Hitler has a reputation as the incarnation of evil. But, as British historian Michael Burleigh points out in selecting the best books on the German dictator, Hitler was a bizarre and strangely empty character who never did a proper day’s work in his life, as well as a raving fantasist on to whom Germans were able to project their longings.
WINNER 2001 Baillie Gifford Prize for nonfiction
He’s one of the most well known – but reviled – figures in history. But how much do you know about German dictator Adolf Hitler? Here’s everything you need to know about the Nazi leader, from his rise to power to the truth about his death in Berlin in 1945.
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Published: February 5, 2021 at 9:31 am
Adolf Hitler is one of the most well-known – and despised – figures in history. He was the chief architect of the Second World War, following his rise to power as the leader of the Nazi Party in the 1920s. His anti-Semitic policies lead to the deaths of more than six million Jews during the Holocaust, cementing his reputation as one of the most infamous men in history.
Here’s your guide to the German dictator – from his early life growing up in Austria to his rise to power and eventual death during the Second World War…
Hitler: key facts
Born: Adolf Hitler was born on 20 April 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria.
Died: Hitler died by suicide in a Berlin bunker, age 56, on 30 April 1945
Known for: Being the leader of the the Nazi Party and initiating the Second World War. Adolf Hitler replaced Anton Drexler as party chairman of the Nazi Party in July 1921, and soon after he acquired the title führer (“leader”). He was chancellor of Germany from 30 January, 1933, and Führer and chancellor combined from 2 August 1934. His rise to power led to the Second World War and the deaths of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust.
Family: Adolf Hitler was the fourth of six children born to Alois Hitler (1837–1903) and his third wife, Klara (1860–1907). His full siblings are: Gustav, Ida, Otto, Edmund and Paula, but he also had two half-siblings – Alois Jr and Angela – from his father’s previous marriages. Alois, who was illegitimate, bore his mother’s name Schicklgruber for some time, but by 1876 had established his family claim to the surname ‘Hitler’. Adolf Hitler himself never used any other surname.
Early childhood: Most of Hitler’s childhood was spent in Linz, Austria. He had a difficult relationship with his father, with many of their arguments focusing on Hitler’s refusal to behave at school. However he was very fond of his mother, who died in 1907.
Education: Hitler had a mixed education and has generally been considered a mediocre student by many historians. Although his father wished for his son to follow a career in his own footsteps, at a customs office, Hitler had other ideas. Tensions rose when Alois sent Hitler to the Realschule (a type of secondary school) in Linz in September 1900 and Hitler performed poorly. Hitler later suggested that this was an intentional act on his behalf: he deliberately performed badly to show his father that he should be allowed to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.
The narrative doesn’t entirely hold up if you consider that, following Alois’s death in January 1903, Hitler’s educational performance deteriorated even more. He went on to study at another school in Steyr, where he had to retake his final exams before leaving without any intentions to take his education any further.
Are we more fascinated with Hitler than any other dictator?
Hitler has been memorialised in countless books, TV shows and films. So why are we fascinated with the Nazi dictator?
“In a most obvious sense, the answer seems clear: Hitler was the chief author of the most devastating war, and the most terrible genocide, that the world has yet known,” explains Professor Ian Kershaw – one of the world’s leading experts on the Nazi leader, who believes that our enduring preoccupation with Hitler goes far beyond a conventional interest in historical figures of great power and influence.
Was Hitler a good painter?
While leaders including Winston Churchill and George W Bush took up painting as a post-politics hobby, a young Adolf Hitler paid the bills as a jobbing artist from 1910–14. He focused mainly on postcards and advertisements – and earned enough to sustain a living, moving around hostels in Vienna.
He was, however, technically mediocre. He failed the examination for the General School of Painting at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, partly down to his struggle to capture the human form. The second time he applied, his sample drawings were considered of such poor quality that he was not even admitted to the entrance examination.
Some might argue that Hitler’s art was also oddly pedestrian in a radical era of Picasso and Van Gogh. As a voracious reader of history and mythology, and with a mind bubbling over with political thoughts, it’s somewhat surprising that this angry outsider painted bland postcard scenes of buildings and landscapes.
If painting was not his forte, Hitler’s real strength could be found in his oratory skills. “He was, of course, a masterly demagogue – the basis of his early dominance within the Nazi Party,” explains Professor Kershaw. “More than any other contemporary German politician, he spoke in a language that gave voice to the anger and prejudice of his audience.”
He was also, Kershaw notes, very widely read: “His excellent memory enabled him to recall information on many subjects. This impressed not only those around him and others who were already susceptible to his message.”
What did Hitler do during World War One?
Although Adolf Hitler was in his mid-20s at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, he initially tried to avoid conscription. Then, when made to enlist, he failed the medical. He still ended up in uniform, joining the Bavarian (part of the German) army instead.
Hitler served in this army at the First Battle of Ypres. According to Hitler, his regiment of 3,600 was reduced to 611 during the battle and he was one of only 42 survivors from his 250-strong company. One of his roles was that of a trench runner. He was also wounded at the Somme and was twice awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, once on the recommendation of a Jewish comrade.
Then, on the night of 13–14 October 1918, Corporal Hitler got caught in a mustard gas attack by the British. He spent the rest of the war recovering from temporary blindness, learning of Germany’s surrender in a military hospital, although there is some suggestion that this story was made up by Hitler and that he was in fact being treated for ‘hysterical amblyopia’, a psychiatric disorder known as ‘hysterical blindness’. It was during this time, Hitler later claimed in his political manifesto Mein Kampf (first published in 1925), that “the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great”.
When did Hitler first become involved with politics?
Hitler first emerged on the political scene in the German city of Munich in late 1919 as a speaker for the right-wing German Workers’ Party (DAP). The DAP changed its name to NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) in February 1920, before Hitler officially took over as party chairman in July 1921. The party, which Hitler felt lacked direction, was also referred to as ‘Hitler’s Nazi Party’ at this time, however Hitler himself was not really known outside of Bavaria until much later.
During the early 1920s, Hitler purposefully maintained a degree of mystery around himself. He refused to let unofficial photographers take his picture, instead opting to employ his own personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who produced a series of bestselling books of pictures that portrayed the Nazi leader as an aloof intellectual. “They aimed to show Hitler as a man of the people and, at the same time, the political philosopher of genius in lofty isolation, among the mountains that surrounded his Alpine retreat near the town of Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, as he pondered Germany’s future and bore the entire burden of responsibility on his shoulders,” explains Professor Kershaw. The creation of the ‘Hitler mystery’ was a masterful move of PR, utilised at a time when other politicians did not pay too much attention to such tactics.
How did Hitler rise to power?
Hitler’s first official grasp for power took place in November 1923. He and his supporters attempted to seize political power in Munich, as a prelude to a takeover in Berlin. Around 2,000 Nazis took part in the violent daytime coup, which became known as the Munich (Beer Hall) Putsch.
What happened during the Beer Hall Putsch?
Hitler led his Nazi movement in a daytime march through central Munich, which was intended as a show of force, aiming at seizing power in Bavaria and then in Berlin; a reprise of Mussolini’s March on Rome, which had brought the Fascist leader to power the previous year.
But, after sweeping aside a number of police pickets, Hitler’s marchers finally met their match by the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz, where a detachment of Bavarian police refused to back down and fired on the column. In the mêlée, 14 Nazis were killed along with one unlucky waiter nearby, who was caught in the cross-fire. Two other Nazis were killed elsewhere in the city, but Hitler – wrenched to the ground by a dying man beside him and shielded by his loyal bodyguard, Ulrich Graf – escaped with only a dislocated shoulder. Despite its failure, the Putsch would become the founding legend of the Nazi movement.
When the coup collapsed, Hitler was arrested and charged with treason. The subsequent trial was a complex affair – as historian Roger Moorhouse explains: “Hitler probably should have been sent for trial to the constitutional court at Leipzig, but Munich’s political establishment was keen to keep the matter ‘in house’, for fear of giving oxygen to the rumours of official complicity with the Nazis. So, with a tame, sympathetic judge – Georg Neithardt – presiding, the trial opened in the Munich infantry school on 26 February.
“Those hoping for Hitler’s political demise were to be disappointed. He expertly played the court, assisted by Neithardt, and so reached a much wider audience than he had ever reached before. By the end of the trial, he had a national following for the first time, and had emerged as the undisputed leader of the German radical right.”
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Hitler served just nine months of his five-year prison sentence at Landsberg Prison. Following his release, he was forbidden from making public speeches but continued speaking to private audiences and gained a reputation as a formidable orator. By the 1930s he had cultivated an elaborate public profile, selling a “novel vision” to his followers and the wider German public. “Hitler was offering national redemption, a ‘new Germany’, a ‘new man’, a ‘new Jerusalem’,” says Moorhouse.
The Nazi party gradually grew in numbers throughout the late 1920s – and by July 1932, they had transformed from a small, revolutionary party to the largest elected party in the Reichstag (German parliament). They did this primarily through the use of effective propaganda, with support from the from the Sturmabteilung (SA), otherwise known as the Brownshirts, a paramilitary wing of the NSDAP.
Rise to dictator
Once Hitler had established himself as a key player in the German political scene of the 1930s, consolidation of his power as a dictator happened rather quickly. He achieved this with a “twin-track approach”, according to historian Richard J Evans.
The first track involved convincing the right-wing government that Hitler should rule Germany by decree. This was agreed by conservatives who were largely motivated by a desire to crush the Communist Party. “In November 1932, the Social Democrats and Communists together had more votes and seats than the Nazis, but they were also deadly enemies of each other and couldn’t get their act together to stop the Nazis. Hitler used legal or quasi-legal powers of the government, particularly the president’s power to rule by decree in a state of emergency,” explains Evans.
Listen: Historian Frank McDonough discusses the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, covering the period from the start of the Third Reich to the early months of World War Two
On 23 March 1933, the Reichstag was persuaded by Hitler – through a mixture of threats and inducements – to vote for an Enabling Law that meant that the cabinet (Hitler and the ministers) had the power to issue legislation without reference to the president or to the Reichstag, thereby giving them dictatorial powers.
The second track involved “mass, brutal violence” on the streets. During this time, between 100,000–200,000 people were put into concentration camps or ‘roughed up’ and released on condition of not engaging in politics.
Where did Hitler get his ideas?
According to historian Richard J Evans, Hitler drew his political ideas from a variety of sources: “from a version of Social Darwinism that saw society and international relations as a sort of struggle of races for the survival of the fittest; from Arthur de Gobineau, a French theorist who invented the pseudoscientific idea of race theory; from Russian émigrés from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, who brought with them the idea that Bolshevism and communism were creations of the Jewish race; from a certain amount of what’s called ‘geopolitics’, which was invented by an American.”
Hitler wrote his book Mein Kampf (or ‘My Struggle’) during his nine months imprisoned in Landsberg Prison in 1924.
It is a strange book – part Nazi manifesto, part rose-tinted autobiography, with excursions into Hitler’s theories on race, antisemitism, anti-Bolshevism, anti-capitalism, the uses of propaganda and the failings of democracy. It is famously turgid in style, so crammed with Hitler’s verbose musings that one reviewer dubbed it “Sein Krampf” (“His Cramp”).
Understandably, perhaps, sales of Mein Kamf were initially rather sluggish after the book was published in 1925, but they picked up as Hitler’s political stock rose. By 1933, it had sold some 300,000 copies, and would sell some 12 million more in the years that followed, providing Hitler with a handsome personal income, which – among other things – funded his purchase of the Berghof, his residence above Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.
Sales of the book have continued after his death, and particularly since its copyright expired in the 2015 (which also marked the 70th anniversary of the Hitler’s death).
Why did Hitler hate the Jews?
Anti-Semitism was at the heart of Nazi ideology, but what inspired Hitler’s hatred of the Jews and prompted the creation of a system that ultimately led to the systematic rounding up and killing of some six million people?
Hitler obviously did not invent modern anti-Semitism, which has roots in the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, for example, rules enacted across Europe obliged Jews to wear an identifying badge to distinguish them from non-Jews’. And in medieval Europe specifically, anti-Jewish hostility was exemplified by the concept of ‘the blood libel’, the accusation that Jews were murdering Christian children as part of their Passover rituals.
Although we don’t know how early Hitler formed his opinions of Jewish people, he himself states that he felt anti-Jewish while working as a painter in Vienna – a city with a large Jewish population – before the First World War. “For me this was a time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever had to go through,” he writes in Mein Kampf. “I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite.” Some historians have since suggested that Hitler created this narrative of himself as an early anti-Semite retrospectively – and Mein Kampf should certainly be understood in the context of its purpose as propaganda. Perhaps rather curiously, one of Hitler most loyal patrons while he lived in Vienna as a young artist was a Jew called Samuel Morgenstern.
What is clearer is that Hitler’s anti-Semitism intensified following Germany’s defeat during the First World War, in which he served as an ordinary soldier on the western front and was decorated for bravery. The defeat had come as a shock to many Germans, who believed that they had been on course to win following the Spring Offensive and victory over Russia in 1918. Following the Allied victory, harsh penalties were imposed on Germany including the loss of certain territories and reparations were demanded, through the Treaty of Versailles.
Like many of his contemporaries, Hitler decided that the reason Germany lost the war was the weak will of the Kaiser, who was deposed in 1918. According to Richard J Evans, speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, “Hitler believed that the Weimar Republic, which succeeded the Kaiser’s Germany, was a Jewish creation, and democracy was something Jewish. These were all complete fantasies. But the effect of the First World War was decisive, including on Hitler’s anti-Semitism and his belief the Jews were to blame for everything bad that had happened.”
Was Hitler Christian?
To read and hear Hitler’s public rhetoric in his early days in politics, it would be easy to think that Adolf Hitler had a connection to Christianity, albeit a warped one. Adolf Hitler had been born to a strongly Catholic mother, after all, and had been baptised. He certainly identified as a Christian in speeches and in his book, Mein Kampf.
But any declarations of religious faith were mere propaganda. Hitler received the sacrament of confirmation only at his mother’s behest, and after leaving his family home never returned to church. So when he called himself a Christian in speeches and Mein Kampf, it was in the name of political expediency, to win over an overwhelmingly Christian Germany.
Once in power, Hitler’s attitude towards the Church hardened. The Nazis pushed his ‘Positive Christianity’ movement, which rejected traditional doctrine and anything deemed ‘too Jewish’ (such as the divinity of Jesus) while espousing their master-race ideology.
What was Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun?
Eva Braun (1912–1945) was the long-term companion of Adolf Hitler. The pair married on 29 April 1945 – just one day before they both died by suicide.
German historian Heike B Görtemaker notes that Braun was much more than a passive figure in the Nazi regime. “All members of the Berghof circle, including Eva Braun, were not just witnesses, but convinced of the Nazi ideology,” she writes. “Although it cannot be verified that Braun knew about the Holocaust – and all surviving members of Hitler’s inner circle later denied knowledge – Braun, like all others, was at least informed about the persecution of the Jews, depriving them of any civil rights.”
Was Braun in love with Hitler? It is almost impossible to identify her true feelings, says Görtemaker. However Braun’s closest friend, Herta Schneider, “declared in 1949 that Braun had been in love with Hitler”.
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Where did Hitler live?
Hitler maintained three residences during the Third Reich: the Old Chancellery in Berlin; his Munich apartment; and Haus Wachenfeld (later the Berghof), his mountain home on the Obersalzberg. All three were thoroughly renovated in the mid-1930s and facilitated the creation of a new, sophisticated persona for the führer.
“Media depictions of Adolf Hitler at home – reading, walking his dogs and enjoying fine artwork – were used by the Nazi regime to create a favourable public image of the führer,” writes Professor Despina Stratigakos.
How did Hitler die?
During the last months of the Second World War – and as the prospect of losing the war became ever more apparent – Hitler withdrew into his bunker in Berlin. It was “the last station in his flight from reality”, wrote the Führer’s favoured architect, Albert Speer. Hitler continued to deliver orders from the bunker, including one that dictated his body should be incinerated upon the event of his death (he had heard about the treatment of fellow dictator Benito Mussolini’s body, who had been strung up in a public square in Milan).
On 20 April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, the first enemy shell hit Berlin. Soviet troops soon entered the city – and by 30 April 1945, Hitler was dead.
It is generally accepted that Hitler shot himself, although accounts differ as to whether he also bit down on a cyanide capsule. Following his death by suicide, Hitler’s body and that of his long-term mistress Eva Braun, whom he had married a day earlier and who had herself injected cyanide, were removed from the bunker, doused in petrol and set alight.