Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, on April 20th 1889 to Alois Hitler (who, as an illegitimate child, had previously used his mother’s name of Schickelgruber) and Klara Poelzl. A moody child, he grew hostile towards his father, especially once the latter had retired and the family had moved to Linz. Alois died in 1903 but left money to take care of the family. Hitler was close to his mother, who was highly indulgent of Hitler, and he was deeply affected when she died in 1908. He left school at 16 in 1905, intending to become a painter.
Hitler moved to Vienna in 1907 where he applied to the Viennese Academy of Fine arts, but was twice turned down. This experience further embittered the increasingly angry Hitler, and he remained in Vienna living off his small family inheritance and what he could make from selling his art, moving from hostel to hostel, a lonely, vagabond figure. During this period Hitler appears to have developed the world view that would characterise his whole life: a hatred for Jews and Marxists. Hitler was well placed to be influenced by the demagogy of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s deeply anti-Semitic mayor.
Hitler moved to Munich in 1913 and avoided Austrian military service in early 1914 by virtue of being unfit. However, when the First World War broke out in 1914 he joined the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, serving throughout the war. He proved to be an able and brave soldier as a dispatch runner, winning the Iron Cross (First Class) on two occasions. He was also wounded twice, and four weeks before the war ended suffered a gas attack which temporarily blinded and hospitalised him. It was here he learnt of Germany’s surrender, which he took as a betrayal. He especially hated the Treaty of Versailles.
After WW1 Hitler became convinced he was destined to save Germany. In 1919, working for an army unit, he was assigned to spy on a political party of roughly 40 idealists called the German Workers Party. Instead he joined it, swiftly rose to a position of dominance (he was chairman by 1921) and renamed it the Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). He gave the party the Swastika as a symbol and organised a personal army of ‘storm troopers’ (the SA or Brownshirts) and a bodyguard of black shirted men, the SS, to attack opponents. He also discovered, and used, his powerful ability for public speaking.
In November 1923 Hitler organised Bavarian nationalists under a figurehead of General Ludendorff into a coup (or ‘putsch’). They declared their new government in a beer hall in Munich and then 3000 marched through the streets, but they were met by police, who opened fire, killing 16. Hitler was arrested and tried in 1924, but was sentenced to only five years in prison, a sentence often taken as a sign of tacit agreement with his views. Hitler served only nine months in prison, during which he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a book outlining his theories on race, Germany and Jews. It sold five million copies by 1939.
After the Beer-Hall Putsch Hitler resolved to seek power through subverting the Weimar government system, and he carefully rebuilt the NSDAP, or Nazi, party, allying with future key figures like Goering and propaganda mastermind Goebbels. Over time he expanded the party’s support, partly by exploiting fears of socialists and partly by appealing to everyone who felt their economic livelihood threatened by the depression of the 1930s, until he had the ears of big business, the press and the middle classes. Nazi votes jumped to 107 seats in the Reichstag in 1930.
In 1932 Hitler acquired German citizenship and ran for president, coming second to von Hindenburg. Later that year the Nazi party acquired 230 seats in the Reichstag, making them the largest party in Germany. Helped by support from conservative politicians believing they could control Hitler, he was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30th 1933. Hitler moved with great speed to isolate and expel opponents from power, shutting trade unions, removing communists, conservatives and Jews.
Later that year Hitler perfectly exploited an act of arson on the Reichstag (which some believe the Nazis helped cause) to begin the creation of a totalitarian state, dominating the March 5th elections thanks to support from nationalist groups. Hitler soon took over the role of president when Hindenburg died and merged the role with that of Chancellor to become Führer (‘Leader’) of Germany.
Hitler continued to move with speed in radically changing Germany, consolidating power, locking up “enemies” in camps, bending culture to his will, rebuilding the army and breaking the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. He tried to change the social fabric of Germany by encouraging women to breed more and bringing in laws to secure racial purity; Jews were particularly targeted. Employment, high elsewhere in a time of depression, fell to zero in Germany. Hitler also made himself head of the army.
Hitler engineered territorial expansion, uniting with Austria in an anschluss, and dismembering Czechoslovakia. It was in September 1939, when German forces invaded Poland, that other nations took a stand, declaring war. This was not unappealing to Hitler who believed Germany should make itself great through war, and invasions in 1940 went well. However, arguably his fatal mistake occurred in 1941 with the invasion of Russia, through which he wished to create lebensraum, or ‘living room’. After initial success, German forces were pushed back by Russia, and defeats in Africa and West Europe followed as Germany was slowly beaten. During this time Hitler became gradually more paranoid and divorced from the world, retreating to a bunker. As armies approached Berlin from two directions, Hitler married his mistress, Eva Braun, and on April 30th 1945 killed himself.
Hitler will forever be remembered for starting the Second World War, the most costly conflict in world history, thanks to his desire to expand Germany’s borders through force. He will equally be remembered for his dreams of racial purity, which prompted him to order the execution of millions of people, perhaps as high as eleven million. Although every arm of German bureaucracy was turned to pursuing the executions, Hitler was the chief driving force.