Hitler, Adolf°

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HITLER, ADOLF ° (1889–1945), chief of the German National Socialist Party from 1920 and chancellor of the Reich from 1933. Hitler was the man who planned the extermination of the Jews, took the total decision, created the required organizations, and followed passionately its implementation.

Early Years

Hitler was born into the family of an Austrian customs official. His father had worked his way up to a responsible position from exceptionally poor beginnings as an illegitimate child. This latter fact has led to speculation that Hitler's grandfather might have been Jewish, but since there were no Jews in the town where Hitler's grandmother worked, this story, however often repeated, has no basis in fact. While the boy Hitler clearly did not get on well with his father, primarily because he neither applied himself to his schoolwork nor aspired to a substantial career as his father had, he very much loved his mother. He was devastated when she died of cancer in spite of the efforts of her Jewish doctor to whom Hitler always remained extremely grateful for the care he had provided.

The boy did not do particularly well in school, in part because he preferred to play rather than study and in part because he simply would not study hard. As a youngster he moved to Vienna, living with a friend who was studying seriously while Hitler was denied entrance to the arts academy, refused to admit to this failure to his family, and lived on the pension from his deceased father and funds provided by family members. As his money ran out, he moved into cheaper housing and in part supported himself by painting local buildings and scenes for sale to tourists. During the years in Vienna he evidently began to absorb some of the racist and antisemitic ideas that would dominate his subsequent elaboration of and dedication to them. Perhaps equally important, he observed the electoral politics of the time. In doing so, he simultaneously developed an understanding of how to appeal to masses of people, a vehement aversion to democratic procedures, and a hatred of Slavic peoples. These people were represented in the Vienna of his time primarily by Czech families from Bohemia who had moved to the city for jobs.

In May 1913 Hitler left Vienna for Munich to escape service in the Austrian army; his obsessive hatred of the Hapsburg dynasty clearly goes back to an early date. Obliged to return, he was found physically incapable of military service. This did not keep him from volunteering for the Bavarian part of the German army in August 1914 and being accepted into it right after the outbreak of World War i. He served, primarily as a messenger, on the Western Front. Although he was decorated for bravery, he was promoted only to the rank of private first class. He experienced the end of the war in a hospital at Pasewalk because of a temporary blindness evidently caused by hysteria rather than gas as often claimed. He was cured of his blindness by hypnosis.

Emerging into a defeated Germany, Hitler was shattered by this event. It would affect his outlook on the world – and his conduct of World War ii – thereafter. Convinced that the German army had not been defeated at the front, he would join those in the German government, military, and society at large who attributed the nation's defeat to a legendary "stabin-the-back" by domestic enemies among whom Hitler, like many others, saw the Jews as a central element. Remaining for a time in the postwar German army – his first real home – he was assigned to speak to soldiers confused by the situation and then to observing political movements in the Munich area for the local military command. It was in this process of speaking and observing that Hitler increasingly formulated and systematized his view of the world. It was as an observer for the army that he came into contact in September 1919 with the small party that he would come to control completely in July 1921, and that took the name of National Socialist German Workers Party.

Race and Space

Hitler's view of the world, embodied in the book Mein Kampf, which he dictated in two installments after he was jailed briefly for leading an attempted coup in Munich in November 1923, can be summarized as revolving around the concepts of race and space. Race is the key factor for understanding world history in the past, present, and future. In this view, history is the record of the struggle of different races for space on which to feed themselves, provide for their children, and conquer additional space as the latter needed it. Racial purity would strengthen while racial mixture would weaken each racial group in this struggle. The so-called Aryan race, to which the Germans allegedly belonged, was the most superior, and in the descending order of other races, the Jews were considered the most inferior. The latter were, however, especially dangerous because of their inclination both to infiltrate other races and societies and also to dominate them. They were therefore in his opinion the greatest threat to Germany's ability to reach its destiny. As Hitler explained to a cheering beer hall audience in April 1920, they had to be exterminated "root and branch." A racially aware and purified Germany with only one party led by the man who understood these ideas – namely himself – was guaranteed to win a series of wars, having come so close against a host of enemies the last time. In these wars victory in each would pave the way for victory in the succeeding one until the Germans dominated – and inhabited – the globe, a position to which their racial superiority entitled them. The inferiors would have to disappear because their racial nature could not be changed: the space on which they lived, not the inhabitants, would be Germanized.

Since the bulk of European territory lay in the East, that would be the first direction of German expansion. Hitler believed that this would be easy. In his racial concept of history, the Bolshevik revolution was a stroke of good fortune for Germany. He believed that it had led to the replacement of what had been the Germanic element that had held together the racially inferior Slavic peoples in the past, by Jews and other completely incompetent individuals. A Germany that had defeated Russia in the preceding war – while much of its army was fighting on the Western Front – could therefore count on an even easier victory in the next war against Russia.

In the first of the big wars Hitler anticipated, against France, Italy would be Germany's logical ally because the expansionist ambitions of that country under the leadership of Benito *Mussolini, whom Hitler greatly admired, would necessarily clash with French interests in Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean. Britain might also be a temporary ally, but Hitler would abandon this concept in 1934 at the latest. When the Nazi Party did very poorly in the German May 1928 parliamentary election, he attributed this to the unpopularity of his advocacy of an alliance with Italy. He dictated, but never published, another book in which he insisted on the correctness of his foreign policy views in very much greater detail than in Mein Kampf and also explicitly called for war with the United States. The new immigration legislation enacted in the United States in 1924, which was designed to restrict immigration and favored people from northern and western Europe over those from eastern and southern Europe, was seen by Hitler as making that country stronger over time – as it drew the racially best out of Europe – and hence it had to be confronted by Germany sooner rather than later.

The Prelude to the "Final Solution"

In the late 1920s Hitler allied his party with the other parties opposed to the Weimar Republic and attained an increasing audience and following. The way in which the world depression affected Germany helped to disillusion Germans about their government, but certainly did not oblige them to turn to the advocate of new wars after their experience of the last one. By 1930 Hitler's party received the largest share of the country's votes, and the coterie around President Paul von Hindenburg persuaded the latter to appoint him as chancellor on January 30, 1933.

In a few months Hitler succeeded in ending all constitutional freedoms and all other political parties in the country. The one-party dictatorship immediately began a vast rearmament program and other public works. In June 1934 he had his predecessor as chancellor along with numerous others murdered as a sign of his total control. In the following month, he had the chancellor of Austria murdered also, when that country did not join Germany as Hitler preferred. He accomplished this goal by an invasion in March 1938. The most violent persecution of Jews in Austria was initiated immediately after the country's annexation with the enthusiastic participation of substantial elements of the non-Jewish population.

Racial policies that included persecution of Jews and compulsory sterilization of those Germans believed likely to have defective children on the one hand and policies to promote marriage and large numbers of children by the "right" Germans on the other hand had been initiated in Germany in 1933. These measures were intensified in the following years. Jews were removed from government positions. Increasingly they were barred from such public facilities as theaters and swimming pools. Numerous restaurants and whole communities adopted the practice of putting up placards that Jews were not to enter. A steady series of new legal restrictions were imposed on the country's Jewish population, which had been less than one percent at the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship. Some Jews emigrated, but this was a slow and difficult process. In the years of the great worldwide depression countries were reluctant to admit immigrants whose assets had largely been stolen from them. Furthermore, since Jews had lived in Germany for centuries under restrictions of which the last had only been lifted in 1919, most did not realize that the restrictions now placed on them were steps toward a new aim rather than a return to a prior situation that Jews had not liked but under which they had long lived in the country.

In 1935, the German parliament was summoned to a special meeting in the city of Nuremberg to enact a group of laws that essentially deprived German Jews of all citizenship rights and also criminalized any sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews. Furthermore, those defined by the Nazis as "Mischlinge," that is, descendants of mixed Jewish-non-Jewish couples, were subjected to special restrictions that became ever more stringent over the years of Nazi rule.

In 1938 Hitler intended to start his first war, that is the war against Czechoslovakia, but drew back at the last moment in the face of domestic doubts and Mussolini's urging. Regretting the Munich agreement that added substantial lands to Germany at the expense of Czechoslovakia but without the war that he would have preferred, Hitler determined to go to war against France and England in 1939. Since victorious wars would bring more Jews under German control, he authorized an escalation of persecution in the hope of driving as many Jews as possible out of the country before war started. On the same day that he called on the German media to prepare the public for war, he had the party unleash the pogrom of November 1938. Almost all synagogues in Germany were set on fire, some 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps, numerous stores and apartments of Jews were vandalized, and a substantial number of Jews were killed. In the following weeks, a dramatic new set of laws was decreed. Jews were heavily fined, barred from the public school system, and increasingly deprived of the opportunity to earn a living. The process of taking over Jewish businesses and homes, a process referred to as "aryanization" and already under way, was radically accelerated.

When Hitler threatened the killing of Europe's Jews if there were a new war in his speech to the German parliament on January 30, 1939, he had already decided that no one would deprive him of war that year. Since the Poles were unwilling to subordinate themselves to Germany while that country fought France and England, he ordered an attack on that country on September 1, 1939, after temporarily aligning Germany with the Soviet Union. With Britain and France declaring war two days later, Germany was in a new world war. With war now actually under way, Hitler authorized the first of the German systematic killing programs, that of the handicapped. This began in 1939–40 and would provide a way to experiment with and initiate the procedures and train some of the personnel for the subsequent mass killing of Jews.

The Extermination of European Jewry

The partition of Poland with the Soviet Union brought under German control a majority of Poland's more than three million Jews. While thousands of Jews were murdered in the initial weeks of the war, literally hundreds of thousands were uprooted from the portions of Poland that were annexed directly into Germany. Soon thereafter, in the so-called Government General, the rest of German-controlled Poland, the Jewish inhabitants who primarily lived in the cities were driven into ghettoes. In the ghettoes, conditions were deliberately made so terrible by the Germans that mortality from hunger and disease rapidly escalated. In Poland and subsequently in other parts of German-occupied Europe, large numbers of Jews were forced to work for the Germans, frequently under conditions designed to kill them in a very short time. Hitler's main role in these events was to point the direction of German policy. He left it to his associates and to the local German authorities to develop and argue over the details. Similarly he left it to German industrialists to make their profits out of exploiting slave laborers until these could no longer work when they were murdered and replaced by other slave laborers.

In the spring of 1940 the Germans conquered Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and France. In these newly occupied areas, the Germans immediately began the persecution of Jews, including those who had sought refuge there from Germany in prior years. The Germans also instituted a vast program of stealing the property of the Jewish population. Hitler failed to subdue England in the summer of 1940 and decided to invade the Soviet Union in the following year. It was in the context of preparations for that invasion that, according to the latest evidence, Hitler in February or March of 1941 directed that the Jews in the territory of the Soviet Union that he expected to defeat in a short campaign were to be killed. There are those scholars who argue that the decision to kill the Jews in the newly occupied areas was not arrived at until after the initial German victories. However, both the orientation on policy provided to Germany's Romanian ally before the invasion and the assignment of special units, the Einsatzgruppen, and large numbers of police battalions to the killing of Jews – on which they regularly reported from widely separated points in the summer of 1941 – support the views of those scholars who believe that a decision had been reached and communicated to the German police well before June 22, 1941, the date of the invasion.

The early stages of the campaign in the East certainly demonstrated that the mass killing of Jews by the special units and police battalions assigned to this task received the full support and frequent assistance from the German military rather than objections and resistance as had occasionally occurred in the initial stages of the occupation of Poland in 1939. There were also local pogroms very much encouraged by the Germans; and, especially in newly occupied Lithuania and parts of the Ukraine, many local inhabitants participated in the killing of their Jewish neighbors. The early great victories of the German military, furthermore, seemed to show that the campaign was going as well and as rapidly as Hitler and his military advisers had expected. It was in this context that in the second half of July 1941 Hitler decided that the killing of Jews could and should be extended to all areas of Europe under German control. When the campaign appeared to be resuming its rapid advance in October-November 1941, Hitler thought that the time had come to extend the killing program to the Middle East and to the rest of the world as he personally explained to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in late November. The military campaign against the Soviet Union did not proceed as Hitler anticipated, but the decision to kill all Jews that the Germans could reach stood. Although the Germans were kept out of the Middle East by the Red Army's defense of the Caucasus and the British army's defense of Egypt, the surrender of Italy in September 1943 opened to the Germans not only the Italian-controlled portions of Europe but also the Dodecanese Islands, including Rhodes – areas that the Germans considered as being a part of Asia. The Jews from there were also murdered.

While Hitler was occasionally consulted about details of what has come to be called the Holocaust, he entrusted his faithful police chief Heinrich *Himmler with the implementation. There was considerable concern about the psychological burden of mass murder on the killers who spent their "working" time shooting Jews and were in some instances coming apart psychologically in spite – or because – of large rations of alcohol. It was for this reason that the creation of a group of special killing centers was initiated, beginning in the fall of 1941. Many of these were established in occupied Poland, though the most notorious, Auschwitz, was in a part of Poland annexed into Germany and destined to be a model German city in the regime's planning for the postwar world. In order to draw all German government agencies into the increasingly extensive killing program, a special conference, known by the location where it was held as the *Wannsee Conference, took place on January 20, 1942; but there is no evidence to show that Hitler was personally concerned.

In his public speeches during the war Hitler repeatedly referred back to his threat of January 30, 1939, misdating it to September 1, 1939, along with the assertion that those who had laughed at his prophecy then were no longer laughing. The deliberate misdating can surely be seen as an indication of the way that the war and the Holocaust were parts of the same process in his thinking. The public references to the ongoing murders can also be seen as a way of alerting the German public to what was happening with the implication that they had burned all their bridges behind them and should harness their efforts to the war lest defeat bring a similar fate to them.

The German dictator could rely on his subordinates to implement the basic policy, and this would remain true into the last days of the war. If a combination of true belief in the racial doctrines of the regimes combined with hopes for loot, decorations, promotions, and careers in a victorious Germany inspired the killers in the early stages of the Holocaust, relative safety from alternative and vastly more dangerous employment at the fighting front served to inspire them in the latter stages of the war. Hitler himself devoted most of his time during the war to the details of running military operations, the development and production of weapons, and the appointment and replacement of generals and admirals. Whatever the other pressures, needs, and eventually defeats of the Germans, the high-priority program of killing Jews went forward as Hitler wanted. Attempts by internal opponents to kill Hitler, culminating in the attempt on his life on July 20, 1944, failed, and the killing program continued as all German authorities recognized its centrality to their assignments.

As the Germans retreated, major efforts were made to conceal the evidence of the crimes that had been committed. Installations and records were destroyed and mass burials were exhumed and replaced by huge fires. There were also death marches as those Jewish and other workers who were considered possible slave laborers for the German war effort were driven into ever more crowded and miserable camps inside the shrinking perimeter of the Third Reich. Large numbers were killed in this process, at times because the weakened slaves were unable to keep up, at times simply to keep them from being liberated. When Red Army forces fought their way into Berlin, Hitler married his mistress of many years. In his last testament before committing suicide on April 30, 1945, he blamed the war and all disasters on the Jews and called on the German people to continue his racial policies in the future.

Arguments have at times been advanced that the absence of a written order for the systematic killing of Jews by Hitler shows that he did not personally order this to be done. There is, however, ample evidence of his personal role. The leader who insisted that he personally be consulted on the question of whether a particular German officer married to a woman one of whose grandparents was Jewish could be allowed to continue to command a company at the front was not uninvolved in a multi-year program to kill millions of Jews. On at least two occasions, in July and November 1941, he personally explained the killing program to foreign leaders. Others carried out the program and quarreled endlessly over details and jurisdiction, but there cannot be any doubt that they were acting to implement and simultaneously to profit from a policy established at the highest level.


Hitler wrote two books; both are available in English: Mein Kampf, translated by R. Manheim (1943); and Hitler's Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf, translated by Krista Smith, edited by Gerhard L. Weinberg (2003). For Hitler's speeches in English, the best source is Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations 19321945; Commentary and Notes by Max Domarus, published in four volumes by Bolchazy-Carducci (1990–2003). There are also the two volumes edited by N.H. Baynes, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922August 1939 (1942). Hitler's military directives may be found in H.R. Trevor-Roper (ed.), Blitzkrieg to Defeat: Hitler's War Directives, 19391945 (1965). Stenographic reports on his military conferences are in Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 19421945, edited by H. Heiber and D.M. Glantz, introduction by G.L. Weinberg (2002). There are several editions in various languages of Hitler's wartime conversations but none without serious problems. Until a definitive edition appears, the currently available English language ones are both edited by H.R. Trevor-Roper, Hitler's Table Talk 19411944 (1953), and The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler-Bormann Documents (1961).


I. Kershaw, Hitler: 18891936 Hubris and Hitler 19361945 Nemesis (1999, 2000); G.L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany 19331936 and 19371939 (1970, 1980; one-vol. ed. with new intro., 2005); J. Thies, Architekt der Weltherrschaft: Die "Endziele" Hitlers (1976); N. Rich, Hitler's War Aims, 2 vols. (1973, 1974); H. Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction (1940); P. Gassert and D.S. Mattern, The Hitler Library: A Bibliography (2001); A. Joachimsthaler, Korrektur einer Biographie: Adolf Hitler, 19081920 (1989) and HitlersWeg begann in Muenchen 19131923 (2000); B.Horstmann, Hitler in Pasewalk: Die Gypnose und ihre Folgen (2004).

[Gerhard L. Weinberg (2nd ed.)]