage the British fleet in what would clearly have been a suicide mission. The mutiny at Kiel ignited a wildfire of uprising that quickly swept across the country. Workers surged into the streets, and workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Räte), following the Bolshevik example, sprang up spontaneously in almost every town and city. Revolutionary workers tore the insignia from the uniforms of returning soldiers. Red flags fluttered from city halls.

On November 9, with no viable options left to him and the situation deteriorating by the hour, Kaiser Wilhelm II passed into exile, and with him the proud German Empire of Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns was gone. Proceeding in uncharted constitutional waters, the last chancellor of Imperial Germany, Max von Baden, turned to the Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert to form a government. Ebert quickly formed a provisional government dominated by the two Socialist parties (the SPD, divided now into two parties—the majority Social Democrats and the more radical USPD, the Independent Social Democrats) and called a national congress of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants Councils to convene in Berlin in December. With the country descending into violence, its task was to determine the form and future of a new German state. That congress, dominated by the moderate socialists, called for national elections to a constitutional convention that would draft a constitution for a democratic republic. Before those elections, the first in which women could vote, could take place, elements of the far left rose in revolt, hoping to derail the election and move the revolution onto a more radical course.

In a desperate move that would produce a fatal rift between the forces of the left, the provisional government enlisted Reichswehr troops and irregular formations of returning veterans (Free Corps) to suppress the Communist uprising. In a week of vicious street fighting in Berlin, radical leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered. Despite lingering violence, the national election went forward, resulting in a sweeping victory for the democratic center and moderate left. The parties of the Peace Resolution carried three quarters of the vote and assembled a national constitutional convention in the small Thuringian city of Weimar, safely away from the sporadic street fighting and revolutionary tumult that continued to rock Berlin. The choice of venue also carried a symbolic message: Weimar was the city of Goethe and Schiller, the home of German humanism, and its selection was intended to demonstrate not only to the German public but to the Allies that the new Germany had turned away from Prussian authoritarianism and militarism.

For Hitler, these developments were much more than a bitter shock. Germany’s defeat was his failure; Germany’s humiliation, his disgrace, another degrading rejection of his innermost self. The German army, he believed—had to believe—had not lost the war. With victory virtually within its grasp, it had been stabbed in the back by the “pacifists and internationalists” at home. That, for Hitler, was the only explanation he could allow himself to believe, and with Germany’s stunning collapse, a linkage, long on the cusp of his consciousness, now crystallized before him: the nation had been betrayed by an invidious conspiracy of Marxists and Jews. And with that appalling realization, all that he had absorbed in Vienna, all that he had internalized in the cafés and homeless shelters, came boiling to the surface in a blistering eruption of rage and hate. As he lay in his hospital bed in Pasewalk, “the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow . . . and hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed.”

Millions of returning soldiers were being discharged, finding their way through the revolutionary chaos to reach home. But Hitler was not eager to leave the war behind. “In the world of peace,” the journalist Konrad Heiden astutely observed, “Hitler had been a foreigner, in the world of war he felt at home.” Now he had nowhere to go. The army was dissolving, revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ councils were sprouting all across the country, the Social Democrats, the ultimate outsiders of Imperial Germany, held power in Berlin, and revolution was in the air. In late November, as he struggled to come to grips with this nightmarish turn of events, Hitler was released from the hospital and ordered to report to the regimental reserve in Munich. With his usual flair for self-dramatization he would later claim that it was then, as he prepared to depart Pasewalk, that he made the momentous decision “to go into politics.” In fact, he left the hospital with no other goal than to stay in the army for as long as possible, where he was guaranteed food, shelter, and for the time being regular pay. At twenty-nine years of age, he would soon be mustered out of the army and would again be, just as he had been in Vienna and prewar Munich, a mere face in the crowd, an unknown, with no profession, no prospects, and no future.

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