The Childhood and Early Adulthood of Adolf Hitler (Fall 2012)

When most people think of Adolf Hitler, they think of genocide and murder, and probably consider him one of the most diabolical figures in recent history. While this is valid, it does not tell the whole story, a story of hardship and struggle. He was born April 20th, 1889 as the fourth child of Alois and Klara Hitler in the small Austrian town of Braunau. Two of his siblings, Gustav and Ida, died of illness as children, and a third, Otto, died shortly after birth. It can be seen from this experience that Hitler was around death from an early point in his life. His father, Alois, worked in civil service as a mid-level customs official. He was 51 when Hitler was born, and was known to be short-tempered and strict, and frequently hit the young Adolf. Alois had a son from a previous marriage who ended up in jail. Because of this, he was determined to keep Hitler from doing the same, hence his harsh treatment of the young boy. Alois was born out of wedlock to Maria Anna Schickelgruber in 1837; he changed his last name to Hitler in 1876 – the Christian name of the man who married his mother when he was five years old. Alois Hitler's illegitimacy continues to cause speculation that Hitler's grandfather was Jewish, making Hitler a Jew by his own definition. Advocacies of this theory also speculate that this idea coupled with Adolf’s hatred for his father and himself was the reason behind his harsh anti-Semitism. However, evidence to support this theory has never been presented. Contrary to Alois, Hitler’s mother, Klara, was loving, caring, and affectionate towards him. When Alois’s poor temper got the best of him, Klara was always there to take Hitler’s side and stand up for him. Hitler loved and adored her and after her death in December 1907, Hitler continued to keep a picture of her with him at all times.

In 1895, the family moved to Hafeld, where Alois farmed and kept bees. It is at this time when Hitler acquired an interest in warfare after finding his father’s book on the Franco-Prussian war. Adolf attended a school in nearby Fischlham. When Alois’s farming efforts failed, the family was forced to move to Lambath in 1897. They lived across from a Benedictine monastery whose coat of arms featured a swastika—a symbol that would later become the symbol for Hitler’s Nazi Party. Here, Hitler took singing lessons, sang in the church choir, and even considered becoming a priest at one point. After the death of his brother, Edmund, in 1900 Hitler became detached from school and began having behavior problems. He was unpopular and made very few friends. When it came to his schoolwork, he rarely excelled and was seen as lazy. It was not a matter of ability for him, rather he refused to put in the effort necessary to succeed. At the age of eleven, he lost his position at the top of the class, much to the chagrin and horror of his father. Later in his book, Mein Kampf, meaning “my struggle”, Hitler revealed that he did poorly in school in the hope that once his father saw what menial progress he was making at the technical school, he would let him devote himself to his dream of becoming an artist. Alois wanted Adolf to follow in his footsteps as a civil servant, a respected profession at the time. He was shocked and disapproving of Hitler’s decision to become an artist and the two fought bitterly over this disagreement. After his father’s death in January 1903, Hitler had no strong influence to do well in school or even to stay enrolled. As a result, his performance deteriorated even further. He enrolled at the Realschule in Steyr in 1904, where his behavior and overall performance showed some small improvement. His mother then allowed him to quit school in autumn of 1905 after passing a final exam. He left school without any plans for future schooling.

In pursuit of becoming an artist, Hitler applied to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Arts in 1907. He was denied acceptance because he had no School Leaving Certificate. The school also cited that his drawings had too few people in them and they did not want a landscape artist. They recommended that he study architecture, however, he lacked the academic credentials to do so. In December 1907, his life was shattered when his mother, Klara, died of breast cancer. Hitler then moved to the city of Vienna, refusing to give up on his dream of becoming an artist. Here, Hitler experienced hardship and poverty. He lived off of a small fortune from his father and an orphan pension. By 1909, he was virtually penniless, and, lacking the means to support himself in this new city, he was forced to live in a doss house with tramps. He spent his time clearing pathways of snow and painting post cards of the city which he hoped to sell for profit. Helped briefly by one final gift from his aunt, he painted watercolor scenes of Vienna for a business partner and made enough to live off of until he left for Munich in 1913.

It was in Vienna where Hitler developed his anti-Semitic views. During his time in Vienna, it was a hotbed for religious prejudice and racism. Also, Hitler had always been a fan of German nationalism and he became influenced by two political movements. The first of these was the German racist nationalism and anti-Semitism movement propagated by Pan-German politician Georg von Shönerer. The second key influence was that of Karl Lueger, Mayor of Vienna during Hitler’s time there. The anti-Semitism promoted by Lueger was more organizational and practical than it was ideological. However, it still succeeded in reinforcing anti-Jewish stereotypes and casting Jews as enemies of the German middle and lower classes. Lueger knew how to use big city crowds and channel their protest into his own political gain. In his own political campaign, Hitler would draw his ideology from Schönerer, but his political strategies and tactics from Lueger.

In addition to influences from those individuals, Hitler also had personal experiences with Jews during his stay in Vienna. He actually had personal and business relationships with many Jews. He was even dependent upon them for living as the shelters he lived in were mainly financed by Jewish philanthropists. Nevertheless, Hitler fell victim to the media's portrayal of Jews as scapegoats with stereotyped attributes and began to share the anti-Semitism of many middle class German nationalists that consumed Vienna at that time. This anti-Semitism infected Hitler and he began to blame Jews for many of the hardships in his life. He was convinced that it was a Jewish professor that rejected him from the Academy of Arts; he became convinced that a Jewish doctor had been responsible for his mother’s death. When he cleared paths in snow for houses in Vienna, he became convinced that only Jews could be living in those homes and resented them for it. Years later, in his book Mein Kampf, he referred to his five years in Vienna as “five years of hardship and misery”. He also made it clear that his struggles in Vienna were entirely the fault of the Jews, going as far as to say “I began to hate them”. By 1910, his mind had become warped by anti-Semitic ideologies and although some historians argue that his harsh anti-Semitism did not set in until after World War One, the seed was definitely placed in his head during his time in Vienna.

In May 1913, Hitler left Vienna with the last of his father’s inheritance. He departed for Munich, the capital of Bavaria, in hopes of avoiding military service. Hitler later claimed that he did not wish to serve the Habsburg Empire due to the mixture of races in its army. Later that year, the police came to his door bearing a draft notice from the Austrian government. They threatened a year in jail as well as a fine if he was found guilty of leaving to his homeland to avoid conscription. However, when he got back to Austria, he failed his medical exam and was unable to serve in the military. Apparently, years of poor food and rough sleep had taken their toll on Hitler, someone who as a PE student in school was considered excellent at gymnastics. His medical report stated that he was too weak to even carry weapons. He then continued to drift throughout Munich, supporting himself on his watercolors and sketches.

In 1914, World War One was declared. Hitler crossed the border into Germany so that he could fight with the German Army. He had a brief, not too thorough medical exam which declared that he was fit to be in the military. World War One gave Hitler’s life new direction as it was something to which he was able to completely commit himself. In 1924, Hitler wrote about the outbreak of war: "I sank to my knees and thanked heaven…that it had given me the good fortune to live at such a time". He served as a dispatch runner on the Western Front in Belgium and France. This was a dangerous job as he was often exposed to enemy fire. His task was to carry messages to officers behind the front lines and then return with orders. Hitler was relatively unpopular with his fellow soldiers as he frequently voiced his love for trench warfare, rather than condemning war like his comrades. After four years, he rose to the rank of corporal, a relatively low rank for having served for that long. Many people believe that it was his lack of social skills and his inability to gain a following that cost him greater promotion. In spite of this unpopularity, Hitler was able to gain recognition from officers for his bravery. He was awarded Germany’s highest award for bravery, the Iron Cross, First Class, in August 1918, an honor rarely awarded to one of Hitler's rank. Looking back on the day he was given the medal, he called it "the greatest day of my life". In all, he won six medals for bravery.

Like most of his countrymen, Hitler thought that Germany was winning the war. In October 1918, Hitler was partially blinded in a mustard gas attack. While he was recovering in a military hospital, Germany surrendered. Hitler was devastated by this news. By his own account, he cried for hours on end and felt nothing but anger and humiliation. He even went as far as to say that he underwent a second bout of blindness upon hearing the news. The end of war brought the threat of demobilization, tearing Hitler from the only community where he felt at home. It also meant that he must return to a civilian life in which he had no career prospects. By the time he left hospital, with his eyesight restored, he was convinced that the Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat. He felt that they were stabbed in the back by the Jews and that, were it not for that betrayal, Germany would not have surrendered. Hitler was later quoted as saying "hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?"

When you look at the life of Adolf Hitler, it is not difficult to see how he ended up the way he did. Throughout his early life, he was influenced by many of the history forces, the most apparent of which were new ideas and group identities. The most influential period of his life was when he lived in Vienna, where he was susceptible to the anti-Semitism that consumed the city at the time. He began to discriminate against all Jews and grouped them all together as an inferior, putrid race. His infatuation with warfare would eventually resurface as he was a main propagator of World War Two. The study of Hitler’s life is an interesting one because it can help explain what caused one of the worst tragedies in history—the Jewish Holocaust.


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