Considering his origins and his early life, it would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely figure to succeed to the mantle of Bismarck, the Hohenzollern emperors and President Hindenburg than this singular Austrian of peasant stock who was born at half past six on the evening of April 20, 1889, in the Gasthof zum Pommer, a modest inn in the town of Braunau am Inn, across the border from Bavaria.
The place of birth on the Austro–German frontier was to prove significant, for early in his life, as a mere youth, Hitler became obsessed with the idea that there should be no border between these two German-speaking peoples and that they both belonged in the same Reich. So strong and enduring were his feelings that at thirty-five, when he sat in a German prison dictating the book that would become the blueprint for the Third Reich, his very first lines were concerned with the symbolic significance of his birthplace. Mein Kampf begins with these words:
Today it seems to me providential that fate should have chosen Braunau am Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life-work to reunite by every means at our disposal…. This little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission.11
Adolf Hitler was the third son of the third marriage of a minor Austrian customs official who had been born an illegitimate child and who for the first thirty-nine years of his life bore his mother’s name, Schicklgruber. The name Hitler appears in the maternal as well as the paternal line. Both Hitler’s grandmother on his mother’s side and his grandfather on his father’s side were named Hitler, or rather variants of it, for the family name was variously written as Hiedler, Huetler, Huettler and Hitler. Adolf’s mother was his father’s second cousin, and an episcopal dispensation had to be obtained for the marriage.
The forebears of the future German Fuehrer, on both sides, dwelt for generations in the Waldviertel, a district in Lower Austria between the Danube and the borders of Bohemia and Moravia. In my own Vienna days I sometimes passed through it on my way to Prague or to Germany. It is a hilly, wooded country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by. The inhabitants tend to be dour, like the Czech peasants just to the north of them. Intermarriage is common, as in the case of Hitler’s parents, and illegitimacy is frequent.
On the mother’s side there was a certain stability. For four generations Klara Poelzl’s family remained on peasant holding Number 37 in the village of Spital.12 The story of Hitler’s paternal ancestors is quite different. The spelling of the family name, as we have seen, changes; the place of residence also. There is a spirit of restlessness among the Hitlers, an urge to move from one village to the next, from one job to another, to avoid firm human ties and to follow a certain bohemian life in relations with women.
Johann Georg Hiedler, Adolf’s grandfather, was a wandering miller, plying his trade in one village after another in Lower Austria. Five months after his first marriage, in 1824, a son was born, but the child and the mother did not survive. Eighteen years later, while working in Duerenthal, he married a forty-seven-year-old peasant woman from the village of Strones, Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Five years before the marriage, on June 7, 1837, Maria had had an illegitimate son whom she named Alois and who became Adolf Hitler’s father. It is most probable that the father of Alois was Johann Hiedler, though conclusive evidence is lacking. At any rate Johann eventually married the woman, but contrary to the usual custom in such cases he did not trouble himself with legitimizing the son after the marriage. The child grew up as Alois Schicklgruber.
Anna died in 1847, whereupon Johann Hiedler vanished for thirty years, only to reappear at the age of eighty-four in the town of Weitra in the Waldviertel, the spelling of his name now changed to Hitler, to testify before a notary in the presence of three witnesses that he was the father of Alois Schicklgruber. Why the old man waited so long to take this step, or why he finally took it, is not known from the available records. According to Heiden, Alois later confided to a friend that it was done to help him obtain a share of an inheritance from an uncle, a brother of the miller, who had raised the youth in his own household.13 At any rate, this tardy recognition was made on June 6, 1876, and on November 23 the parish priest at Doellersheim, to whose office the notarized statement had been forwarded, scratched out the name of Alois Schicklgruber in the baptismal registry and wrote in its place that of Alois Hitler.
From that time on Adolf’s father was legally known as Alois Hitler, and the name passed on naturally to his son. It was only during the 1930s that enterprising journalists in Vienna, delving into the parish archives, discovered the facts about Hitler’s ancestry and, disregarding old Johann Georg Hiedler’s belated attempt to do right by a bastard son, tried to fasten on the Nazi leader the name of Adolf Schicklgruber.
There are many weird twists of fate in the strange life of Adolf Hitler, but none more odd than this one which took place thirteen years before his birth. Had the eighty-four-year-old wandering miller not made his unexpected reappearance to recognize the paternity of his thirty-nine-year-old son nearly thirty years after the death of the mother, Adolf Hitler would have been born Adolf Schicklgruber. There may not be much or anything in a name, but I have heard Germans speculate whether Hitler could have become the master of Germany had he been known to the world as Schicklgruber. It has a slightly comic sound as it rolls off the tongue of a South German. Can one imagine the frenzied German masses acclaiming a Schicklgruber with their thunderous “Heils”? “Heil Schicklgruber!”? Not only was “Heil Hitler!” used as a Wagnerian, paganlike chant by the multitude in the mystic pageantry of the massive Nazi rallies, but it became the obligatory form of greeting between Germans during the Third Reich, even on the telephone, where it replaced the conventional “Hello.” “Heil Schicklgruber!”? It is a little difficult to imagine.*
Since the parents of Alois apparently never lived together, even after they were married, the future father of Adolf Hitler grew up with his uncle, who though a brother of Johann Georg Hiedler spelled his name differently, being known as Johann von Nepomuk Huetler. In view of the undying hatred which the Nazi Fuehrer would develop from youth on for the Czechs, whose nation he ultimately destroyed, the Christian name is worthy of passing mention. Johann von Nepomuk was the national saint of the Czech people and some historians have seen in a Hitler’s being given this name an indication of Czech blood in the family.
Alois Schicklgruber first learned the trade of shoemaker in the village of Spital, but being restless, like his father, he soon set out to make his fortune in Vienna. At eighteen he joined the border police in the Austrian customs service near Salzburg, and on being promoted to the customs service itself nine years later he married Anna Glasl-Hoerer, the adopted daughter of a customs official. She brought him a small dowry and increased social status, as such things went in the old Austro-Hungarian petty bureaucracy. But the marriage was not a happy one. She was fourteen years older than he, of failing health, and she remained childless. After sixteen years they were separated and three years later, in 1883, she died.
Before the separation Alois, now legally known as Hitler, had taken up with a young hotel cook, Franziska Matzelsberger, who bore him a son, named Alois, in 1882. One month after the death of his wife he married the cook and three months later she gave birth to a daughter, Angela. The second marriage did not last long. Within a year Franziska was dead of tuberculosis. Six months later Alois Hitler married for the third and last time.
The new bride, Klara Poelzl, who would shortly become the mother of Adolf Hitler, was twenty-five, her husband forty-eight, and they had long known each other. Klara came from Spital, the ancestral village of the Hitlers. Her grandfather had been Johann von Nepomuk Huetler, with whom his nephew, Alois Schicklgruber-Hitler, had grown up. Thus Alois and Klara were second cousins and they found it necessary, as we have seen, to apply for episcopal dispensation to permit the marriage.
It was a union which the customs official had first contemplated years before when he had taken Klara into his childless home as a foster daughter during his first marriage. The child had lived for years with the Schicklgrubers in Braunau, and as the first wife ailed Alois seems to have given thought to marrying Klara as soon as his wife died. His legitimation and his coming into an inheritance from the uncle who was Klara’s grandfather occurred when the young girl was sixteen, just old enough to legally marry. But, as we have seen, the wife lingered on after the separation, and, perhaps because Alois in the meantime took up with the cook Franziska Matzelsberger, Klara, at the age of twenty, left the household and went to Vienna, where she obtained employment as a household servant.
She returned four years later to keep house for her cousin; Franziska too, in the last months of her life, had moved out of her husband’s home. Alois Hitler and Klara Poelzl were married on January 7, 1885, and some four months and ten days later their first child, Gustav, was born. He died in infancy, as did the second child, Ida, born in 1886. Adolf was the third child of this third marriage. A younger brother, Edmund, born in 1894, lived only six years. The fifth and last child, Paula, born in 1896, lived to survive her famous brother.
Adolf’s half-brother, Alois, and his half-sister, Angela, the children of Franziska Matzelsberger, also lived to grow up. Angela, a handsome young woman, married a revenue official named Raubal and after his death worked in Vienna as a housekeeper and for a time, if Heiden’s information is correct, as a cook in a Jewish charity kitchen.14 In 1928 Hitler brought her to Berchtesgaden as his housekeeper, and thereafter one heard a great deal in Nazi circles of the wondrous Viennese pastries and desserts she baked for him and for which he had such a ravenous appetite. She left him in 1936 to marry a professor of architecture in Dresden, and Hitler, by then Chancellor and dictator, was resentful of her departure and declined to send a wedding present. She was the only person in the family with whom, in his later years, he seems to have been close—with one exception. Angela had a daughter, Geli Raubal, an attractive young blond woman with whom, as we shall see, Hitler had the only truly deep love affair of his life.
Adolf Hitler never liked to hear mention of his half-brother. Alois Matzelsberger, later legitimized as Alois Hitler, became a waiter, and for many years his life was full of difficulties with the law. Heiden records that at eighteen the young man was sentenced to five months in jail for theft and at twenty served another sentence of eight months on the same charge. He eventually moved to Germany, only to become embroiled in further troubles. In 1924, while Adolf Hitler was languishing in prison for having staged a political revolt in Munich, Alois Hitler was sentenced to six months in prison by a Hamburg court for bigamy. Thereafter, Heiden recounts, he moved on to England, where he quickly established a family and then deserted it.15
The coming to power of the National Socialists brought better times to Alois Hitler. He opened a Bierstube—a small beerhouse—in a suburb of Berlin, moving it shortly before the war to the Wittenbergplatz in the capital’s fashionable West End. It was much frequented by Nazi officials and during the early part of the war when food was scarce it inevitably had a plentiful supply. I used to drop in occasionally at that time. Alois was then nearing sixty, a portly, simple, good-natured man with little physical resemblance to his famous half-brother and in fact indistinguishable from dozens of other little pub keepers one had seen in Germany and Austria. Business was good and, whatever his past, he was now obviously enjoying the prosperous life. He had only one fear: that his half-brother, in a moment of disgust or rage, might revoke his license. Sometimes there was talk in the little beerhouse that the Chancellor and Fuehrer of the Reich regretted this reminder of the humble nature of the Hitler family. Alois himself, I remember, refused to be drawn into any talk whatsoever about his half-brother—a wise precaution but frustrating to those of us who were trying to learn all we could about the background of the man who by that time had already set out to conquer Europe.
Except in Mein Kampf, where the sparse biographical material is often misleading and the omissions monumental, Hitler rarely discussed—or permitted discussion of in his presence—his family background and early life. We have seen what the family background was. What was the early life?