No other twentieth-century world leader achieved the degree of infamy that Adolf Hitler did. A power-mad dictator intent on world conquest, Hitler used Germany's tattered national pride and raging anti-Semitism as steppingstones to create one of the most heinous and morally repulsive governments in world history. Millions of people died as a result of Hitler's lust for power, and his name has justly become synonymous with hate, intolerance, and evil.
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau, Austria, the fourth child of Klara and Alois Hitler. His father worked for the Austrian customs service and was able to give his family a comfortable lifestyle.
Hitler's father died in 1903, leaving the family without a strong male figure. With no one to drive him, Hitler began skipping school, and his grades continued to drop. He left school in 1905 with a ninth-grade education.
When his mother died in 1908, Hitler pretended to continue his education in Vienna in order to receive an orphan's pension. However, he spent most of his days wandering the city streets and dreaming about his future. Hitler eventually ended up in a homeless shelter, where he was first introduced to the racist concepts that would be the cornerstone of his political ideology. He also developed an intense hatred for socialism, which he came to associate with Jewish people. From 1910 to 1913, he was able to eke out a meager living painting postcards and sketches. Then he moved to Munich, Bavaria, in Germany.
Hitler in the First World War
Hitler volunteered for a Bavarian unit during World War I and fought through the entire war. He returned to Munich after the war and was selected to be a political speaker by the local army headquarters, which trained him as an orator and allowed him to practice public speaking before returning prisoners of war. Hitler excelled as a public speaker and was selected as an observer of political groups around Munich. As part of his job, he investigated the German Workers' Party, a nationalist group steeped in racism. It was here that Hitler found his soul mates.
Birth of the Nazi Party
Hitler embraced the German Workers' Party and became an active member. He renamed the organization the National Socialist German Workers' Party (commonly abbreviated as the Nazi Party) and became its spokesman — despite the fact that he was still technically employed by the army.
Hitler used his deft speaking skills to promote the organization, drawing huge crowds wherever he lectured. When he presented the party's official program to a gathering in February 1920, more than 2,000 people were in the audience. Discharged from the army in March, Hitler threw all his energies into the new political party, quickly rising to become its leader. He learned early on how to use treachery and backroom scheming to eliminate opposition, a skill that would serve him well in the years to come. On July 29, 1921, Hitler was chosen Führer (absolute leader) of the growing political organization.
The swastika was adopted by Hitler as the emblem and primary flag motif of the Nazi Party during the organization's infancy. Hitler adopted the design as a symbol “for the victory of the Aryan man.” However, the symbol is actually very old. Similar designs were used by ancient Greeks, Tibetans, and some Native American tribes and are widespread in India.
On November 8, 1923, Hitler attempted his infamous Beer Hall Putsch, a revolution designed to push out the current ruling party and install himself as leader of the German people. The “revolution” — in truth, a small riot — started at a beer hall in Bavaria and quickly spread to the streets, fanned by some 600 of Hitler's faithful followers. It was quickly put down by armed police, and Hitler was arrested for treason. Though he might have faced life in prison for his acts, he was sentenced to just five years and served only nine months. Though the revolt had failed, Hitler actually came out ahead. The act gained him tremendous publicity and convinced him that the most effective political change came not from an outside force but from maneuvering within. Hitler knew he would have to become part of the government in order to take it over.
Hitler returned to the helm of the Nazi Party after his release from prison in 1924 and spent the next several years creating a network of local party organizations throughout Germany in an attempt to bolster the party's political strength and influence. He also organized the black-shirted Schutzstaffel, or SS, an elite corps created to protect him, control the party, and perform certain police tasks.
Hitler's rise to power continued with the 1928 election. Though the Nazi Party garnered just under 3 percent of the vote, it received quite a bit of publicity, and its membership grew. Two years later, new elections increased Nazi representation in the Reichstag, the German parliament, from 12 to 107. Because of the Great Depression and the Nazis' campaign to cancel all of Germany's financial obligations, foreign investors fled the country, resulting in the collapse of the German banking system. As the nation's economic woes worsened, the simplistic appeal of the Nazis grew, and more and more people joined the party. In the 1932 elections, the Nazis received more votes than any other party, and Hitler demanded that President Paul von Hindenburg appoint him chancellor. Hindenburg was initially reluctant but finally agreed. Hitler had now achieved the political clout necessary to make him absolute ruler.
One of the most vivid and frightening film images of wartime Germany is of thousands of hysterical Nazi supporters raising their hands in stiffarmed salute to their Führer while screaming “Heil Hitler!” (Long live Hitler!) It's an image that, once seen, is difficult to forget. The salute was used by members of the Nazi Party and other civilians to show their allegiance.
After Hindenburg's death, Hitler became the Führer of Germany, consolidating his power with astounding speed. By that time, the Nazi Party was in complete control of the nation, and Hitler immediately began his despicable racial policies designed to eliminate all undesirables — particularly the Jewish people. Many prominent Jews, fearing for their lives, fled the country.
Hitler also started immediate rearmament and militarization of Germany, despite the fact that it violated the Treaty of Versailles. Though he was chastised, other nations did nothing to stop him. As his arsenal grew, Hitler planned four distinct attacks in his drive to conquer Europe and then the world: Czechoslovakia, Britain and France, the Soviet Union, and finally the United States.
Hitler wasted little time putting his military plan into action. He aligned himself with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. By the middle of 1940, the German despot had taken much of Europe through political scheming and sheer military might. The USSR proved more difficult than originally assumed, however, and the tide of the war changed dramatically with the entry of the United States.
Figure 7-1 Adolf Hitler after the conquest of France, June 23, 1940.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (242-HLB-5073-20)
The German military machine achieved tremendous victories but was hampered by Hitler's unwillingness to delegate authority where necessary and his “no retreat, no surrender” policies. Victory in war often comes from a strategic pullback and regrouping, but Hitler almost always refused to let his commanders do this, particularly during the Soviet campaign. As a result, a huge number of men and equipment were lost unnecessarily over the course of the war. In the big picture, the German army's worst enemy was its commander in chief.
The Allies were able to get an important foothold in Europe with the Normandy invasion in June 1944, and the push toward Berlin began in earnest. By this time, the German army was facing overwhelming defeat. A growing number of Germans believed that the only way to end the carnage was to assassinate Hitler, but several attempts failed.
Hitler launched his last desperate offensive of the war in the fabled Battle of the Bulge — in December 1944. The attack managed to push into the Allied defensive line, but the Allies rallied to drive the Germans back.
Hitler's Final Days
As Allied troops advanced on Berlin, it became apparent that the end was near. Hitler chose to take his own life rather than face trial and judgment in the world court.
Preparing for death, Hitler married his longtime girlfriend, Eva Braun. His marriage to Braun was performed on April 28, 1945, by a Berlin municipal councillor. During the ceremony, both Hitler and Braun swore they were “of complete Aryan descent.” A party followed the ceremony, but few people felt like celebrating.
Hitler then set about dictating his will and political testament. He appointed Karl Dönitz as his successor and encouraged his countrymen to continue their opposition to “international Jewry.” He also noted that his decision to die was made voluntarily, as was his decision to stay in Berlin.
Shortly after 2:00
Hitler emerged alone the following day for lunch. Shortly after, he ordered his chauffeur, Erich Kempka, to get some gasoline from the Chancellery garage. Hitler and Braun then returned to their private quarters, where Hitler shot himself through the mouth and Braun took cyanide. Kempka and some aides carried their bodies into the Chancellery garden, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire. Just hours later, Berlin fell to the Allies.