Military history

THE EARLY LIFE OF ADOLF HITLER

The year his father retired from the customs service at the age of fifty-eight, the six-year-old Adolf entered the public school in the village of Fischlham, a short distance southwest of Linz. This was in 1895. For the next four or five years the restless old pensioner moved from one village to another in the vicinity of Linz. By the time the son was fifteen he could remember seven changes of address and five different schools. For two years he attended classes at the Benedictine monastery at Lambach, near which his father had purchased a farm. There he sang in the choir, took singing lessons and, according to his own account,16 dreamed of one day taking holy orders. Finally the retired customs official settled down for good in the village of Leonding, on the southern outskirts of Linz, where the family occupied a modest house and garden.

At the age of eleven, Adolf was sent to the high school at Linz. This represented a financial sacrifice for the father and indicated an ambition that the son should follow in his father’s footsteps and become a civil servant. That, however, was the last thing the youth would dream of.

“Then barely eleven years old,” Hitler later recounted,17 “I was forced into opposition (to my father) for the first time…. I did not want to become a civil servant.”

The story of the bitter, unrelenting struggle of the boy, not yet in his teens, against a hardened and, as he said, domineering father is one of the few biographical items which Hitler sets down in great detail and with apparent sincerity and truth in Mein Kampf. The conflict aroused the first manifestation of that fierce, unbending will which later would carry him so far despite seemingly insuperable obstacles and handicaps and which, confounding all those who stood in his way, was to put an indelible stamp on Germany and Europe.

   I did not want to become a civil servant, no, and again no. All attempts on my father’s part to inspire me with love or pleasure in this profession by stories from his own life accomplished the exact opposite. I … grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of my whole life into paper forms that had to be filled out….

One day it became clear to me that I would become a painter, an artist … My father was struck speechless.

“Painter? Artist?”

He doubted my sanity, or perhaps he thought he had heard wrong or misunderstood me. But when he was clear on the subject, and particularly after he felt the seriousness of my intention, he opposed it with all the determination of his nature….

“Artist! No! Never as long as I live!” … My father would never depart from his “Never!” And I intensified my “Nevertheless!”18

   One consequence of this encounter, Hitler later explained, was that he stopped studying in school. “I thought that once my father saw how little progress I was making at high school he would let me devote myself to my dream, whether he liked it or not.”19

This, written thirty-four years later, may be partly an excuse for his failure at school. His marks in grade school had been uniformly good. But at the Linz high school they were so poor that in the end, without obtaining the customary certificate, he was forced to transfer to the state high school at Steyr, some distance from Linz. He remained there but a short time and left before graduating.

Hitler’s scholastic failure rankled in him in later life, when he heaped ridicule on the academic “gentry,” their degrees and diplomas and their pedagogical airs. Even in the last three or four years of his life, at Supreme Army Headquarters, where he allowed himself to be overwhelmed with details of military strategy, tactics and command, he would take an evening off to reminisce with his old party cronies on the stupidity of the teachers he had had in his youth. Some of these meanderings of this mad genius, now the Supreme Warlord personally directing his vast armies from the Volga to the English Channel, have been preserved.

   When I think of the men who were my teachers, I realize that most of them were slightly mad. The men who could be regarded as good teachers were exceptional. It’s tragic to think that such people have the power to bar a young man’s way.—March 3, 1942.20

   I have the most unpleasant recollections of the teachers who taught me. Their external appearance exuded uncleanliness; their collars were unkempt … They were the product of a proletariat denuded of all personal independence of thought, distinguished by unparalleled ignorance and most admirably fitted to become the pillars of an effete system of government which, thank God, is now a thing of the past.—April 12, 1942.21

   When I recall my teachers at school, I realize that half of them were abnormal…. We pupils of old Austria were brought up to respect old people and women. But on our professors we had no mercy; they were our natural enemies. The majority of them were somewhat mentally deranged, and quite a few ended their days as honest-to-God lunatics! … I was in particular bad odor with the teachers. I showed not the slightest aptitude for foreign languages—though I might have, had not the teacher been a congenital idiot. I could not bear the sight of him.—August 29, 1942.22

   Our teachers were absolute tyrants. They had no sympathy with youth; their one object was to stuff our brains and turn us into erudite apes like themselves. If any pupil showed the slightest trace of originality, they persecuted him relentlessly, and the only model pupils whom I have ever got to know have all been failures in after-life.—September 7, 1942.23

   To his dying day, it is obvious, Hitler never forgave his teachers for the poor marks they had given him—nor could he forget. But he could distort to a point of grotesqueness.

The impression he made on his teachers, recollected after he had become a world figure, has been briefly recorded. One of the few instructors Hitler seems to have liked was Professor Theodor Gissinger, who strove to teach him science. Gissinger later recalled, “As far as I was concerned, Hitler left neither a favorable nor an unfavorable impression in Linz. He was by no means a leader of the class. He was slender and erect, his face pallid and very thin, almost like that of a consumptive, his gaze unusually open, his eyes brilliant.”24

Professor Eduard Huemer, apparently the “congenital idiot” mentioned by Hitler above—for he taught French—came to Munich in 1923 to testify for his former pupil, who was then being tried for treason as the result of the Beer Hall Putsch. Though he lauded Hitler’s aims and said that he wished from the bottom of his heart to see him fulfill his ideals, he gave the following thumbnail portrait of the young high-school student:

Hitler was certainly gifted, although only for particular subjects, but he lacked self-control and, to say the least, he was considered argumentive, autocratic, self-opinionated and bad-tempered, and unable to submit to school discipline. Nor was he industrious; otherwise he would have achieved much better results, gifted as he was.25

   There was one teacher at the Linz high school who exercised a strong and, as it turned out, a fateful influence on the young Adolf Hitler. This was a history teacher, Dr. Leopold Poetsch, who came from the southern German-language border region where it meets that of the South Slavs and whose experience with the racial struggle there had made him a fanatical German nationalist. Before coming to Linz he had taught at Marburg, which later, when the area was transferred to Yugoslavia after the First World War, became Maribor.

Though Dr. Poetsch had given his pupil marks of only “fair” in history, he was the only one of Hitler’s teachers to receive a warm tribute in Mein Kampf. Hitler readily admitted his debt to this man.

It was perhaps decisive for my whole later life that good fortune gave me a history teacher who understood, as few others did, this principle …—of retaining the essential and forgetting the nonessential … In my teacher. Dr. Leopold Poetsch of the high school in Linz, this requirement was fulfilled in a truly ideal manner. An old gentleman, kind but at the same time firm, he was able not only to hold our attention by his dazzling eloquence but to carry us away with him. Even today I think back with genuine emotion on this gray-haired man who, by the fire of his words, sometimes made us forget the present; who, as if by magic, transported us into times past and, out of the millennium mists of time, transformed dry historical facts into vivid reality. There we sat, often aflame with enthusiasm, sometimes even moved to tears … He used our budding national fanaticism as a means of educating us, frequently appealing to our sense of national honor.

This teacher made history my favorite subject.

And indeed, though he had no such intention, it was then that I became a young revolutionary.26

Some thirty-five years later, in 1938, while touring Austria in triumph after he had forced its annexation to the Third Reich, Chancellor Hitler stopped off at Klagenfurt to see his old teacher, then in retirement. He was delighted to find that the old gentleman had been a member of the underground Nazi S.S., which had been outlawed during Austria’s independence. He conversed with him alone for an hour and later confided to members of his party, “You cannot imagine how much I owe to that old man.”27

Alois Hitler died of a lung hemorrhage on January 3, 1903, at the age of sixty-five. He was stricken while taking a morning walk and died a few moments later in a nearby inn in the arms of a neighbor. When his thirteen-year-old son saw the body of his father he broke down and wept.28

His mother, who was then forty-two, moved to a modest apartment in Urfahr, a suburb of Linz, where she tried to keep herself and her two surviving children, Adolf and Paula, on the meager savings and pension left her. She felt obligated, as Hitler remarks in Mein Kampf, to continue his education in accordance with his father’s wishes—“in other words,” as he puts it, “to have me study for the civil servant’s career.” But though the young widow was indulgent to her son, and he seems to have loved her dearly, he was “more than ever determined absolutely,” he says, “not to undertake this career.” And so, despite a tender love between mother and son, there was friction and Adolf continued to neglect his studies.

“Then suddenly an illness came to my help and in a few weeks decided my future and the eternal domestic quarrel.”29

The lung ailment which Hitler suffered as he was nearing sixteen necessitated his dropping out of school for at least a year. He was sent for a time to the family village of Spital, where he recuperated at the home of his mother’s sister, Theresa Schmidt, a peasant woman. On his recovery he returned briefly to the state high school at Steyr. His last report, dated September 16, 1905, shows marks of “adequate” in German, chemistry, physics, geometry and geometrical drawing. In geography and history he was “satisfactory”; in free-hand drawing, “excellent.” He felt so excited at the prospect of leaving school for good that for the first and last time in his life he got drunk. As he remembered it in later years he was picked up at dawn, lying on a country road outside of Steyr, by a milkmaid and helped back to town, swearing he would never do it again.* In this matter, at least, he was as good as his word, for he became a teetotaler, a nonsmoker and a vegetarian to boot, at first out of necessity as a penniless vagabond in Vienna and Munich, and later out of conviction.

The next two or three years Hitler often described as the happiest days of his life.. While his mother suggested—and other relatives urged—that he go to work and learn a trade he contented himself with dreaming of his future as an artist and with idling away the pleasant days along the Danube. He never forgot the “downy softness” of those years from sixteen to nineteen when as a “mother’s darling” he enjoyed the “hollowness of a comfortable life.”30 Though the ailing widow found it difficult to make ends meet on her meager income, young Adolf declined to help out by getting a job. The idea of earning even his own living by any kind of regular employment was repulsive to him and was to remain so throughout his life.

What apparently made those last years of approaching manhood so happy for Hitler was the freedom from having to work, which gave him the freedom to brood, to dream, to spend his days roaming the city streets or the countryside declaiming to his companion what was wrong with the world and how to right it, and his evenings curled up with a book or standing in the rear of the opera house in Linz or Vienna listening enraptured to the mystic, pagan works of Richard Wagner.

A boyhood friend later remembered him as a pale, sickly, lanky youth who, though usually shy and reticent, was capable of sudden bursts of hysterical anger against those who disagreed with him. For four years he fancied himself deeply in love with a handsome blond maiden namedStefanie, and though he often gazed at her longingly as she strolled up and down the Landstrasse in Linz with her mother he never made the slightest effort to meet her, preferring to keep her, like so many other objects, in the shadowy world of his soaring fantasies. Indeed, in the countless love poems which he wrote to her but never sent (one of them was entitled “Hymn to the Beloved”) and which he insisted on reading to his patient young friend, August Kubizek,* she became a damsel out of Die Walkuerie, clad in a dark-blue flowing velvet gown, riding a white steed over the flowering meadows.31

Although Hitler was determined to become an artist, preferably a painter or at least an architect, he was already obsessed with politics at the age of sixteen. By then he had developed a violent hatred for the Hapsburg monarchy and all the non-German races in the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire over which it ruled, and an equally violent love for everything German. At sixteen he had become what he was to remain till his dying breath: a fanatical German nationalist.

He appears to have had little of the carefree spirit of youth despite all the loafing. The world’s problems weighed down on him. Kubizek later recalled, “He saw everywhere only obstacles and hostility … He was always up against something and at odds with the world … I never saw him take anything lightly …”32

It was at this period that the young man who could not stand school became a voracious reader, subscribing to the Library of Adult Education in Linz and joining the Museum Society, whose books he borrowed in large numbers. His young friend remembered him as always surrounded by books, of which his favorites were works on German history and German mythology.33

Since Linz was a provincial town, it was not long before Vienna, the glittering baroque capital of the empire, began to beckon a youth of such ambition and imagination. In 1906, just after his seventeenth birthday, Hitler set out with funds provided by his mother and other relations to spend two months in the great metropolis. Though it was later to become the scene of his bitterest years when, at times, he literally lived in the gutter, Vienna on this first visit enthralled him. He roamed the streets for days, filled with excitement at the sight of the imposing buildings along the Ring and in a continual state of ecstasy at what he saw in the museums, the opera house, the theaters.

He also inquired about entering the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and a year later, in October 1907, he was back in the capital to take the entrance examination as the first practical step in fulfilling his dream of becoming a painter. He was eighteen and full of high hopes, but they were dashed. An entry in the academy’s classification list tells the story.

   The following took the test with insufficient results, or were not admitted … Adolf Hitler, Braunau a. Inn, April 20, 1889, German, Catholic. Father civil servant. 4 classes in High School. Few Heads. Test drawing unsatisfactory.34

   Hitler tried again the following year and this time his drawings were so poor that he was not admitted to the test. For the ambitious young man this was, as he later wrote, a bolt from the blue. He had been absolutely convinced that he would be successful. According to his own account inMein Kampf, Hitler requested an explanation from the rector of the academy.

   That gentleman assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting, and that my ability obviously lay in the field of architecture; for me, he said, the Academy’s School of Painting was out of the question, the place for me was at the School of Architecture.35

   The young Adolf was inclined to agree but quickly realized to his sorrow that his failure to graduate from high school might well block his entry into the architectural school.

In the meantime his mother was dying of cancer of the breast and he returned to Linz. Since Adolf’s departure from school Klara Hitler and her relatives had supported the young man for three years, and they could see nothing to show for it. On December 21, 1908, as the town began toassume its festive Christmas garb, Adolf Hitler’s mother died, and two days later she was buried at Leonding beside her husband. To the nineteen-year-old youth

it was a dreadful blow … I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved … [Her] death put a sudden end to all my highflown plans … Poverty and hard reality compelled me to take a quick decision … I was faced with the problem of somehow making my own living.36

   Somehow! He had no trade. He had always disdained manual labor. He had never tried to earn a cent. But he was undaunted. Bidding his relatives farewell, he declared that he would never return until he had made good.

   With a suitcase full of clothes and underwear in my hand and an indomitable will in my heart, I set out for Vienna. I too hoped to wrest from fate what my father had accomplished fifty years before; I too hoped to become “something”—but in no case a civil servant.37

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