Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, was to go down in history as one of the greatest monsters of the 20th Century. He launched Germany into the Second World War, invaded and occupied much of Europe from France through to Western USSR, and oversaw the Holocaust, the execution of millions of Jews and other groups the NAZIS regarded as 'deviants'. Despite doing all of this in the name of the purity of German Nationality, Hitler was born in Austria, just 18 years after Germany had been formed without him1.
Parentage and Childhood
Adolf was born in Braunau am Inn, a small Austrian town near the German border. He was the fourth child of Klara and Alois Hitler, whose previous three children had all died.
Alois was born illigitimately and the identity of his father has caused much speculation (there was some suggestion that he was Jewish) but no certainty. His mother eventually married a man named Johann Heidler and Alois was ultimately to adopt his surname, corrupting it to 'Hitler'. Whatever the truth, when Alois got married for the third time, it was to a girl 30 years his junior, called Klara, who was Johann's grand daughter. This apparently incestuous marriage required special permission with Klara already carrying Alois's child.
Adolf's relationship with his authoritarian father, an Austrian customs official, would always be fractious, especially after his father retired in 1895, spending many of the subsequent years repeatedly relocating his family. The two quarrelled over Adolf's choice of career, with the young Hitler favouring life as an artist over his father's preference for a career for him in the civil service. It was a battle that would only end with Alois' death in 1903, with Adolf just 14 years old. Four years later Adolf's mother died of breast cancer. Vienna
Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1907 with the intention of attending the Fine Arts Academy. Having failed the entrance exam (which he was to fail again the following year) he was left without a direction and drifted into a state of comparative inertia. Hitler would always give the impression2 that he was living in relative poverty at this time. Others would even claim he had lived rough and eaten in soup kitchens. It seems likely that Hitler did experience poverty for a period during his stay in Vienna. The problem with tracking his movements during this time is that the only sources of information are Mein Kampf3 and the recollections (often after many years and sometimes at the prompting of the Nazi Government) of various acquaintances Hitler made in Vienna. This combination means that there are significant portions of Hitler's life in Vienna unaccounted for, and also means that some versions of this period are questionable and, frequently, contradictory. Hitler had identified the experiences in Vienna with its large Jewish population as being key to the development of his anti-Semitism, and there is no doubt that Hitler would have been exposed to not only this but extremes of pan-Germanism, Nationalism, Racism and anti-Socialist politics in considerable measures while he was in Vienna. Despite this, his version of events as later recounted in Mein Kampf is, at best, colourful, and must be seen in the context of Hitler's political ambitions by the time it was written. There was also speculation that he was homosexual dating from this time, and suggestions that he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute. Neither of these are widely credited theories.
Whatever else may have been true, Hitler established one certainty with the most decisive action he had taken in many years. In 1909, at the age of 20, he was called up to the Austrian Army. Since he was, seemingly, clear that he had no intention of being Austrian, Hitler dodged the draft. Four years later at the age of 24, Hitler was finally of the age to claim his inheritance from his father. Perhaps having waited purely for this reason, perhaps purely by coincidence Hitler made his first piece of really positive action. He ran way to Germany. With the Austrian authorities hot on his heels4 Hitler landed in Munich. The War Years
In Bavaria Hitler remained relatively directionless, despite having considered the prospect of becoming an architect. The Austrian authorities caught up with him but excused him military service after he failed a medical examination. However within a year of his rejection of Austrian military service, the First World War started. In a decisive assertion of his notions of his own nationality, Hitler volunteered for the Bavarian regiment of the Germany Army. Interestingly, the Bavarian authorities could have rejected Hitler at this point on the grounds that he wasn't German5. A subsequent investigation concluded that, in all likelihood, Hitler had been caught up in a crush of volunteers and the question of his nationality never got asked.
Hitler spent the war as a messenger, where he was generally a success. Despite gaining five medals, including the Iron Cross, Hitler was never promoted beyond the rank of Corporal. It has been suggested variously that his superiors did not wish to promote him to a rank higher than a runner could hold and lose one of their best messengers, or that they did not like his attitude and did not wish to promote him. What is also worth noting is that Hitler refused to be considered for promotion beyond the rank of Corporal. This is probably because he did not wish the inevitable transfer out of the regiment which had given him for the first time a sense of belonging. He ended the war in a German hospital, behind the lines, where he was temporarily blinded by a gas attack. He observed a lack of zeal for the war which he would always attribute to the Jews6 , who would also shoulder the blame in his eyes for a surrender he regarded as a betrayal. Out of the Trenches
Hitler emerged from the war, a demobbed soldier, into a Germany radically different from the one he had arrived in just five years previously. The country was now a fledgling democracy, the newly installed Weimarer Republik run by an unpopular government widely blamed for the German surrender7. In this political context the senior military figures, although officially having no authority outside their military rank, were important figures. In Munich, where the demobbed Hitler returned, the Generals were concerned about the emergence of communism in Germany. As a result of this, by 1919 Hitler was being used by his superiors in Munich to investigate and report on various minor left wing groups. The Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (German Workers Party) had been founded by a toolmaker called Anton Drexler. It was a small group which was little more than a political talking shop. However, when Hitler was sent to attend a meeting of the group, he ended up speaking so forcefully that Drexler persuaded him to join the group. His request, and Hitler's response, would have a major influence on European, and World, history over the next century.