Adolf Hitler

Hitler and the Nazi Party were instrumental in shaping the destiny of Europe and the world in the twentieth century. They transformed themselves from a marginal political party into a dictatorship that plunged Germany into another world war. How did Adolf Hitler, a failed artist and embittered corporal from Austria, become the most notorious man in the world?

Adolf Hitler Adolf Hitler

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Table of contents

    Adolf Hitler Childhood

    Adolf Hitler was born in a small Austrian town near the German border on 20 April 1889. Trauma defined his early life. His father, Alois, was a control freak and abusive alcoholic who beat young Adolf and his mother, Klara. As a result, his mother had little say in family affairs. They would die before Hitler was twenty years old, Alois in 1903, and Klara in 1908.

    Young Adolf failed to get into art school, determined to follow a different path than his father. Alone in Vienna and struggling to sell his art, he began to feed a huge appetite for reading and German opera, which developed his political views and ideology.

    Antisemitism

    Discrimination against and dislike of Jews.

    Though suggestions that his antisemitism began here are disputed, one thing is sure: Hitler became inspired by the ideas of pan-German nationalism spreading throughout Austria.

    World War I

    Such was his nationalist fervour that Hitler decided to move to Munich, Bavaria, in Germany just before the start of World War I. He was keen to be involved militarily and went to fight in Belgium in 1914. Hitler served as a corporal in important battles such as Ypres and the Somme. However, he became wounded and heard of the German surrender from his hospital bed in 1918.

    He returned to Munich with an Iron Cross medal for bravery but had anger and disgust in his heart. The surrender was too much for Hitler to handle and he was dismayed at how his countrymen had let him down.

    Nazi Party

    Upon his return to a defeated Germany, Hitler quickly channelled his anger into political action. He frequented beer halls and attended right-wing meetings when he was spotted by Dietrich Eckart in 1919 and joined the German Worker's Party.

    Dietrich Eckart

    Eckart mentored Hitler and was the godfather of a fledgling Nazi Party. Over twenty years Hitler's senior, it is possible that he provided the father figure that Hitler had craved.

    He quickly realised Adolf's ability as a public speaker and set about using him as a figurehead to gain further support. Hitler would rant and rave, spewing hatred about the Jews and the politicians, or 'November Criminals', he alleged had betrayed Germany with the Treaty of Versailles. In a time of uncertainty, the party began to gain popularity.

    With the foundations for the Nazi Party in place, let's examine some important steps on its journey to absolute power.

    YearEvent
    1919The Treaty of Versailles lay the blame for World War I at Germany's door. They had to concede land, disband their army and pay huge war reparations to the victors, whilst accepting total responsibility for the conflict.
    1920As the Social Democrats had been a popular political force in postwar Germany, the German Worker's Party rebranded the organisation as the National Socialist German Worker's Party or Nazi Party and adopted the swastika as its symbol.
    1921Hitler became the party's leader and capitalised on the political and economic uncertainty caused by the Treaty of Versailles. Their popularity increased with nationalist war veterans who wanted revenge for the Treaty. They were organised into the Sturmabteilung (SA), a group of fighters who intimidated and protected the party.
    1923Amidst hyperinflation and the Occupation of the Ruhr, the Nazi Party attempted to seize power by force in Bavaria in what became known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. It failed and led to Hitler being arrested and imprisoned.
    1925Hitler served nine months of his five-year sentence in relative luxury at Landsberg Castle. While inside, he outlined his racist ideology and the future of Germany in his book, 'Mein Kampf' or 'My Struggle'.
    1929 Heinrich Himmler became leader of the Schutzstaffel (SS), a more streamlined military unit than the SA that was referred to as 'political soldiers' by the Nazi Party.
    1933The avenues to power had remained closed to Hitler and the Nazi Party until the Great Depression caused Germany more economic woe. The Nazi's popularity grew in the Reichstag, and Hitler became Chancellor.
    1933The convenient, and possibly Nazi-orchestrated Reichstag Fire, gave Hitler a chance to consolidate power. He blamed a communist and created the Enabling Act, which allowed him to make laws without the approval of the Reichstag or the President.
    1934The death of President Hindenburg meant Hitler could combine the roles of Chancellor and President into one, 'Der Führer' or 'The Leader'.

    As we can see, the Nazi Party did not become a political force overnight. A series of important events led to the conditions for their success, initially with the fallout from the harsh Treaty of Versailles. In particular, the failed Putsch and the time spent in prison allowed Hitler to cultivate his image of a right-wing martyr.

    Swastika

    An altered "Hakenkreuz" or "hooked cross" that originated in Hindu symbolism. This became the emblem associated with Nazism.

    After, 1930 the Great Depression and the ageing Hindenburg allowed political manoeuvring to be possible. The economic and political instability, with the Reichstag Fire, allowed Hitler to push through the Enabling Act and become a dictator.

    Hitler and the Nazi Party Swastika StudySmarterFig. 1 - Swastika

    Ideology

    The Nazi ideology was built around the principle that the German or Aryan people (tall northern Europeans with blonde hair and blue eyes) were the superior race of humankind. Hitler longed to create the 'Lebensraum' or 'living space' they craved. Therefore, expansion was a crucial part of his vision for Germany.

    Hitler and the Nazi Party Adolf Hitler StudySmarterFig. 2 - Adolf Hitler

    In addition, anyone not meeting these standards would be considered 'Untermensch' or sub-human. The disabled, Roma, homosexuals, Black people, Slavs, and, in particular, Jewish people all fell into this category, along with anyone who threatened the progress of the 'Third Reich' or 'Third Empire'.

    As soon as the Nazis seized power, they made life more difficult for those they considered undesirable. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 exemplified this, as it was now a legal requirement for all citizens to have 'German' blood. This law began the brutal persecution and genocide of Jews in Europe.

    Nazi Party Leaders

    Of course, Hitler could not rule Germany by himself. Now we will look at some of the other leaders that helped the infamous Nazi machine to function.

    Rudolf Hess

    Rudolf Hess was the Deputy Leader to Hitler until 1941 and one of his ardent admirers. His fanaticism and devotion to Hitler were described as 'dog-like'. As the war began to sour, Hess flew secretly to Great Britain in an attempt to negotiate peace for Germany.

    Imprisoned by the astonished people who found him, those who examined him diagnosed him as out of touch with reality and 'pathetic and pitiful' rather than 'menacing or unpleasant'1. He was the prime example of how Hitler valued loyalty above everything else.

    Hermann Goering

    For the fledgling Nazi Party, Hermann Goering acted as something of a star vehicle. A decorated war hero, who flew planes during World War I, he was as ambitious in his aims of restoring Germany's pride as Hitler. Goering lived a lavish lifestyle: wearing opulent uniforms, engorging himself on feasts, and plundering art.

    During World War II, Hitler made him Head of the Luftwaffe. His arrogance handed Britain the initiative. After the war, he was captured by the Allies and committed suicide before his hanging at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945.

    Joseph Goebbels

    Joseph Goebbels was the Propaganda Minister of the Nazi Party. He helped elevate Hitler's cult of personality by carefully manipulating the German population. The rallies, in all their splendour, were comparable to ancient Rome. Goebbels also harnessed German cinema and used it to build the myth of the master race with Hitler as the Messiah.

    Hitler and the Nazi Party Joseph Goebbels StudySmarterFig. 3 - Joseph Goebbels (centre), flanked by officers, leafs through a book

    Like Hess, he was fanatically loyal to Hitler, consistently aiming to impress with acts such as 'Kristallnacht' (1938) that escalated the maltreatment of the Jews.

    'Kristallnacht' or 'The Night of the Broken Glass' (1938) was a harbinger of the extreme violence that the Jewish population would have to suffer under Nazi rule. Authorised by Joseph Goebbels, 1,000 synagogues were burned down, and Jewish shops were looted and smashed. Almost 100 Jews were killed, and there were mass arrests, with the early German concentration camps being filled by tens of thousands.

    Concentration camp

    First used by the British in the Boer War, concentration camps were originally used by Hitler in 1933 to house political prisoners. They soon became a place to keep anyone undesirable to the Nazi regime. In concentration camps, the conditions were horrendous. There would be forced labour, little food, and the genuine possibility of starvation or execution.

    This was again underlined when Goebbels killed his entire family as the war was coming to an end.

    Heinrich Himmler

    The chicken farmer who was scared of blood, Heinrich Himmler was in charge of the fearsome SS. An administrator with a knack for getting things done, Himmler was crucial to the uncompromising Holocaust.

    Holocaust

    The name for the genocide of European Jews by the Nazi Party during World War II, where approximately 6 million were murdered.

    When Germany attempted to invade the Soviet Union in the east, Himmler set up special forces called 'Einsatzgruppen' or 'death squads', for the mass murder of undesirable people the Nazi war machine encountered.

    Delegating to deputy Reinhard Heydrich, he was directly responsible for implementing the Final Solution, along with Hermann Goering, who authorised the plans with his signature.

    World War II

    The Nazi machine seemed to be unstoppable. By 1939 they had already expanded to many German-speaking European regions to satisfy Hitler's desire for 'Lebensraum', a 'living space' for the Aryan race.

    Hitler went back on his promises to European leaders when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. However, the invasion of Poland pushed Britain and France to enter the conflict. Much of Europe was under Nazi control before they looked east. However, with the Soviet Union, it was a different story.

    Despite the faltering campaigns in France and North Africa, Hitler was adamant that he should invade the Soviet Union in 1941. The Germans made early progress, but this stalled at the city of Stalingrad. Such was their arrogance that they thought they could take Moscow without much resistance. They underestimated the sheer size and manpower of the Soviet Union and, despite early progress, were isolated and surrounded within the city by the winter of 1942. With supply cut off and a lack of winter clothing, most Germans died of starvation. They experienced their first major defeat in the war.

    The Final Solution

    The campaign in the east coincided with the darkest chapter in Nazi history. Until this point, Jews had been confined in ghettoes and working in concentration camps. 'The Final Solution to the Jewish Question' was devised at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. This meant the systematic eradication of all Jewish people in Europe.

    Adolf Hitler Wannsee Conference villa today StudySmarterFig. 4 - Wannsee Conference villa today

    It began with Himmler's death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, but soon developed into purpose-built death factories in Poland. As there was now no necessity for forced labour, a rail system and the chemical Zyklon B led to an industrial killing method. Bodies were burned, and as much evidence as possible was destroyed. The Soviets came across the atrocities as they advanced to Berlin.

    Adolf Hitler Death

    As the Soviet army stalked the streets of Berlin in 1945, the last days of Hitler's life were in an underground bunker. Faced with no choice but to commit suicide, he did so with his new wife, Eva Braun. After betrayal from top generals Himmler and Goering, Hitler made the ever-loyal Karl Doenitz his successor. Grand Admiral Doenitz's only contribution was to surrender. World War II was lost and the efforts of 14 million German soldiers were in vain.

    Adolf Hitler Facts

    With such a chequered life, it seems wise to crystallise our knowledge of Adolf Hitler with some facts.

    • By 1940, Mein Kampf had sold over six million copies.
    • There were many plots to assassinate Hitler, including the July 1944 Claus von Stauffenberg plot, codenamed 'Operation Valkyrie', which is dramatised in the film Valkyrie (2008), where Tom Cruise plays the lead.
    • During World War II, Hitler was on a cocktail of different drugs, from vitamin injections to Pervitin (a derivative of methamphetamine). Theodor Morell, his personal doctor, whom many considered a fraud, was responsible for this drugging, leaving the Führer a gibbering wreck by the war's end.
    • Hitler married his long-term mistress Eva Braun in 1945, after a relationship of nearly 15 years, as the Allies closed in on their Berlin bunker.
    • There are several conspiracies regarding Hitler's death, including one that suggests that he escaped to Argentina, which had provided the sanctuary for other prominent Nazis.

    Adolf Hitler - Key takeaways

    • After losing World War I, Hitler became involved politically in the German Worker's Party. He quickly became an important member and oversaw its transition to the Nazi Party.
    • The failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 gave Hitler time to outline his racist ideology in Mein Kampf.
    • By 1934, circumstances allowed him to become the absolute leader of Germany or Führer.
    • Hitler led Germany into World War II in 1939 with the aggressive military expansion that his ideology demanded.
    • The tide turned at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, the Nazis were committing the mass murder of European Jews.
    • After World War II was lost, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in 1945.

    References

    1. Keith Moore, "Rudolf Hess: Inside the mind of Hitler's deputy", BBC News (2012).
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Adolf Hitler

    How did Hitler and the Nazi Party cause World War II?

    Hitler and the Nazi party had been expanding German territory in Europe. World War II began when they invaded Poland in 1939 and the Allies declared war.

    Who were Hitler's top generals?

    Hitler's top generals included Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler.

    Why did Hitler and the Nazi Party hate the Jews?

    Hitler and the Nazi Party scapegoated the Jews for Germany's woes after World War I. They proved an effective scapegoat and represented the opposite of a "racially pure" Aryan.

    What was Hitler's rank?

    When in power, Hitler merged the positions of President and Chancellor that had existed in the Weimar Republic to create a new role. He was the Führer (or leader) of Germany from 1934 to 1945.

    How many soldiers were in the Nazi Party?

    Almost 14 million soldiers served in the Wehrmacht (German Army) during World War II.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What did Nazi party membership total by the end of 1923?

    Why was July 1932 significant for the Nazi Party?

    Who acted as Hitler's mentor in the fledgling Nazi Party?

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