Military history

“THE SADDEST PERIOD OF MY LIFE”

The next four years, between 1909 and 1913, turned out to be a time of utter misery and destitution for the conquering young man from Linz. In these last fleeting years before the fall of the Hapsburgs and the end of the city as the capital of an empire of fifty-two million people in the heart of Europe, Vienna had a gaiety and charm that were unique among the capitals of the world. Not only in its architecture, its sculpture, its music, but in the lighthearted, pleasure-loving, cultivated spirit of its people, it breathed an atmosphere of the baroque and the rococo that no other city of the West knew.

Set along the blue Danube beneath the wooded hills of the Wienerwald, which were studded with yellow-green vineyards, it was a place of natural beauty that captivated the visitor and made the Viennese believe that Providence had been especially kind to them. Music filled the air, the towering music of gifted native sons, the greatest Europe had known, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and, in the last Indian-summer years, the gay, haunting waltzes of Vienna’s own beloved Johann Strauss. To a people so blessed and so imprinted with the baroque style of living, life itself was something of a dream and the good folk of the city passed the pleasant days and nights of their lives waltzing and wining, in light talk in the congenial coffeehouses, listening to music and viewing the make-believe of theater and opera and operetta, in flirting and making love, abandoning a large part of their lives to pleasure and to dreams.

To be sure, an empire had to be governed, an army and navy manned, communications maintained, business transacted and labor done. But few in Vienna worked overtime—or even full time—at such things.

There was a seamy side, of course. This city, like all others, had its poor: ill-fed, ill-clothed and living in hovels. But as the greatest industrial center in Central Europe as well as the capital of the empire, Vienna was prosperous, and this prosperity spread among the people and sifted down. The great mass of the lower middle class controlled the city politically; labor was organizing not only trade unions but a powerful political party of its own, the Social Democrats. There was a ferment in the life of the city, now grown to a population of two million. Democracy was forcing out the ancient autocracy of the Hapsburgs, education and culture were opening up to the masses so that by the time Hitler came to Vienna in 1909 there was opportunity for a penniless young man either to get a higher education or to earn a fairly decent living and, as one of a million wage earners, to live under the civilizing spell which the capital cast over its inhabitants. Was not his only friend, Kubizek, as poor and as obscure as himself, already making a name for himself in the Academy of Music?

But the young Adolf did not pursue his ambition to enter the School of Architecture. It was still open for him despite his lack of a high-school diploma—young men who showed “special talent” were admitted without such a certificate—but so far as is known he made no application. Nor was he interested in learning a trade or in taking any kind of regular employment. Instead he preferred to putter about at odd jobs: shoveling snow, beating carpets, carrying bags outside the West Railroad Station, occasionally for a few days working as a building laborer. In November 1909, less than a year after he arrived in Vienna to “forestall fate,” he was forced to abandon a furnished room in the Simon Denk Gasse, and for the next four years he lived in flophouses or in the almost equally miserable quarters of the men’s hostel at 27 Meldemannstrasse in the Twentieth District of Vienna, near the Danube, staving off hunger by frequenting the charity soup kitchens of the city.

No wonder that nearly two decades later he could write:

   To me Vienna, the city which to so many is the epitome of innocent pleasure, a festive playground for merrymakers, represents, I am sorry to say, merely the living memory of the saddest period of my life.

Even today this city can arouse in me nothing but dismal thoughts. For me the name of this Phaeacial city represents five years of hardship and misery. Five years in which I was forced to earn a living, first as a day laborer, then as a small painter; a truly meager living which never sufficed to appease even my daily hunger.38

   Always, he says of these times, there was hunger.

   Hunger was then my faithful bodyguard; he never left me for a moment and partook of all I had … My life was a continual struggle with this pitiless friend.39

   It never, however, drove him to the extremity of trying to find a regular job. As he makes clear in Mein Kampf, he had the petty bourgeoisie’s gnawing fear of sliding back into the ranks of the proletariat, of the manual laborers—a fear he was later to exploit in building up the National Socialist Party on the broad foundation of the hitherto leaderless, ill-paid, neglected white-collar class, whose millions nourished the illusion that they were at least socially better off than the “workers.”

Although Hitler says he eked out at least part of a living as “a small painter,” he gives no details of this work in his autobiography except to remark that in the years 1909 and 1910 he had so far improved his position that he no longer had to work as a common laborer.

“By this time,” he says, “I was working independently as a small draftsman and painter of water colors.”40

This is somewhat misleading, as is so much else of a biographical nature in Mein Kampf. Though the evidence of those who knew him at the time appears to be scarcely more trustworthy, enough of it has been pieced together to give a picture that is probably more accurate and certainly more complete.*

That Adolf Hitler was never a house painter, as his political opponents taunted him with having been, is fairly certain. At least there is no evidence that he ever followed such a trade. What he did was draw or paint crude little pictures of Vienna, usually of some well-known landmark such as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the opera house, the Burgtheater, the Palace of Schoenbrunn or the Roman ruins in Schoenbrunn Park. According to his acquaintances he copied them from older works; apparently he could not draw from nature. They are rather stilted and lifeless, like a beginning architect’s rough and careless sketches, and the human figures he sometimes added are so bad as to remind one of a comic strip. I find a note of my own made once after going through a portfolio of Hitler’s original sketches: “Few faces. Crude. One almost ghoulish face.” To Heiden, “they stand like tiny stuffed sacks outside the high, solemn palaces.”41

Probably hundreds of these pitiful pieces were sold by Hitler to the petty traders to ornament a wall, to dealers who used them to fill empty picture frames on display and to furniture makers who sometimes tacked them to the backs of cheap sofas and chairs after a fashion in Vienna in those days. Hitler could also be more commercial. He often drew posters for shopkeepers advertising such products as Teddy’s Perspiration Powder, and there was one, perhaps turned out to make a little money at Christmas time, depicting Santa Claus selling brightly colored candles, and another showing St. Stephen’s Gothic spire, which Hitler never tired of copying, rising out of a mountain of soap cakes.

This was the extent of Hitler’s “artistic” achievement, yet to the end of his life he considered himself an “artist.”

Bohemian he certainly looked in those vagabond years in Vienna. Those who knew him then remembered later his long black shabby overcoat, which hung down to his ankles and resembled a caftan and which had been given him by a Hungarian Jewish old-clothes dealer, a fellow inmate of the dreary men’s hostel who had befriended him. They remembered his greasy black derby, which he wore the year round; his matted hair, brushed down over his forehead as in later years and, in the back, hanging disheveled over his soiled collar, for he rarely appeared to have had a haircut or a shave and the sides of his face and his chin were usually covered with the black stubble of an incipient beard. If one can believe Hanisch, who later became something of an artist, Hitler resembled “an apparition such as rarely occurs among Christians.”42

Unlike some of the shipwrecked young men with whom he lived, he had none of the vices of youth. He neither smoked nor drank. He had nothing to do with women—not, so far as can be learned, because of any abnormality but simply because of an ingrained shyness.

“I believe,” Hitler remarked afterward in Mein Kampf, in one of his rare flashes of humor, “that those who knew me in those days took me for an eccentric.”43

They remembered, as had his teachers, the strong, staring eyes that dominated the face and expressed something embedded in the personality that did not jibe with the miserable existence of the unwashed tramp. And they recalled that the young man, for all his laziness when it came to physical labor, was a voracious reader, spending much of his days and evenings devouring books.

At that time I read enormously and thoroughly. All the free time my work left me was employed in my studies. In this way I forged in a few years’ time the foundations of a knowledge from which I still draw nourishment today.44

   In Mein Kampf Hitler discourses at length on the art of reading.

By “reading,” to be sure, I mean perhaps something different than the average member of our so-called “intelligentsia.”

I know people who “read” enormously … yet whom I would not describe as “well-read.” True, they possess a mass of “knowledge,” but their brain is unable to organize and register the material they have taken in … On the other hand, a man who possesses the art of correct reading will … instinctively and immediately perceive everything which in his opinion is worth permanently remembering, either because it is suited to his purpose or generally worth knowing … The art of reading, as of learning, is this: … to retain the essential, to forget the nonessential.* … Only this kind of reading has meaning and purpose … Viewed in this light, my Vienna period was especially fertile and valuable.45

Valuable for what? Hitler’s answer is that from his reading and from his life among the poor and disinherited of Vienna he learned all that he needed to know in later life.

Vienna 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 this period there took shape within me a world picture and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my acts. In addition to what I then created, I have had to learn little; and I have had to alter nothing.46

What, then, had he learned in the school of those hard knocks which Vienna had so generously provided? What were the ideas which he acquired there from his reading and his experience and which, as he says, would remain essentially unaltered to the end? That they were mostly shallow and shabby, often grotesque and preposterous, and poisoned by outlandish prejudices will become obvious on the most cursory examination. That they are important to this history, as they were to the world, is equally obvious, for they were to form part of the foundation for the Third Reich which this bookish vagrant was soon to build.

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