Who Was Adolf Hitler?
Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, serving as dictator and leader of the Nazi Party, or National Socialist German Workers Party, for the bulk of his time in power.
The fourth of six children, Adolf Hitler was born to Alois Hitler and Klara Polzl. As a child, Hitler clashed frequently with his emotionally harsh father, who also didn't approve of his son's later interest in fine art as a career.
Following the death of his younger brother, Edmund, in 1900, Hitler became detached and introverted.
Hitler showed an early interest in German nationalism, rejecting the authority of Austria-Hungary. This nationalism would become the motivating force of Hitler's life.
In 1903, Hitler’s father died suddenly. Two years later, Adolf's mother allowed her son to drop out of school. After her death in December 1907, Hitler moved to Vienna and worked as a casual laborer and watercolor painter. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts twice and was rejected both times.
Lacking money outside of an orphan's pension and funds from selling postcards, he stayed in homeless shelters. Hitler later pointed to these years as the time when he first cultivated his anti-Semitism, though there is some debate about this account.
In 1913, Hitler relocated to Munich. At the outbreak of World War I, he applied to serve in the German army. He was accepted in August 1914, though he was still an Austrian citizen.
Although Hitler spent much of his time away from the front lines (with some reports that his recollections of his time on the field were generally exaggerated), he was present at a number of significant battles and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme. He was decorated for bravery, receiving the Iron Cross First Class and the Black Wound Badge.
Hitler became embittered over the collapse of the war effort. The experience reinforced his passionate German patriotism, and he was shocked by Germany's surrender in 1918. Like other German nationalists, he purportedly believed that the German army had been betrayed by civilian leaders and Marxists.
He found the Treaty of Versailles degrading, particularly the demilitarization of the Rhineland and the stipulation that Germany accepts responsibility for starting the war.
After World War I, Hitler returned to Munich and continued to work for the German military. As an intelligence officer, he monitored the activities of the German Workers’ Party (DAP) and adopted many of the anti-Semitic, nationalist and anti-Marxist ideas of party founder Anton Drexler.
In September 1919, Hitler joined the DAP, which changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) — often abbreviated to Nazi.
Hitler personally designed the Nazi party banner, appropriating the swastika symbol and placing it in a white circle on a red background. He soon gained notoriety for his vitriolic speeches against the Treaty of Versailles, rival politicians, Marxists and Jews. In 1921, Hitler replaced Drexler as the Nazi party chairman.
Hitler's fervid beer-hall speeches began attracting regular audiences. Early followers included army captain Ernst Rohm, the head of the Nazi paramilitary organization the Sturmabteilung (SA), which protected meetings and frequently attacked political opponents.
Beer Hall Putsch
On November 8, 1923, Hitler and the SA stormed a public meeting featuring Bavarian prime minister Gustav Kahr at a large beer hall in Munich. Hitler announced that the national revolution had begun and declared the formation of a new government.
After a short struggle that led to several deaths, the coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch failed. Hitler was arrested and tried for high treason and sentenced to nine months in prison.
During Hitler’s nine months in prison in 1924, he dictated most of the first volume of his autobiographical book and political manifesto, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), to his deputy, Rudolf Hess.
The first volume was published in 1925, and a second volume came out in 1927. It was abridged and translated into 11 languages, selling more than five million copies by 1939. A work of propaganda and falsehoods, the book laid out Hitler's plans for transforming German society into one based on race.
In the first volume, Hitler shared his Anti-Semitic, pro-Aryan worldview along with his sense of “betrayal” at the outcome of World War I, calling for revenge against France and expansion eastward into Russia.
The second volume outlined his plan to gain and maintain power. While often illogical and full of grammatical errors, Mein Kampf was provocative and subversive, making it appealing to the many Germans who felt displaced at the end of World War I.
Rise to Power
With millions unemployed, the Great Depression in Germany provided a political opportunity for Hitler. Germans were ambivalent to the parliamentary republic and increasingly open to extremist options. In 1932, Hitler ran against 84-year-old Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency.
Hitler came in second in both rounds of the election, garnering more than 36 percent of the vote in the final count. The results established Hitler as a strong force in German politics. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor in order to promote political balance.
Hitler as Führer
Hitler used his position as chancellor to form a de facto legal dictatorship. The Reichstag Fire Decree, announced after a suspicious fire at Germany's parliament building, suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial.
Hitler also engineered the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave his cabinet full legislative powers for a period of four years and allowed for deviations from the constitution.
Anointing himself as Führer ("leader") and having achieved full control over the legislative and executive branches of government, Hitler and his political allies embarked on a systematic suppression of the remaining political opposition.
By the end of June, the other parties had been intimidated into disbanding. On July 14, 1933, Hitler's Nazi Party was declared the only legal political party in Germany. In October of that year, Hitler ordered Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations.
Night of the Long Knives
Military opposition was also punished. The demands of the SA for more political and military power led to the infamous Night of the Long Knives, a series of assassinations that took place from June 30 to July 2, 1934.
Rohm, a perceived rival, and other SA leaders, along with a number of Hitler's political enemies, were hunted down and murdered at locations across Germany.
The day before Hindenburg's death in August 1934, the cabinet had enacted a law abolishing the office of president, combining its powers with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government and was formally named leader and chancellor. As the undisputed head of state, Hitler became supreme commander of the armed forces.
Hitler the Vegetarian
Hitler’s self-imposed dietary restrictions towards the end of his life included abstinence from alcohol and meat.
Fueled by fanaticism over what he believed was a superior Aryan race, he encouraged Germans to keep their bodies pure of any intoxicating or unclean substances and promoted anti-smoking campaigns across the country.
Hitler’s Laws and Regulations Against Jews
From 1933 until the start of the war in 1939, Hitler and his Nazi regime instituted hundreds of laws and regulations to restrict and exclude Jews in society. These anti-Semitic laws were issued throughout all levels of government, making good on the Nazis’ pledge to persecute Jews.
On April 1, 1933, Hitler implemented a national boycott of Jewish businesses. This was followed by the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" of April 7, 1933, which excluded Jews from state service.
The law was a Nazi implementation of the Aryan Paragraph, which called for the exclusion of Jews and non-Aryans from organizations, employment and eventually all aspects of public life.
Additional legislation restricted the number of Jewish students at schools and universities, limited Jews working in medical and legal professions, and revoked the licenses of Jewish tax consultants.
The Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union also called for "Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” prompting students to burn more than 25,000 “Un-German” books, ushering in an era of censorship and Nazi propaganda. By 1934, Jewish actors were forbidden from performing in film or in the theater.
On September 15, 1935, the Reichstag introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which defined a "Jew" as anyone with three or four grandparents who were Jewish, regardless of whether the person considered themselves Jewish or observed the religion.
The Nuremberg Laws also set forth the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour," which banned marriage between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans; and the Reich Citizenship Law, which deprived "non-Aryans" of the benefits of German citizenship.