Hitler, Fuhrer Adolf, 1889-1945

Whether or not Hitler is regarded as the author of World War II, its character and course can only be understood in terms of his own extraordinary personality and over-powering will. He himself had served as a junior soldier on the western front in World War I, and his experience of the trenches was as formative an influence upon his outlook as his indulged but unsuccessful youth and his years of adult vagrancy in pre-war Vienna. He believed that he and his generation of Germans—though he was German only by adoption, having been born a subject of Franz Josef—had been betrayed by their country’s peacemakers and that it was their task to reverse the betrayal. In the aftermath of war he was drawn into extreme right-wing politics in Bavaria, joined and then took over one of the many small nationalist parties, the National Socialists. Hitler’s party and some allied groups attempted a coup d’etat in Munich in November 1924. Its crushing by the police and army convinced him that he must henceforward gain power through constitutional means, which he eventually succeeded in doing at the election of January 1933. Within eighteen months he had persuaded parliament to vote him dictatorial powers and had inherited the Presidency. He had already fostered Germany’s economic recovery by advanced fiscal policies and he next began the work of rearmament. By 1936 he judged himself strong, and the Western Powers weak, enough to risk reoccupying the demilitarized Rhineland and in 1938 he embarked on outright measures of territorial aggrandizement: first the annexation of Austria, then of the Czech Sudetenland, then in 1939 of the rump of Czechoslovakia itself. His policies had by 1939, however, driven the Western Powers themselves to rearm and to guarantee the integrity of his next probable victim, Poland. When he attacked her on 1 September, France and Britain declared war. His generals viewed the outcome with anxiety, despite his last- minute diplomatic triumph in neutralizing Soviet Russia, but he proved their fears groundless by the speed of his victory in Poland. In the following spring his armies achieved effortless victories in France, Belgium and Holland. Strategic logic, as he saw it, next dictated that he should attack the USSR, lest STALIN eventually attack him, and in June 1941 he launched his armies on Moscow, Leningrad and the Ukraine. By the winter they were seriously overextended and, despite the taking of vast numbers of prisoners, still locked in combat with the Red Army. In the summer of 1942 they resumed their progress, but were checked and defeated at Stalingrad that winter. Hitler’s strategy, always vulnerable at its narrow industrial and economic base, now lost its impetus and he was forced to fight defensively. He nevertheless succeeded in retaining absolute mastery over his own subordinates, in part by an apparatus of terror and repression, in part by a clever division of responsibilities. He left the generals to run the war in the USSR, but retained control of all other theaters in his own headquarters. Thus no one man had sufficient knowledge to argue with him whether or not the war was being lost. From the middle of 1943, when he lost his armored reserve in the USSR, in the Battle of Kursk, it was undeniably being lost. He nevertheless continued to wage a tenacious defense, believing that the development of miracle weapons and the appearance of rifts in the alliance of his enemies, whom he believed ideologically incompatible, would eventually bring Germany victory. After the army officers’ attempt on his life in July, 1944, he directed the war more or less alone, and with sufficient acumen still to achieve a humiliating defeat of the Americans in the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in December, 1944. By April, with the enemy’s armies on German soil in both east and west it was clear even to him that he was beaten. Refusing the chance to escape from Berlin, he remained in his command bunker to the end, committing suicide only when his rearguards were actually locked in combat with the Soviets on the surface above. He had fought, as promised until ‘five-past-midnight.’

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