Hitler, Adolf (1889-1945), ruled Germany as dictator from 1933 to 1945. He turned Germany into a powerful war machine and provoked World War II in 1939. Hitler's forces conquered most of Europe before they were defeated in 1945.
Hitler spread death as no person has done in modern history. "Have no pity! Act brutally!" he told his soldiers. He ordered tens of thousands of those who opposed him to be executed, and hundreds of thousands to be thrown into prison. He was totally unscrupulous and believed that the strong must win, while the weak lose. In the struggle for power, any trick, however ruthless, was justified. His strength of will, his ability to lie, cheat, and flatter helped him to win power.
Hitler particularly persecuted Jews. He ordered them removed and killed in countries he controlled. Hitler set up concentration camps where about 3 million Jews were murdered. Altogether, Hitler's forces killed about 6 million European Jews as well as about 5 million other people that Hitler regarded as racially inferior or politically dangerous.
Adolf Hitler began his rise to political power in 1919, the year after World War I had ended. The German Empire had been defeated, and the nation's economy lay in ruins. Hitler joined a small group of men who became known as Nazis. He soon became their leader. Hitler and his followers believed he could win back Germany's past glory. He promised to rebuild Germany into a mighty empire that would last a thousand years.
Many people did not take Hitler seriously. But his fiery words and brilliant blue eyes seemed to hypnotize those who listened to him. Many Germans believed he was their protector and friend. His emotional speeches made crowds cheer "Heil, Hitler!" ("Hail, Hitler!" ).
Hitler became dictator of Germany in 1933 and quickly succeeded in regaining some territories taken from Germany as a result of World War I. He threatened war against Czechoslovakia in 1938, but was stopped by a combination of counterthreats and concessions. His forces invaded Poland in 1939. Then Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada declared war on Germany, and World War II began.
Hitler had a clear vision of what he wanted, and he had the daring to pursue it. But his aims had no limits, and he overestimated the resources and abilities of Germany. Hitler had little regard for experts in any field. He regularly ignored the advice of his generals and followed his own judgment, even while Germany was being defeated in the last years of the war. Finally, as United States, British, and Soviet troops closed in on the heart of Germany, during the first months of 1945, Hitler killed himself.
Boyhood. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau, Austria, a small town across the Inn River from Germany. He was the fourth child of the third marriage of Alois Hitler, a customs official. Alois Hitler was 51 years old when Adolf was born. Adolf's mother, Klara Polzl, was 28 years old. She was a farmer's daughter.
Alois Hitler was born to an unmarried woman named Anna Maria Schicklgruber. A wandering miller named Johann Georg Hiedler married her about five years later. Hiedler died in 1856, when Alois was 20 years old, having never recognized Alois as his child. In 1876, Hiedler's brother arranged for Alois to be registered as the legitimate son of Johann Georg and Maria Hiedler. The priest who made the entry spelled the name "Hitler." Years later, before he came to power, some of Hitler's political opponents called him Schicklgruber as an insult. Only four of Alois Hitler's eight children lived to adulthood. Adolf had a sister, Paula; a half brother, Alois; and a half sister, Angela.
About six years after Adolf's birth, his father retired and moved near Linz, Austria. Adolf received good marks in primary school, but he was a poor student in secondary school. His low marks angered his harsh, ill-tempered father. Alois wanted his son to have a career as a civil servant. But the boy wanted to be an artist.
Alois Hitler died in 1903, and Adolf left secondary school 21/2 years later at the age of 16. His mother drew a widow's pension and owned some property. Adolf did not have to go to work. He spent his time daydreaming, drawing pictures, and reading books.
Years in Vienna. In 1907, Hitler went to Vienna, the capital of Austria-Hungary. He wanted to be an art student, but he failed the entrance examination of the Academy of Fine Arts twice. His mother died in 1907. Adolf had an income from the money his mother left her children and inherited some money from his aunt. He also claimed an orphan's pension. Sometimes he sold his drawings and paintings. He lived comfortably and idly during most of his stay in Vienna, considering himself an artist.
Hitler also concerned himself with political observations, admiring the effective leadership and organization of the Social Democratic Party in Vienna. He developed a growing hatred for Jews and Slavs. Like many German-speaking Austrians, Hitler became fiercely nationalistic. No form of government could last, he thought, if it treated people of different nationalities equally.
Corporal Hitler. In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich, Germany. The Austrian Army called him for a physical examination, but he was found unfit for service.
World War I began in August 1914. Hitler volunteered immediately for service in the German Army and was accepted. He served valiantly as a messenger on the Western Front for most of the war, taking part in some of the bloodiest battles. He was wounded and twice decorated for bravery. But Hitler rose only to the rank of corporal. When Germany surrendered in November 1918, he was in a military hospital recovering from temporary blindness that resulted from his exposure in battle to mustard gas. He was deeply shaken by news of the armistice. He believed that the unity of the German nation was threatened, and that he must attempt to save Germany.
Rise to power
Defeat in World War I shocked the German people. Despair and turmoil increased as the army returned to a bankrupt country. Millions of Germans could not find work. A socialist-liberal republic replaced the defeated empire.
After World War I, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty held Germany responsible for the war. It stripped the nation of much territory and restricted the German Army to 100,000 men. It also provided for a 15-year foreign occupation of an area of western Germany called the Rhineland. But the harshest part was the demand that Germany pay huge reparations (payments for war damages). The sums demanded by the treaty were so great that they made peace difficult. Nationalists, Communists, and others attacked the new government. The nationalists demanded punishment for the "criminals" who had signed the treaty.
Birth of the Nazi Party. After Hitler recovered from the effects of the mustard gas, he returned to Munich and remained in the army until March 1920. In the autumn of 1919, he began to attend meetings of a small nationalist group called the German Workers' Party. He joined the party and changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. The group became known as the Nazi Party. The Nazis called for the union of all Germans into one nation, including the Austrians and German minorities in Czechoslovakia and other countries. They demanded that citizens of non-German or Jewish origin be deprived of German citizenship, and they called for the cancellation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler was a skilful politician and organizer. He became leader of the Nazis and quickly built up party membership--partly by his ability to stir crowds with his speeches. Hitler attacked the government and declared that the Nazi Party could restore the economy, assure work for all, and lead Germany to greatness again.
Hitler also organized a private army he called storm troopers. He used brown-shirted uniforms and the swastika emblem to give his party and the storm troopers--known as the SA--a sense of unity and power (see SWASTIKA). The troopers fought the armies of the Communist, Social Democratic, and other parties who opposed Nazi ideas or tried to break up Nazi Party rallies. By October 1923, the storm troopers numbered 15,000 members. They had a considerable number of machine guns and rifles.
The Beer Hall Putsch. In 1923, Germany was in deep trouble. France and Belgium had sent troops to occupy the Ruhr District, the chief industrial region. German workers there responded by going on strike. The strike aggravated a crisis in Germany's economy, which had already been weakened by the reparations payments, and German money lost almost all value. Communist and nationalist revolts flared up throughout Germany, and the state of Bavaria was in open conflict with the central government in Berlin. Hitler saw an opportunity amid these troubles to overthrow both the Bavarian and national German governments.
On Nov. 8, 1923, at a rally in a Munich beer hall, Hitler proclaimed a Nazi revolution, or putsch. The next day, he tried to seize the Bavarian government in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler, supported by the German General Erich F. W. Ludendorff, led over 2,000 storm troopers on a march against the Bavarian government. But state police opened fire and stopped the procession, killing 16 marchers. The plot failed. Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
Mein Kampf. While he was imprisoned, Hitler began writing his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle). In the book, he stated his beliefs and his ideas for Germany's future, including his plan to conquer much of Europe. Territories lost in World War I would be recovered. Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia where Germans lived would be added to Germany. The growing German nation would seize lebensraum (living space) from Poland, the Soviet Union, and other countries to the east.
Hitler also wrote that Germans represented a superior form of humanity. They must stay "pure," he said, by avoiding marriage to Jews and Slavs. Hitler blamed the Jews for the evils of the world. He accused them of corrupting everything of ethical and national value. He said: "By defending myself against the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." Democracy, said Hitler, could lead only to Communism. A dictatorship was the only way to save Germany from the threats of Communism and Jewish treason.
Rise of the Nazis. Hitler was freed about nine months after his trial. He left prison in December 1924.
Great changes had taken place in Germany during 1924. A schedule for Germany's reparations payments helped stabilize the German currency, and the nation showed signs of recovering from the war. Most people had work, homes, food, and hope for the future.
The government had outlawed the Nazis after the Beer Hall Putsch. Many party members had drifted into other political groups. After Hitler was released from prison, he began to rebuild his party. He gradually convinced the government that the party would act legally, and the government lifted its ban on the Nazis. Hitler won friends in small towns, in trade unions, and among farmers and a few business people and industrialists. He also set up an elite party guard, the Schutzstaffel, known as the SS. By 1929, though the Nazis had not yet gained substantial voter support, their organization and discipline had made them an important minority party.
By this time, Hitler had assembled some of the people who would help him rise to power. They included Joseph Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist; Hermann Goering, who became second in command to Hitler; Rudolf Hess, Hitler's faithful private secretary; Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS; Ernst Rohm, the chief of the SA; and Alfred Rosenberg, the party philosopher.
In 1930, the worldwide Great Depression hit Germany. Workers again faced unemployment and hunger. That same year, Germany agreed to the Young Plan of 1929 to reschedule reparations payments. In 1929, Hitler had launched a campaign to defeat the plan. This campaign made him a political force throughout the country. He led protest marches, organized mass meetings, and delivered speeches all over Germany.
Hitler used his old arguments in the campaign against the Young Plan and in a national election campaign that took place in 1930. But he toned down his violent speeches against Jews, which had failed to attract many votes. Hitler promised to rid Germany of Communists and other "enemies" and to reunite Germany and all the other parts of Europe in which German was spoken.
In 1932, five major elections were held in Germany as its leaders struggled to give the nation political stability. In the July elections for the Reichstag (parliament), the Nazis became Germany's strongest party, receiving nearly 38 per cent of the vote. Leaders of the other parties offered Hitler Cabinet posts in exchange for Nazi support. But as leader of the strongest party, he refused to accept any arrangement that did not make him chancellor (prime minister) of Germany.
The majority of the German people and the leading politicians did not want Hitler to become chancellor. They understood that he would make himself dictator and set up a reign of terror. Germany's president, Paul von Hindenburg, also had serious misgivings about Hitler. But the 85-year-old Hindenburg, persuaded by his friends and his son Oskar, accepted Hitler's promise to act lawfully if he were named to form a government. On Jan. 30, 1933, Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor.
Dictator of Germany
There were only two Nazis in the Cabinet besides Hitler--Goering and Wilhelm Frick. The rest of the 11-member Cabinet was made up of politicians who were more moderate than the Nazis. The vice chancellor, Franz von Papen, and his political allies thought this arrangement would limit Hitler's power. But Hitler had never settled for anything less than full control. He moved steadily toward dictatorship. There was no place for freedom under his government, which Hitler called the Third Reich (see REICH).
Rebuilding the Nazi Party
When Hitler left prison and tried to rebuild the party, he met with great difficulties. He was challenged in northern Germany by the " socialist Nazi left leader Gregor Strasser, who aimed his appeal at the workers. To meet the challenge, Hitler wooed certain extremist military groups, the leftovers from World War I. While the workers ignored Strasser's program, the military outcasts eagerly followed Hitler. At a party conference in May 1926, Hitler outflanked Strasser and won back the dictatorial chairmanship, which he subsequently reinforced by declaring the party program unalterable, thus undercutting any attempt to revive the controversy over socialism.
Social conditions still prevented the party from growing, however. Interest in extremist solutions had waned as Germany had regained economic and political stability. In addition, Hitler was prohibited from speaking, which deprived him of his most powerful weapon. His breakthrough came in 1929, when the German Nationalist party made him politically respectable by soliciting his help in its vicious campaign against the Young Plan's arrangements for German reparations. In September 1930, after the depression had hit Germany, the Nazis made their first substantial showing (18.3% of the vote) in national elections, and from then on Hitler seemed to rise irresistibly. He still used propaganda, demagoguery, and terror, but he now proclaimed, and defended against strong party opposition, a policy of legality. While his propaganda appealed to the lower class victims of the depression, his insistence on legality made him acceptable to the conservatives, nationalists, and the military.
Personal Life and Rise to Power
During this period, Hitler lived mainly from royalties for his book and fees for newspaper articles. He was able to afford an apartment in Munich, a villa in the Alps, and a car, but his style of life remained modest. He had a craving for pastries, movies, and Richard Wagner's music. His behavior still alternated between outbursts of energy and periods of inactivity and laziness. His sex life seems to have been abnormal. In 1928 he began a passionate affair with his niece Geli Raubal. The affair ended tragically in 1931 when Geli, feeling suffocated by his tyranny, committed suicide. After he became dictator, he made Eva Braun, a clerk, his mistress, but refused to marry her in order to preserve his image as a self-denying public servant.
In 1932, with Germany close to anarchy, Hitler's career approached its crisis. He narrowly lost to the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg in the presidential elections in April, and the Nazis polled their highest vote (37.2%) in the July elections. In the November elections, however, the Nazi vote decreased to 33.1%. Hitler had lost prestige through his stubborn insistence on "total power; the party was psychologically and financially exhausted; and the depression was beginning to wane. At this moment, a conservative group led by former Chancellor Franz von Papen arranged for Hitler to enter the government. On Jan. 30, 1933, the aged President Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in a coalition government with the conservatives.
The conservatives deluded themselves in thinking they could use Hitler for their own interests. Within four months, Hitler had dramatically established his mastery over them and over all other political groups. He had destroyed the Communist and Socialist parties and the labor unions; forced the bourgeois and right wing parties to dissolve; emasculated or destroyed the paramilitary organizations; eliminated the federal structure of the republic; and on March 23, 1933, won from a decimated and intimidated Reichstag an enabling law that gave him dictatorial powers. His success came from a combination of pseudo-democratic mass demonstrations; terror by the SA and the Nazi-controlled police, which accelerated after the Reichstag fire in February; and a seemingly conservative program that kept the conservatives quiescent.
Consolidation of Power
In early 1934, however, he faced new conflicts, mainly from within the party. The SA, still led by Roehm, and the Nazi left vigorously opposed his alliance with business and military leaders, and a group of monarchists was campaigning for a restoration of the monarchy. Hindenburg's deteriorating health raised the question of his succession. Hitler survived the crisis by adopting the most radical methods. He rallied behind himself the party leaders, the army, and Himmler 's SS (the Schutzstaffel, or Blackshirts), and on June 30, 1934, he struck. A number of SA leaders, monarchists, and other opponents were murdered; the influence of the SA was drastically reduced; and Hitler emerged as the undisputed master of Germany. When Hindenburg died on August 2, Hitler officially assumed the title of Fuhrer, or supreme head of Germany.
From 1935 to 1938 he consolidated his dictatorship. The basis of his power was still his control over the masses, who admired him as the "man of the people and falsely credited Germany's economic recovery to him. (Its real architect had been Hjalmar Schacht, a conservative banker.) In 1937-1938 the economy reached full employment, thanks to an increasingly reckless rearmament policy. Hitler also protected his position by promoting rivalries among his subordinates, and he encouraged Himmler to build a formidable apparatus of terror by means of the SS, the Gestapo, and the concentration camps. He then escalated the persecution of the Jews through the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which deprived Jews of their citizenship and forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Additional restrictive laws were passed during the next few years, and Hitler's policies resulted in a large-scale emigration of Jews, socialists, and intellectuals and in the virtual destruction of Weimar Germany's highly creative culture.
Preparations for War
In foreign affairs, as long as Hitler felt weak, he shielded his regime by peaceful declarations and by treaties, such as those with the Vatican in July 1933 and with Poland in January 1934. Nevertheless, he indicated his true intentions in October 1933, when he withdrew from the League of Nations. As his strength increased, he proceeded to remove the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty by proclaiming open rearmament in March 1935 and by remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936. Simultaneously, he tried to win the neutrality of Britain through a naval treaty in June 1935, and gained Italy's allegiance by supporting MUSSOLINI's Ethiopian war (1935-1936). The Italian alliance materialized in October 1936, strengthened by their joint interference in the Spanish Civil War.
From the outset, Hitler had been determined to conquer Lebensraum. In November 1937 he disclosed his war plans to his ministers, and when they objected, he dismissed Schacht and the heads of the army and of the foreign ministry. By replacing these men, he eliminated the last traces of the conservative alliance and cleared the way for war. Under the guise of a policy of self-determination, Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland, the German-inhabited border areas of Czechoslovakia, in October. By disclaiming any further expansionist aims, he won approval of the Sudetenland occupation from Britain, France, and Italy at a conference in Munich.
When he nevertheless extended his rule over all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then threatened Poland, Britain and France abandoned their appeasement policy and guaranteed Poland's integrity. Unimpressed, Hitler continued his preparations by signing a nonaggression pact with Russia on August 23. When he attacked an unyielding Poland on September 1, Britain and France surprised him by declaring war.
The Nazis, through Frick's key position as minister of the interior, controlled all national police authority. Goering controlled the Prussian police. An emergency decree signed by Hindenburg on Feb. 4, 1933, gave the Nazis legal authority to prohibit assemblies, to outlaw newspapers and other publications, and to arrest people on suspicion of treason. The Nazis were thus able to put down much of their political opposition. Goering created an auxiliary police force made up of thousands of storm troopers and ordered them to shoot in encounters with "enemies."
On Feb. 27, 1933, a fire began that destroyed the Reichstag building. Many historians believe that it was planned by the Nazis. A pro-Communist Dutch anarchist was found at the site of the fire and admitted that he had started it. The Nazis quickly blamed the Communists. Hindenburg signed another emergency decree that gave the government almost unlimited powers.
Elections for a new Reichstag were held on March 5, 1933. Hitler hoped to win more than 50 per cent of the vote for the Nazi Party. But the party received only 43.9 per cent despite using terror to influence voters.
After the election, the Communist deputies were arrested or not admitted to the Reichstag. This gave the Nazis a majority of the seats. On March 23, 1933, the Nazi-dominated Reichstag passed a law "for the removal of distress from the people and the state." This law, known as the Enabling Act, gave the government full dictatorial powers and, in effect, suspended basic civil and human rights for four years. When the president had signed it, Hitler had a firm "legal" basis on which to govern as he pleased. He had also destroyed the constitution through outwardly legal means.
By mid-July 1933, the government had outlawed freedom of the press, all trade unions, and all political parties except the Nazis. The Gestapo (secret state police) hunted down the enemies and opponents of the government. People were jailed or shot on suspicion alone. By the time Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler ruled Germany completely. He assumed the title Fuhrer und Reichskanzler (leader and reich chancellor).
The Nazis used the press, radio, and films to flood Germany with propaganda praising the New Order, Hitler's term for his reordering of German society and for his plans to reorder the rest of Europe. The regime applauded military training, rearmament, national pride, and industry. Jews were forced out of the civil service, universities and schools, and the professions and managerial positions. In 1935, German Jews were declared citizens of lesser rights. Thousands left the country. Many who stayed were sent to concentration camps along with hundreds of thousands of political suspects. A person needed official permission to accept work, change jobs, move, or travel abroad. The government regulated wages, housing, and production of goods. All workers and employers were supposed to belong to the German Labour Front, which was intended to replace Germany's trade unions. Through the Labour Front, the government regulated production, wages, working hours, and leisure activities.
Hitler also set up organizations for young people between the ages of 6 and 18. These groups included the Hitler Youth for boys 14 years and older and the Society of German Maidens for girls 14 years and older. The organizations were designed to condition German children to military discipline and to win their loyalty to the Nazi government. All German children were required to join such groups from the age of 10. They wore uniforms, marched, exercised, and learned Nazi beliefs. The Nazis taught children to spy on their own families and report any anti-Nazi criticism they might hear.
A network of spies kept watch on the German people and maintained an atmosphere of terror. The Reichstag met only to listen to Hitler's public speeches. Judges and courts continued to function, but Hitler or his lieutenants reversed any decision they did not agree with.
The road to war. From 1933 onward, Hitler prepared Germany for war. He rearmed the nation, first secretly, then in open violation of the Treaty of Versailles. No nation acted to stop him, and so Hitler's steps became bolder. Hitler planned to establish Germany as the world's leading power and to destroy the Jewish people.
In 1936, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, again violating the Treaty of Versailles. His generals had opposed this dangerous challenge to France. But Hitler guessed correctly that France would not stop him. The stationing of German troops in the Rhineland was the first of the Nazi dictator's victories without war.
In March 1938, Hitler's troops invaded Austria. Austria then became part of Germany. In September, France and Great Britain consented to Hitler's occupation of the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia that had belonged to Austria-Hungary before World War I ended . After this move, Hitler said he wanted no more territory. But after each success, he planned a new take-over. He took control of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
Poland came next on Hitler's list. But Britain and France took action to try to stop any further German expansion. They guaranteed Poland's independence, saying that they would go to war against Germany if Hitler attacked Poland. Hitler doubted that they would do so. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed treaties of friendship. They promised mutual cooperation, trade privileges, and neutrality in case of war with other countries. A secret part of the treaties divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and promised the Soviet Union other territory in eastern Europe. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.
World War II. Hitler's armies overran Poland in just a few weeks. In the spring of 1940, they easily conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator, declared war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940, when the defeat of France seemed certain. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany.
Britain fought on alone. A major German air offensive failed to weaken British resistance. Hitler kept delaying an invasion of Britain. Instead, in July 1940, he began to consider an invasion of the Soviet Union. He explained to his generals that Britain would not surrender until its last potential ally on the European continent had been defeated.
In June 1941, the attack on the Soviet Union began. At first, the German forces made rapid progress. But their advance began to slow in November. By December, it was halted outside Moscow. An unusually bitter winter, Soviet reinforcements, and supplies sent by the United States helped the Soviet forces stop the Germans and begin to push them back during the winter. Renewed German attacks in 1942 and 1943 could not break through. During the Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted for five months during 1942 and 1943, the Soviets wiped out an entire German army of 300,000 men. This German defeat was a major turning point in the war.
While his empire lasted, Hitler directed the storm troopers, Nazi officials, and members of the army and the civil service in a campaign of mass slaughter. About 6 million Jews--over two-thirds of the Jews of Europe--were murdered. More than 3 million Soviet prisoners of war were starved and worked to death. Hitler's victims also included large numbers of Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Jehovah's Witnesses, priests and ministers, mental patients, and Communists and other political opponents.
The German resistance had tried since 1938 to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. But repeated plots failed. On July 20, 1944, Hitler narrowly escaped death when a German Army officer placed a bomb in Hitler's briefing room.
Early in 1945, the Allies marched into the heart of Germany against rapidly dwindling opposition. For a detailed story of Germany in the war, see WORLD WAR II.
Death. By April 1945, Hitler had become a broken man. His head, hands, and feet trembled, and he was tortured by stomach cramps. Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress since the 1930's, joined him at his headquarters in a bomb shelter under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. She and Hitler were married there on April 29. The next day, they killed themselves. Aides burned their bodies. Seven days later, Germany surrendered.