The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germanyby William L. Shirer, Grover Gardner
No other powerful empire ever bequeathed such mountains of evidence about its birth and destruction as the Third Reich. When the bitter war was over, and before the Nazis could destroy their files, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender produced an almost hour-by-hour record of the nightmare empire built by Adolph Hitler. This record included the testimony of… See more details below
No other powerful empire ever bequeathed such mountains of evidence about its birth and destruction as the Third Reich. When the bitter war was over, and before the Nazis could destroy their files, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender produced an almost hour-by-hour record of the nightmare empire built by Adolph Hitler. This record included the testimony of Nazi leaders and of concentration camp inmates, the diaries of officials, transcripts of secret conferences, army orders, private letters -- all the vast paperwork behind Hitler's drive to conquer the world.
The famed foreign correspondent and historian William L. Shirer, who had watched and reported on the Nazis since 1925, spent five and a half years sifting through this massive documentation. The result is a monumental study that has been widely acclaimed as the definitive record of one of the most frightening chapters in the history of mankind.
Here is the complete story of Hitler's empire, one of the most important stories ever told, written by one of the men best equipped to write it.
"The New York Times Book Review A splendid work of scholarship, objective in method, sound in judgment, inescapable in its conclusions." Hugh Trevor-Roper
"A monumental work, a grisly and thrilling story." Theodore H. White
"One of the most spectacular stories ever told." -John Gunther
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The Rise and Fall of the Third ReichA History of Nazi Germany
By William L. Shirer
Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco MediaCopyright ©1950 William L. Shirer
All right reserved.
BIRTH OF THE THIRD REICH
On the very eve of the birth of the Third Reich a feverish tension gripped Berlin. The Weimar Republic, it seemed obvious to almost everyonse, was about to expire. For more than a year it had been fast crumbling. General Kurt von Schleicher, who like his immediate predecessor, Franz von Papen, cared little for the Republic and less for its democracy, and who, also like him, had ruled as Chancellor by presidential decree without recourse to Parliament, had come to the end of his rope after fifty-seven days in office.
On Saturday, January 28, 1933, he had been abruptly dismissed by the aging President of the Republic, Field Marshal von Hindenburg. Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, the largest political party in Germany, was demanding for himself the chancellorship of the democratic Republic he had sworn to destroy.
The wildest rumors of what might happen were rife in the capital that fateful winter weekend, and the most alarming of them, as it happened, were not without some foundation. There were reports that Schleicher, in collusion with General Kurt von Hammerstein, the Commander in Chief of theArmy, was preparing a putsch with the support of the Potsdam garrison for the purpose of arresting the President and establishing a military dictatorship. There was talk of a Nazi putsch. The Berlin storm troopers, aided by Nazi sympathizers in the police, were to seize the Wilhelmstrasse, where the President's Palace and most of the government ministries were located. There was talk also of a general strike. On Sunday, January 29, a hundred thousand workers crowded into the Lustgarten in the center of Berlin to demonstrate their opposition to making Hitler Chancellor. One of their leaders attempted to get in touch with General von Hammerstein to propose joint action by the Army and organized labor should Hitler be named to head a new government. Once before, at the time of the Kapp putsch in 1920, a general strike had saved the Republic after the government had fled the capital.
Throughout most of the night from Sunday to Monday Hitler paced up and down his room in the Kaiserhof hotel on the Reichskanzlerplatz, just down the street from the Chancellery. Despite his nervousness he was supremely confident that his hour had struck. For nearly a month he had been secretly negotiating with Papen and the other leaders of the conservative Right. He had had to compromise. He could not have a purely Nazi government. But he could be Chancellor of a coalition government whose members, eight out of eleven of whom were not Nazis, agreed with him on the abolition of the democratic Weimar regime. Only the aged, dour President had seemed to stand in his way. As recently as January 26, two days before the advent of this crucial weekend, the grizzly old Field Marshal had told General von Hammerstein that he had "no intention whatsoever of making that Austrian corporal either Minister of Defense or Chancellor of the Reich."
Yet under the influence of his son, Major Oskar von Hindenburg, of Otto von Meissner, the State Secretary to the President, of Papen and other members of the palace camarilla, the President was finally weakening. He was eighty-six and fading into senility. On the afternoon of Sunday, January 29, while Hitler was having coffee and cakes with Goebbels and other aides, Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag and second to Hitler in the Nazi Party, burst in and informed them categorically that on the morrow Hitler would be named Chancellor.
Shortly before noon on Monday, January 30, 1933, Hitler drove over to the Chancellery for an interview with Hindenburg that was to prove fateful for himself, for Germany and for the rest of the world. From a window in the Kaiserhof, Goebbels, Roehm and other Nazi chiefs kept an anxious watch on the door of the Chancellery, where the Fuehrer would shortly be coming out. "We would see from his face whether he had succeeded or not," Goebbels noted. For even then they were not quite sure. "Our hearts are torn back and forth between doubt, hope, joy and discouragement," Goebbels jotted down in his diary. "We have been disappointed too often for us to believe wholeheartedly in the great miracle."
A few moments later they witnessed the miracle. The man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache, who had been a down-and-out tramp in Vienna in his youth, an unknown soldier of World War 1, a derelict in Munich in the first grim postwar days, the somewhat comical leader of the Beer Hall Putsch, this spellbinder who was not even German but Austrian, and who was only forty-three years old, had just been administered the oath as Chancellor of the German Reich.
He drove the hundred yards to the Kaiserhof and was soon with his old cronies, Goebbels, Goering, Roehm and the other Brownshirts who had helped him along the rocky, brawling path to power. "He says nothing, and all of us say nothing," Goebbels recorded, "but his eyes are full of tears."
That evening from dusk until far past midnight the delirious Nazi storm troopers marched in a massive torchlight parade to celebrate the victory. By the tens of thousands, they emerged in disciplined columns from the depths of the Tiergarten, passed under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate and down the Wilhelmstrasse, their bands blaring the old martial airs to the thunderous beating of the drums, their voices bawling the new Horst Wessel song and other tunes that were as old as Germany, their jack boots beating a mighty rhythm on the pavement, their torches held high find forming a ribbon of flame that illuminated the night and kindled the hurrahs of the onlookers massed on the sidewalks. From a window in the palace Hindenburg looked down upon the marching throng, beating time to the military marches with his cane, apparently pleased that at last he had picked a Chancellor who could arouse the people in a traditionally German way. Whether the old man, in his dotage, had any inkling of what he had unleashed that day is doubtful. A story, probably apocryphal, soon spread over Berlin that in the midst of the parade he had turned to an old general and said, "I didn't know we had taken so many Russian prisoners."
A stone's throw down the Wilhelmstrasse Adolf Hitler stood at an open window of the Chancellery, beside himself with excitement and joy, dancing up and down, jerking his arm up continually in the Nazi salute, smiling and laughing until his eyes were again full of tears.
One foreign observer watched the proceedings that evening with different feelings. "The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy," André François-Poncet, the ambassador, wrote, "whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake."
Tired but happy, Goebbels arrived home that night at 3 A.M. Scribbling in his diary before retiring, he wrote: "It is almost like a dream...a fairy tale...The new Reich has been born. Fourteen years of work have been crowned with victory. The German revolution has begun!"
The Third Reich which was born on January 30, 1933, Hitler boasted, would endure for a thousand years, and in Nazi parlance it was often referred to as the "Thousand-Year Reich." It lasted twelve years and four months, but in that flicker of time, as history goes, it caused an eruption on this earth more violent and shattering than any previously experienced, raising the German people to heights of power they had not known in more than a millennium, making them at one time the masters of Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga, from the North Cape to the Mediterranean, and then plunging them to the depths of destruction and desolation at the end of a world war which their nation had cold-bloodedly provoked and during which it instituted a reign of terror over the conquered peoples which, in its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, out-did all the savage oppressions of the previous ages.
The man who founded the Third Reich, who ruled it ruthlessly and often with uncommon shrewdness, who led it to such dizzy heights and to such a sorry end, was a person of undoubted, if evil, genius. It is true that he found in the German people, as a mysterious Providence and centuries of experience had molded them up to that time, a natural instrument which he was able to shape to his own sinister ends. But without Adolf Hitler, who was possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect, a soaring imagination and -- until toward the end, when, drunk with power and success, he overreached himself -- an amazing capacity to size up people and situations, there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich.
"It is one of the great examples," as Friedrich Meinecke, the eminent German historian, said, "of the singular and incalculable power of personality in historical life."
To some Germans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Berlin. To the majority of Germans Hitler had -- or would shortly assume -- the aura of a truly charismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgment, for the next twelve tempestuous years.
THE ADVENT OF ADOLF HITLER
Considering his origins and his early life, it would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely figure to succeed to the mantle of Bismarck, the Hohenzollern emperors and President Hindenburg than this singular Austrian of peasant stock who was born at half past six on the evening of April 20, 1889, in the Gasthof zum Pommer, a modest inn in the town of Braunau am Inn, across the border from Bavaria.
The place of birth on the Austro-German frontier was to prove significant, for early in his life, as a mere youth, Hitler became obsessed with the idea that there should be no border between these two German-speaking peoples and that they both belonged in the same Reich. So strong and enduring were his feelings that at thirty-five, when he sat in a German prison dictating the book that would become the blueprint for the Third Reich, his very first lines were concerned with the symbolic significance of his birthplace. Mein Kampf begins with these words:
Today it seems to me providential that fate should have chosen Braunau am Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life-work to reunite by every means at our disposal....This little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission.
Adolf Hitler was the third son of the third marriage of a minor Austrian customs official who had been born an illegitimate child and who for the first thirty-nine years of his life bore his mother's name, Schicklgruber. The name Hitler appears in the maternal as well as the paternal line. Both Hitler's grandmother on his mother's side and his grandfather on his father's side were named Hitler, or rather variants of it, for the family name was variously written as Hiedler, Huetler, Huettler and Hitler. Adolf's mother was his father's second cousin, and an episcopal dispensation had to be obtained for the marriage.
The forebears of the future German Fuehrer, on both sides, dwelt for generations in the Waldviertel, a district in Lower Austria between the Danube and the borders of Bohemia and Moravia. In my own Vienna days I sometimes passed through it on my way to Prague or to Germany. It is a hilly, wooded country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by. The inhabitants tend to be dour, like the Czech peasants just to the north of them. Intermarriage is common, as in the case of Hitler's parents, and illegitimacy is frequent.
On the mother's side there was a certain stability. For four generations Klara Poelzl's family remained on peasant holding Number 37 in the village of Spital. The story of Hitler's paternal ancestors is quite different. The spelling of the family name, as we have seen, changes; the place of residence also. There is a spirit of restlessness among the Hitlers, an urge to move from one village to the next, from one job to another, to avoid firm human ties and to follow a certain bohemian life in relations with women.
Johann Georg Hiedler, Adolf's grandfather, was a wandering miller, plying his trade in one village after another in Lower Austria. Five months after his first marriage, in 1824, a son was born, but the child and the mother did not survive. Eighteen years later, while working in Duerenthal, he married a forty-seven-year-old peasant woman from the village of Strones, Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Five years before the marriage, on June 7, 1837, Maria had had an illegitimate son whom she named Alois and who became Adolf Hitler's father. It is most probable that the father of Alois was Johann Hiedler, though conclusive evidence is lacking. At any rate Johann eventually married the woman, but contrary to the usual custom in such cases he did not trouble himself with legitimizing the son after the marriage. The child grew up as Alois Schicklgruber.
Anna died in 1847, whereupon Johann Hiedler vanished for thirty years, only to reappear at the age of eighty-four in the town of Weitra in the Waldviertel, the spelling of his name now changed to Hitler, to testify before a notary in the presence of three witnesses that he was the father of Alois Schicklgruber. Why the old man waited so long to take this step, or why he finally took it, is not known from the available records. According to Heiden, Alois later confided to a friend that it was done to help him obtain a share of an inheritance from an uncle, a brother of the miller, who had raised the youth in his own household. At any rate, this tardy recognition was made on June 6, 1876, and on November 23 the parish priest at Doellersheim, to whose office the notarized statement had been forwarded, scratched out the name of Alois Schicklgruber in the baptismal registry and wrote in its place that of Alois Hitler.
From that time on Adolf's father was legally known as Alois Hitler, and the name passed on naturally to his son. It was only during the 1930s that enterprising journalists in Vienna, delving into the parish archives, discovered the facts about Hitler's ancestry and, disregarding old Johann Georg Hiedler's belated attempt to do right by a bastard son, tried to fasten on the Nazi leader the name of Adolf Schicklgruber.
There are many weird twists of fate in the strange life of Adolf Hitler, but none more odd than this one which took place thirteen years before his birth. Had the eighty-four-year-old wandering miller not made his unexpected reappearance to recognize the paternity of his thirty-nine-year-old son nearly thirty years after the death of the mother, Adolf Hitler would have been born Adolf Schicklgruber. There may not be much or anything in a name, but I have heard Germans speculate whether Hitler could have become the master of Germany had he been known to the world as Schicklgruber. It has a slightly comic sound as it rolls off the tongue of a South German. Can one imagine the frenzied German masses acclaiming a Schicklgruber with their thunderous "Heils"? "Heil Schicklgruber!" Not only was "Heil Hitler!" used as a Wagnerian, paganlike chant by the multitude in the mystic pageantry of the massive Nazi rallies, but it became the obligatory form of greeting between Germans during the Third Reich, even on the telephone, where it replaced the conventional "Hello." "Heil Schicklgruber!"? It is a little difficult to imagine.
Since the parents of Alois apparently never lived together, even after they were married, the future father of Adolf Hitler grew up with his uncle, who though a brother of Johann Georg Hiedler spelled his name differently, being known as Johann von Nepomuk Huetler. In view of the undying hatred which the Nazi Fuehrer would develop from youth on for the Czechs, whose nation he ultimately destroyed, the Christian name is worthy of passing mention. Johann von Nepomuk was the national saint of the Czech people and some historians have seen in a Hitler's being given this name an indication of Czech blood in the family.
Alois Schicklgruber first learned the trade of shoemaker in the village of Spital, but being restless, like his father, he soon set out to make his fortune in Vienna. At eighteen he joined the border police in the Austrian customs service near Salzburg, and on being promoted to the customs service itself nine years later he married Anna Glasl-Hoerer, the adopted daughter of a customs official. She brought him a small dowry and increased social status, as such things went in the old Austro-Hungarian petty bureaucracy. But the marriage was not a happy one. She was fourteen years older than he, of failing health, and she remained childless. After sixteen years they were separated and three years later, in 1883, she died.
Before the separation Alois, now legally known as Hitler, had taken up with a young hotel cook, Franziska Matzelsberger, who bore him a son, named Alois, in 1882. One month after the death of his wife he married the cook and three months later she gave birth to a daughter, Angela. The second marriage did not last long. Within a year Franziska was dead of tuberculosis. Six months later Alois Hitler married for the third and last time.
The new bride, Klara Poelzl, who would shortly become the mother of Adolf Hitler, was twenty-five, her husband forty-eight, and they had long known each other. Klara came from Spital, the ancestral village of the Hitlers. Her grandfather had been Johann von Nepomuk Huetler, with whom his nephew, Alois Schicklgruber-Hitler, had grown up. Thus Alois and Klara were second cousins and they found it necessary, as we have seen, to apply for episcopal dispensation to permit the marriage.
It was a union which the customs official had first contemplated years before when he had taken Klara into his childless home as a foster daughter during his first marriage. The child had lived for years with the Schicklgrubers in Braunau, and as the first wife ailed Alois seems to have given thought to marrying Klara as soon as his wife died. His legitimation and his coming into an inheritance from the uncle who was Klara's grandfather occurred when the young girl was sixteen, just old enough to legally marry. But, as we have seen, the wife lingered on after the separation, and, perhaps because Alois in the meantime took up with the cook Franziska Matzelsberger, Klara, at the age of twenty, left the household and went to Vienna, where she obtained employment as a household servant.
She returned four years later to keep house for her cousin; Franziska too, in the last months of her life, had moved out of her husband's home. Alois Hitler and Klara Poelzl were married on January 7, 1885, and some four months and ten days later their first child, Gustav, was born. He died in infancy, as did the second child, Ida, born in 1886. Adolf was the third child of this third marriage. A younger brother, Edmund, born in 1894, lived only six years. The fifth and last child, Paula, born in 1896, lived to survive her famous brother.
Adolf's half-brother, Alois, and his half-sister, Angela, the children of Franziska Matzelsberger, also lived to grow up. Angela, a handsome young woman, married a revenue official named Raubal and after his death worked in Vienna as a housekeeper and for a time, if Heiden's information is correct, as a cook in a Jewish charity kitchen. In 1928 Hitler brought her to Berchtesgaden as his housekeeper, and thereafter one heard a great deal in Nazi circles of the wondrous Viennese pastries and desserts she baked for him and for which he had such a ravenous appetite. She left him in 1936 to marry a professor of architecture in Dresden, and Hitler, by then Chancellor and dictator, was resentful of her departure and declined to send a wedding present. She was the only person in the family with whom, in his later years, he seems to have been close -- with one exception. Angela had a daughter, Geli Raubal, an attractive young blond woman with whom, as we shall see, Hitler had the only truly deep love affair of his life.
Adolf Hitler never liked to hear mention of his half-brother. Alois Matzelsberger, later legitimized as Alois Hitler, became a waiter, and for many years his life was full of difficulties with the law. Heiden records that at eighteen the young man was sentenced to five months in jail for theft and at twenty served another sentence of eight months on the same charge. He eventually moved to Germany, only to become embroiled in further troubles. In 1924, while Adolf Hitler was languishing in prison for having staged a political revolt in Munich, Alois Hitler was sentenced to six months in prison by a Hamburg court for bigamy. Thereafter, Heiden recounts, he moved on to England, where he quickly established a family and then deserted it.
The coming to power of the National Socialists brought better times to Alois Hitler. He opened a Bierstube -- a small beerhouse -- in a suburb of Berlin, moving it shortly before the war to the Wittenbergplatz in the capital's fashionable West End. It was much frequented by Nazi officials and during the early part of the war when food was scarce it inevitably had a plentiful supply. I used to drop in occasionally at that time. Alois was then nearing sixty, a portly, simple, good-natured man with little physical resemblance to his famous half-brother and in fact indistinguishable from dozens of other little pub keepers one had seen in Germany and Austria. Business was good and, whatever his past, he was now obviously enjoying the prosperous life. He had only one fear: that his half-brother, in a moment of disgust or rage, might revoke his license. Sometimes there was talk in the little beerhouse that the Chancellor and Fuehrer of the Reich regretted this reminder of the humble nature of the Hitler family. Alois himself, I remember, refused to be drawn into any talk whatsoever about his half-brother -- a wise precaution but frustrating to those of us who were trying to learn all we could about the background of the man who by that time had already set out to conquer Europe.
Except in Mein Kampf, where the sparse biographical material is often misleading and the omissions monumental, Hitler rarely discussed -- or permitted discussion of in his presence -- his family background and early life. We have seen what the family background was. What was the early life?
THE EARLY LIFE OF ADOLF HITLER
The year his father retired from the customs service at the age of fifty-eight, the six-year-old Adolf entered the public school in the village of Fischlham, a short distance southwest of Linz. This was in 1895. For the next four or five years the restless old pensioner moved from one village to another in the vicinity of Linz. By the time the son was fifteen he could remember seven changes of address and five different schools. For two years he attended classes at the Benedictine monastery at Lambach, near which his father had purchased a farm. There he sang in the choir, took singing lessons and, according to his own account, dreamed of one day taking holy orders. Finally the retired customs official settled down for good in the village of Leonding, on the southern outskirts of Linz, where the family occupied a modest house and garden.
At the age of eleven, Adolf was sent to the high school at Linz. This represented a financial sacrifice for the father and indicated an ambition that the son should follow in his father's footsteps and become a civil servant. That, however, was the last thing the youth would dream of.
"Then barely eleven years old," Hitler later recounted, "I was forced into opposition (to my father) for the first time....I did not want to become a civil servant."
The story of the bitter, unrelenting struggle of the boy, not yet in his teens, against a hardened and, as he said, domineering father is one of the few biographical items which Hitler sets down in great detail and with apparent sincerity and truth in Mein Kampf. The conflict aroused the first manifestation of that fierce, unbending will which later would carry him so far despite seemingly insuperable obstacles and handicaps and which, confounding all those who stood in his way, was to put an indelible stamp on Germany and Europe.
I did not want to become a civil servant, no, and again no. All attempts on my father's part to inspire me with love or pleasure in this profession by stories from his own life accomplished the exact opposite. I...grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of my whole life into paper forms that had to be filled out....
One day it became clear to me that I would become a painter, an artist...My father was struck speechless.
He doubted my sanity, or perhaps he thought he had heard wrong or misunderstood me. But when he was clear on the subject, and particularly after he felt the seriousness of my intention, he opposed it with all the determination of his nature....
"Artist! No! Never as long as I live!"...My father would never depart from his "Never!" And I intensified my "Nevertheless!"
One consequence of this encounter, Hider later explained, was that he stopped studying in school. "I thought that once my father saw how little progress I was making at high school he would let me devote myself to my dream, whether he liked it or not."
This, written thirty-four years later, may be partly an excuse for his failure at school. His marks in grade school had been uniformly good. But at the Linz high school they were so poor that in the end, without obtaining the customary certificate, he was forced to transfer to the state high school at Steyr, some distance from Linz. He remained there but a short time and left before graduating.
Hitler's scholastic failure rankled in him in later life, when he heaped ridicule on the academic "gentry," their degrees and diplomas and their pedagogical airs. Even in the last three or four years of his life, at Supreme Army Headquarters, where he allowed himself to be overwhelmed with details of military strategy, tactics and command, he would take an evening off to reminisce with his old party cronies on the stupidity of the teachers he had had in his youth. Some of these meanderings of this mad genius, now the Supreme Warlord personally directing his vast armies from the Volga to the English Channel, have been preserved.
When I think of the men who were my teachers, I realize that most of them were slightly mad. The men who could be regarded as good teachers were exceptional. It's tragic to think that such people have the power to bar a young man's way. -- March 3, 1942.
I have the most unpleasant recollections of the teachers who taught me. Their external appearance exuded uncleanliness; their collars were unkempt...They were the product of a proletariat denuded of all personal independence of thought, distinguished by unparalleled ignorance and most admirably fitted to become the pillars of an effete system of government which, thank God, is now a thing of the past. -- April 12, 1942.
When I recall my teachers at school, I realize that half of them were abnormal....We pupils of old Austria were brought up to respect old people and women. But on our professors we had no mercy; they were our natural enemies. The majority of them were somewhat mentally deranged, and quite a few ended their days as honest-to-God lunatics!...I was in particular bad odor with the teachers. I showed not the slightest aptitude for foreign languages -- though I might have, had not the teacher been a congenital idiot. I could not bear the sight of him. -- August 29, 1942.
Our teachers were absolute tyrants. They had no sympathy with youth; their one object was to stuff our brains and turn us into erudite apes like themselves. If any pupil showed the slightest trace of originality, they persecuted him relentlessly, and the only model pupils whom I have ever got to know have all been failures in after-life. -- September 7, 1942.
To his dying day, it is obvious, Hitler never forgave his teachers for the poor marks they had given him -- nor could he forget. But he could distort to a point of grotesqueness.
The impression he made on his teachers, recollected after he had become a world figure, has been briefly recorded. One of the few instructors Hitler seems to have liked was Professor Theodor Gissinger, who strove to teach him science. Gissinger later recalled, "As far as I was concerned, Hitler left neither a favorable nor an unfavorable impression in Linz. He was by no means a leader of the class. He was slender and erect, his face pallid and very thin, almost like that of a consumptive, his gaze unusually open, his eyes brilliant."
Professor Eduard Huemer, apprently the "congenital idiot" mentioned by Hitler above -- for he taught French -- came to Munich in 1923 to testify for his former pupil, who was then being tried for treason as the result of the Beer Hall Putsch. Though he lauded Hitler's aims and said that he wished from the bottom of his heart to see him fulfill his ideals, he gave the following thumbnail portrait of the young high-school student:
Hitler was certainly gifted, although only for particular subjects, but he lacked self-control and, to say the least, he was considered argumentive, autocratic, self-opinionated and bad-tempered, and unable to submit to school discipline. Nor was he industrious; otherwise he would have achieved much better results, gifted as he was.
There was one teacher at the Linz high school who exercised a strong and, as it turned out, a fateful influence on the young Adolf Hitler. This was a history teacher, Dr. Leopold Poetsch, who came from the southern German-language border region where it meets that of the South Slavs and whose experience with the racial struggle there had made him a fanatical German nationalist. Before coming to Linz he had taught at Marburg, which later, when the area was transferred to Yugoslavia after the First World War, became Maribor.
Though Dr. Poetsch had given his pupil marks of only "fair" in history, he was the only one of Hitler's teachers to receive a warm tribute in Mein Kampf. Hitler readily admitted his debt to this man.
It was perhaps decisive for my whole later life that good fortune gave me a history teacher who understood, as few others did, this principle... -- of retaining the essential and forgetting the nonessential...In my teacher, Dr. Leopold Poetsch of the high school in Linz, this requirement was fulfilled in a truly ideal manner. An old gentleman, kind but at the same time firm, he was able not only to hold our attention by his dazzling eloquence but to carry us away with him. Even today I think back with genuine emotion on this grayhaired man who, by the fire of his words, sometimes made us forget the present; who, as if by magic, transported us into times past and, out of the millennium mists of time, transformed dry historical facts into vivid reality. There we sat, often aflame with enthusiasm, sometimes even moved to tears...He used our budding national fanaticism as a means of educating us, frequently appealing to our sense of national honor.
This teacher made history my favorite subject.
And indeed, though he had no such intention, it was then that I became a young revolutionary.
Some thirty-five years later, in 1938, while touring Austria in triumph after he had forced its annexation to the Third Reich, Chancellor Hitler stopped off at Klagenfurt to see his old teacher, then in retirement. He was delighted to find that the old gentleman had been a member of the underground Nazi S.S., which had been outlawed during Austria's independence. He conversed with him alone for an hour and later confided to members of his party, "You cannot imagine how much I owe to that old man."
Alois Hitler died of a lung hemorrhage on January 3, 1903, at the age of sixty-five. He was stricken while taking a morning walk and died a few moments later in a nearby inn in the arms of a neighbor. When his thirteen-year-old son saw the body of his father he broke down and wept.
His mother, who was then forty-two, moved to a modest apartment in Urfahr, a suburb of Linz, where she tried to keep herself and her two surviving children, Adolf and Paula, on the meager savings and pension left her. She felt obligated, as Hitler remarks in Mein Kampf, to continue his education in accordance with his father's wishes -- "in other words," as he puts it, "to have me study for the civil servant's career." But though the young widow was indulgent to her son, and he seems to have loved her dearly, he was "more than ever determined absolutely," he says, "not to undertake this career." And so, despite a tender love between mother and son, there was friction and Adolf continued to neglect his studies.
"Then suddenly an illness came to my help and in a few weeks decided my future and the eternal domestic quarrel."
The lung ailment which Hitler suffered as he was nearing sixteen necessitated his dropping out of school for at least a year. He was sent for a time to the family village of Spital, where he recuperated at the home of his mother's sister, Theresa Schmidt, a peasant woman. On his recovery he returned briefly to the state high school at Steyr. His last report, dated September 16, 1905, shows marks of "adequate" in German, chemistry, physics, geometry and geometrical drawing. In geography and history he was "satisfactory"; in free-hand drawing, "excellent." He felt so excited at the prospect of leaving school for good that for the first and last time in his life he got drunk. As he remembered it in later years he was picked up at dawn, lying on a country road outside of Steyr, by a milkmaid and helped back to town, swearing he would never do it again. In this matter, at least, he was as good as his word, for he became a teetotaler, a nonsmoker and a vegetarian to boot, at first out of necessity as a penniless vagabond in Vienna and Munich, and later out of conviction.
The next two or three years Hitler often described as the happiest days of his life. While his mother suggested -- and other relatives urged -- that he go to work and le a peasant woman. On his recovery he returned briefly to the state high school at Steyr. His last report, dated September 16, 1905, shows marks of "adequate" in German, chemistry, physics, geometry and geometrical drawing. In geography and history he was "satisfactory"; in free-hand drawing, "excellent." He felt so excited at the prospect of leaving school for good that for the first and last time in his life he got drunk. As he remembered it in later years he was picked up at dawn, lying on a country road outside of Steyr, by a milkmaid and helped back to town, swearing he would never do it again. In this matter, at least, he was as good as his word, for he became a teetotaler, a nonsmoker and a vegetarian to boot, at first out of necessity as a penniless vagabond in Vienna and Munich, and later out of conviction.
The next two or three years Hitler often described as the happiest days of his life. While his mother suggested -- and other relatives urged -- that he go to work and learn a trade he contented himself with dreaming of his future as an artist and with idling away the pleasant days along the Danube. He never forgot the "downy softness" of those years from sixteen to nineteen when as a "mother's darling" he enjoyed the "hollowness of a comfortable life." Though the ailing widow found it difficult to make ends meet on her meager income, young Adolf declined to help out by getting a job. The idea of earning even his own living by any kind of regular employment was repulsive to him and was to remain so throughout his life.
What apparently made those last years of approaching manhood so happy for Hitler was the freedom from having to work, which gave him the freedom to brood, to dream, to spend his days roaming the city streets or the countryside declaiming to his companion what was wrong with the world and how to right it, and his evenings curled up with a book or standing in the rear of the opera house in Linz or Vienna listening enraptured to the mystic, pagan works of Richard Wagner.
A boyhood friend later remembered him as a pale, sickly, lanky youth who, though usually shy and reticent, was capable of sudden bursts of hysterical anger against those who disagreed with him. For four years he fancied himself deeply in love with a handsome blond maiden named Stefanie, and though he often gazed at her longingly as she strolled up and down the Landstrasse in Linz with her mother he never made the slightest effort to meet her, preferring to keep her, like so many other objects, in the shadowy world of his soaring fantasies. Indeed, in the countless love poems which he wrote to her but never sent (one of them was entitled "Hymn to the Beloved") and which he insisted on reading to his patient young friend, August Kubizek, she became a damsel out of Die Walkuerie, clad in a dark-blue flowing velvet gown, riding a white steed over the flowering meadows.
Although Hitler was determined to become an artist, preferably a painter or at least an architect, he was already obsessed with politics at the age of sixteen. By then he had developed a violent hatred for the Hapsburg monarchy and all the non-German races in the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire over which it ruled, and an equally violent love for everything German. At sixteen he had become what he was to remain till his dying breath: a fanatical German nationalist.
He appears to have had little of the carefree spirit of youth despite all the loafing. The world's problems weighed down on him. Kubizek later recalled, "He saw everywhere only obstacles and hostility...He was always up against something and at odds with the world...I never saw him take anything lightly..."
It was at this period that the young man who could not stand school became a voracious reader, subscribing to the Library of Adult Education in Linz and joining the Museum Society, whose books he borrowed in large numbers. His young friend remembered him as always surrounded by books, of which his favorites were works on German history and German mythology.
Since Linz was a provincial town, it was not long before Vienna, the glittering baroque capital of the empire, began to beckon a youth of such ambition and imagination. In 1906, just after his seventeenth birthday, Hitler set out with funds provided by his mother and other relations to spend two months in the great metropolis. Though it was later to become the scene of his bitterest years when, at times, he literally lived in the gutter, Vienna on this first visit enthralled him. He roamed the streets for days, filled with excitement at the sight of the imposing buildings along the Ring and in a continual state of ecstasy at what he saw in the museums, the opera house, the theaters.
He also inquired about entering the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and a year later, in October 1907, he was back in the capital to take the entrance examination as the first practical step in fulfilling his dream of becoming a painter. He was eighteen and full of high hopes, but they were dashed. An entry in the academy's classification list tells the story.
The following took the test with insufficient results, or were not admitted...Adolf Hitler, Braunau a. Inn, April 20, 1889, German, Catholic. Father civil servant. 4 classes in High School. Few Heads. Test drawing unsatisfactory.
Hitler tried again the following year and this time his drawings were so poor that he was not admitted to the test. For the ambitious young man this was, as he later wrote, a bolt from the blue. He had been absolutely convinced that he would be successful. According to his own account in Mein Kampf, Hitler requested an explanation from the rector of the academy.
That gentleman assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting, and that my ability obviously lay in the field of architecture; for me, he said, the Academy's School of Painting was out of the question, the place for me was at the School of Architecture.
The young Adolf was inclined to agree but quickly realized to his sorrow that his failure to graduate from high school might well block his entry into the architectural school.
In the meantime his mother was dying of cancer of the breast and he returned to Linz. Since Adolf's departure from school Klara Hitler and her relatives had supported the young man for three years, and they could see nothing to show for it. On December 21, 1908, as the town began to assume its festive Christmas garb, Adolf Hitler's mother died, and two days later she was buried at Leonding beside her husband. To the nineteen-year-old youth
it was a dreadful blow...I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved...[Her] death put a sudden end to all my highflown plans...Poverty and hard reality compelled me to take a quick decision...I was faced with the problem of somehow making my own living.
Somehow! He had no trade. He had always disdained manual labor. He had never tried to earn a cent. But he was undaunted. Bidding his relatives farewell, he declared that he would never return until he had made good.
With a suitcase full of clothes and underwear in my hand and an indomitable will in my heart, I set out for Vienna. I too hoped to wrest from fate what my father had accomplished fifty years before; I too hoped to become "something" -- but in no case a civil servant.
"THE SADDEST PERIOD OF MY LIFE"
The next four years, between 1909 and 1913, turned out to be a time of utter misery and destitution for the conquering young man from Linz. In these last fleeting years before the fall of the Hapsburgs and the end of the city as the capital of an empire of fifty-two million people in the heart of Europe, Vienna had a gaiety and charm that were unique among the capitals of the world. Not only in its architecture, its sculpture, its music, but in the lighthearted, pleasure-loving, cultivated spirit of its people, it breathed an atmosphere of the baroque and the rococo that no other city of the West knew.
Set along the blue Danube beneath the wooded hills of the Wienerwald, which were studded with yellow-green vineyards, it was a place of natural beauty that captivated the visitor and made the Viennese believe that Providence had been especially kind to them. Music filled the air, the towering music of gifted native sons, the greatest Europe had known, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and, in the last Indian-summer years, the gay, haunting waltzes of Vienna's own beloved Johann Strauss. To a people so blessed and so imprinted with the baroque style of living, life itself was something of a dream and the good folk of the city passed the pleasant days and nights of their lives waltzing and wining, in light talk in the congenial coffeehouses, listening to music and viewing the make-believe of theater and opera and operetta, in flirting and making love, abandoning a large part of their lives to pleasure and to dreams.
To be sure, an empire had to be governed, an army and navy manned, communications maintained, business transacted and labor done. But few in Vienna worked overtime -- or even full time -- at such things.
There was a seamy side, of course. This city, like all others, had its poor: ill-fed, ill-clothed and living in hovels. But as the greatest industrial center in Central Europe as well as the capital of the empire, Vienna was prosperous, and this prosperity spread among the people and sifted down. The great mass of the lower middle class controlled the city politically; labor was organizing not only trade unions but a powerful political party of its own, the Social Democrats. There was a ferment in the life of the city, now grown to a population of two million. Democracy was forcing out the ancient autocracy of the Hapsburgs, education and culture were opening up to the masses so that by the time Hitler came to Vienna in 1909 there was opportunity for a penniless young man either to get a higher education or to earn a fairly decent living and, as one of a million wage earners, to live under the civilizing spell which the capital cast over its inhabitants. Was not his only friend, Kubizek, as poor and as obscure as himself, already making a name for himself in the Academy of Music?
But the young Adolf did not pursue his ambition to enter the School of Architecture. It was still open for him despite his lack of a high-school diploma -- young men who showed "special talent" were admitted without such a certificate -- but so far as is known he made no application. Nor was he interested in learning a trade or in taking any kind of regular employment. Instead he preferred to putter about at odd jobs: shoveling snow, beating carpets, carrying bags outside the West Railroad Station, occasionally for a few days working as a building laborer. In November 1909, less than a year after he arrived in Vienna to "forestall fate," he was forced to abandon a furnished room in the Simon Denk Gasse, and for the next four years he lived in flophouses or in the almost equally miserable quarters of the men's hostel at 27 Meldemannstrasse in the Twentieth District of Vienna, near the Danube, staving off hunger by frequenting the charity soup kitchens of the city.
No wonder that nearly two decades later he could write:
To me Vienna, the city which to so many is the epitome of innocent pleasure, a festive playground for merrymakers, represents, I am sorry to say, merely the living memory of the saddest period of my life.
Even today this city can arouse in me nothing but dismal thoughts. For me the name of this Phaeacial city represents five years of hardship and misery. Five years in which I was forced to earn a living, first as a day laborer, then as a small painter; a truly meager living which never sufficed to appease even my daily hunger.
Always, he says of these times, there was hunger.
Hunger was then my faithful bodyguard; he never left me for a moment and partook of all I had...My life was a continual struggle with this pitiless friend.
It never, however, drove him to the extremity of trying to find a regular job. As he makes clear in Mein Kampf, he had the petty bourgeoisie's gnawing fear of sliding back into the ranks of the proletariat, of the manual laborers -- a fear he was later to exploit in building up the National Socialist Party on the broad foundation of the hitherto leaderless, ill-paid, neglected white-collar class, whose millions nourished the illusion that they were at least socially better off than the "workers."
Although Hitler says he eked out at least part of a living as "a small painter," he gives no details of this work in his autobiography except to remark that in the years 1909 and 1910 he had so far improved his position that he no longer had to work as a common laborer.
"By this time," he says, "I was working independently as a small draftsman and painter of water colors."
This is somewhat misleading, as is so much else of a biographical nature in Mein Kampf. Though the evidence of those who knew him at the time appears to be scarcely more trustworthy, enough of it has been pieced together to give a picture that is probably more accurate and certainly more complete.
That Adolf Hitler was never a house painter, as his political opponents taunted him with having been, is fairly certain. At least there is no evidence that he ever followed such a trade. What he did was draw or paint crude little pictures of Vienna, usually of some well-known landmark such as St. Stephen's Cathedral, the opera house, the Burgtheater, the Palace of Schoenbrunn or the Roman ruins in Schoenbrunn Park. According to his acquaintances he copied them from older works; apparently he could not draw from nature. They are rather stilted and lifeless, like a beginning architect's rough and careless sketches, and the human figures he sometimes added are so bad as to remind one of a comic strip. I find a note of my own made once after going through a portfolio of Hitler's original sketches: "Few faces. Crude. One almost ghoulish face." To Heiden, "they stand like tiny stuffed sacks outside the high, solemn palaces."
Probably hundreds of these pitiful pieces were sold by Hitler to the petty traders to ornament a wall, to dealers who used them to fill empty picture frames on display and to furniture makers who sometimes tacked them to the backs of cheap sofas and chairs after a fashion in Vienna in those days. Hitler could also be more commercial. He often drew posters for shopkeepers advertising such products as Teddy's Perspiration Powder, and there was one, perhaps turned out to make a little money at Christmas time, depicting Santa Claus selling brightly colored candles, and another showing St. Stephen's Gothic spire, which Hitler never tired of copying, rising out of a mountain of soap cakes.
This was the extent of Hitler's "artistic" achievement, yet to the end of his life he considered himself an "artist."
Bohemian he certainly looked in those vagabond years in Vienna. Those who knew him then remembered later his long black shabby overcoat, which hung down to his ankles and resembled a caftan and which had been given him by a Hungarian Jewish old-clothes dealer, a fellow inmate of the dreary men's hostel who had befriended him. They remembered his greasy black derby, which he wore the year round; his matted hair, brushed down over his forehead as in later years and, in the back, hanging disheveled over his soiled collar, for he rarely appeared to have had a haircut or a shave and the sides of his face and his chin were usually covered with the black stubble of an incipient beard. If one can believe Hanisch, who later became something of an artist, Hitler resembled "an apparition such as rarely occurs among Christians."
Unlike some of the shipwrecked young men with whom he lived, he had none of the vices of youth. He neither smoked nor drank. He had nothing to do with women -- not, so far as can be learned, because of any abnormality but simply because of an ingrained shyness.
"I believe," Hitler remarked afterward in Mein Kampf, in one of his rare flashes of humor, "that those who knew me in those days took me for an eccentric."
They remembered, as had his teachers, the strong, staring eyes that dominated the face and expressed something embedded in the personality that did not jibe with the miserable existence of the unwashed tramp. And they recalled that the young man, for all his laziness when it came to physical labor, was a voracious reader, spending much of his days and evenings devouring books.
At that time I read enormously and thoroughly. All the free time my work left me was employed in my studies. In this way I forged in a few years' time the foundations of a knowledge from which I still draw nourishment today.
In Mein Kampf Hitler discourses at length on the art of reading.
By "reading," to be sure, I mean perhaps something different than the average member of our so-called "intelligentsia."
I know people who "read" enormously...yet whom I would not describe as "well-read." True, they possess a mass of "knowledge," but their brain is unable to organize and register the material they have taken in...On the other hand, a man who possesses the art of correct reading will...instinctively and immediately perceive everything which in his opinion is worth permanently remembering, either because it is suited to his purpose or generally worth knowing...The art of reading, as of learning, is this:...to retain the essential, to forget the nonessential....Only this kind of reading has meaning and purpose...Viewed in this light, my Vienna period was especially fertile and valuable.
Valuable for what? Hitler's answer is that from his reading and from his life among the poor and disinherited of Vienna he learned all that he needed to know in later life.
Vienna was and remained for me the hardest, though most thorough, school of my life. I had set foot in this town while still half a boy and I left it a man, grown quiet and grave.
In this period there took shape within me a world picture and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my acts. In addition to what I then created, I have had to learn little; and I have had to alter nothing.
What, then, had he learned in the school of those hard knocks which Vienna had so generously provided? What were the ideas which he acquired there from his reading and his experience and which, as he says, would remain essentially unaltered to the end? That they were mostly shallow and shabby, often grotesque and preposterous, and poisoned by outlandish prejudices will become obvious on the most cursory examination. That they are important to this history, as they were to the world, is equally obvious, for they were to form part of the foundation for the Third Reich which this bookish vagrant was soon to build.
THE BUDDING IDEAS OF ADOLF HITLER
They were, with one exception, not original but picked up, raw, from the churning maelstrom of Austrian politics and life in the first years of the twentieth century. The Danube monarchy was dying of indigestion. For centuries a minority of German-Austrians had ruled over the polyglot empire of a dozen nationalities and stamped their language and their culture on it. But since 1848 their hold had been weakening. The minorities could not be digested. Austria was not a melting pot. In the 1860s the Italians had broken away and in 1867 the Hungarians had won equality with the Germans under a so-called Dual Monarchy. Now, as the twentieth century began, the various Slav peoples -- the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Serbs, the Croats and the others -- were demanding equality and at least national autonomy. Austrian politics had become dominated by the bitter quarrel of the nationalities.
But this was not all. There was social revolt too and this often transcended the racial struggle. The disenfranchised lower classes were demanding the ballot, and the workers were insisting on the right to organize trade unions and to strike -- not only for higher wages and better working conditions but to gain their democratic political ends. Indeed a general strike had finally brought universal manhood suffrage and with this the end of political dominance by the Austrian Germans, who numbered but a third of the population of the Austrian half of the empire.
To these developments Hitler, the fanatical young German-Austrian nationalist from Linz, was bitterly opposed. To him the empire was sinking into a "foul morass." It could be saved only if the master race, the Germans, reasserted their old absolute authority. The non-German races, especially the Slavs and above all the Czechs, were an inferior people. It was up to the Germans to rule
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer Copyright ©1950 by William L. Shirer. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ron Rosenbaum is the bestselling author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars and has written or edited six other books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He writes a column for Slate and lives in New York City.
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