Military history


They were, with one exception, not original but picked up, raw, from the churning maelstrom of Austrian politics and life in the first years of the twentieth century. The Danube monarchy was dying of indigestion. For centuries a minority of German–Austrians had ruled over the polyglot empire of a dozen nationalities and stamped their language and their culture on it. But since 1848 their hold had been weakening. The minorities could not be digested. Austria was not a melting pot. In the 1860s the Italians had broken away and in 1867 the Hungarians had won equality with the Germans under a so-called Dual Monarchy. Now, as the twentieth century began, the various Slav peoples—the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Serbs, the Croats and the others—were demanding equality and at least national autonomy. Austrian politics had become dominated by the bitter quarrel of the nationalities.

But this was not all. There was social revolt too and this often transcended the racial struggle. The disenfranchised lower classes were demanding the ballot, and the workers were insisting on the right to organize trade unions and to strike—not only for higher wages and better working conditions but to gain their democratic political ends. Indeed a general strike had finally brought universal manhood suffrage and with this the end of political dominance by the Austrian Germans, who numbered but a third of the population of the Austrian half of the empire.

To these developments Hitler, the fanatical young German–Austrian nationalist from Linz, was bitterly opposed. To him the empire was sinking into a “foul morass.” It could be saved only if the master race, the Germans, reasserted their old absolute authority. The non-German races, especially the Slavs and above all the Czechs, were an inferior people. It was up to the Germans to rule them with an iron hand. The Parliament must be abolished and an end put to all the democratic “nonsense.”

Though he took no part in politics, Hitler followed avidly the activities of the three major political parties of old Austria: the Social Democrats, the Christian Socialists and the Pan-German Nationalists. And there now began to sprout in the mind of this unkempt frequenter of the soup kitchens a political shrewdness which enabled him to see with amazing clarity the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary political movements and which, as it matured, would make him the master politician of Germany.

At first contact he developed a furious hatred for the party of the Social Democrats. “What most repelled me,” he says, “was its hostile attitude toward the struggle for the preservation of Germanism [and] its disgraceful courting of the Slavic ‘comrade’ … In a few months I obtained what might have otherwise required decades: an understanding of a pestilential whore,*. cloaking herself as social virtue and brotherly love.”47

And yet he was already intelligent enough to quench his feelings of rage against this party of the working class in order to examine carefully the reasons for its popular success. He concluded that there were several reasons, and years later he was to remember them and utilize them in building up the National Socialist Party of Germany.

One day, he recounts in Mein Kampf, he witnessed a mass demonstration of Viennese workers. “For nearly two hours I stood there watching with bated breath the gigantic human dragon slowly winding by. In oppressed anxiety I finally left the place and sauntered homeward.”48

At home he began to read the Social Democratic press, examine the speeches of its leaders, study its organization, reflect on its psychology and political techniques and ponder the results. He came to three conclusions which explained to him the success of the Social Democrats: They knew how to create a mass movement, without which any political party was useless; they had learned the art of propaganda among the masses; and, finally, they knew the value of using what he calls “spiritual and physical terror.”

This third lesson, though it was surely based on faulty observation and compounded of his own immense prejudices, intrigued the young Hitler. Within ten years he would put it to good use for his own ends.

I 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 sign it unleashes 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 …

I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror toward the individual and the masses … For while in the ranks of their supporters the victory achieved seems a triumph of the justice of their own cause, the defeated adversary in most cases despairs of the success of any further resistance.49

No more precise analysis of Nazi tactics, as Hitler was eventually to develop them, was ever written.

There were two political parties which strongly attracted the fledgling Hitler in Vienna, and to both of them he applied his growing power of shrewd, cold analysis. His first allegiance, he says, was to the Pan-German Nationalist Party founded by Georg Ritter von Schoenerer, who came from the same region near Spital in Lower Austria as had Hitler’s family. The Pan-Germans at that time were engaged in a last-ditch struggle for German supremacy in the multinational empire. And though Hitler thought that Schoenerer was a “profound thinker” and enthusiastically embraced his basic program of violent nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-socialism, union with Germany and opposition to the Hapsburgs and the Holy See, he quickly sized up the causes for the party’s failure:

“This movement’s inadequate appreciation of the importance of the social problem cost it the truly militant mass of the people; its entry into Parliament took away its mighty impetus and burdened it with all the weaknesses peculiar to this institution; the struggle against the Catholic Church … robbed it of countless of the best elements that the nation can call its own.”50

Though Hitler was to forget it when he came to power in Germany, one of the lessons of his Vienna years which he stresses at great length in Mein Kampf is the futility of a political party’s trying to oppose the churches. “Regardless of how much room for criticism there was in any religious denomination,” he says, in explaining why Schoenerer’s Los-von-Rom (Away from Rome) movement was a tactical error, “a political party must never for a moment lose sight of the fact that in all previous historical experience a purely political party has never succeeded in producing a religious reformation.”51

But it was the failure of the Pan-Germans to arouse the masses, their inability to even understand the psychology of the common people, that to Hitler constituted their biggest mistake. It is obvious from his recapitulation of the ideas that began to form in his mind when he was not much past the age of twenty-one that to him this was the cardinal error. He was not to repeat it when he founded his own political movement.

There was another mistake of the Pan-Germans which Hitler was not to make. That was the failure to win over the support of at least some of the powerful, established institutions of the nation—if not the Church, then the Army, say, or the cabinet or the head of state. Unless a political movement gained such backing, the young man saw, it would be difficult if not impossible for it to assume power. This support was precisely what Hitler had the shrewdness to arrange for in the crucial January days of 1933 in Berlin and what alone made it possible for him and his National Socialist Party to take over the rule of a great nation.

There was one political leader in Vienna in Hitler’s time who understood this, as well as the necessity of building a party on the foundation of the masses. This was Dr. Karl Lueger, the burgomaster of Vienna and leader of the Christian Social Party, who more than any other became Hitler’s political mentor, though the two never met. Hitler always regarded him as “the greatest German mayor of all times … a statesman greater than all the so-called ‘diplomats’ of the time … If Dr. Karl Lueger had lived in Germany he would have been ranked among the great minds of our people.”52

There was, to be sure, little resemblance between Hitler as he later became and this big, bluff, genial idol of the Viennese lower middle classes. It is true that Lueger became the most powerful politician in Austria as the head of a party which was drawn from the disgruntled petty bourgeoisie and which made political capital, as Hitler later did, out of a raucous anti-Semitism. But Lueger, who had risen from modest circumstances and worked his way through the university, was a man of considerable intellectual attainments, and his opponents, including the Jews, readily conceded that he was at heart a decent, chivalrous, generous and tolerant man. Stefan Zweig, the eminent Austrian Jewish writer, who was growing up in Vienna at this time, has testified that Lueger never allowed his official anti-Semitism to stop him from being helpful and friendly to the Jews. “His city administration,” Zweig recounted, “was perfectly just and even typically democratic … The Jews who had trembled at this triumph of the anti-Semitic party continued to live with the same rights and esteem as always.”53

This the young Hitler did not like, He thought Lueger was far too tolerant and did not appreciate the racial problem of the Jews. He resented the mayor’s failure to embrace Pan-Germanism and was skeptical of his Roman Catholic clericalism and his loyalty to the Hapsburgs. Had not the old Emperor Franz-Josef twice refused to sanction Lueger’s election as burgomaster?

But in the end Hitler was forced to acknowledge the genius of this man who knew how to win the support of the masses, who understood modern social problems and the importance of propaganda and oratory in swaying the multitude. Hitler could not help but admire the way Lueger dealt with the powerful Church—“his policy was fashioned with infinite shrewdness.” And, finally, Lueger “was quick to make use of all available means for winning the support of long-established institutions, so as to be able to derive the greatest possible advantage for his movement from those old sources of power.”54

Here in a nutshell were the ideas and techniques which Hitler was later to use in constructing his own political party and in leading it to power in Germany. His originality lay in his being the only politician of the Right to apply them to the German scene after the First World War. It was then that the Nazi movement, alone among the nationalist and conservative parties, gained a great mass following and, having achieved this, won over” the support of the Army, the President of the Republic and the associations of big business—three “long-established institutions” of great power, which led to the chancellorship of Germany. The lessons learned in Vienna proved useful indeed.

Dr. Karl Lueger had been a brilliant orator, but the Pan-German Party had lacked effective public speakers. Hitler took notice of this and in Mein Kampf makes much of the importance of oratory in politics.

The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone.

The broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech. All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses; they are not the lemonade-like outpourings of the literary aesthetes and drawing-room heroes.55

   Though refraining from actual participation in Austrian party politics, young Hitler already was beginning to practice his oratory on the audiences which he found in Vienna’s flophouses, soup kitchens and on its street corners. It was to develop into a talent (as this author, who later was to listen to scores of his most important speeches, can testify) more formidable than any other in the Germany between the wars, and it was to contribute in a large measure to his astounding success.

   And finally in Hitler’s Vienna experience there were the Jews. In Linz, he says, there had been few Jews. “At home I do not remember having heard the word during my father’s lifetime.” At high school there was a Jewish boy—“but we didn’t give the matter any thought … I even took them [the Jews] for Germans.”56

According to Hitler’s boyhood friend, this is not the truth. “When I first met Adolf Hitler,” says August Kubizek, recalling their days together in Linz, “his anti-Semitism was already pronounced … Hitler was already a confirmed anti-Semite when he went to Vienna. And although his experiences in Vienna might have deepened this feeling, they certainly did not give birth to it.”57

“Then,” says Hitler, “I came to Vienna.”

Preoccupied by the abundance of my impressions … oppressed by the hardship of my own lot, I gained at first no insight into the inner stratification of the people in this gigantic city. Notwithstanding that Vienna in those days counted nearly two hundred thousand Jews among its two million inhabitants, I did not see them … The Jew was still characterized for me by nothing but his religion, and therefore on grounds of human tolerance I maintained my rejection of religious attacks in this case as in others. Consequently the tone of the Viennese anti-Semitic press seemed to me unworthy of the cultural tradition of a great nation.58

   One day, Hitler recounts, he went strolling through the Inner City. “I suddenly encountered an apparition in a black caftan and black side-locks. Is this a Jew? was my first thought. For, to be sure, they had not looked like that in Linz. I observed the man furtively and cautiously, but the longer I stared at this foreign face, scrutinizing feature for feature, the more my first question assumed a new form: Is this a German?”59

Hitler’s answer may be readily guessed. He claims, though, that before answering he decided “to try to relieve my doubts by books.” He buried himself in anti-Semitic literature, which had a large sale in Vienna at the time. Then he took to the streets to observe the “phenomenon” more closely. “Wherever I went,” he says, “I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity … Later I often grew sick to the stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers.”60

Next, he says, he discovered the “moral stain on this ‘chosen people’ … Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light—a kike!” The Jews were largely responsible, he says he found, for prostitution and the white-slave traffic. “When for the first time,” he relates, “I recognized the Jew as the cold-hearted, shameless and calculating director of this revolting vice traffic in the scum of the big city, a cold shudder ran down my back.”61

There is a great deal of morbid sexuality in Hitler’s ravings about the Jews. This was characteristic of Vienna’s anti-Semitic press of the time, as it later was to be of the obscene Nuremberg weekly Der Stuermer, published by one of Hitler’s favorite cronies, Julius Streicher, Nazi boss of Franconia, a noted pervert and one of the most unsavory characters in the Third Reich. Mein Kampf is sprinkled with lurid allusions to uncouth Jews seducing innocent Christian girls and thus adulterating their blood. Hitler can write of the “nightmare vision of the seduction of hundreds of thousands of girls by repulsive, crooked-legged Jew bastards.” As Rudolf Olden has pointed out, one of the roots of Hitler’s anti-Semitism may have been his tortured sexual envy. Though he was in his early twenties, so far as is known-he had no relations of any kind with women during his sojourn in Vienna.

“Gradually,” Hitler relates, “I began to hate them … For me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever had to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and become an anti-Semite.”62

He was to remain a blind and fanatical one to the bitter end; his last testament, written a few hours before his death, would contain a final blast against the Jews as responsible for the war which he had started and which was now finishing him and the Third Reich. This burning hatred, which was to infect so many Germans in that empire, would lead ultimately to a massacre so horrible and on such a scale as to leave an ugly scar on civilization that will surely last as long as man on earth.

   In the spring of 1913, Hitler left Vienna for good and went to live in Germany, where his heart, he says, had always been. He was twenty-four and to everyone except himself he must have seemed a total failure. He had not become a painter, nor an architect. He had become nothing, so far as anyone could see, but a vagabond—an eccentric, bookish one, to be sure. He had no friends, no family, no job, no home. He had, however, one thing: an unquenchable confidence in himself and a deep, burning sense of mission.

Probably he left Austria to escape military service.* This was not because he was a coward but because he loathed the idea of serving in the ranks with Jews, Slavs and other minority races of the empire. In Mein Kampf Hitler states that he went to Munich in the spring of 1912, but this is an error. A police register lists him as living in Vienna until May 1913.

His own stated reasons for leaving Austria are quite grandiose.

My inner revulsion toward the Hapsburg State steadily grew … I was repelled by the conglomeration of races which the capital showed me, repelled by this whole mixture of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs, and Croats, and everywhere the eternal mushroom of humanity—Jews, and more Jews. To me the giant city seemed the embodiment of racial desecration … The longer I lived in this city the more my hatred grew for the foreign mixture of peoples which had begun to corrode this old site of German culture … For all these reasons a longing rose stronger and stronger in me to go at last whither since my childhood secret desires and secret love had drawn me.63

His destiny in that land he loved so dearly was to be such as not even he, in his wildest dreams, could have then imagined. He was, and would remain until shortly before he became Chancellor, technically a foreigner, an Austrian, in the German Reich. It is only as an Austrian who came of age in the last decade before the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, who failed to take root in its civilized capital, who embraced all the preposterous prejudices and hates then rife among its German-speaking extremists and who failed to grasp what was decent and honest and honorable in the vast majority of his fellow citizens, were they Czechs or Jews or Germans, poor or well off, artists or artisans, that Hitler can be understood. It is doubtful if any German from the north, from the Rhineland in the west, from East Prussia or even from Bavaria in the south could have had in his blood and mind out of any possible experience exactly the mixture of ingredients which propelled Adolf Hitler to the heights he eventually reached. To be sure, there was added a liberal touch of unpredictable genius.

But in the spring of 1913 his genius had not yet shown. In Munich, as in Vienna, he remained penniless, friendless and without a regular job. And then in the summer of 1914 the war came, snatching him, like millions of others, into its grim clutches. On August 3 he petitioned King Ludwig III of Bavaria for permission to volunteer in a Bavarian regiment and it was granted.

This was the heaven-sent opportunity. Now the young vagabond could satisfy not only his passion to serve his beloved adopted country in what he says he believed was a fight for its existence—“to be or not to be”—but he could escape from all the failures and frustrations of his personal life.

“To me,” he wrote in Mein Kampf, “those hours came as a deliverance from the distress that had weighed upon me during the days of my youth. I am not ashamed to say that, carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, I sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live in such a time … For me, as for every German, there now began the most memorable period of my life. Compared to the events of this gigantic struggle all the past fell away into oblivion.”64

For Hitler the past, with all its shabbiness, loneliness and disappointments, was to remain in the shadows, though it shaped his mind and character forever afterward. The war, which now would bring death to so many millions, brought for him, at twenty-five, a new start in life.

* Hitler himself seems to have recognized this. In his youth he confided to the only boyhood friend he had that nothing had ever pleased him as much as his father’s change of names. He told August Kubizek that the name Schicklgruber “seemed to him so uncouth, so boorish, apart from being so clumsy and unpractical. He found ‘Hiedler’ … too soft; but ‘Hitler’ sounded nice and was easy to remember.” (August Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, p. 40.)

* He told this story on himself in one of his reminiscing moods on the evening of January 8–9, 1942, at Supreme Headquarters. (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, p. 160.

“These were the happiest days of my life and seemed to me almost a dream …” (Mein Kampf, p. 18.) In a letter dated August 4, 1933, six months after he became Chancellor, Hitler wrote his boyhood friend, August Kubizek: “I should be very glad … to revive once more with you those memories of the best years of my life.” (Kubizek, The Young Hitler I Knew, p. 273.)

*Kubizek, who appears to have been the only friend Hitler ever had in his youth, has given in his book, The Young Hitler I Knew, an interesting picture of his companion in the last four years before, at the age of nineteen, he skidded down to the life of a vagabond in Vienna—a portrait, incidentally, that not only fills a biographical gap in the life of the German Fuehrer but corrects somewhat the hitherto prevalent impressions of his early character. Kubizek was as unlike Hitler as can be imagined. He had a happy home in Linz, learned his father’s trade as an upholsterer, worked diligently at it while studying music, was graduated with honors from the Vienna Conservatory of Music and began a promising professional career as a conductor and composer which was shattered by the First World War.

* See Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos, by Josef Greiner, who was personally acquainted with Hitler during part of his Vienna days. See also Hitler the Pawn, by Rudolf Olden; Olden’s book includes statements from Reinhold Hanisch, a Sudeten tramp who for a time was a roommate of Hitler’s in the men’s hostel and who hawked some of his paintings. Konrad Heiden, in Der Fuehrer, also quotes material from Hanisch, including the court records of a lawsuit which Hitler brought against the tramp for cheating him out of a share of a painting which Hanisch allegedly sold for him.

* The italics are Hitler’s.

* The word was cut out in the second and all subsequent editions of Mein Kampf, and the noun “pestilence” substituted.

* Since 1910, when he was twenty-one, he had been subject to military service. According to Heiden the Austrian authorities could not put their finger on him while he was in Vienna. They finally located him in Munich and ordered him to report for examination in Linz. Josef Greiner, in his Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos, publishes some of the correspondence between Hitler and the Austrian military authorities in which Hitler denies that he went to Germany to avoid Austrian military service. On the ground that he lacked funds, he requested to be allowed to take his examination in Salzburg because of its nearness to Munich. He was examined there on February 5, 1914, and found unfit for military or even auxiliary service on account of poor health—apparently he still had a lung ailment His failure to report for military service until the authorities finally located him at the age of twenty-four must have bothered Hitler when his star rose in Germany. Greiner confirms a story that was current in anti-Nazi circles when I was in Berlin that when the German troops occupied Austria in 1938 Hitler ordered the Gestapo to find the official papers relating to his military service. The records in Linz were searched in vain—to Hitler’s mounting fury. They had been removed by a member of the local government, who, after the war, showed them to Greiner.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!