The son of Alois Hitler (1837–1903), an Austrian customs official, Adolf Hitler dropped out of high school, and after his mother's death in 1907 moved to Vienna. He twice failed the admission examination for the academy of arts. His vicious anti-Semitism (perhaps influenced by that of Karl Lueger) and political harangues drove many acquaintances away. In 1913 he settled in Munich, and on the outbreak of World War I he joined the Bavarian army. During the war he was gassed and wounded; a corporal, he received the Iron Cross for bravery. The war hardened his extreme nationalism, and he blamed the German defeat on betrayal by Jews and Marxists. Upon his return to Munich he joined a handful of other nationalistic veterans in the German Workers' party.
In 1920 the German Workers' party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers, or Nazi, party; in 1921 it was reorganized with Hitler as chairman. He made it a paramilitary organization and won the support of such prominent nationalists as Field Marshal Ludendorff. On Nov. 8, 1923, Hitler attempted the “beer-hall putsch,” intended to overthrow the republican government. Leading Bavarian officials (themselves discontented nationalists) were surrounded at a meeting in a Munich beer hall by the Nazi militia, or storm troopers, and made to swear loyalty to this “revolution.” On regaining their freedom they used the Reichswehr [army] to defeat the coup. Hitler fled, but was soon arrested and sentenced to five years in the Landsberg fortress. He served nine months.
The putsch made Hitler known throughout Germany. In prison he dictated to Rudolf Hess the turgid Mein Kampf [my struggle], filled with anti-Semitic outpourings, worship of power, disdain for civil morality, and strategy for world domination. It became the bible of National Socialism. Under the tutelage of Hitler and Gregor Strasser, aided by Josef Goebbels and from 1928 by Hermann Goering, the party grew slowly until the economic depression, beginning in 1929, brought it mass support.
To Germans burdened by reparations payments to the victors of World War I, and threatened by hyperinflation, political chaos, and a possible Communist takeover, Hitler, frenzied yet magnetic, offered scapegoats and solutions. To the economically depressed he promised to despoil “Jew financiers,” to workers he promised security. He gained the financial support of bankers and industrialists with his virulent anti-Communism and promises to control trade unionism.
Hitler had a keen and sinister insight into mass psychology, and he was a master of intrigue and maneuver. After acquiring German citizenship through the state of Brunswick, he ran in the presidential elections of 1932, losing to the popular war hero Paul von Hindenburg but strengthening his position by falsely promising to support Chancellor Franz von Papen, who lifted the ban on the storm troops (June, 1932).
When the Nazis were elected the largest party in the Reichstag (July, 1932), Hindenburg offered Hitler a subordinate position in the cabinet. Hitler held out for the chief post and for sweeping powers. The chancellorship went instead to Kurt von Schleicher, who resigned on Jan. 28, 1933. Amid collapsing parliamentary government and pitched battles between Nazis and Communists, Hindenburg, on the urging of von Papen, called Hitler to be chancellor of a coalition cabinet, refusing him extraordinary powers. Supported by Alfred Hugenberg, Hitler took office on Jan. 30.
Germany's new ruler was a master of Machiavellian politics. Hitler feared plots, and firmly believed in his mission to achieve the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race, which he termed the “master race.” Having legally come to power, he used brutality and subversion to carry out a “creeping coup” to transform the state into his dictatorship. He blamed the Communists for a fire in the Reichstag on Feb. 27, and by fanning anti-Communist hysteria the Nazis and Nationalists won a bare majority of Reichstag seats in the elections of Mar. 5. After the Communists had been barred, and amid a display of storm trooper strength, the Reichstag voted to give Hitler dictatorial powers.
From the first days of Hitler's “Third Reich” (for its history, see Germany; National Socialism; World War II) political opponents such as von Schleicher and Gregor Strasser (who had resigned from the Nazis) were murdered or incarcerated, and some Nazis, among them Ernst Roehm, were themselves purged. Jews, Socialists, Communists, and others were hounded, arrested, or assassinated. Government, law, and education became appendages of National Socialism. After Hindenburg's death in 1934 the chancellorship and presidency were united in the person of the Führer [leader]. Heil Hitler! became the obligatory form of greeting, and a cult of Führer worship was propagated.
In 1938, amid carefully nurtured scandal, Hitler dismissed top army commanders and divided their power between himself and faithful subordinates such as Wilhelm Keitel. As Hitler prepared for war he replaced professional diplomats with Nazis such as Joachim von Ribbentrop. Many former doubters had been converted by Hitler's bold diplomatic coups, beginning with German rearmament. Hitler bullied smaller nations into making territorial concessions and played on the desire for peace and the fear of Communism among the larger European states to achieve his expansionist goals. To forestall retaliation he claimed to be merely rectifying the onerous Treaty of Versailles.
Benito Mussolini became his ally and Italy gradually became Germany's satellite. Hitler helped Franco to establish a dictatorship in Spain. On Hitler's order the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was assassinated, and the Anschluss amalgamated Austria with the Reich. Hitler used the issue of “persecuted” Germans in Czechoslovakia to push through the Munich Pact, in which England, France, and Italy agreed to German annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (1938).
Hitler's nonaggression pact (Aug., 1939) with Stalin allowed him to invade Poland (Sept. 1), beginning World War II, while Stalin annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to the USSR and attacked eastern Poland; but Hitler honored the pact only until he found it convenient to attack the USSR (June, 1941). In Dec., 1941, he assumed personal command of war strategy, leading to disaster. In early 1943 he refused to admit defeat at the battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), bringing death to vast numbers of German troops. As the tide of war turned against Hitler, his mass extermination of the Jews, overseen by Adolf Eichmann, was accelerated, and he gave increasing power to Heinrich Himmler and the dread secret police, the Gestapo and SS (Schutzstaffel).
By July, 1944, the German military situation was desperate, and a group of high military and civil officials (including Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben and Karl Goerdeler) attempted an assassination. Hitler escaped a bomb explosion with slight injuries; most of the plotters were executed. Although the war was hopelessly lost by early 1945, Hitler insisted that Germans fight on to the death. During the final German collapse in Apr., 1945, Hitler denounced Nazi leaders who wished to negotiate, and remained in Berlin when it was stormed by the Russians.
On Apr. 29 Hitler married his long-time mistress, Eva Braun, and on Apr. 30 they committed suicide together in an underground bunker of the chancellery building, having ordered that their bodies be burned. Hitler left Germany devastated; his legacy is the memory of one of the most dreadful tyrannies of modern times.
See his Mein Kampf (complete tr. 1940), Hitler's Secret Conversations, 1941–1944 (tr. 1953), and Hitler's Secret Book (tr. 1962). See also biographies by A. Bullock (rev. ed. 1964), B. F. Smith (1968), J. C. Fest (tr. 1974), and I. Kershaw (2 vol., 1999, 2000); H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (1947); W. A. Jenks, Vienna and the Young Hitler (1960); W. Maser, Hitler (tr. 1973); R. E. Hertzstein, Adolf Hitler and the German Trauma, 1913–1945 (1974); R. and C. Winston, Hitler (1974); R. Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler? (1982); J. Lukacs, The Hitler of History (1997); R. Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler (1998); F. Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1998).
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