Hitler, Adolf (1889–1945)

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HITLER, ADOLF (1889–1945)



German chancellor and Führer.

No single figure, except perhaps the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, had as great an impact on the history of the twentieth century as Adolf Hitler, the man who became Germany's chancellor in 1933, who led his country into history's largest war six years later, and whose defeat in 1945 ushered in a new age in European and world history.


Hitler was born in the small Austrian town of Braunau am Inn on 20 April 1889. He was the second son of Alois Hitler, a small-time official in the Habsburg Empire, and his second wife, Klara. Little in his childhood indicated his later impact on history. He was a modest pupil at the local schools he attended near Linz, where his parents moved in 1898. He lost interest in schooling as he grew older. His early years were dominated by loss: four of his brothers and sisters died in childhood; his father, for whom he had scant affection, died in 1903; and his mother, to whom he was devoted, four years later in December 1907, when Hitler was eighteen. He left school at sixteen, and two years later moved from Linz to the capital, Vienna, where he hoped to enroll at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts to pursue a career as an artist. His rejection by the academy left him embittered and rootless. In 1913, partly to avoid military conscription, he left Vienna for Munich. Though he was eventually forced to return briefly to Austria, where he was pronounced unfit for service in February 1914, he went back to Munich where his bohemian existence ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War I. He volunteered to fight for Germany and was accepted into the Bavarian army in August 1914.

Hitler's Austrian background was important in many ways in shaping his views about society and politics. He became interested in the parliamentary debates and listened to them from the gallery. He later claimed that his contempt for parliaments was formed watching the many small Austrian parties squabbling. He was attracted to the pan-German movement and saw the future of Austria in a larger "Greater German" state than the loose Habsburg confederation with its large non-German minorities. His profound sense of German identity became the core of his political being. Other influences were particularly Viennese. He developed his love of opera in Vienna, particularly, but not exclusively, Richard Wagner. His dislike of artistic modernism almost certainly dates from this period, as he struggled to sell neat and conventional landscapes in a city that hosted the artistic fin de siècle.

Myths abound from his time in Vienna. He was never the penniless artist and laborer in the self-constructed legend of his later years but was able to survive on several small legacies and the money he made from selling pictures. The claim that life in Vienna explains Hitler's anti-Semitism has little foundation in fact, though hostility to the Jews was all around him in the prewar capital. He sold his pictures to Jewish galleries and had a number of Jewish friends. His favorite conductor at the Vienna Court Opera was the German-Jewish Gustav Mahler. Hitler would have witnessed the arrival of many eastern Jews in the capital before 1914, but prejudices against them were shared even by Vienna's own established Jewish community. The assumption that Hitler's hatred of the Jews stemmed from these early encounters has not been demonstrated with any certainty.

Hitler's anti-Semitism became an evidently central part of his worldview only at the end of World War I. He served throughout the war at the front, much of the time as a "runner" between the front line and headquarters. He was promoted to corporal and earned the Iron Cross, Second Class, in 1914, and First Class in 1918. Shortly before the end of the war he was in the hospital after being temporarily blinded in a gas attack. Here he heard about the Armistice, and it was from around this point that his hatred of Jews and Marxists, who it was widely alleged had "stabbed Germany in the back," became the keynotes of his worldview. Hitler was one of many veterans of the war whose own sense of personal loss was projected onto the fact of German defeat and dishonor, but with Hitler these hatreds and anxieties became psychological props of extraordinary power to the extent that he came to see himself as the personification of Germany's suffering and also the instrument of German salvation.


Following the Armistice, Hitler was invited by one of his officers to become an army informer working among the many political splinter groups in Munich, which was in the throes of political crisis following a brief communist republic. During one of these visits, to a meeting of the German Workers' Party, Hitler was very impressed by that party's mixture of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populist quasi-socialist politics. He joined the tiny party in September 1919 and was soon appointed to be its propaganda chief. He abandoned the army and devoted himself full time to radical nationalist politics. In 1920 he encouraged the party to change its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (the NSDAP, or the Nazi Party). A party program was drawn up, and, after a brief power struggle with the party's leader, Anton Drexler, Hitler emerged as the party's undisputed master in July 1921. He set out to transform the party into a mass movement committed to the revolutionary transformation of Germany and the reassertion of German national power. When the young Weimar Republic was plunged into political chaos in 1923 during the hyperinflation, Hitler and the party leadership decided to collaborate with other extreme-right forces in Bavaria to stage a coup and a possible march on Berlin. The so-called Beer Hall Putsch took place on 8–9 November when the Bavarian government was taken hostage and Hitler and his allies marched through the streets of Munich to the town hall. Police and army units met the march and opened fire. Hitler narrowly avoided injury. The fiasco brought him to the edge of suicide, but when he was arrested and put on trial between February and April 1924 alongside his National Socialist colleagues and the nationalist general Erich Ludendorff, he used the trial as the opportunity to campaign for German national revival. He was sentenced to five years in Landsberg prison, but served fewer than nine months before he was amnestied. During his incarceration he dictated his autobiography and a summary of his worldview. The manuscript was published a year later under the title Mein Kampf (My struggle). The book became the bible of the National Socialist movement and by 1945 more than eight million had been sold.

Hitler emerged from prison to find his movement split and scattered. In 1925 and 1926 he struggled to reimpose his authority, but not until the party congress at Weimar in July 1926 did he finally unite the party factions and have himself declared party leader (Führer), the title by which he was generally known from then until his death in 1945. After the failure of the coup in 1923, Hitler determined to take the legal path to power by taking part in national and local elections. By the general election in 1928 the party had grown considerably in size but won only a tiny fraction of the vote and twelve seats in parliament. The economic slump that started in 1929 helped Hitler and the party to move to the political center-stage. Growing fear of German communism combined with exceptional levels of economic and social hardship to create a large constituency looking for some form of political salvation. Hitler used party propaganda remorselessly to promote the idea that he was the German messiah who would lead his adopted country into a future of social harmony, economic well-being, and national rebirth. The traditional right and center of German politics collapsed, and millions flooded to support National Socialism. In the election of 1930 the party became the second largest. After Hitler contested the presidential election against the aging field marshal Paul von Hindenburg in April 1932, which Hitler lost by a small margin, the Nazi Party won the largest share of the vote (37 percent) in the July 1932 election. This did not secure a majority in the German parliament, but it made stable government impossible for the loose coalitions that tried to govern. Hitler would not join forces with other parties unless he was made chancellor. Following new elections in November, Germany became almost ungovernable. Hindenburg was persuaded by a clique of nationalist aristocrats around Franz von Papen to appoint Hitler as part of a broad nationalist front. On 30 January 1933 he was summoned into office as German chancellor.

Though Hitler was soon to have an exceptional impact on German and European affairs, the man who assumed the chancellorship was little known outside Germany and even among the German people. Hitler was a private person, who relied largely on a constructed "cult of personality" to project his image and win mass support. The private Hitler was unassuming, socially awkward, capable of bursts of hysterical irritation, but otherwise colorless. He chose not to marry, modeling himself on Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, who had deliberately avoided matrimony so that he could serve his political office. Hitler is said to have had an affair with his niece Geli Raubal, and her suicide in 1931 affected him profoundly. Later in the 1930s he took as his companion Eva Braun, a former photographic assistant, but she was forced to live in the shadows. Hitler's public persona was remarkably different. He was a violent and evangelical speaker who developed the capacity to sway a crowd (even if most of them were composed of the party faithful) with his messianic vision of a German future. He used the personality cult to create the legend of the humble German who had survived life in the trenches to save Germany from the Marxists, Jews, and international plutocrats who had stifled and subverted it since 1918. His ideology was a mix of pseudoscientific race theory, modern illiberalism, and ideals of community that he picked up from discourses that were European-wide. He gave the latter a particularly German gloss, presenting Germany as the nation destined to save and rebuild European culture and succeed the decadent empires of the West. This worldview was seldom articulated fully (he followed Mein Kampf with a second manuscript dictated in 1928, but this was not published until 1961, long after his death). During the life of his regime, which was soon described as the Third Reich or "empire," Hitler wrote very little. His ideas were worked out in great set-piece speeches delivered at party congresses and rallies.


Hitler's appointment in January 1933 opened the way for a nationalist revolution supported by more than those who had joined the party or voted for Hitler. At first the regime was a coalition of nationalist forces. Hitler was chancellor, but only three other party leaders were in the cabinet. Following an arson attack on the parliament building in Berlin on the night of 27 February 1933, Hitler got the president to approve emergency powers that became the basis for a regime of "legal" terror exercised principally against communist, social democratic, and Catholic opponents of the party. New elections were called in March, and Hitler and his nationalist allies won more than 50 percent of the vote. A few days later, on 24 March, an Enabling Bill was promulgated that allowed the cabinet to approve changes to the constitution and to draft legislation. Over the next nine months other political parties were banned, the trade unions were abolished and their assets seized, and the provincial governments were forced to accept rule directly from Berlin. The dictatorship was consolidated in 1934 following the murder on 30 June of leaders of the party's paramilitary wing, the SA (Sturmabteilung), who were accused of plotting against the party leadership. Hitler himself arrested the chief of the SA, Ernst Röhm, who was shot on his orders the following day. Parliament then approved Hitler's right to take the law into his own hands. In early August, President von Hindenburg died, and Hitler took the opportunity to fuse the function of president and chancellor together by creating a single office of Führer, which was formally approved by national plebiscite later that month. The office was a unique one; Hitler was effectively above the law, able to make and enforce it as he saw fit. This was the essence of his personal rule.

Hitler's style of ruling was deliberately unconventional. He saw himself as the country's messiah whose task was to guide the German people to its new destiny. He disliked committee meetings and his attendance at cabinet meetings declined rapidly after 1934, until the cabinet ceased meeting altogether in February 1938. He preferred more informal governance. He met party leaders in secret meetings; ministers and officials discussed issues with him face-to-face; he delegated a good deal of responsibility to special commissioners who enjoyed his powerful backing; decisions were taken over lunch, at dinner, or on walks around his villa in the small Bavarian town, Berchtesgaden, that he chose as his retreat from Berlin and as a second political center. He preferred the company of party friends and leaders, and it was they who came to play an increasingly important part in pushing policy through and in subverting the normative state, vying for Hitler's attention and basking in his reflected glory. He indulged technical experts as well. Throughout his period as dictator Hitler was fascinated by monumental architecture and advanced technology; in 1934 he launched the construction of a network of fast motorways and in 1937 decreed the rebuilding of Germany's major cities, both projects a monument to his self-image as an "artist-ruler" rather than a mere politician.

The absence of settled administrative routine and the habit of delegation has led some historians to the conclusion that Hitler was a "weak dictator," dominated by the power structures around him and unable to insist on his own political intentions. The reality was more complex. There were no power centers that could effectively challenge Hitler's position after 1934; no major decisions could be taken without his consent, and Hitler could overturn minor decisions, even of the courts, if he chose to intervene. The cult of personality secured popular endorsement, while governing circles around Hitler understood that loyalty to the dictator was the central element in their survival. But Hitler was aware that he faced circumstances that were not always under his control, either at home or abroad, and he continuously engaged in political activity designed to remove barriers to the exercise of his power. He displayed moments of uncertainty or fear of risk, but once decisions were taken he regarded them as irreversible, the result of what he regarded as an act of dictatorial will. But on the principal issues of Germany's international revival, remilitarization, and biological purification Hitler played a more direct part as befitted, in his view, a leader destined to create a utopian "new order."

Foreign and military policy absorbed a large part of Hitler's energy throughout the whole history of the Third Reich. As early as February 1933 he announced to the cabinet that the chief priority of the new regime was to re-create Germany's military power. In October 1933 he took Germany out of the Disarmament Conference that had been called the year before at Geneva, and withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He moved cautiously at first to avoid fear of foreign intervention, but in March 1935 he publicly declared German rearmament, and a year later, in March 1936, he ordered German forces to reoccupy the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, imposed on Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In August 1936, at Berchtesgaden, he drafted a memorandum that laid out the future of German strategy. He saw Jewish bolshevism as the greatest threat Germany confronted and called for rearmament on a massive scale at the expense of every other priority. In October he appointed Hermann Goering (chief of the German air force) to head the creation of a four-year plan to prepare the German economy and the German armed forces for war in four years.


Hitler had no clear blueprint for war, but he saw conflict as inevitable if Germany were to claim its just position as a world imperial power. On 5 November 1937 he finally revealed to his commanders his resolve to absorb Austria into the German Reich and to attack Czechoslovakia at the first opportunity. His homeland was occupied by German troops on 12 March 1938, and a few days later Hitler rode in triumph into Vienna, where he announced Austria's union in a Greater Germany. He then informed the army of his intention to invade the Czech state in the autumn, but the diplomatic intervention of Britain and France delayed conquest. At the Munich conference on 29–30 September Hitler was granted the German-speaking areas of the Sudetenland, but on 15 March of the following year he ordered the occupation of the rump Czech state in defiance of the Western powers. Two weeks later he decided on war against Poland for refusing to return the "German" territories Poland had been granted in 1919. This time he ignored threats from Britain and France, assuming they were too decadent and militarily weak to interfere seriously, and, after approving an expedient nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union signed on 23 August, he ordered German forces to attack Poland on 1 September. Two days later Britain and France declared war.

Hitler made foreign policy his own preserve. His initiatives were often opposed by more prudent military leaders, even on occasion by his party colleagues, but he was determined that Germany should become the dominant power in Eurasia during his lifetime. His role in German race policy is less certain. Hitler made anti-Semitism a central part of his worldview in the 1920s. He saw the Jew as an eternal enemy of all higher forms of culture; he identified the Jew with bolshevism and "social decomposition"; and he adopted popular biological racism and applied it to the Jewish "bacillus," which he thought infected the purity of German blood. This mix of prejudices was used by Hitler to define the threat to Germany and German national identity, but there is little evidence before 1939 that he ever considered the genocide of the Jews as the solution to what was defined as "the Jewish question." The lack of a clear genocidal program has divided historians over the issue of Hitler's responsibility; so-called intentionalists assume that he must have played a central part, while "structuralist" historians argue that the system moved step-by-step toward more radical racist solutions.

There is no doubt that race policy was pushed along by enthusiasts in the party and a science establishment keen to pursue a policy of race hygiene. Hitler approved but did not initiate the sterilization law of January 1934, nor did he take the initiative in the Race Laws approved in September 1935 at the party rally in Nuremberg, which forbade marriage between Jews and ethnic Germans and turned Germany's Jews into second-class citizens. Hitler never obstructed the radicalization of anti-Semitic policy, but his exploitation of race prejudice was rhetorical as much as practical. Only in January 1939, in a speech to the German parliament, did Hitler confront the "Jewish question" directly when he announced that if Germany were to be dragged into a global war again, it would mean the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Jewish people in Europe. Hitler linked war and racism together from 1939. The Jew was seen as a malign international force using the cover of world war to destroy Germany, and it was this warped perception that made Hitler's anti-Semitism so dangerous.

Hitler's popularity in Germany reached its highest point between 1939 and 1940. In two weeks German forces defeated Poland. Hitler wanted to attack French and British forces at once, but was persuaded by his generals to wait until the spring. In April he ordered the occupation of Denmark and Norway, to protect the northern flank, and on 10 May German armies launched a campaign that in six weeks defeated the Netherlands, Belgium, and France and drove British forces from mainland Europe. Hitler was hailed as the greatest German; his regime began to plan the building of a new European order. In late July 1940 he announced to his military commanders that, despite the non-aggression pact, he would order an attack on the Soviet Union to complete the establishment of a new German empire and destroy forever the threat of "Jewish bolshevism." When the German air force failed to defeat the Royal Air Force in the autumn of 1940 as a prelude to a quick invasion of southern Britain, Hitler turned to the east. On 18 December he issued the Barbarossa order for an assault on the Soviet Union in the early summer. In the spring German forces were diverted to the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, but on 22 June 1941 the invasion of the Soviet Union began. In the months beforehand Hitler had approved special orders allowing German troops and security forces to murder communists and Jews in state service, and from the early weeks of the invasion Jewish communities were targeted for indiscriminate murder.

Historians argue over when or if Hitler ordered the genocide of the Jews at some point in the second half of 1941. No document has ever been found, but Hitler can be shown to have played a part in all the key decisions about the murder of Soviet Jews. As German forces pushed into the Soviet Union, Hitler was convinced that victory was assured. Orders were given to extend Jewish executions to women and children, German Jews were finally rounded up and deported east, and orders were given for the first purpose-built extermination centers to be set up. On 12 December, a day after Germany's declaration of war on the United States, Hitler gave a speech to party leaders in which he was reported to have announced a program for the physical annihilation of European Jews in line with the threat he had made in January 1939. Though there can be no certainty about the date, most historians agree that Hitler approved a policy of extensive mass murder at some point in the last weeks of 1941, and reconfirmed this in the course of 1942 as murder was applied to Jewish communities from other parts of occupied Europe. The genocide continued for the next three years, but Hitler seems to have taken only a limited interest once the program was under way. His decisive interventions came in 1941.


Hitler from the autumn of 1941 became absorbed in the details of the military campaigns. In February 1938 he had appointed himself supreme commander of the armed forces, and his headquarters became the center of the German war effort. In December 1941, disillusioned with the army leadership, he appointed himself commander-in-chief of the German army and conducted the day-to-day war effort himself. He had staff reports and discussions once or twice a day and spent most of his time at headquarters, his public appearances reduced almost to nothing, his life a tedious routine of military briefings, technical reports, and dinners in which he engaged in monologues about every aspect of world history and world affairs. In December 1942 he faced his greatest challenge with the encirclement and defeat of German armies at Stalingrad. His health and temper deteriorated, sustained by regular applications of drugs prescribed by his personal physician, Theodor Morell. As Germany faced defeat on all fronts, Hitler became ever more determined to hold out to the bitter end in the hope that destiny might in the end rescue Germany from collapse. In October 1943 he ordered a program of underground construction so that Germany could carry on with the war despite bombing; he personally ordered the development and production in the autumn of 1943 of "vengeance weapons" (the V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket) to turn the tide of the war, though he made little effort to support programs of nuclear research. In spring 1944 he insisted on dividing German forces along the French channel coast to meet the expected Anglo-American invasion, a decision that made it possible for the campaign in Normandy to succeed when it was launched on 6 June 1944. Throughout the period of German retreats Hitler refused to acknowledge reality. Though some of his entourage made tentative peace feelers, Hitler seems never to have entertained the idea of surrender.

On 20 July 1944 an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler at his headquarters, carried out by a coterie of disillusioned senior soldiers. This was one of at least forty-two known attempts on Hitler's life. The bomb left him injured but alive. In the aftermath hundreds of senior soldiers and officials, drawn mainly from Germany's upper classes, were arrested and executed. Hitler's personal rule remained unshaken and no further effort was made to stop him from dragging Germany down into a state of complete destruction. In March 1945 he ordered a policy of scorched earth inside Germany to deny the German people any chance of their survival. The policy was ignored by most local authorities as Allied armies approached. In his last recorded conversations Hitler blamed defeat not only on the Jews, but also on the Germans for failing the supreme test of racial superiority. On 30 April 1945 he shot himself in his command bunker in Berlin rather than risk capture by the encircling Red Army. Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before, took cyanide. Their bodies were incinerated; only their dental remains could be found and definitely identified. The Allies had intended to put Hitler on trial in 1945 for crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Every effort was made to avoid making Hitler into a nationalist martyr.

Hitler's legacy has been a powerful one. He has continued to exert a fascination for historians and the wider public outside Germany. Inside Germany his legacy has provoked profound historical disagreements over how to come to terms with responsibility for war and genocide but has also encouraged a self-conscious democratic spirit and hostility toward populist nationalism and racism. Small groups of neo-Nazis have kept Hitler alive politically, but there has been no mainstream movement to revive National Socialism or to encourage a postwar cult of Hitler. His name has entered the language as the personification of modern evil.

See alsoGermany; Holocaust; Nazism; Stalin, Joseph; World War II.


Primary Sources

Genoud, François, ed. The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler-Bormann Documents, February–April 1945. Translated by R. H. Stevens. London, 1961.

Heiber, Helmut, and David M. Glantz, eds. Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences, 1942–1945. Translated by Roland Winter, Krista Smith, and Mary Beth Friedrich. London, 2002. The records of Hitler as warlord in the last four years of the war.

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Edited by D. C. Watt. Translated by Ralph Manheim. London, 1969.

Maser, Werner, ed. Hitler's Letters and Notes. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. London, 1974.

Trevor-Roper, H. R, ed. Hitler's War Directives, 1939–1945. London, 1964.

——. Hitler's Table Talk, 1941–1944. 3rd ed. Translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens. New York, 2000. Records the evening monologues at Hitler's wartime headquarters.

Secondary Sources

Hamann, Brigitte. Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship. New York, 1999. The best account of Hitler's early years, debunking many accumulated myths.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: Hubris, 1889–1936. London, 1998.

——. Hitler: Nemesis, 1936–1945. London, 2000. These two volumes comprise the standard modern biography of Hitler.

Longerich, Peter. The Unwritten Order: Hitler's Role in the Final Solution. Stroud, U.K., 2001. The best account of Hitler's role in anti-Semitic policy.

Stern, J. P. Hitler: The Führer and the People. Rev. ed. London, 1990. One of the best short interpretative essays on Hitler.

Zitelmann, Rainer. Hitler: The Policies of Seduction. Translated by Helmut Bogler. London, 1999. The best account of Hitler's social, economic, and political thinking.

Richard Overy