The warlords: Adolf Hitler
Hitler was born on 20 April 1889 at Braunau am Inn, not far from the German border in what was then Austria-Hungary. He was the fourth of six children of Alois Hitler, whom he described in Mein Kampf as an 'irascible tyrant', and Klara Pölzl, Alois's niece and third wife.
Young Adolf was reportedly a good student, but in 1905, at the age of 16, he left school without graduating. He took up a Bohemian life as a struggling painter, despite having been rejected twice by Vienna's Academy of Arts for lack of talent.
Wagner and politics
It was in Vienna that Hitler became an active anti-Semite, influenced by the pseudoscientific and neo-religious writings of the race ideologist Lanz von Liebenfels and by the polemics of certain politicians. Hitler came to believe in the superiority of the 'Aryan race', and claimed that the Jews, its natural enemies, were responsible for Germany's economic problems. However, according to his roommate at the time, Hitler was more interested in Wagner's operas than in politics.He gradually ran out of money and, by 1910, had settled permanently in a house for poor working men. Then in May 1913, on receiving a small inheritance, he moved to Munich, where he became interested in architecture and the racist writings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. When Germany entered the in August 1914, he immediately enlisted in the Bavarian army.
World War I
Hitler saw active service as a messenger for the 16th Bavarian reserve infantry regiment in France and Belgium, and was twice cited for bravery in action. In October 1916 in northern France, he was wounded in the leg, but by the beginning of March, he had been returned to the front. He was unpopular with his comrades because of his uncritical attitude towards officers.
Shortly before the war ended, Hitler was admitted to a field hospital, apparently blinded following a poison gas attack. However, recent research suggests that the blindness, which proved temporary, may have been an hysterical reaction to the likely prospect of Germany losing the war.
Having become a passionate German patriot (though he did not become a citizen until 1932), he was shocked by Germany's capitulation in November 1918, sharing the general misapprehension that the army remained undefeated. Like many other German nationalists, Hitler blamed the politicians – the 'November criminals' – for the surrender and the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which declared Germany responsible for unleashing the Great War on the world.Scapegoats and spies
Hitler remained in the army, which was now mainly engaged in suppressing the socialist uprisings breaking out across Germany. He took part in 'national thinking' courses organised by the Bavarian Reichswehr [national militia] Group, whose key purpose was to create scapegoats for the outbreak of the war and Germany's defeat. The ones they identified were 'international Jewry', Communists and virtually all politicians.
In July 1919, Hitler became a police spy for the Reichswehr, and was assigned to infiltrate the small nationalist German Workers' Party (DAP). After his discharge from the army in 1920, he devoted himself full time to the DAP, soon becoming its leader and changing its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), usually known as the Nazi party.Hitler's oratory – attacking Jews, socialists, liberals, capitalists and Communists – began attracting adherents. Early followers included Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring, and Ernst Röhm, who became head of the Nazis' paramilitary organisation, the SA. Another admirer was wartime General Erich Ludendorff. In November 1923, Hitler decided to use Ludendorff as a front in an attempt to seize power in Munich: the 'Beer Hall Putsch'. However, instead, Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. While at Landsberg prison, he dictated his political memoirs Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to Hess; then, considered relatively harmless, he was given an early amnesty and released in December 1924.
Rise to power
For Hitler, the turning point was the Depression, which hit Germany in 1930. The democratic Weimar Republic was unable to cope, and in the September 1930 election, the Nazis rose from relative obscurity to win more than 18% of the vote and 107 seats in the Reichstag, becoming the second largest party in the country. Two years later, Hitler competed against the elderly Paul von Hindenburg in the presidential election, coming in second.
The Nazis and the Communists now jointly controlled a majority in the Reichstag, which made the formation of a stable coalition government of mainstream parties impossible. After a vote of no-confidence in the government, the Reichstag was dissolved and a new election was called for November 1932.
The Zentrumspartei (Centre Party) began negotiating with Hitler to secure Nazi participation in a new government. In return, he demanded the chancellorship, along with the president's agreement that he would have emergency powers. This was refused, and in the election, the Nazis lost votes although they remained the largest party. However, when it proved impossible to form a coalition government without them, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor and he was sworn in on 30 January 1933.
Loss of liberty
After the Reichstag building was set on fire on 27 February 1933 (and a mentally ill Dutch Communist blamed – and executed – for it), civil liberties were suspended. Following the expulsion of the Communist deputies from the Reichstag by the Nazis, Hitler was given dictatorial authority: other parties were suppressed and all opposition banned. When the 86-year-old Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934, Hitler took on the powers of president as well and became known as 'Führer' – leader. Then, in an unprecedented step, he ordered every member of the military to swear a personal oath of allegiance to him.
Hitler remained overwhelmingly popular with the Germans until the very end. A master orator – and with all of the media under the control of his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels – he persuaded most of the population that he was their saviour from the Depression, the Communists, the Versailles Treaty and the Jews.
He oversaw one of the greatest expansions of industrial production that Germany had ever seen. He was also responsible for one of the largest infrastructure improvement campaigns in German history, with the construction of dozens of dams, autobahns, railroads and other civil works. As a result, even before military production began, unemployment was greatly lessened, if not (as Nazi propaganda would have it) abolished.
Night of the long knives
However, those who were not Hitler's supporters were dealt with by the SA, SS and Gestapo (secret state police). Thousands disappeared into concentration camps. Many more emigrated, including about half of Germany's Jews. Under the 1935 Nuremberg laws, they lost their German citizenship and were expelled from government employment, the professions and most forms of economic activity.
Even Hitler's supporters were not safe, however – including Ernst Röhm's SA, which had become unpopular with most of the influential political and military groups in Germany. Hitler ordered Röhm's murder and that of dozens of other real and potential enemies during the night of 29 June 1934 – later known as the 'night of the long knives'.In March 1935, Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles by reintroducing conscription in Germany. He set about building a massive military machine, including a new navy (Kriegsmarine) and air force (Luftwaffe). A year later, he again violated the treaty by reoccupying the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland. When Britain and France did nothing, he grew bolder, sending troops into the Spanish Civil War to support Franco. Spain served as a testing ground for Germany's new armed forces, including the bombing of undefended towns such as Guernica.
The road to war
On 12 March 1938, Hitler – having pressured his native Austria into the Anschluss: unification with Germany – made a triumphal entry into Vienna. Next he claimed that Germans in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia were being mistreated and demanded that the region be incorporated into the Third Reich. This led to the Munich Agreement of September 1938, in which Britain and France weakly gave way to his demands, averting war but ultimately failing to save Czechoslovakia. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain hailed it as 'Peace in our time', and Hitler was named Time magazine's 'Man of the Year'. The German army entered Prague on 10 March 1939.
On 23 August 1939, Hitler concluded a secret non-aggression pact with , whom he had described in Mein Kampf as a 'common blood-stained criminal' and 'the scum of humanity'. They also agreed a secret protocol to carve up Poland between them.
In the last week of August, Hitler remarked to his generals: 'Genghis Khan had millions of men and women killed by his own will and with a gay heart. History sees him only as a great state builder. And who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. Then Britain and France, who had guaranteed assistance to Poland, declared war on Germany.
Mass murder and genocide
By the end of September, Germany had conquered Poland, SS units having killed 60,000 Jews plus members of the Polish ruling class. It was Hitler's first experience of mass murder, and profoundly influenced him. It had shown him that his followers would actually carry it out.
On 5 November 1937, Hitler had stated his plans for acquiring Lebensraum (living space) for the German people. This policy would eventually result in the SS, assisted by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries, systematically murdering approximately 11 million people, 6 million of them Jews, in concentration camps and ghettos and via mass executions, or through less systematic methods. Besides being shot or gassed to death, many also died of starvation and disease while working as slave labourers. This genocide – or, as the Nazis called it, 'final solution' – was planned and ordered by leading Nazis. While no specific order from Hitler authorising the mass killing of the Jews has surfaced, there is documentation that he approved the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads), and the evidence also suggests that he agreed in principle to mass murder by gassing.
To Hitler, mass murder was just another weapon in the ideological struggle. To him, the state was supreme and individuals were its disposable tool. He even extended this idea to his domestic life. Hitler had secret mistresses, most notably Eva Braun, but in public no woman could come between him and his nation. One of his secretaries would later recall that he emphasised again and again: 'My lover is Germany.'
Peace with Britain?
Hitler built up his forces further during what was commonly called the Sitzkrieg (sitting war) in Germany and the 'phoney war' in Britain. This ended in March 1940 when Hitler ordered German forces to march into Denmark and Norway, then, in May, to attack France, conquering the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium in the process. France surrendered on 22 June 1940. To Hitler, this string of victories finally avenged Germany's defeat in World War I.It also convinced his main ally, the Italian dictator , to join the war on Germany's side.
Britain, whose forces had been driven from France at Dunkirk, continued to fight on alone. However, Hitler wanted peace with the British, now led by. Mussolini's foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, wrote in his diary:
Hitler makes many reservations on the desirability of dismantling the British empire, which he considers even today to be an important factor in world equilibrium. Hitler is now like the gambler who, having made a big win, would like to leave the table risking nothing more.
However, having had his peace overtures rejected by the British, Hitler ordered bombing raids as the prelude to a German invasion. This, in turn, led to the . However, by the end of October 1940, the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe, and abandoning the idea of an invasion, Hitler ordered night-time bombing raids on British cities, including London and Coventry. This was the so-called Blitz, which lasted until May 1941.Letting the cat out of the bag
Hitler, meanwhile, was beginning to regret his alliance with Stalin. In June 1940, alarm bells had gone off when the Soviets had occupied northern Bukovina (then part of Romania) – not part of the pact with the Nazis. Then, when Stalin told Hitler that he had received an appeal from Churchill, warning him against the Nazi leader and asking him to come over to Britain's side, Hitler interpreted this disclosure as the beginning of a conspiracy between Stalin and Churchill against him. This was why, he thought, the British were refusing to make peace with Germany – a feeling that was exacerbated by the attack on the Nazis in acceptance speech when nominated for a third term as president of the then neutral United States.
On 31 July, at his mountain headquarters at Obersalzburg, Hitler announced that 'the sooner Russia is crushed, the better.' What was a vague idea soon turned into a real plan when the invasion of Britain was called off. Then came the defining moment. On 12 November 1940, the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov arrived in Berlin at Hitler's invitation. Hitler's purpose in summoning him was to offer the USSR a share in the spoils of victory if it helped him to finish off the British. He told Molotov:
England's final capitulation is just a matter of time. Fragments of its empire will be left all over the world. It's time to think about division of this property without a master after our victory.
But Stalin wasn't interested in joining Hitler's war or in speculative carve-ups of the British empire. Despite performing the superficial courtesies, Molotov's cold arrogance and his needling on the question of territory in eastern Europe infuriated Hitler and that reinvigorated him. According to the diary of Major Engels, who was on Hitler's military staff: 'The talks had shown where the Russian plans were heading. Molotov had let the cat out of the bag. The Führer was really relieved. It would not even remain a marriage of convenience.'
On 18 December 1940, Hitler issued War Directive No. 23: 'The German Werhmacht must be prepared before the ending of the war against England to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.' The invasion date was set for May 1941.
At 3.30am on 22 June 1941, a few weeks after the target date, Hitler gave the signal for three million German troops to attack the Soviet Union. Six days earlier, he had said to his propaganda minister Goebbels:
That which we have spent our lives fighting, we will now annihilate. Whether right or wrong, we must win. And when we have won, who will ask about the method?
During the invasion, called Operation Barbarossa, Nazi forces seized huge amounts of territory, especially the Baltic states and Ukraine. Hitler wrote to Mussolini:
Since I struggled through to this decision [to invade], I again feel spiritually free. The partnership with the Soviet Union was often very irksome to me, for in some way or other it seemed to me to be a break with my whole origin, my concepts and my former obligations. I am happy now to be relieved of these mental agonies.
However, the Germans failed to achieve the quick triumph that Hitler had anticipated. Within six months, they had been stopped outside Moscow by the harsh winter and by fierce Soviet resistance.
Hitler declared war against the United States on 11 December 1941, four days after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, presumably because of Germany's treaty with Japan. This set him against a coalition that included the world's largest empire (the British), the world's greatest industrial and financial power (the US) and the world's largest nation (the Soviet Union, which had switched sides and joined the Allies).
In late 1942, German forces under Field Marshal were defeated in the battle of El Alamein, thwarting Hitler's plans to seize the Suez Canal and the Middle East. In February 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad ended with the complete destruction of the German forces there. Both defeats were turning points in the war.
Hitler's military judgement was becoming increasingly erratic, and Germany's military and economic positions were deteriorating. Hitler's health was also failing. His left hand started shaking uncontrollably – biographer Ian Kershaw believes that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease – and other symptoms have led historians to suggest that he was a methamphetamine addict and/or had syphilis.
Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 after British and American forces invaded Italy. Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Soviet Union steadily forced Hitler's armies into retreat along the eastern front. On 6 June 1944 – – Allied armies landed in northern France.
Realising that defeat was inevitable, some army officers plotted to assassinate Hitler. On 20 July 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb at his military headquarters, but the dictator narrowly escaped death. Savage reprisals followed, resulting in the torture and execution of more than 4,000 people. The resistance movement was crushed.
Defeat and death
By the end of 1944, the Soviets had driven the last German troops from their territory and began chasing them through central Europe. The western Allies were advancing into Germany. Although, by now, the Germans had lost the war militarily, Hitler refused to hold peace talks, and German forces continued to fight.
By April 1945, the Soviets were at the gates of Berlin. Hitler's closest advisers urged him to flee to Bavaria or Austria to make a last stand in the mountains, but he was determined to die in his capital. On 30 April 1945, as Stalin's troops battled their way toward the Reich Chancellory in the centre of Berlin, Hitler is generally believed to have committed suicide in his Führerbunker by shooting himself in the head. His body and that of Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before and who had died by taking cyanide, were burned, then buried in the Chancellory garden.
When Soviet forces reached the Chancellory, they exhumed Hitler's body, performed an autopsy and confirmed his identity using dental records. To avoid any possibility of creating a potential shrine, the remains were then secretly buried by Soviet intelligence in the German town of Magdeburg. In April 1970, when the facility was about to be turned over to the East German government, the remains were reportedly exhumed, thoroughly burned and disposed of in the Elbe river. A skull and part of a jaw in Moscow are said to be Hitler's (having been saved from the dental identification process). According to DNA taken from them and compared to that of surviving Hitler relatives, these fragments are most likely genuine.